A/N: So, I wrote this as a one shot, but for whatever reason, I never really pay any attention to word count as I'm writing. Which means that the finished story is hovering around 23,000 words. Which is why I split it up into two chapters. Rated M for the second chapter.

Hope you like it!

----

It's funny, she thinks, how she went from a nobody at the beginning of sophomore year, to a little bit of a somebody by the end of it.

No, that's not quite right.

She went from the abrasive, annoying, loser girl that all the jocks (all of them) picked on, to the girl who was friends with Finn and Quinn and some of the football players and Cheerios. The girl with the voice, who talked too much and smiled too wide, but wasn't worth the trouble of bothering. It was better than the alternative of a syrupy beverage in her face each morning, so she'd take it.

She spent the summer in Denver with her aunt, who runs a small theater company and wanted Rachel as the lead in the two plays she'd be putting on. Rachel flew out, and her dads came to see her a few times, once when A Midsummer Night's Dream opened, once for her birthday, and again in the middle of August when she opened in Barefoot In The Park (to rave reviews, thank you very much.)

She kept in touch with her fellow glee mates. Well, a few of them. Tina, Mercedes, Kurt and Artie, mostly. She and Finn emailed a few times, but it was hard for her (and it still is). She likes Quinn well enough, enough to say they're friends, even. It just hurts to know that Finn forgave Quinn so easily, stood by her as she delivered the baby that wasn't his and put it up for adoption. Rachel thinks he's crazy for staying with someone who lied to him about something so monumental.

But what does she know?

(And it's not really her place anyway, she reminds herself.)

She engaged in a silly, short-lived summer fling with one of her costars, but that was pretty much exclusively chaste kisses, simple dinners, and him bringing her coffee in the morning for rehearsals. He was a sweet boy, but they both knew it wasn't meant to last, and neither of them was upset when it ended.

Now she's back at school, and it's the first day, and it's like she's invisible again. She knows she looks good. Her hair is shiny, her makeup is flawless, her skin is tanned, and her skirt is short, and her sheer white short sleeved sweater is a perfect contrast to the dark purple camisole underneath.

And no one cares.

She wonders what she has to do for anyone, just one person, to think she's even a little cool. Obviously what she's been doing for the past 17 years hasn't worked. She'd make changes if she knew which ones to make.

----

She shows up their first glee meeting ready to work. They lost Regionals to Vocal Adrenaline last year, and she's not letting that happen again. Everyone groans at her enthusiasm. ("It's the second week of school. Regionals aren't until February. We've got time," Finn says, and she can tell he's scared of the glare she sends him.)

She works with Mr. Schue to come up with song choices, and he finds that she's not bossy or conceited. She's thought about this over the summer, and he tells her he's proud of her for being so dedicated and for being a team player, and she wonders what she has to do to get everyone else to share her love for this.

Puck is in the choir room, lazily playing his guitar while she and Mr. Schuester talk, and once their teacher leaves, Puck shakes his head and laughs softly.

"What?" she snaps at him.

He's the one person she hasn't spoken a word to since school ended. Even before then, their conversation was strained and almost non-existent. She doesn't care that he was the father of Quinn's baby.

She cares that he made it abundantly clear that he doesn't ever want to be her friend. (That still stings more than it should.)

"Nothing."

"Puck, clearly you have something to say. Say it." She puts her hand on her hip and rests her weight on one toned, tan leg, and he looks her up and down. He laughs when she lets out a frustrated huff.

"You don't have a life outside of glee, do you?" he asks. She almost thinks he doesn't mean it as a criticism, just an observation.

"I just want to win," she tells him.

He doesn't say anything else, just grabs his guitar case and starts walking out of the room, and she thinks he might be smiling right before he leaves.

(Apparently, a smile means absolutely nothing, because he still ignores her when he passes her in the halls, and she doesn't care, because she's really not surprised.)

----

There's a 'start of the year party' of sorts at Brittany's house, and Rachel's shocked when she's invited. She's even more shocked when she actually considers going. She doesn't want to, necessarily, but she's fairly certain that not going to the party will garner her more negative attention than attending. She agonizes over it for days, though, because what is she to do when she gets there? No one will likely talk to her anyway.

But when Brittany asks her the Friday of the party if Rachel's coming, she finds herself saying yes, and Brittany gets all excited and smiley and hugs her, so Rachel thinks it might not be all that bad anyway.

And when she calls Kurt in a panic, asking for help with an outfit, he tells her he's been hoping she'd call, and he advises her to not wear a skirt or a button down shirt. He doesn't give her much more to go on, but she figures, since her wardrobe is limited, that gives her enough insight anyway.

When she walks around the house to the big back yard where everyone's hanging out, she sees Kurt's raised brow and appreciative nod, and she rolls her eyes and smiles as she makes her way over to him. Maybe she won't have a terrible time.

Puck notices her as soon as he arrives.

Well, maybe that's not true.

He doesn't recognize her. She's wearing these little (like, really little) dark denim shorts and a light coloured short sleeve top, and he can see a little of this girl's skin at the small of her back. She's got leather flat sandals on and her hair falling down her back. He wonders who the hottie with the killer legs and great ass is, and (thankfully) just before he nudges Mike to ask, the girl turns around and he sees that it's fucking Rachel. Not only does she look hot as hell, but her shirt has little buttons halfway down the front, and half of those are undone, and she's smiling.

Like, she's smiling like a normal person.

"Dude, Rachel looks great," Mike says, and Puck's about to get all defensive, asking why he'd say something like that, but then he sees that Mike, Matt, and three of the other football players' eyes are all glued to her as she makes her way up the steps of the deck and into the house.

"Dancer's body," Matt says appreciatively.

"What'd she do this summer? I didn't see her around at all," Mike notes.

"She went to Colorado and brought the house down, man," Matt says, his eyes wide and impressed. "She was in these two plays, and like, sold out every show. That girl is crazy talented."

"Crazy's right," Puck mumbles, stepping away from them so he can make his way into the house. He doesn't look at her as he passes her and she's sitting there talking to Tina.

But he thinks the Colorado sun was pretty good to her. He hasn't really noticed how tanned her skin is until right now.

The party isn't so bad, she decides. People are talking to her. Mostly the glee kids, but it's better than she expected. It's not until everyone starts getting tipsy (and she's not drinking) that she remembers how different she is from everyone else. Kurt and Mercedes are literally joined together, arms linked as they dance and laugh and do whatever. Tina is sitting next to Artie, heads bent together as they talk. Finn and Quinn are...well, she doesn't care to even think about them. Brittany and Santana are dancing together on the deck, and Mike and Matt are watching the girls appreciatively. Everyone seems to be paired off, and those are just the people she knows. She doesn't even bother to attempt to talk to the 'strangers', because she knows they'd brush her off, or worse.

She needs a moment of quiet before she decides what to do. It's just barely 10:30, and she doesn't really want to go home yet (her fathers will make a big deal about her bowing out of this 'high school experience'). She slips into the house and down the hall, careful not to make any noise, because God only knows what's going on behind the closed doors she passes.

She comes upon one that's open, and she peers inside. There's no one lounging around, and she can't really blame them. It seems Brittany's dad is into hunting and/or taxidermy, because there are no less than half a dozen stuffed game heads mounted on the wall. It's imposing and a little creepy, but she figures it's better than dealing with everyone else right now.

She walks inside and takes a look around. There's a full wall of old books, a couple couches and a bar in the corner (not surprisingly, there's no alcohol there right now). She notices an old stereo cabinet, and she walks over to take a look at the record selection, and she's not really surprised to see that it's basically all classic rock. But she does think it's pretty cool that Brittany's dad has the entire Beatles catalogue on vinyl.

She decides that if she can just sit in this room for 10 minutes with just the muffled sounds of the music in her ears, that'll be enough of a rest, then she can go back outside.

Puck doesn't really know what he's doing, but he saw Berry walking into the house, and he wonders what the hell she's up to. He hasn't seen her take a drink, and he hasn't seen her talking to any guys. So that rules out her finding a place to throw up, or going off to meet up with some dude in an empty bedroom.

So why's he following her?

Why not? He's had enough to drink that nothing can really ruin his night. He's got a good buzz on, and he figures that she shouldn't be on her own. She should be at least trying to interact and have a good time.

He walks down the long hallway on the first floor of the house, and he stands at the door of the room she's in and watches her looking through a shelf full of records. And seriously? It's not his fault if his eyes travel town her body. It's her fault for wearing those shorts.

She sits down on the sofa with her back to the door, and she's surprised, looking at him with wide eyes, like she's wondering what he's doing coming in and sitting next to her.

"What are you doing here?" He doesn't mean for it to sound like it does, but...well, what the fuck?

He's expecting, 'Oh, Puck! I didn't see you there. You see, I was extended an invitation and I thought it rude not to attend...' and fucking whatever else that chick says. He's worked out a system where he tunes her out after about 10 words. Funny thing is, he can still usually get what she's saying.

"I'm wondering the same thing," she says. The reason she's in this room is because no one else was. Of course, he had to come in and find her.

"Not havin' fun?"

She rolls her eyes. "An astute observation," she mumbles.

He looks at her in complete confusion, and it's almost enough to make her laugh. "Huh?"

She chuckles a little bit and simply says, "no."

"You drinking?" he asks.

"No," she says, looking at him like he's crazy.

"That's why you're not having fun," he says, snapping his fingers and pointing at her. He thrusts his glass towards her (it's a crystal tumbler that she's sure he's not supposed to be using). "Here."

"No thank you. I've never consumed alcohol before, and I'd rather not..."

"Fuck, Berry. Just take it," he says. He holds the glass, looking at her expectantly until she reaches for it. The ice clinks as she holds it. "It's vodka cran. I don't fucking care if it's pink because it's dee-licious."

She actually smiles. (Is he being nice to her?) "I do like cranberry juice."

"You have to. Since your last name is Berry. It's a rule." He flashes her a smile (he calls this one his 'panty remover' and doesn't let himself question why he's giving it to this chick; her sensible white granny panties can stay on forever for all he cares.)

"Says who?" she laughs.

He points at himself with both thumbs. "This guy."

"How much have you had to drink?" she asks with her brow raised.

"Not as much as you'd think. I'm just havin' fun with ya," he says. He doesn't care that it makes it sound like he, you know, cares or whatever, because it's a fucking party, and she shouldn't be sitting in this creepy room all alone. He's not a total jerk. "Drink it, Berry."

"I'm wary. How do I know you haven't slipped me Rohypnol or GHB?" she asks.

She's fucking serious. He blinks at her.

"Fuck. What kind of guy do you think I am?" he asks, offended. She just looks at him with those brown eyes, and he shakes his head at her. He grabs the glass, takes a swig, and shoves it back towards her. "There. Trust me now?"

He sees the little smile she has on right before she takes a sip. "Oh!" she says, raising her hand to her lips. "That's...that's really good."

"I know, right?" he says, a smile on his face and his eyes looking into hers. She tries to pass the glass back to him, but he shakes his head. "Keep it. You know, a real woman'd drink all of it real fast."

"I'm pretty sure that's an exaggeration, and I'm far too sensible for your attempts to get me drunk to work," she says seriously.

"Come on!" he says. He stands and puts his hands on his hips as he looks down at her her. "Believe it or not, I can talk to a girl without wanting to get into her pants. Or...shorts. Whatever. Look, I'm just trying to fucking...get you to loosen up. You've got a stick up your ass, and it drives everyone fucking crazy. Forget I bothered!"

She stands, tips back the glass, drinks its contents all at once, and shoves it against his chest. "Happy?" she asks.

She leaves him standing in the empty room with the creepy heads on the walls, and he wonders just who in the hell Rachel Berry thinks she is.

He runs after her, catches up to her in the hallway. He can feel the pulse of the bass beneath his feet, and she runs her hands through her hair. If she were just about anyone else, he'd think that was really hot. (It might be regardless.)

"Puck, just leave me alone," she says, sighing it out like she's all frustrated.

"You need to do that again," he states.

"What?"

"Drink your drink that fast," he tells her.

He gestures towards the kitchen (and if he checks her out as she walks in front of him, it's just because he's trying to decide if she's really as hot as he thinks she is right now). He mixes another drink and hands it to her, and she tips it back, drinking the whole thing in one go. The guys in the room are shouting and clapping, and the girls are looking completely shocked, and Rachel hangs her head at the attention. Matt throws his arm around her and declares her the sexy girl of the party, whatever that means, and Puck just stands there, totally impressed by her. Maybe she only did it because he pissed her off enough to force her into it, but whatever.

"You're pretty good at that," Puck says, and he notices that her eyes are a little glassy. Buzzed. Sweet. Maybe she'll act fucking normal now.

"I have no gag reflex, along with impeccable control over my breathing."

He chokes on his drink and looks at her, and it's clear she has no idea what she's just said, or to whom. She looks at him like he's insane. "Don't say that too loud."

"Why?" she asks, completely oblivious. He'd think it was cute if it wasn't so unfortunate.

"No gag reflex?" he says pointedly, raising his brow. He laughs when she claps her hand over her mouth and turns ten shades of red.

He pours her another drink and tells her to show them what she's got. She locks eyes with him as she chugs again, and for the first time in ages, he lets himself think that Rachel Berry?

Totally hot.

----

She's more than a little surprised when one of the senior football players sits across from her at the lunch table and starts talking to her. He tells her he liked her performance at the school assembly (they had a motivational speaker come in and the glee club performed Taking Chances to kick things off). She looks around to make sure that there isn't anyone laughing, just to make sure this isn't all part of some elaborate prank or joke or something. But he's actually looking at her kind of sweetly, and no one seems to be staring (other than the obvious people who are wondering why Seth Greenwood is talking to her.)

They sit and talk through their lunch hour, and while it feels strange, making small talk with one of the most popular boys in school, she finds herself smiling, because she's making small talk with one of the most popular boys in school.

The next day, he walks up to her in the hall way with his letterman jacket on and a perfect smile on his face, and he tells her they have an away game coming up on Friday, that she should take the fan bus to the game, then he'll meet her afterward and they can hang out before driving back to Lima.

She says yes. She'd be crazy not to. By noon, half the school knows. By glee rehearsal at the end of the day, the whole school knows. Mercedes asks her what she's going to wear and what they're going to do, and it feels like the kind of girl talk Rachel's never really been asked to partake in before. She thinks it's actually kind of fun.

She's walking to her car after practice when someone jogs up behind her, and she turns to see Puck with his bag slung over his shoulder. He doesn't say anything, just walks alongside her.

"Can I help you with something?" she asks after a few moments.

"Greenwood, huh?" he asks. She furrows her brow at him. "He's a senior."

"I'm aware of that, thank you."

He watches as she unlocks the door to her car, and he wouldn't be surprised if she just got in and drove away without another word. After all, he's never really given her any reason to want to listen to what he has to say.

"He's a senior and a jackass."

She turns to him, puts her hand on her hip and scowls at him. "Like you're a saint?" she asks. Okay, so she has a point there. "I don't know what you're implying, or why you've made this any of your business."

"I'm just sayin'. Be careful. 'Cause we need your voice for Sectionals and stuff. And you're no use to me at all if you're all heartbroken and shit," he says, and she rolls her eyes and gets into her car. She rolls the window down and he leans over, his forearm on the roof of her car, so he can talk to her.

"Believe it or not, Puck, there are people who aren't repulsed by the thought of spending an evening with me. Seth has been nothing but kind to me, which is more than I can say for most of the people at this school, yourself included. And so what if I want to go to a football game on a Friday night? I think it's about time I let loose and experience some of these normal high school things."

He's just staring at her when she ends her rant, and she's looking at him almost like she wants him to say something that proves all she's said is true.

(Honestly, he's thinking that he's never heard her sound so unsure of anything.)

"Right. Well, I'll see you there, then," he says as he stands. He watches her drive away, and he has this sinking feeling in his stomach that this isn't going to end well.

He doesn't know when he started caring about what happens to her.

(He knows just how much of an ass Seth can be. He's like, the king of the morons on the team.)

Come Friday night, Rachel is dressed in jeans and a sweater, sitting on the bleachers at this school an hour away from home. The bus ride wasn't terrible. She sat with her iPod on and watched the scenery pass, and Seth texted her to make sure she was coming, then sent back a smiley when she said she was on her way.

The air is crisp, and she finds herself watching the three players she knows. Finn is the quarterback, Puck is wide receiver, and Seth is a defensive tackle. Her knowledge of the sport isn't extensive, but she has a grasp on the basics, so she knows when to cheer and when good things happen, and she finds herself getting swept up in the emotion of the game. Finn sends a pass towards a running Puck, who carries it into the end zone, and she and the people around her all jump up and cheer. Seth plows over a guy, and she claps again, but she's slightly less enthusiastic with the more violent side of the game.

She waits on a little bench outside the gym doors, where Seth said he'd meet her, and she people watches as the crowd and the opposing team (the losers, in this case) all leave.

And she waits. And she waits.

And she thinks she might cry, because it's very clear that Seth isn't coming.

She closes her eyes tightly as she thinks about who she can call to come get her, and also how dangerous it probably is to be sitting alone at night on an empty school campus where she doesn't know anyone or anything.

She nearly jumps out of her skin when she hears footsteps. She's afraid to open her eyes.

"Hey."

That voice sounds familiar. She looks up to see Puck and Finn standing in front of her, bulky gym bags over their shoulders, hair wet from their showers.

"Hi," she manages, though she is having a very hard time not crying.

"What are you still doing here?" Finn asks, totally oblivious. "I thought Seth was taking you out."

She looks to her hands and doesn't say anything.

"Fucking prick," Puck says. She's gnawing at her bottom lip when she looks up again. "Seriously, that guy...I used to kick his ass for fun. Now I've got a reason."

She's more than a little surprised to hear him talking about sticking up for her like this. She realizes she still hasn't said much of anything. She stands up and smooths out her jacket, straightens her posture, and has every intention of brushing this off and pretending it's not a big deal.

"He just left her here?" Finn asks, finally cluing in. "That's ridiculous! Not to mention not safe. I can't believe he'd leave her here. Doesn't he know she's our friend?"

Rachel totally expects Puck to correct Finn and remind him that he and Rachel aren't friends, but he doesn't.

"Congratulations, Berry. You just got played," he says, pursing his lips when he's done. He actually hopes he doesn't sound like too much of a jerk, because it's not cool that she's gotten screwed over. He's just letting her know it happened. You know, in case it wasn't clear.

Finn punches him on the shoulder. "Dude! Be sensitive," he says quietly, glancing at Rachel.

Rachel laughs a little bit and wipes her eyes, and Finn throws his arm around her shoulder, hugging her quickly.

"C'mon," Puck says, reaching for his keys.

"What?" she asks in shock. Puck starts walking towards his truck, and Finn smiles at her and gestures for her to follow.

"What? You think I'm gonna let you fend for yourself? We're all going to the same place. You're sitting bitch. Don't fuck with my radio."

Finn shakes his head and tosses his stuff into the bed of Puck's truck, then opens the door so Rachel can slide in.

And it is really weird, sitting there, her squished between the two guys. Puck's arm is lazily draped over the back of the seat, brushing her back, and Finn is leaning towards the window to give them both a little more room. Puck's music is a selection of not-entirely-terrible rock songs, and sometimes when he forgets he's not alone, he sings the words softly. They talk about the game, and she can tell Puck's just a little impressed with her knowledge of the game. He tells her that no, she's no expert, but at least she can comprehend the rules, which is more than he can say for most girls. Finn laughs and says that before she became a cheerleader, Quinn didn't even know what a first down was.

Puck pulls up to a Sonic about a half hour into the drive, and both boys get out without saying anything to her. She's just kind of sitting there, staring between them, and Puck rolls his eyes and holds the door open.

"You coming or what?" he asks. She's still confused, but she hops out, and her elbow grazes his stomach as she walks past him. "Post game tradition. We get tired as shit and all drained and whatever, so we get food."

"Oh."

Finn's already ordering (seriously, that guy eats like crazy) and so Puck holds the door open for her, and he hates that he's about to ask this, but; "Are you okay?"

"I'll be fine, thank you," she says. He doesn't believe her, and when he reaches for her elbow, she looks at his hand like it's some strange object.

"C'mon, Rachel. Seriously."

"Seriously?" she asks incredulously. They're standing in the atrium, another door separating them from the restaurant, and she crosses her arms. "Seriously, I'm humiliated, and I'm trying not to think of what it's going to be like on Monday when the whole school will undoubtedly be talking about how stupid and gullible I am."

He looks at her for a second, and he can't tell if she's more pissed off than hurt, or the other way around. "You're not gonna like, start crying or something, are you?"

She scowls and narrows her eyes at him. "No, Puck. I'll make my complete embarrassment as easy on you as possible."

She storms through the door and towards Finn, and Puck is left shaking his head. This is what happens when he tries to be a nice guy?

They get her laughing, just by the sheer quantity of food they eat, and she tries to act disgusted when Finn puts his onion rings on his burger, but he convinces her to try a bite. Puck totally looks down her shirt when she leans across the table to bite into the burger in Finn's hand. (Her bra is purple.) She lets out this sound of appreciation that he can't help but think she'd make in bed (he's a dude, he relates just about everything to sex) and then she sits back in her seat and sips her soda while the boys finish up their meals. She's already done, since, you know, she didn't order a dump truck full of food.

They pile back into the truck, and Puck (totally an accident, he swears) puts his hand on her thigh at one point. Both Rachel and Finn shoot him confused looks, and he pulls his hand away, putting his arm around the back of the seat again.

"Sorry. Habit. And...didn't know where else to put it," he says by way of explanation. Rachel's face is a little pink, and he laughs and shakes his head. Doesn't take much to get her going.

Paradise City comes on, and both boys get pretty excited about it. Puck cranks up the volume and Finn air drums. Rachel can only laugh, wondering how many times these guys have done this exact same thing on game nights over the years.

He drops Finn off first, since he lives on the way to Rachel's place, and he very sweetly asks her if she's going to be okay before he gets out and says his goodbye. She scoots over so she's not pressed up against Puck, and it's weird, but she finds that she misses it, his thigh against hers and his arm around her.

He remembers the way to her house, and she stares out the window, not looking at him when she realizes she doesn't have to. But then, as she's thinking about everything, about her night and how it actually turned out to not be terrible, she realizes that his conversation with her the other day had a purpose.

"You tried to warn me," she states, glancing over at him.

"Huh?"

"The other day. You tried to tell me not to go out with him."

"Don't make a big deal of it," he says, shrugging his shoulder. She's just staring at him. "Look, I didn't know what he was going to do, but I kinda thought it wasn't anything good. Guy's a total jerk."

She actually smiles at him, and when he looks at her, he doesn't really know what to think of that. "Thank you," she says quietly.

"Whatever. Don't make a big deal of it," he repeats. He hates that he thinks the smug smile she's wearing is kinda hot.

She tucks her hands under her legs as he drives across town to her place, and he hears her humming along to the song on the radio. It's a pretty current rock tune, and he wonders how she knows it. He doesn't really figure her for a 'rock radio' kind of girl. It hits him that he doesn't really know her very well at all. He can assume what he wants, based on the glimpses he's seen of her at school over the years and in glee club, but that doesn't add up to her whole life.

He wonders who she is when no one's around.

"Thank you for the ride, Puck," she says politely as he pulls into the driveway and shifts the truck into park. "I appreciate it."

"No worries. Wasn't about to leave you stranded."

"Well, either way. Thanks."

She reaches for the door handle and then hops out of his truck, but he stops her before she can shut the door. "Hey." She turns back to him, and he thinks it's pretty funny that she's so tiny next to his vehicle. "Listen, I'm sorry about what Greenwood did."

She doesn't say anything, just smiles at him and nods her head, then closes the door and heads towards the house. He waits until she's inside before driving away, and he wonders just why in the hell he apologized for something that he didn't even do.

----

The next time she sees Seth, he's got a split lip and a bruise turning purple on his cheek bone. He shuffles up to her in the hallway and apologizes, and she accepts only because he looks absolutely pathetic, standing there with his head down and his tail between his legs.

Puck winks at her in the hallway as he passes, and he hears her laughter before he rounds the corner.

(What? Someone had to teach the guy a lesson...)

(Finn held, Puck punched.)

----

Chemistry is not Rachel's best subject. In fact, it's her worst. She can make all the flash cards she wants, and she can study until forever, and she can pour over her labs until her eyes are tired and dry, but at the end of the day, there's just something about it that she doesn't get.

Well, that's a lie. She's still above average in her class. She's below her own average, and she doesn't like it. Her fathers? They hate it.

They've always, always been supportive of her love of music and the arts. They've also always insisted that if she was going to devote herself to the arts and try to make it in that profession, that she at least have the book smarts and the grades to fall back on if need be. Not that they don't think she'll make it (they're her two biggest fans) but they're logical men who just want the best for their 'beautiful, talented, intelligent daughter'.

Bringing home a 79% on a test isn't exactly what they expect of her. One of her fathers (daddy) is always a little less hard on her, but she still had to endure a lecture about priorities and balancing her responsibilities, and how she might get a music scholarship, but she'll need to keep it, and having a good academic record will help.

This was not an ideal start to her Saturday morning.

She asked their permission to go out to meet up with friends for brunch (she has the friends now, sort of, but there was no brunch) and now finds herself in the park at the edge of town, standing on the little bridge, looking down at the creek that runs below. She's bundled in a warm sweater and a pair of jeans, leaning against the railing and trying to think of a way to remind her dads that not only is this only one test, but that she's still among the top in her class. She stops thinking about it after a while, though, because it's Saturday, and there's nothing she can do about the grade now, other than just study harder for the next test.

"What're you doing here?"

The voice startles her and she looks over to see Puck standing next to her, his cheeks red from the cold and his hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans. She thinks, wryly, that perhaps if he didn't insist on having that asinine haircut, he wouldn't be so cold.

"Clearing my head," she answers honestly. "You?"

"Kinda the same," he says. His voice is quieter than usual, and she finds that she's worried about what that might mean. "Thought no one else knew about this place."

She smiles at him. "It's a public park. In fact, it's the oldest public park in Lima."

"Whatever. I've never seen anyone else on this bridge before," he says with a shrug. He's not really surprised that she knows the history of the freaking parks in Lima. As if that matters.

"You come here often?" she asks, angling her body towards his a little. He raises his brow and her face goes red after realizing what she's said. They both laugh a little bit, and she looks away. "You know what I mean."

"Sometimes," he answers. "My sister's got a friend at the house. They're squealing like idiots. Started at 7:30 this morning."

Rachel laughs again and he thinks that he doesn't hate the sound. "Ouch."

"You?" he asks.

She turns forward again, leaning both elbows against the railing. He watches the hair fall in her face, and it bugs him that she doesn't push it away. She's quiet, doesn't answer him, and he doesn't ask again, because he figures there's a reason she isn't talking, and it's none of his business why that is, unless she wants to tell him. And anyway, it's kind of nice to be around her when she's not talking a mile a minute about...everything she can think of.

Five minutes must pass, and he honestly doesn't know why the hell he's still standing there with her, but he likes this bridge and how quiet the park is, and he doesn't think he should have to leave. And she's not telling him to. And besides, he's standing kind of close to her, and the arm that's pressed against hers is nice and warm. So there's that.

"Do you ever just want to...to rebel?" she asks abruptly, and when she looks at him, mohawk and lazy smirk, she realizes that she's just asked a silly question that she already knows the answer to. (Yes.) "I just can't stand it sometimes, being so perfect."

"Who says you're perfect?" he asks, and when he looks at her, argyle sweater, smooth skin and silky hair, he realizes he's just asked a silly question that he already knows the answer to. (Everyone.) "No one's forcing you to do it. You're the one with the crazy fucking head full of dreams and shit."

"Well, yes, I suppose a lot of my pressure is self-imposed, but I feel...I feel like what pressures I don't put on myself, I get from everyone else. I spend my time cultivating my talent, and then people tell me I need to shift my focus. I don't want to shift my focus. I know what I want, and why do I need..." He's staring at her blankly, and she takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry. You don't care."

He shrugs. "It's not that I don't care. Just that I don't know why you're telling me," he says seriously.

Since when does he care? (They're both wondering it.)

"It's just really hard trying to please everyone," she says. She fully expects him to make some kind of sexual comment, but he doesn't. He just nods his head, and she wonders what kind of pressures he's under. There has to be some.

"Better than no one ever having any hopes for you," he says seriously.

She thinks her heart might break a little. "Noah..."

(That's the first time in over a year that she's called him by his first name. They're both thinking about that, too.)

"Here," he says, pulling something from his pocket. It's a package of cigarettes. He takes one out and holds it out for her. She looks at him like he's handing her a stick of dynamite. "Take it."

"I am not smoking that!" she cries. "Do you have any idea what smoking does to one's vocal chords? Not to mention cancer! Heart disease! I can't believe you smoke!"

"I don't. Fucking chill, okay? And just take it," he says, thrusting it towards her. She lets out a huff, but takes the cigarette between her fingers. "Sometimes when I'm drinking, I have a cigarette or two. No biggie."

"I beg to differ. The statistics speak for themselves. Nicotine is highly addictive, and..."

"Yeah. Whatever. Just put the thing in your mouth, alright?" he says forcefully, reaching for his lighter. She still looks appalled. "You don't have to inhale. You don't have to finish the thing. I'm giving you a chance to rebel, here. Just fucking take it." He thinks he almost sees her smile as she puts the cigarette between her lips. "Suck in," he instructs as he holds up the flame and lights the end.

She does as she's told, careful not to inhale, then blows out a stream of smoke. Puck smiles at her, and she thinks she might look kind of sexy with a cigarette between her fingers and a plume of smoke coming from her lips. (And besides, actors and actresses are often asked to smoke for roles, so this is all just practice anyway.)

He lights his own cigarette, despite the fact that he's stone cold sober (come on, it's 10:00 in the morning) and takes a puff. She watches as he inhales, and she thinks it's almost...hot...the way he blows smoke rings and dangles the cigarette in his hand over the edge of the railing in front of them.

"When I was eight, my old man gave me a pack of Marlboros," he says. She notices that's not the brand he has now. "I was just sitting there, watching Arthur, you know that show with the talking aardvark?" he asks, and she smiles and nods at him when he glances at her from the corner of his eye. "He came in and I could tell he'd been drinking, not that that was a big shock. Anyway, he had a carton, and he tossed this package at me and says, totally serious, 'There, kid. Give you a head start on being like me.'"

She does not know what to say to that. She doesn't know much about his family life, but she knows his father isn't around. The way he's talking now, with so much animosity, lets her know that it's a sore subject that he probably doesn't bring up with just anyone.

He takes a long drag off his cigarette and grins at her when she does the same. He thinks it's still pretty awesome of her, even if she's not inhaling.

"Here's this guy with no fucking job, reeking of beer and stale smoke, and a temper that scared the shit out of everyone, and he's telling me to be like him," he says. Rachel feels tears flood her eyes. "That's about all the expectations anyone ever had for me."

"Noah," she whispers. He glances at her and sees her eyes shimmering, and he wonders what the fuck he's doing telling her this. "That's...that's a terrible memory."

"Yeah, well, it's hard to forget. That was the last thing he ever gave me," he says. "He was gone a week later."

"Good," she says softly. She doesn't even realize she's said out loud it until he turns to face her head on and his eyes are searching hers. "You're not like him. His leaving...that might be the best thing he ever did for you." He looks to the ground and ashes his smoke. "I'm sorry. It's not my place to say that. I just..."

"No, you're right," he interrupts her. "But he's still got a reputation around here, and I still have his last name. People think I'm a fuck up."

He's a little captivated by her as she takes another drag and blows the smoke away from her, away from them. Her hair is being whipped around a little, since the wind has picked up. She looks back at him, and there's something he really likes about the smile she gives him.

"I don't," she confesses simply. He gives her a lopsided smirk and she smiles at him. She doesn't think she needs to say anything more.

"I've never told anyone that. Not even Finn," he tells her. He wants it to sound like a threat, like keep your fucking mouth closed, but he knows it doesn't come out that way.

"Thank you for telling me," she says quietly. He knows she won't tell anyone. She lifts her hand and flicks her thumb against the filter of her cigarette, sending the ash to the ground. "And thanks for helping me with my badassness."

He tips his head back and laughs, and he surprises her by throwing his arm around her shoulder. "You're not a badass yet. But you're not a loser either." He lets her go, takes one final drag of his cigarette, and says, "later, Rachel," as he blows out the smoke and stubs out the cigarette with the toe of his shoe.

She doesn't watch him walk away.

He looks back at her, standing with her elbows on the railing again, smoking her cigarette, and he decides she looks really fucking hot, and for the first time, he thinks that maybe she's just a normal teenager like everyone else.

----

He doesn't really know when it happens, or why, actually, but they grow just a little closer after that day on the bridge. It's not like they're best friends or anything crazy like that, but he'll sit next to her in chemistry. She tells him all about that test, and he gloats because he got an 81%, and she lets him make fun of her because she's impressed he's actually applying himself. He actually gives her a couple little tips that help her with the subject, and when she thanks him, he winks at her.

He doesn't roll his eyes or ignore her any more in glee when she starts going on about harmonies and key changes and whatever, and actually, when she says something he agrees with, he'll speak up and say so.

Why? He doesn't know, exactly. He's just realized that while she may be fucking nuts, and intense, and still annoying sometimes, she's more like him than she (or he) wants to admit. He doesn't hate the way she laughs or the way she only ever calls him Noah when they're alone, just the two of them.

Oh. That's the other thing. He's been to her place a couple times, too. Once when his mom and her dads had to work together on a project for the JCC and he and Rachel got 'stuck' watching Hannah in the living room while the adults worked away. And another when he missed two rehearsals after catching the flu, and she invited him over to catch him up on what he'd missed. Really, he didn't need it, and they both knew it, but for some reason, he didn't call her on it. Sometimes it's not fun to piss her off. He's kind of learning his boundaries with her, what will make her playfully scowl then be over it two minutes later, and what will genuinely piss her off.

She calls him one Saturday afternoon, asks if he wants to come over and maybe work on some chemistry stuff, and he knows that's her way of asking him for help (he knows now that it helps her to talk things through; shocking.) It's not like he tutors her or anything, she doesn't need it, but he's kind of her sounding board or whatever, and any time they do this, he just sits there and lets her babble on, and only once or twice has he ever had to interject and correct her. (And yeah, that totally makes him feel like a genius, actually.)

But she's never asked him over to her house help her.

And when he gets there, her dad is home, but he's just leaving. Puck thinks it's weird (and kinda awesome) that her dad has no problem leaving her in a house alone with a boy. A boy like himself, who he's sure her parents have heard all about.

And does he think Rachel's hot? Yeah, he does. Since that party and that night in his truck and that day on the bridge, he thinks she's way underrated. Her body is insane, and her hair is all shiny and pretty (shut up, okay? he notices) and she's got these eyes that, when she wears just a little more makeup, look so brown they're almost black, and yeah, that's totally hot.

And okay, a couple times, when they've been dancing together in rehearsal or whatever, he finds that his hands will linger on her a little too long, or that hers will stay on his shoulders when she should have let go. In rehearsal one day, he had to lift her up and spin her, and when she lost her footing right in front of him when he set her down again, his arms instinctively went around her waist to steady her, and she ended up with her back pressed against his front, him holding her there, his arm totally touching her boob.

Sexual. Tension.

But still, it's weird when her dad tells him to head up to her room, and Puck realizes that he's nervous or something. He's Puck, okay? He doesn't get nervous. In fact, he should feel fucking awesome, since he's alone in a house with a girl who he happens to think is really damn sexy. But it's weird with Rachel, because he like, likes her as a friend, and he's not just going to try to sleep with her, because he doesn't want to hurt her or whatever.

(And yet, she's the one constantly reminding him that not everything he touches turns to shit.)

He's walking down the hall towards her room, and he hears the faint sounds of some music coming through her closed door. He doesn't recognize it, but he wishes he did, because it sounds hot. Total baby making music.

So why in the hell is she listening to it?

He knocks at the door, but she must not hear, so he pushes it open and glances to where she's laying on her perfectly made bed. Her eyes are closed, and she's just laying there. He actually glances over his shoulder, not that he knows what he's looking for, but he feels like he's interrupting something.

"What the fuck are you listening to?" he asks, and it comes out as more of a growl than he intends it to.

"Noah!" she cries, sitting up and swinging her legs over the side of the bed. He notices her face is all flushed and her fists are balled against her thighs, almost like she's holding her skirt in place. (He wonders if, had he walked in a few minutes later, she would have had a hand beneath her skirt. Probably not. But still. Fucking hot. And it's his imagination, so he's gonna let it do what it wants.)

He's about to repeat the question, then he hears the next lyrics, and he swears there should be fucking prizes for this kind of self control. You don't have to stay in the rain, I'll get you wet. Push you up against the wall, turn you out and turn you on.

"Rachel," he breathes out. She finally lets her eyes meet his. "This is seriously fucking hot. You know that, right?"

"It's Robin Thicke. He's incredibly talented, and his voice is wonderful. This is just...a song off his latest album," she explains. He crosses his arms over his chest and smirks at her.

"What's the album called, Berry?" he asks. Now that he knows the artist, he thinks he knows what record she's talking about, and he's for damn sure gonna make her say it.

"Given the way you're looking at me, I'd say it's safe to assume you already know the answer."

He moves to stand right in front of her, kneels down and rests his hands on either side of her body. "What is it, Rachel?" he asks.

The way she says her name makes heat pool in her stomach, and the way his eyes are practically searing into hers has her breathing shallow. She doesn't know where her confidence comes from.

"Sex Therapy."

Something about the word 'sex' coming from Rachel's lips does crazy things to him. And most of those things are in his pants. Fuck, this girl is insane. An insane, perfect, gorgeous, innocent girl.

"What do you think about when you listen to it?" he asks, his eyes still on hers. "Who?"

"Noah, that is horribly inappropriate," she says. She rests her hand on his chest and pushes him backwards. (She can feel how hard his heart is beating, and she wonders if maybe she has some kind of an effect on him. Something like the effect he's having on her.)

And, okay, so he's far from the kind of boy she usually finds herself attracted to. He's not clean cut and proper and polite. He doesn't have a 10 year plan and as much ambition as he can possibly carry in his body. He's got goals, but they're broad, not specific, and while he's very smart, he only applies himself in the areas where he has some interest.

But her skin heats up when he touches her, and sometimes she finds herself blushing when he looks at her. He makes her laugh, and she loves the smile he always gives her when he does. One day in glee, they were partnered together and he had to lift her up and spin her around, and she was sure she was going to fall when he set her down, but he reached for her and pulled her against him, and she could feel every muscle of his torso as she stood pressed against his front. She was sure everyone would have called her on how flustered she appeared, but they all assumed that she just didn't like messing up the step and the flow of their rehearsal.

And now, her hand is over his beating heart, and they're alone in her bedroom (and maybe her house, since her dad was supposed to be going out) and he's asking her about this song that, yes, she will admit, is very...erotic. (And the question he just asked her? She thinks she's never felt this way before, just from words.)

"Would you like to help me study?" she asks. He's still far too close. She can smell him; deodorant and fabric softener and boy. It's intoxicating.

"No."

"Noah."

"Rachel."

She watches the way his eyes flick down to her lips, and she cannot believe that he wants to kiss her. He wants to kiss her? Why? Sure, he makes comments about her appearance (her skirts) sometimes, but she didn't think he meant them. She's also seen him make comments to other girls. Hell, she's seen him making out with other girls in the halls at school! Though, not recently...

She clears her throat though, because he is just not the kind of boy she needs to be getting caught up with. He must take the hint, because he stands up and moves over to her desk chair, where he slumps down and reaches for her text book.

But apparently, he doesn't want to drop the subject.

"Still think you should answer the question," he mumbles, flipping open to the unit their studying. His eyes are on the pages, so he doesn't notice her moving towards the end of the bed.

"You really want to know?" she asks.

When he looks up, she's sitting there with her legs between his, her knees pressed together. She rests her hands on his thighs and leans forward, and he doesn't know what the fuck she's doing, but he fucking likes it.

(Now he knows what people are talking about when they use the term 'bedroom eyes.')

All he can do is nod like an idiot.

"You really want to know." Her eyes are locked with his and he cannot look away.

"Yeah, I do," he says with a smirk, suddenly finding, you know, his personality again.

She leans forward, standing up a little bit, and her hand rests on his shoulder as she leans down and speaks into his ear. "I'm never going to tell you," she says in the sexiest voice he's ever heard her use.

"Bitch," he whispers.

She actually laughs, then sits back down on her bed and pulls a blanket over her legs, and she starts going on about what she needs to work on in chemistry. (If her little show was some kind of experiment in the subject, he's pretty sure she gets an A fucking plus.) He's just staring at her, because she's about 400 kinds of crazy, and he hates about 390 of them.

But then there's that other 10...

And that other 10 make him crazy.

"What?" she asks when she realizes he's looking at her funny.

"You totally just fucking seduced me," he states, because he's just realizing it.

"I did not!" she cries, eyes all wide. "I was messing with you because you were messing with me."

"Nuh uhn." He shakes his head an slides the chair closer to the bed. "You just teased me. In a really good way. You totally had me for a minute there." She bites her lip and looks up at him through her eyelashes. "And you're fucking doing it again."

"I am?" she asks obliviously. She doesn't know why he starts laughing.

"Yeah, Rach. You are," he tells her.

"I thought...I thought all that stuff was just cliché that guys didn't really like," she says. He smiles at her. So naive.

"We pretty much like any attention a girl's gonna give us," he tells her.

"Oh. Well. That's good to know," she says, straightening her posture. He just laughs at her again as he watches her. She's sitting in the center of her bed, and if he thought she wanted it (he doesn't know she does) he'd totally join her. "Page 117..."

She starts reciting formulas and shit, and he focuses on that, because if he focuses on the fact that her hands felt really good on his legs, or the fact that he could see her white bra when she leaned forward to speak in his ear, he'll absolutely lose his shit.

But he kind of tunes her out when he starts thinking that if this is Rachel completely unaware that she's seducing him, what the hell would she be like if she was trying?

He might need some time alone with that later.

----

"I gotta ask you something," he says one day when he's sitting on her bed, half propped up against her pillows.

It's a Saturday, and he picked her up from dance class so they could hang out. Her dads are downstairs making dinner, which they've insisted he stay for. He's not about to complain about that, since her dads are like, Iron Chef material and their food is always fucking delicious. And he likes her bedroom and her bed. You know, except for all the girly shit in her room. It's always clean and it smells nice, like grapefruit or something. Maybe a little lemon. And some vanilla, because that's the perfume she wears.

"What's that?" she asks. She looks at him, lounging on her bed like he belongs there, leafing through one of her dad's issues of Esquire (he just noticed it because Blake Lively is on the cover in very little more than a pair of underpants and a tank top).

"How far can you lift your leg?"

She sputters a little in surprise, then starts laughing. "Excuse me?"

"You're like, a dancer and stuff, right? So you're probably really bendy," he states. He knows this is bordering on inappropriate, but that's never stopped him before.

"I'm not going to demonstrate," she says seriously, since she can already see where this is heading. She's still in her leotard and her little sheer pink skirt thing (which, if you ask him, does fuck all except look good).

"Do it," he insists. She shakes her head. "C'mon. You made me dunk the ball the other day in the gym."

"Noah! That's hardly the same thing!"

"You wouldn't have a problem doing it if it was a part of choreography or something," he tells her, and he knows he's right, but she glares at him anyway.

"But it's not, and I'm not really clear on why you want so badly to know in the first place," she says putting her hand on her hip.

He smirks to himself. Time to play up to the side of her that he knows will make her give in.

"You know, Britt can lift her leg, like, straight in the air. I've seen her do it. Pretty impressive," he states. She looks pissed. This is totally gonna work. "I doubt many people can do that."

She gets this steely expression on her face, and there's no way she's going to let him go around thinking that Brittany is a more talented dancer. Just because he's never seen Rachel do the exact same thing, doesn't mean she can't do it. In fact, she's been able to do it since she was eight years old.

She walks closer to him, stands at the end of the bed, and reaches for the bed post for stability. He watches her intently (and she watches him watching her) as she lifts her leg, bent at the knee, then straightens it out until her knee is like, at her shoulder, and her foot is above her head. She gets a smug grin on her face when he appears impressed and completely surprised.

"Happy?" she asks as she sets her foot on the ground again.

Then he grins lecherously and she wants to smack him a little. "Hell yeah."

(He's not going to tell her just how 'happy' he is. Christ, that was hot. Her foot was above her head.)

She turns on her heel and walks back to her desk, where she was trying to find music for them to listen to.

She's not prepared for what he says next.

"How the fuck do you not have a boyfriend?" he asks. She turns to face him again, and she's almost smiling. "Seriously. Any girl who can do that should have no problem getting someone to sex her."

The glare is back, and it makes him laugh.

(She turns away when he looks her up and down again, because she thinks he may just have admitted that he wouldn't mind 'sexing her', as he so ineloquently put it. And her cheeks feel like they're on fire.)

----

tbc...