A/N: This story was written for Lisa, who bid on - and won - me in the Support Stacie Author Auction. Her prompt was amazing and a lot of fun to write. I hope you guys enjoy it.
He wakes up in a sweat. The cold kind, not the good kind.
He's been dreaming again. Nightmares, actually. They come and go. He'll go six nights with and one without, and that'll feel like an accomplishment. But at this point, one good night of uninterrupted sleep is pretty amazing.
He looks at the clock. 5:23. Better than usual. He knows there's no getting back to sleep, so he throws back the covers and stumbles into the bathroom to take a leak and brush his teeth. Shit. His hair needs a cut badly, and he's pretty sure he hasn't shaved in a few days. He can pull off the scruff, but shit. He needs to take care of that.
Looking down at his chest and stomach, he sees the faded pink scars on his skin, and he runs his fingertips over them. They're fading a little more as time goes on. He doesn't really know how to feel about that. The jagged four inch line on his left pec is the most prominent (well, from the front anyway) still beveled and protruding. Turning around, he glances at the marks on his back and wonders why the fuck he does this every single day. It's not like he's going to wake up and have them miraculously be gone.
Stepping into his ridiculously fucking tiny kitchen, he opens the fridge and grabs the carton of orange juice, taking a long swig. Slamming the door shut again, he walks to the living room window and looks out at the sun coming up over this place he's found himself in.
He really doesn't know how he ended up in New York City. He's been here for just a little over two years, looking for god knows what, never quite knowing if he'll find it. He's 33 years old, fucked up beyond repair, probably, and living in the most stressful place in the world.
He loves it. At least a little. Some days it's just too much, but those days, he lays in his bed with the covers pulled up and tries to sleep it all away. Sometimes it works. Most of the time, the fucking nightmares get the best of him.
It's true what they say, that New York never sleeps. Even now, this early in the morning when most normal people are sleeping, the streets are bustling with taxis and towncars, buses and pedestrians, all on their way somewhere.
Most of the time, he's on his way nowhere.
His cell rings a few minutes later, and he knows there's only one person it could be. The early shift starts at 6:00, and his flaky fucking coworker is probably calling him to cover.
He agrees every time.
What else is he going to do?
Her 9 to 5 job isn't at all what she saw herself doing.
She saw her name in lights.
She saw adoring fans and male attention and television appearances and award nominations.
She saw her hard work and dedication and passion paying off in a bigger way than this.
She never saw herself not making it.
(You don't want to know how many tears she cried over the dream she never got to live, the disappointment of, not failing, just never getting the chance to succeed.)
But nothing she ever did was enough, no matter how much she tried to be the best. And she, if you ask her, still was the best, better than everyone. For whatever reason, everyone else always got chosen over her.
And yes, she realizes that's been a pattern in her life.
But instead of being on the stage, she works behind it. Well, not as a stage hand or anything beneath her like that. She works as marketing director for two Broadway theaters owned by the same holding company. Some days it's amazing.
Some days it's torture, being so close to what she always wanted, but knowing she'll never have it.
She doesn't do this every day. Or even once a week. But today? Today she needs a drink.
Yes, needs, and she doesn't care who knows it.
No one does; most days her coworkers are too wrapped up in their own stuff to even notice her. Other days, they're avoiding her because she's senior staff and they value their jobs and their time. (She still tends to talk a little more than necessary.)
She doesn't do this often enough to even know where to go, so she walks into the first clean-looking bark halfway between work and her condo.
She's done well for herself, saved money and invested wisely and bought herself a place on the Upper West Side. It's a renovated one bedroom, with hardwood floors and beautiful moldings and a Park view. She loves it. It's home. Not to mention, it's a million times better than the rentals she's had over the years.
She walks into the bar and wonders how it's possible that she's never been here before. Then she remembers that New York is huge and she's lived in practically every neighbourhood, and she's not much of a drinker anyway. A glass or two of wine at home is more her style.
She orders a dry gin martini, no olive, as soon as she's perched on the barstool.
It's just one of those days.
She's not stupid. She knows she's an attractive woman. She's grown into her looks, maintained her figure, and she has fabulous hair. She wears skirts, granted, longer than they used to be, and fantastic tops, and her shoe collection is amazing (she knows where the sales are.)
So she knows that men look at her. The look at her and approach her and give her ridiculous lines, and she never bites. She's had a few serious relationships, even thought she might get married to one man. She does not do one night stands with men who approach her in bars.
He notices her from across the room, and despite the fact that he can't see her face, he's pretty sure that is a woman he needs to be with. Smokin' hot body, legs that immediately make him think of some seriously nasty shit (the heels and skirt definitely help) a grey silk shirt thing that looks so soft he wants to touch it. And her hair is pretty sexy, too.
He hasn't been with a woman in far too long. A month or more. (The nightmares make it hard to spend a night in someone's bed, you know? And women don't take too kindly to him bolting right after.)
But this woman? This woman, he thinks is worth spending a whole night with. And if he had his way, there'd be little to no sleeping anyway. (Damn, the things he could do to that body.)
He walks over, his glass of beer in his hand, and stands right behind her. He can smell her perfume even over the smell of beer and bar. It's nice; not floral or fruity, more obscure, abstract. He wants to figure out what it is, get a little closer.
"Hey, gorgeous," he says, because what woman doesn't like to hear that she's gorgeous?
She laughs a little, shakes her head and doesn't even bother to look over her shoulder. "I apologize if I come off as less than pleasant, but really? That's your opening line? You don't think that I could walk into any bar in Manhattan on any given night and hear the exact same sentiment from five different men?"
Well, shit. Of course she could.
And he is not turned off by her spiel, her obvious dismissal of his attempt to sleep with her. (Let's call a spade a spade.) He doesn't mind working for it. He likes the chase.
There is something very familiar about the way she...
She spins around on her barstool and he knows he shouldn't be breathless when he looks at her. But holy shit, he hasn't seen her since they were 18, and she grew up good.
"Noah," she whispers.
She takes a moment just to look at him. He was always muscular, olive skinned and, frankly, gorgeous. He's broader in the shoulders, the plains of his chest visible beneath his red tee shirt, and his hair is lovely. It's no longer that ridiculous mohawk, but it's not buzzed either. It's an inch or so long, and she finds it suits him.
"Hey," he says after they've stared at one another for a couple moments.
They're eyes are still locked as she gulps down the last of her martini and sets the glass on the bar. The lopsided grin he gives her makes her stomach swim.
"What are you doing here? In New York? And what...I haven't...we haven't..."
"Got you tongue tied?" he asks, sliding onto the stool next to hers.
"I just can't...I haven't seen anyone from high school since...high school," she admits.
That should not piss him off. The glee kids always treated her like shit, save for Finn, really, and it shouldn't surprise him that none of them kept in touch with her. Or maybe she didn't keep in touch with them. That'd be better. He'd love it if she told them all to fuck themselves, actually. He thinks he might have told her that once upon a time. It wasn't like he was terrible to her for the remainder of their high school years. They just kind of co-existed. They didn't hate one another, but it wasn't much of anything more than that, either.
Besides, last he knew she was dating Finn.
He reaches for her left hand and she tenses. "No ring," he notes.
She pulls her hand away, then gestures to the bartender for another drink. She thinks she's going to need it.
"You and Hudson? Thought you two woulda had a couple kids by now."
She actually laughs and shoots him a withering glance. "Finn and I broke up two months after I moved to New York," she says. He doesn't respond at all. "He's married to Quinn."
"No shit," he mumbles. (Quinn is still a sore subject. One of many.)
"Yes. They married less than a year after he and I broke up," she explains, taking a sip of her drink.
"Huh." What does he say to that? "Yeah, Finn and I..."
"I know," she tells him.
The boys haven't spoken since the summer after they graduated, when Puck took off before August even started and never came back, never called, never told anyone where he ran off to.
"So what's with the getup?" he asks, looking her up and down again. Damn, her legs are so hot. "Not exactly what I picture a Broadway star wearing."
She scoffs, ignores the pang in her heart. "I'm not a Broadway star." I'm not a star at all. "I'm the marketing manager of..."
"What the fuck?"
"I beg your pardon?" she asks. She's forgotten that he doesn't sugar coat anything. He interrupts and curses and basically has no manners whatsoever.
"Why aren't you performing?"
She actually smiles. There's a part of her, that 18-year-old girl that still lives inside her sometimes, that loves that he still thinks she's talented enough to have made it.
"I guess things just don't happen as easily as you think they will when you're young, do they?" She looks over at him, then, notices for the first time how cold his eyes look.
He laughs softly and looks to the glass in front of him. "Nope."
He downs the rest of his beer and orders another, and he can tell she's watching him. He doesn't really know what comes next. The urge to sleep with her hasn't gone away. In fact, knowing that it's Rachel probably makes him want to sleep with her more. It's not like he sits around with a list of regrets or anything, but now that he thinks about it, he wishes he'd slept with her way back when. But she was a bit of a prude, and he was a bit of a dick, and then she was dating Hudson (for two fucking years) so that was pretty much that.
"You single?" he asks.
She turns towards him again, eyes shining with amusement, and he merely shrugs. "I am."
She smiles and turns on her stool, knees pressing against his. "Should I be flattered that you find that so hard to believe?"
"Dunno. Probably," he says with a shrug.
"Well, I was with this man, James, for three years. We just split up in the fall..."
"Fall was like, eight months ago."
"He was wonderful. A lawyer. But he was older - 45 - and we started talking marriage," she explains. He honestly doesn't know why he's still listening. It's not like he really cares to hear about her dating some old dude. "But then it came out that he doesn't want children."
And I do, goes unspoken.
"That uh...that sucks," he says. They're quiet, and he knows she's expecting him to say more. He's not going to.
She doesn't mention anything about his relationship status, given the way he approached her in the first place.
"So, what do you do here in New York, Noah?" she asks, smiling at him, trying to breeze past her stupid admission about her failed relationship that he didn't even ask to hear.
"I uh...I work at a exotic auto dealership," he explains. "Ferarri, Aston Martin. Stuff like that. I'm a mechanic."
"You don't have a mechanic's hands," she notes, taking his hand in hers, running her thumb over his knuckles. "They're...very clean."
He laughs softly, takes the in, and weaves his fingers together with hers. "I try."
She isn't sure how long they sit there, holding hands, not talking, just sipping their drinks, but at the end of the night, his number is saved in her phone, hers in his, and he winks at her through the window of her cab as it pulls away from the curb.
He wakes up Saturday morning, his day off, to his phone buzzing annoyingly on the bedside table. Of course, one of his few sound sleeps just has to be interrupted by a fucking phone call. He checks the time, doesn't move from where he's laying on his stomach. 9:30.
"'Lo," he mumbles. (Close enough to an actual greeting.)
"Oh! I've woken you! I'm sorry," she says quickly.
He smiles, he thinks. It's been a week and a half, and he's been waiting for her to cave.
(He wishes she hadn't done it at 9:30 on a fucking Saturday.)
"I was just thinking about making brunch, and I thought...I don't know where you live in relation to my place, but I wondered if maybe you'd like to come join me?"
She sounds all tentative, like she's really unsure of his answer.
And he should probably say no. He's so comfortable in his bed and needs to shower and doesn't know how long it'll take him to get to wherever it is that she lives.
She rattles off her address, and he just laughs sleepily and tells her to text it while he showers. He can practically picture her rolling her eyes as she asks him what kind of memory he has if he can't even remember a simple address.
Same old Rachel Berry.
(She's not the same, he knows. He likes that she's a mix of old and new.)
As he leaves his place wearing jeans and a plaid button down that's just this side of so-wrinkled-it's-unwearable, he starts to think about being alone with her in her apartment and all the potential ways this could go.
And he doesn't really know what you take someone when they're making brunch for you, but he figures he shouldn't show up empty handed. As he passes shops after stepping off the subway near her place, he just gets more frustrated. He's not going to take her coffee. He's not going to take stupid pastries or muffins or whatever, and it's not like knows her very well, but the old Rachel Berry would have gone all out for this meal. He assumes the same is still true.
So that's how he ends up with stupid flowers in his hands. Flowers. Fuck. He's never bought a woman flowers before, other than his mom. (He sends her a bouquet every mother's day, alright? It kinda makes up for the fact that he never, ever goes back to Lima and doesn't plan to. Ever.)
She buzzes him into the building, and he takes the elevator to the 16th floor, and she meets him at the door, holding it open with her hip. She's smiling. Gorgeous. The jeans and purple loose-fitting tank top don't hurt either.
"I uh...these are for you," he says, handing her the lilies as they step into the apartment. The nice apartment. "Jesus, Berry. Nice place."
"Thank you," she laughs. "And thank you for the flowers. That was very thoughtful of you."
"Yeah," he says, looking around. Leather sofa and matching chairs, nice flatscreen, awesome kitchen. And it smells amazing. "So what're you cooking, here?"
He steps closer to the kitchen, but she presses her hand against his chest and pushes him away. He doesn't know what that's about. Before he knows it, he's sitting in a chair at the dining room table and she's pouring him a cup of coffee. "Sit. I'll..." I'll take care of you. "I'll be right back. Everything's almost done."
She walks back into the kitchen and starts plating things, and she's thinking about him like she has all week. Something seems different about him, off, and she can't place it. He just looks...sad, or overwhelmed, or...something she can't put her finger on. And it's not that she wants the old 'Puck' back, but she wants him to be himself. And if this is himself, she's scared for him, because as much as she's sure he'll deny it if she asks, she knows he can't be completely happy.
She shouldn't care quite so much; he's a virtual stranger, really.
They eat sitting across from one another, and he's making noises and complimenting her like he hasn't had a decent meal in years. She laughs off the comments like they're nothing, but she's thrilled that he likes it, because truth be told, she's been cooking since eight. (Her famous french toast bake, with cream cheese and fresh berries, isn't something you can just whip up on a whim.)
And she's known all week that she was going to call him and casually suggest that he come over. (It took three trips to the grocery store as she adjusted her menu to perfection.)
She's not pathetic. She's not. She's just...
And he's funny. He makes her laugh, though his jokes aren't as frequent as they used to be, and his eyes don't shine the way they used to when he'd say something inappropriate. He doesn't smile as wide (at all, really, just a grin here or there). As he toys with the handle of his coffee mug, he stares at her across the table, and she's dying to know what he's thinking.
(The truth is, she doesn't want to know; there are a million thoughts running through his head, all involving the two of them and her bedroom and far less clothing.)
She clears plates and insists that he stay where he is, but he's having none of it. He follows her into the kitchen, and she's all hips swaying and perfect ass and gorgeous, so as soon as her hands are empty, he rests his on her hips and pulls her back against him. She gasps out his name.
"What are you doing?" she asks breathlessly. She could move away if she wanted to. She doesn't.
He turns her in his arms and searches her eyes. "You're so fucking beautiful," he tells her seriously, as if he's just now realized it, as if she hasn't always been too pretty for her own good.
"No," he says, though they both know he'll stop if she really tells him to. (That was a weak attempt, at best.) "I've been waiting. A week and a half, actually." He smirks and she rolls her eyes. "You should have asked me to come home with you that night."
She feels her resolve breaking. Why is she resisting anyway? She's thought of him constantly since their strange meeting, since his palm pressed against hers. It strikes her that she wants this.
"And if I had?" she asks, looking up at him through her eyelashes.
"God, Rachel," he says, pulling her flush against him, hands desperate to pull her clothing from her body. "I'll make you feel so good."
She doesn't hesitate for even a second before she kisses him.
She has never been a careless person. Never. Something about this seems like sweet recklessness. His hands in her hair, on her skin beneath her shirt, his lips pressed against hers and an ache for him quickly building.
They barely make it to her bedroom, and he bumps them into the wall more than once in his haste to get her to a bed. She laughs against his lips and tells him to be careful, so he, unexpectedly, picks her up, arms tight around her waist and her hands threading through his hair, and carries her the rest of the way.
Afterward, when she's laying against him, one leg slung over his as he runs his fingers through her hair, she traces the scar on his chest with her fingertip and quietly asks where he got it. He tells her it's from a bar brawl, and he can tell she doesn't believe him, but she doesn't ask him for the real truth, and he thinks he likes her more than he should.
When she doesn't hear from him for almost an entire week, she thinks she's going to go crazy.
A man can't do that. He can't say those things and do those things and make you feel those things. He can't spend an entire day in your bed and then not call for five days.
But she is not going to call him. She won't. She had to make the first move (second? He did approach her first, but still...) and it's his turn.
So why isn't he calling?
It's a Friday night, and she's just settled in with a bowl of popcorn to watch a movie she's seen a million times, but loves, and there's a knock at her door. No one ever comes to her door. It must be a neighbour, since no one could get past the secure entry without being buzzed in. And she obviously doesn't have time to change out of her plaid pajama pants and white zippered sweater. She figures that whoever is at her door at 8:30 at night probably won't care about her attire anyway.
But then she looks out the peephole and her breath catches.
"I can hear you in there," Puck says. She doesn't have to look at him to know he's smirking. "You wanna let me in?"
"How did you get in the building?"
"Someone was leaving and I caught the door. Open up."
She takes a deep breath and at least makes sure that her hair isn't a disaster before she pulls the door open. He's standing there with one hand raised and braced against the door frame, a lazy smile on his lips.
"Hi," she says.
"Do I need an invitation? Jesus, Rachel," he says teasingly, pushing the door open a little more and walking past her.
"What...Noah, what are you doing here?" she asks, watching as he takes a handful of popcorn and tosses some into his mouth.
"I had to deliver a car to a guy in the neighbourhood. Thought I'd stop by, see how you're doing," he says, shrugging his shoulder like it's no big deal. "Cute pants."
"I wasn't expecting company," she says seriously. He smirks again and she crosses her arms, hugging her sweater closer to her body. "How have you been?"
(Why haven't you called me?)
"Fuckin' busy. Been working overtime 'cause someone got fired. When I get off work, all I want to do is sleep, you know?" he answers.
(I wanted to call you, I just couldn't.)
"Yeah. So, you know, sorry to cut short your girly freak out over me not getting in touch," he says knowingly, walking towards her again. He licks the butter from the popcorn off his thumb, and Rachel looks up at him through her lashes. "You mad I just stopped in?"
She shakes her head and smiles. "No. I'm mad you didn't even text me for a week."
"Not a week," he says, and she laughs.
"Sorry. What was I s'possed to say in a text? 'Thanks for the awesome sex. I'll call when I have time for round 2'?"
"Well, that would have been better than nothing," she tells him. When she looks at him again, he's grinning at her like he's trying to figure her out. "And is that what this is? Why you're here?"
He rolls his eyes and moves to sit on the couch, pulling the bowl of popcorn into his lap. "If that's where it goes, I'm not gonna stop it. But we can hang out. You know, like normal people or whatever." He grabs the remote, switching the channel immediately and turning it onto some cop show marathon. "Hey, you got any beer?"
She doesn't know whether to laugh or kick him out.
(She'd totally kick him out if he didn't look so good sitting on her sofa eating popcorn.)
So they drink wine (she doesn't have beer) and watch Criminal Minds, and he explains the characters and what they do, and by midnight Rachel is tucked against his side, his arm lazily draped over her shoulder. There are empty glasses and an empty bowl on the table (he eats the unpopped kernels, which Rachel finds disgusting, and has no problem telling him so.) His thumb moves idly over her shoulder and she lets out an involuntary little sound when he runs his fingertips over her neck lightly.
"Noah," she almost whispers. "Let's go to bed."
He switches off the television and lets her lead him by the hand towards her bedroom.
It's three in the morning by the time they're both exhausted, and she's laying there with the sheets covering her, her hair splayed on the pillow. He starts getting dressed and she buys his excuse that he has an early pick-up basketball game with his buddies.
It's the first time he's felt bad lying to a woman about why he won't stay the night.
He calls her the next day after grabbing a slice of pizza for lunch at the cheap place around the corner from his apartment.
"Is it too soon to say that I miss you?" she asks, voice all breathy on the phone.
"What are you doing?" It's the first question out of his mouth. He finds he needs to know.
"I'm in bed."
"I'm coming over."
She laughs and he hangs up. He's at her place in record time, and she answers the door wearing a navy blue satin nightgown with lace and thin straps, and he pushes one of them down off her shoulder before the door is even closed.
She doesn't know what this is, this relationship. So far it's been mostly sex, a little talking and watching a little television. But he keeps coming back and she keeps letting him, because there is something about him that she wants more of. She wants desperately for this to become something.
He leaves after midnight after she tells him she's meeting a friend for brunch, kisses her and tells her to get some sleep.
And she wonders if maybe she's making too much of this whole thing.
She doesn't call him. She can't. She doesn't want to.
She won't be made a fool of.
It doesn't matter that she used to know him. She doesn't want to be just another notch on his bedpost, or whatever it is she'd be if this relationship was just sex.
The scary part is that she doesn't want it to be. The fact is that she does know him. At least a little. She knows him better than most people do, she thinks. She wants him to know her better than anyone. She thinks he understands her, or he would, and it's only been a week. Not even. A few days, cumulatively, and she can't help the way she wants to define things and push them forward; it's what she's always done.
So she goes about her life, figuring that if he's interested, he'll call her, and it won't just be to set up another tryst at her apartment. He'll call her and talk. They've gotten through the important things - jobs, families - but there's so much more to talk about. They haven't seen one another in 15 years. She knows her life has been crazy in that time period, and she assumes it's the same for him.
She works hard, staying late every night, and ignores her coworker/friend who very seriously asks Rachel who she's been sleeping with, because apparently, 'Honey, you're always so tightly wound. I can tell when you've gotten laid, because you're more relaxed.'
She doesn't feel relaxed. She feels like she should have her cell phone attached to her phone at all times.
By day three, she realizes how pathetic it is that she just wants him to want her.
So no, she doesn't call him.
He calls her.
"Hey, babe," he says when she answers. To say she's surprised would be an understatement. For three days, she's talked herself into believing that he wouldn't. "What're you up to?"
"I'm babe now?" she asks, a smile on her face.
"Sure. You free, or what?"
"I'm still at the office, actually," she explains.
"What? Why? It's 6:30," he tells her, and she hears the traffic rushing past him.
"I know. It's been busy."
"What's with you. You okay?" he asks.
And yes, she loves that he can tell something's off.
"I'm just tired. And...It's just been a long couple days," she says quietly. She slips her feet back into her shoes and clicks her email closed, deciding that no matter how this conversation goes, she's going home.
"Well, where's your office?"
"Where is your office," he says, enunciating each word carefully.
"Jesus fucking Christ. You gotta be so difficult?" She thinks she might be annoying him, but she figures that if they're going to do this, he needs to know that she can be annoying sometimes. "I'm taking you to dinner. Where is your fucking office?"
She gives him the address and he tells her he'll see her in 20. She's so thankful that she keeps make up, a hair brush, and Evian spray in her desk drawer. She spends the next 20 minutes making sure she's presentable. Actually, she wants to look good enough that he's struck speechless. She knows this skirt will do the trick - a black high-waisted pencil skirt - and her crisp white button down with a purple camisole underneath is a perfect pairing. Not to mention, she's wearing the most expensive pair of shoes she owns. (No, she won't share how much they cost, but they're the softest leather she's ever felt, and the red sole is just so pretty.)
And then she spends the next 10 minutes making him sweat it out in the lobby.
She steps off the elevator, and he's standing there, chatting with the security guard at the desk. He's wearing a pair of dark jeans and a white and blue plaid button down shirt. It annoys her that she's been primping for however long, and he probably grabbed the first clean clothes he could find, and he looks like that. Amazing, with little to no effort. It hardly seems fair.
But then he sees her, and he raises his brow, looking her up and down as her heels clack on the marble floor, carrying her towards him. He meets her halfway, walking towards her until he can rest his hands on her hips and kiss her quickly.
"You always have to look so good?" he asks lowly, stepping back to check her out again. "Goddamn."
"So where are you taking me?" she asks, pulling away from him and slinging her bag over her arm.
He surprises her by draping his arm around her waist once they're on the sidewalk.
"It's a surprise," he tells her.
And no, her constant questioning doesn't help at all. He laughs and tells her he's not telling her anything, and she's more than a little shocked when they wind up at her favourite Italian place in the city.
"What?" he asks when she hesitates to walk through the door he's holding open.
"This is my favourite."
"Really?" he asks, and she nods. "Mine too."
She laughs and walks inside, and once they're seated, she's just smiling at him across the table. "How is it possible that you and I have lived in the same city, eaten at the same restaurants, and have only just now run into one another?"
"Dunno," he says, biting into a piece of bread. "Crazy, though."
(Honestly, there have been moments when she's wondered how she's attracted to this guy, with his lack of manners and his less-than-stellar word choices.)
She's more than a little surprised when he doesn't even open the menu. He gets the same thing every time, he says. He lets her pick the wine, because 'I know shit about that kinda stuff' and he tells her she 'did good' when he takes a sip and likes the selection.
He is so the anti-Rachel-man. For the last 10 or so years, she's been all about dating professionals, men who work long hours and take her to the opera and the symphony and to that little jazz place in Harlem that she loves. She never brought a man here, or asked to be brought here, because she thinks the men she's dated would have turned up their noses or laughed in her face.
She thinks she loves that Noah likes this restaurant more than she loved doing all those sophisticated things with anyone else.
As she tucks into her seafood linguine, glancing at him across the table, cutting into his lasagna, he winks at her and she decides that this, whatever it is, is something she's going to give an honest chance.
She wants it to work.
A month after they first started seeing one another, they're at her place (they've never been to his; she's never seen his apartment) and it's late, and they're just laying in her bed together.
When he tries to move away, she grabs onto his torso, slings her leg over his, and very petulantly tries to get her way.
She's never truly asked him to stay. She's listened to all his reasons, called him on a couple lies, which he smiled and kissed his way out of, and she couldn't stay mad because it was all pretty harmless anyway. And yes, he works early in the mornings, and he actually does play basketball on the weekends (just a couple hours later than he's led her to believe.)
"Just stay, Noah. Please," she says. She's all tired and adorable, and her fingers are digging into his ribcage almost painfully.
He takes a deep breath and thinks about it. In the last couple weeks, he's been sleeping a little better than usual. The nightmares still rattle him, but he's been getting more sleep, sleeping through the night a couple more times than usual. He hasn't hated that.
And yeah, that matches up with him starting to spend more time with Rachel, laughing with her more, and he thinks that he's happy, which is weird, because he hasn't been this happy in...a long fucking time. Years and years. She hasn't asked him a whole lot of questions about his life, which doesn't really surprise him, given how much the woman likes to talk.
She's been amazing to him. Amazing. And he figures that he owes her.
"Okay," he says quietly, kissing the top of her head.
She falls asleep pretty quickly, and he closes his eyes, figuring that he'll never get through this night if he doesn't at least try to make it work.
He wakes up at 11:00 the next morning. He slept nearly 12 hours, straight through, no nightmares. Not even a dream.
Rachel tells him she hasn't slept so well in years, and he tells her the same. She laughs when she mentions breakfast and he very seriously insists that she's not going anywhere.
"Hmm." He's on his stomach on the floor in her living room, his bottom half covered in a blanket, and she's straddling his back, massaging him.
"You have a lot of scars," she says quietly, like it hurts her that he ever hurt.
Fuck, she's making him feel like shit without even trying.
"I know, babe," he answers, and if he ever went to the shrink he's been told to go to, he'd probably be told there are far deeper scars on far more important parts of him.
It's barely three weeks later when he storms into her apartment after she's buzzed him up, and he slams the door behind him, startling her as she stands in the kitchen.
"Noah," she breathes out.
No, she's not surprised that the first thing he says is a curse.
"What is it? What's wrong?" she asks, taking a step towards him. She doesn't want to be scared, not of him. But the look in his eyes right now is not something that's easy to look at. She doesn't know what's going on with him, but she's afraid to find out.
He slams a piece of paper down on the counter and shoves it towards her. "I'm getting fucking evicted!"
"What? Why?" she asks, brow furrowed, looking down at the letterhead in front of her. "Want me to call dad? He's a human rights lawyer, you know."
"Fuck, Rachel. Yes, I know." He rolls his eyes and shakes his head, because as if that's fucking important right this second. "The owner sold the building. They're tearing it down to build another fucking condo monstrosity, because apparently New Fucking York doesn't have enough of those fucking things."
"Noah, I think you should try to calm down."
"Rachel, I don't have a place to live," he says slowly, eyes locked with hers. "I'm gong to be homeless in a month. And I can't afford a new place. This place was rent controlled. I mean, I have money, but not like...Fuck. What am I gonna do?"
She doesn't think, in the entire time they've been dating (which, granted, isn't exactly a long time) that she's seen him so vulnerable.
And the words have left her mouth before she can stop them.
"Move in with me."
He rolls his eyes again and continues pacing. "Very fucking funny, Rach."
She walks over to him and rests her hands on his arms. "I'm serious. I...I know it's crazy, Noah. I do. But you need a place to live, and I...I like having you around, if you hadn't noticed." He lets out a sigh. He won't be fucking charity. "Look, you can pay me rent. It'll help with my mortgage. You'll have a place to live and I'll have more money in the bank. It's win-win."
Shit. She's really trying to sell this.
"Baby, I can't," he says seriously. "I've never lived with a chick before. And you're...No. I can't do that. I'll just have to find a place. I might have to have a roommate, but..."
"Noah." She stops his talking by taking his face in her hands. "You could have some random roommate that you've never met, or you could have me, who'll..." She pauses and gets this dirty little grin on her lips just before she licks them. "Well, I like to think I'll be more fun than some random middle-aged roommate."
Christ. The woman is a master negotiator. She just brought out the big guns.
"Noah," she says quietly. She leans up on her toes and he can't help but let his arms wrap around her right before she kisses him. "Please, please let me help you."
"I don't want your pity."
She takes a step away and looks down. "That's not what this is," she tells him. "If you don't...If you don't want to be with me that way, then..."
"That's...Fuck, Rachel. Don't do that. It's not that," he tells her. "I'm...I dig my own space, alright?"
She laughs humourlessly and shakes her head, going back to the stove to tend to the dinner she was making for herself before he showed up unannounced.
"Yes. I understand that, seeing as I've never actually been to your apartment," she says, her back to him. He lets out a frustrated groan. "Don't be upset with me. Don't take this out on me, Noah. I'm offering you a place to live because I...I happen to like you. Quite a lot. And if you don't want to be here, just tell me."
He hears her voice catch and he's pissed at himself for upsetting her. He really didn't mean to.
The truth is, he likes the idea of living with her. A lot, actually. He sleeps better when he's with her (he's had a couple interrupted nights, but just slipped into the living room and watched television, the lay back down in bed before she woke up, and she was none the wiser). He likes her place. He likes the way she cooks and the way she sits next to him and the way she doesn't ask a whole bunch of questions about his life. If he's being honest, that's probably what he's afraid of. He's got shit he doesn't want her to see.
But he likes her a lot. More than he probably should have let himself. He often wonders how things would have turned out if they'd somehow gotten together during high school, how different things could be if she'd pulled him out of that town with her instead of him leaving on his own and doing all the things he's done.
More than anything, he thinks he wants to go all in with her. He doesn't want to fuck around and fuck this up, like he's done so many other things. For whatever reason, she hasn't left him yet, and he doesn't want to let her. He wants to give back to her what she's giving to him. This is a big step, the realization that he might just want to be with someone.
"Rachel," he says quietly, walking up behind her. He wraps his arms around her shoulders so he's hugging her to him, his lips next to her ear. "If you're sure...if you really mean it and you're not just feeling sorry for me..."
"I'm not," she insists, interrupting him. He smiles and kisses her temple.
"Okay. Then I wanna move in," he tells her.
He knows it's a big deal that he's said that he wants to, not just that he will.
He moves his things in on a Saturday. On Monday, she has to work late and he's sleeping on the sofa when she gets home. On Friday, he tells her he's hanging with the guys and she tosses and turns when he doesn't come home until four in the morning.
(She'll later look back and think of that as a red flag.)
Rachel learns quickly that it's nice to live with a man. She never has before. James was probably her most serious relationship, and they never made it to the 'moving in' stage. She'd just bought her place when they started seeing one another, and then by the end of things...well, she was glad she'd never moved in. And she would have been the one to move; he owned a place on the Upper East Side, four bedrooms and 3,000 square feet.
But it's nice to have Noah there. When she works late, he'll have dinner made, and when she leaves a list of things to pick up, he always does. For the most part, he picks up after himself, and his stuff doesn't interfere with hers. Probably because he doesn't have much of it. His clothes fit into her closet and his guitar sits next to her upright piano in her living room. That's pretty much all of it.
She can't help but wonder what what his place looked like. She never did see it.
Anyway, she finds she loves coming home to someone, or being the one that someone comes home to.
But every once in a while, once a week or once a month or whatever it is, she feels like she's living with a stranger.
It's fleeting, a moment or two where she'll wonder where he's been all this time, why he left that summer, why he cut everyone out.
Sometimes she wonders if she really knows anything about him at all.
"What'd you do after high school?" she asks one night when they're watching a baseball game.
"So you say," she mumbles, turning towards him. He sips his beer. "What did you do? School? Work? Travel?"
As she says it, she kicks herself for not insisting he tell her sooner.
(Still, sometimes, she feels like that desperate little girl she used to be, aching for someone just to want her, so much so that she'd see only what she wanted to see and ignore the rest.)
"Nope," he says.
"Noah, come on," she pleads, running her hand down his arm. "I really want to know. Where did you go that summer?" He sighs and thanks god it's a commercial break and this game is boring. He glances at her, and she's smiling (she knows she's won.) "I just want to know about you. What did you do? Where did you go? What...did you meet anyone? Did you date?"
"Okay!" he cuts her off. Now she's just annoying him. Their relationship works, frankly, because she doesn't ask questions. "Okay. I spent some time in Texas, then Washington."
"What's with the fuckin' 20 questions, Rach? Jesus," he says, looking over at her. She's sitting there with her leg tucked beneath her, arm draped over the back of the sofa.
"I don't know anything about you," she admits, shaking her head a little bit, avoiding his eyes. "I don't know what you've been doing for the last 15 years."
"I told you. I did a lot of shit," he mumbles noncommittally. She rolls her eyes and stands, moving to walk away. He catches her wrist as she rounds the back of the sofa, holding her tight enough that she can't move, can only stand there behind him. "C'mon. Don't be pissed."
"Why would I be?" she asks. "Nothing to be bitter about. Just that my boyfriend doesn't trust me enough to tell me about his life. I don't even think it's a trust thing. I think it's a respect thing."
"Fuck that. Don't fucking put words in my mouth," he argues, dropping her wrist. He stands and turns to face her, the sofa still separating them.
"It's not like I'm asking the world of you, Noah! I just want to know about you!"
"You want to play shrink with me, Rachel, and I didn't fucking ask you to," he says cruelly. "You want me to tell you about all the horrible shit I've done, all the people I hurt and all the lives I fucked up. Don't you? You want me to cry on your fucking shoulder."
"Guess what. You can't fix me, Rachel, and I don't fucking want you to. So back the fuck off, alright?"
"I didn't..." She stops when he grabs his keys and wallet from the coffee table and stuffs them in his pockets. "What are you doing?"
"Noah, don't just walk out," she says seriously, closing her eyes tightly.
"I'll do what I want, thanks," he says, sarcasm dripping from every word. "Don't wait up."
The door slams and she breaks down.
It doesn't take a genius to put the pieces together.
He's hurt. He's sad. He's depressed, if you ask her. He's...he's damaged. He's got marks on his body that he doesn't explain, and things in his past that she's sure have hurt him more than he'll ever let on.
And he won't let her help him.
He doesn't come home until nearly 3:00 am, and when he does, he's stumbling through the door, and she can smell the whiskey before he's even laying next to her. She's got her back to him, and he's just laying there, breathing heavily beside her, not touching her at all, and she's thankful that she's learned how to cry quietly.
"You awake?" he asks, leaning over and resting his hand on her hip, his chest pressing firmly against her back. "Rach."
She doesn't move. She's not ready to talk to him. Not after he said what he said and walked out like he did.
"I'm sorry, baby," he says, kissing her temple. He pats her hip like he does every night before bed, then rolls away from her.
She thinks she's probably pathetic, but she's already forgiving him.
He redeems himself. He tries fucking hard, too.
He apologizes properly, tells her that he's sorry for blowing up at her and acting like such a jerk. He tells her he's just not really proud of some of the things he's done, and he doesn't want to tell her. She says that she won't judge him, that she just wants to know everything, and he tells her he's not ready to get into it.
It's not a lie.
And he's not ready for her to look at him the way he knows she'll look at him.
But he asks her if she can forgive him, and she tries not to smile when she nods, and he kisses her, backs her against the wall of their bedroom and knocks some stuff off the dresser when they bump into it on their way to bed.
He's not good at much. He's good at this. He wants her to forget, even for just a little while, that he'll never be who she really needs him to be.
(He knows she's figured it out already.)
God help her, she falls in love with him.
He's not perfect. Far from it. She doesn't know why she loves him, really. She thinks about it and can't figure it out. It has nothing to do with her age and the fact that she wants to settle down, because she gets the distinct impression that he's not ready for that and might not ever be.
(She ignores the voice in the back of her head reminding her of why her last relationship ended, because she already loves Noah more than she ever loved James, and she thinks that maybe, just maybe, she doesn't need to have children to be happy with someone.)
She loves him because of, not in spite of, his flaws. And he has a lot of them. She's okay with that. She loves him, and she thinks she's probably been falling since that night in the bar when he'd just sat there and held her hand.
They're sitting in Central Park, bundled in fall jackets, and she has on this hat he's been making fun of her for all day, and it starts snowing, and he curses, and it doesn't ruin the moment at all, it makes it. She smiles at him and kisses his cheek, brushes a snowflake off his nose.
"I love you."
She's just looking at him, waiting for him to say the words.
He thinks he does. He knows he wants to. He knows he doesn't want to lose her.
So he says it back, and she can't tell it's not really the truth, and he doesn't really feel bad about it, because he thinks he might need her. He doesn't think anyone would fault him for doing whatever he has to so he can hang onto her.
It's loud. Too loud. He's crouched down, trying to catch his breath and his composure, which he's been trained not to lose in the first place, but fuck, sometimes he slips. Sometimes they all slip.
There's a building smoldering to his left, people screaming in the streets, carrying their children and pushing each other out of the way. Helicopters fly overhead, and it's hard sometimes to distinguish between the sound of the propellers and the sound of the gunfire.
"Smithson, don't you fucking dare!" Puck shouts to the man ducked 10 feet away. The man gets up anyway, pats his helmet on his head. "That's an order!"
"Smithy, sit your ass down right now!" Puck bellows, steadying his rifle in his hand.
The young soldier grabs the chain around his neck and tugs it off, tossing the dogtags to Puck before getting up and running out from cover. They've needed a diversion for the better part of an hour, and each of them has known it would take something like this, that the longer they waited, the worse off they'd be - the greater the chance that they'd be found.
He watches Smithson dodge between burned out cars and pieces of rubble as he makes his way toward the source of the attacks, the dozen or so enemy fighters.
"Smithson!" Puck shouts, trying to warn the guy of the man who's just run out of a building, stepping behind Smithson with his gun drawn.
Puck doesn't have a clear shot. All he can do is yell his comrade's name and pray to god it's enough.
Puck hears the gun go off and closes his eyes tight, sinking down against his shelter, his head against the hard surface and holding the dogtags in his hand so tightly that they dig into his skin.
He hears his name a few times, his first name, and he's being shaken.
When his eyes snap open, Rachel is sitting next to him in bed with a terrified look on her face, her hair falling over one shoulder as she breathes heavily.
He bolts upright, running a hand over his face only to have it come up covered in sweat. His breath is ragged and he closes his eyes, trying to calm himself.
Fuck. He knew it was a matter of time. He's been able to control this until now. He hasn't had this nightmare in ages. Of course, it had to happen right now, and he had to sleep through the whole thing instead of waking up at the beginning like he used to. (Not that it'd help, because he'd be left sitting awake, thinking about the rest of it anyway.)
"Noah," Rachel says quietly, forcing him to open his eyes again. "Noah."
"Yeah. I know," he says on a sigh. "I'm sorry."
"It was....you were...You scared me," she admits, and he thinks she might start crying or something.
Truthfully, she's never been next to someone having a nightmare before. It's not a fun thing. He was thrashing in the bed, his head moving from side to side, and he wouldn't wake up no matter how hard she shook him or how loudly she said his name. His strangled cry of a name she's never heard him use, the way he clutched at the sheets with his hand, had her panicking almost as much as he was.
"I'm sorry, baby," he says, pulling her against him and laying down again. He strokes her hair and kisses her forehead.
"It's okay. It's not your fault."
(Yeah, he thinks, it is.)
"Go back to sleep," he says in what he hopes is a soothing voice.
"You too," she whispers. "It was just a dream."
He has nightmares three more times within the course of a couple weeks. Once, he's laying next to Rachel, and he can tell she's trying not to be scared when he wakes up and shoots out of bed. He apologizes again, and she says it's okay, that she understands, but she doesn't. He knows she doesn't. No one does.
Another time, he falls asleep on the couch one Saturday afternoon when she's out shopping with her friends, and he wakes up in a sweat with tears in his eyes. He leaves her a note and goes out, finds his favourite watering hole in his old neighbourhood and drinks until closing time. He doesn't even remember how he got back to the apartment. He thinks a cab was involved.
He knows Rachel was pissed.
The third time, it's a different dream altogether, a horrible one again, and he wakes up in the middle of it, looks over to see her still sleeping soundly and thanks god that he didn't wake her again. He's covered in sweat, his pillow soaked, and it's 5:00 am. He leaves the room, going out to sleep on the couch so that if the dream continues, he won't disturb her.
He doesn't know how he used to deal with this shit every night.
He's exhausted, terrified to go to sleep, afraid she'll find out, overhear something else, another word slipping from his lips, something worse.
She's watching Pearl Harbor one day when he comes in after a night of drinking JD at some nameless bar.
He kisses her and shuts off the television, pulls her into the bedroom and pulls her shirt over her head and lets her believe that he just wants her.
Which he does.
But he hasn't watched a war movie in years. He can't do it.
He's brushing his teeth one morning, running his fingertip idly over the scar on his chest, and Rachel walks into the bathroom. She smiles sadly when she sees what he's doing. He drops his hand and focuses on brushing.
She's got her curling iron out and starts doing her hair while he flosses.
"Did it hurt?" she asks, eyes trailing down to his chest again.
He laughs softly, just a chuckle, and nods. "Like a bitch."
She smiles, because that's more than he has ever said about any of his scars, about his past at all, really.
She sets down her curling iron, funds a circular scar on his side, about the size of a dime, and runs her hand over it. "What about this one?"
Her eyes meet his and she looks so beautiful, no makeup on, just standing in front of him, begging him to let her in.
"Yeah," he says quietly.
She circles him slowly, walking around so she's looking at his back. Her hands trail down his skin and he looks over his shoulder at her. He can feel her fingertips graze the marks on his shoulder blade.
"These?" she asks, and presses her lips to the warm skin her fingers just touched.
"Those were the worst," he admits. Her hands slip around his waist to rest on his stomach, just above his boxers. "Ever hear of road rash?" She nods, her cheek pressed against his back. His hand falls to rest on top of hers. "They were picking gravel out of my shoulder for three hours."
She kisses his shoulder blade again, then pulls her hands from his body slowly and moves to stand in front of the mirror, picking up her curling iron.
He leans down and kisses the side of her neck as she wraps a lock of her hair around the wand. He smiles at her in the mirror, pats her hip, and walks out of the bathroom.
She cries after he leaves for work, and she doesn't know why.
The nightmares morph into something different all together.
Now Rachel's in them, begging him to do something. She'll be trapped and Smithson will go after her, try to save her, and Puck does nothing.
Those are the worst.
He's got a bottle of sleeping pills, and those help sometimes, make him fall asleep and put him out so good that he can't even tell if he's dreaming.
Until the night he dreams Rachel's being held with some guy's arm around her neck, a pistol pressed against her temple. She's saying his name, pleading with him to do something, and when he tries, the gun goes off...
He wakes up screaming her name, and she's next to him, trying to sooth him, touch him, but he brushes her off and shoves her away.
It's the first time she looks like she's scared of him.
He leaves the room without a word, closes the door behind him.
He can handle a lot of things. He can handle her being annoyed with him, mad, disappointed. He can handle her crying or yelling.
He can't handle her being scared of him.
He doesn't come home at all one night.
She tries his cell, and it's answered by some woman, and Rachel's heart breaks until the girl says she's a waitress at a little bar in the East Village, that he's there, just not in any state to answer his phone, and Rachel sighs.
She hangs up without answering the girl's question of where they should send his cab if he sobers up enough to get himself into one.
She's tired of this. She's tired of him not telling her what his dreams are about, what he's seen that has stuck with him so long. She asks him every time they happen, but he tells her it's nothing, 'shit happens' and tells her to drop it.
The night she woke up to him screaming her name, sounding absolutely agonized...That's a night she'll never forget. He literally pushed her so hard that she had to brace herself from falling off the bed. His fingers left a bruise on her arm (one that he'd later kiss and apologize for, over and over.)
But she can't forget the look in his eyes that night.
Terrified. Alone. Angry. Hurt. Desperate. Helpless.
It scared the hell out of her. It still does
But it's exhausting, worrying about someone so much.
So she flicks off the light at four in the morning and goes to sleep.
He took care of himself before her. She assumes he can still do the same.
(He won't let her anyway, not really.)
The last straw comes when he goes on a two day bender and doesn't call her, not once.
He's hardly slept in a week, recurring dreams and visions and flashbacks of horrible things he's seen and done have kept him awake. He just can't handle it. He can't stand being in bed with her and seeing that look on her face when they both wake up and he's breathing heavily, terrified. Or in the morning, when she just glances at him (she doesn't even bother to ask anymore if he wants to talk about it) as they make the bed. He can't deal with the sadness in her eyes when she realizes he's not going to open up to her.
So he finds himself with a bottle of JD and a shot glass in front of him at some shitty bar. It's one his buddy frequents, and though they haven't seen one another in a while, they sit together and drink in mostly silence. Puck drinks more than Josh. Puck drinks more than most people.
He buys a pack of stale cigarettes from a vending machine and chain smokes as he knocks back shots and tells Josh about his girl. ('My Rachel,' he calls her.) He talks about his job and where he lives and all the things he has now that he didn't before.
He talks about how it's not enough, how nothing ever feels like enough, not after all he's been through.
Josh was there, too.
He takes Puck back to his place and drops him on the sofa after that first night, and Puck has lost his phone somewhere along the way and can't remember Rachel's number. Josh leaves his buddy to sleep it off.
The next night, it's the same thing.
Josh eyes Puck wearily and gets told, in slurred words, to fuck off.
Rachel comes to a decision.
She's waited, worried, called hospitals and police stations. She's cried and screamed and literally yelled at herself for not stopping him somehow.
She cannot live like this.
Some stranger calls her on his phone and says it was found on some sidewalk in Brooklyn, and Rachel laughs (there are tears in her eyes) and arranges to meet this person to pick up his cell. The man is young, about 20, and hits on her immediately. She rolls her eyes and tells him she's no Mrs. Robinson, and the confused look on his face is so pathetic it's almost cute.
As she walks home from the Starbucks where she met the kid, she realizes that there are other men out there. There are men who won't keep her in the dark, won't make her feel like she's not enough. There are men who will come home at night and kiss her and be happy to see her like Noah was in the beginning.
And she doesn't care to know where he's spent the last two nights. He could have been with another woman, for all she cares. It's not her place. Not anymore.
There's a packed bag sitting by the door when he decides to come home. She's sitting on the sofa, and as soon as she hears the door open and close, she's rethinking everything. She wants to turn around. She wants to see that he's okay, that he's no worse for wear. She wants to hit him and cry and make him promise never to do this again.
She knows that even if that was a promise he'd make, he'd just break it anyway.
"Rachel," he says, walking over to the sofa to sit down next to her. She's wearing jeans and one of her own sweatshirts. She always wears his.
He wonders if they're all in the bag, packed up and ready to leave.
She will not drag this out any more than it already has been.
"I can't do this anymore," she says quietly, tears in her eyes.
He was expecting her to be pissed. He wasn't expecting this.
He probably should have. How far can you push someone before you break them?
"I can't..." She stops, pauses and takes a deep breath. "I can't keep giving myself to you and getting nothing back."
"Rachel, come on," he says, turning towards her.
Fuck. He can't lose her. She's all he's got.
"I'm just so tired, Noah. Don't you get it? It's exhausting, being with you. You're...you're a mystery to me, and I'm laying it all on the line. You know..." Her voice breaks and he grabs her wrist, holds it tight. "You know everything about me, and you can't even be honest with me about your past. I can't live like this." He's just staring at her, watching her cry. "Please say something."
He can tell she wants him to put up a fight. She wants him to tell her everything she wants to hear. She wants him to open up and let everything out and be the man she's always had this crazy notion that he is.
But he can't.
She sees his expression and knows he's not going to give her what she wants.
She sees in his eyes that he might not be able to.
"I'm done," she says, pulling her hand away from his harshly and standing from the sofa. "You need to go."
He watches her walk into the bedroom and close the door, and he doesn't know if he loves her (doesn't know if he's even capable) but he's pretty sure his heart is breaking anyway.
"Josh, I need a place to stay," he says into his phone, which was miraculously sitting on top of his bag. He doesn't know how that happened.
"I already gave you a place to stay."
"Come on, dude. Rachel kicked me out. Unless you want me sleeping on the fucking street, I need to use your couch," Puck explains.
Fuck. He's been walking around Manhattan with his bag slung over his shoulder for the better part of two hours, trying to decide whether or not he should go back to Rachel's place and fight her on this.
He's decided against it.
She was set in her decision, and as much as he hates it, he can't blame her. If he's being honest, he's surprised she even put up with him for this long.
And really, it's better that she realize all this now and kick him out, than drag it out until they're all fucked up even more. God, anything could have happened. God forbid she get pregnant or something. What the fuck kind of parents would they be?
(She'd be amazing. He'd be horrible.)
So it's for the best. It is.
He will not be the one to bring her down.
He doesn't want anyone to bring her down at all.
Rachel takes the day off work and lays in bed all morning, crying a little bit (why didn't he say anything?) and trying to tell herself she's better off. They were clearly blinded by their history, by the fact that they knew each other once upon a time. It tricked them into a relationship. She knows she put up with a lot more from him than she should have, and she probably wouldn't have if she hadn't known him as a 16 year old boy, known that he used to have so many redeeming qualities beneath the surface.
Or maybe she never knew anything about him at all. She's been thinking about that, too.
She takes the rest of his things, which isn't much, and puts them in her storage locker in the building, then texts him to tell him he can stop by sometime and have the super let him in.
She deletes his number from her phone, takes their pictures off the mantel, tucks the bracelet he gave her for Hanukkah into the back of her sock drawer.
She lays on her couch and watches The Way We Were and wonders if Noah is her Hubbell. Her biggest love, but not her true love.
She decides that tomorrow, she'll wake up, go to work, and get on with things.
Seven months of her life should not feel like this big a deal to let go of.
Puck opens and closes his phone over and over again as he sits on the couch, blankets rumpled beneath him and his elbow leaning on his pillow. Well, what has become his pillow. A cup of coffee appears in front of him, and he takes it in his hand.
"Just call her," Josh says.
"Puck, man, you love this girl." Puck looks over and intends to glare at his friend, but he thinks he misses the mark. "She puts up with you. Well, she used to. You think anyone else is gonna do that?"
"I don't think I want anyone else," Puck explains.
"No," Puck says, shaking his head. "I don't want to date anyone. At all. Relationships are bullshit."
Josh laughs and slugs Puck on the arm. "Spoken like a guy who's just had his heart broken."
"Fuck that. Look, I just can't...I can't give her what she wants. She wants to know everything, and I can't tell her. And she wants marriage and kids and...That's just not me."
"Whatever," Puck says, interrupting his friend. "I don't know what I'm talking to you about it for anyway. I'm taking relationship advice from a freaking bachelor."
"After I lost Sarah, I don't think I can do a relationship again," Josh explains.
Puck winces. He hadn't meant to bring up that sore subject. Josh's wife, Sarah, died of cancer a couple years ago. He certainly didn't mean to be disrespectful. Apparently he's just trying to push everyone away.
"Fuck. I'm sorry, man. I didn't mean..."
"I know you didn't," Josh says quietly. "Look, don't let me tell you what to do, but...You ever think that all this shit, all this stuff you carry around, just eats away at you because you never talk about it?"
Puck sighs. He doesn't need to be fucking psychoanalyzed right now. "Josh..."
"Judging by the way Rachel's supported you, been there for you, she's willing to do just about anything for you. All you have to do is get yourself right, and you can have her back."
"I don't know if I want her back," Puck says, and as soon as the words have left his mouth, he knows it's a lie.
Josh does, too.
"We've seen some fucked up stuff," Josh says needlessly. "You need to talk about it with someone. I don't care if that's me, or Rachel, or a professional." Puck doesn't say anything. Josh is probably right. "And if you so much as drink a beer while you're staying with me, I'm kicking your ass out, too. You're hell bent on ruining your life, and I'm not gonna fucking let you do it."
"What are you, my mother?" Puck asks angrily.
"No," Josh says, standing from his place. "But I'm pretty much the only one you've got, so if you wanna stay here, you're gonna listen to me."
Puck doesn't really know what to say to that, so he doesn't say anything. He figures that he should take what he can get.
He's already lost Rachel. He's not going to fuck this friendship up, too.
"No, daddy, I'm fine. I've just been working a lot, that's all," Rachel says.
They've been calling her three times a week since she told them she and Noah broke up. She's been trying to tell them that she doesn't need them to check up on her so much, but she doesn't even know if she believes it. She never told them that Noah ever moved in with her. She's glad about that now.
She misses Noah, the good times, sleeping next to him.
It's hard when you want something so badly but you know it's wrong, not right for you.
Then he asks her if she's talked to Noah at all, and she just sighs and tips her head back against the sofa.
"No, I haven't."
She wants to.
Far more than she should.
He hasn't had a drink in 5 weeks, and he doesn't even want to. He's been promoted at work, now lead mechanic, and that means slightly better hours and more money and he and the service manager are in charge of a group of staff, making schedules and all that kind of stuff. He kind of loves it, the added responsibility.
He's found his own place, a small one bedroom in Brooklyn, not far from Josh's place, so he's taken his stuff out of storage and set up furniture and all that. It's not Rachel's, nowhere near as nice as that, but it's something.
And he's started talking about shit a bit more. First to Josh, because Josh understands everything so well, knows what it's like to get on that big plane and go overseas and be stationed in some tent in the desert. Josh knows what it's like to lose your buddies, be caught in gunfire and deal with images of civilians...well, they're not such great images, let's just put it that way.
Rachel isn't in his nightmares any more, and when she is, they're at least in New York and he's reliving the moment she told him to get out of her apartment. He supposes that's just a bad dream, not so much an actual nightmare. It sucks, no matter how you put it.
He doesn't know how it's possible that he loves her more now that he's not even with her. That is to say, he's realized that he actually does love her.
That's something he eventually talks about with the psychiatrist Josh refers him to.
The guy is a retired Marine, with medals and flags and all that stuff on the walls of his office. He served in the Gulf the first time around, so he has a pretty decent idea of what Puck's going through, and he's not one of those douchey shrinks who's all about 'and how does that make you feel?' and shit. He tells it like it is, makes Puck really think about things, and he's pretty easy to talk to.
Puck gets pissed once and walks out, but he's halfway down the stairs towards the street when he realizes he's being a dick and walks back inside. Gene just laughs and tells Puck to sit down, and they resume their session like nothing happened.
"I just fuckin'...I miss her, you know?" he says one day during a lull in the conversation. Gene knows all about Rachel. He also agrees with her and actually, literally applauded her for kicking Puck's ass out. "I just fucking miss her."
"Do you want to see her?"
Puck thinks about it for a second. He remembers her face and her tears and how serious she was about them being over. He hurt her so much without really realizing it. Sure, he know there were things he was doing wrong, things he couldn't give her, but it never really registered. And she deserved (deserves) so much more than that.
Rachel is set up with a man through a friend at work.
He's charming, charismatic, funny, intelligent. He works on Wall Street and is a Yale graduate. He's gorgeous, all blue eyes and dark hair.
He's the perfect Rachel-man.
She dates him because she thinks that she should be dating. She should be out there. She's not getting any younger, and he's good to her. He calls when he says he will and cooks her dinner at his place. After two weeks, they still haven't slept together, and he hasn't pushed her, not at all. She thinks that's sweet.
He's not a rebound. She really thinks it could work.
He's sitting on the steps outside her building at 6:00 on a Wednesday, because he never did pick up his stuff from her storage locker, and he figures he should.
And now, after two months, he's ready to see her. He wants to see her.
He doesn't have the super's number anymore, and none of the people he used to know in the building have come in or out, so he's just sitting there in the humid evening air, waiting for her.
He should feel pathetic. He should feel like an absolute loser.
He's not exactly thrilled when he sees her rounding the corner with some tall asshole who's carrying shopping bags.
He watches the colour drain from her face when she sees him. He stands and wipes his hands on his jeans.
"Hey," he says nervously. He's fucking nervous. "I uh...I just..."
She turns to the tall dude and plasters on a fake smile. "Go ahead up. I'll be there in a minute," she tells him. He kisses her forehead and walks away as Puck looks to the ground, fairly certain that his heart is breaking. "Noah, I..."
"It's...whatever," he says, shrugging his shoulder. "Guess I can't assume you'd stay off the market long."
"I've only been seeing him a month," she explains softly. They're both thinking about how they moved in together only a couple months in. "What are you doing here, Noah?"
"I came for my stuff," he says. "I never got around to it."
"Right," she whispers. Her heart is beating in her ears. All she wants to do is forget about the dinner Jordan is making her and leave this place with Noah. "Now isn't...it's not a good time."
He sighs and rolls his eyes. "Rachel, I just want...Tell me you're not sleeping with that guy."
"I beg your pardon?" she gasps. "I don't think it's any of your business if I am."
(She's not. She's still not.)
He doesn't say anything, because he can't decide whether her answer means that she is sleeping with the guy, or she isn't. He doesn't know which would be worse.
"Can you just call me when you're around so I can get my shit?" he asks.
She bites her bottom lip and reaches for her phone. "I deleted your number."
It's like a punch to the face. "Harsh." She cracks a smile, but he doesn't know why. He grabs the phone from her and keys in his number. "It was good to see you, Rach. You look..." He looks her up and down again, her tight skirt, heels, and flowy tank top. Her hair is up in this twisty bun thing. "You look fucking beautiful."
He kisses her cheek, lets his hand linger on her upper arm, then walks away.
She watches him go.
(She breaks up with Jordan.)
(She's still in love with Noah.)
"For the love of god, just call the woman," Josh laments. They're watching baseball and it feels like deja vu. Only this time they're at Puck's place, and his phone is in his hand and it's been a week and a half since he saw Rachel at her place. "You're driving me nuts."
"I'm not going to call her. I told her to call me."
"You're shit awful with women, dude."
"I'm a fucking god with women, and you know it," Puck says, a smirk on his lips.
Yeah, he smiles more now, even though he feels like shit most of the time. (Just from missing her. He sleeps without incident 49 our of 50 times, and he's been talking with Gene and Josh more without feeling like an idiot for bringing up this shit he thinks about.)
"Whatever, man. You might be waiting a long time for that girl to call you."
"Thanks for the update, asshole," Puck mutters.
He doesn't wait long. She calls the next day, a Sunday, and he's so surprised to see her name flashing across his phone that he almost forgets to pick up.
"Noah, hi. I've just brought the box of your things out of the storage locker, and I have a whole day free. Would you like to come pick it up?" she asks as soon as he's said hello.
He knows what she's doing. She's trying not to get emotionally involved with this.
He's not going to let her get away with it.
"Actually, I was thinking...I could make that chicken you love. You could come over and see my new place."
She doesn't say anything for a moment. She can't believe he's actually inviting her over. He never did that before.
"I don't know if..."
"C'mon, Rach. One meal." He's practically begging. He's okay with it. She lets out a sigh. "Is it because of that guy?" he asks, and yeah, he just needs to know how serious it is.
"No," she answers quietly. "No that's...that's over."
He smiles. This is as hopeful as he's been in months, and certainly all week. She broke up with tall dude after seeing Puck. That has to mean something. It has to.
"Noah, I really don't think this is a good idea. I'm sure your place is lovely, but I..."
"Rachel, please," he says sincerely. "I just want to make you dinner, okay? You can leave before dessert if you want to. Please, baby."
He closes his eyes once he's realized he slipped up and called her that name he used to.
She's standing in her apartment with her elbow resting on that box of his things, a couple tee shirts, a football, some CDs, a stack of magazines.
One meal couldn't hurt, could it?
"What's your address?" she asks, reaching for a pen and piece of paper.
She shows up and buzzes up to his apartment, and she's impressed. The building is nice. Old, but nice. There's no elevator inside, so she takes the stairs to the fifth floor and she's out of breath when she gets to his apartment door. He laughs when he sees her and the look she's giving him.
"A warning would have been nice. Or perhaps a watering station halfway up."
"Maybe you're just out of shape," he teases, taking the box from her arms. He glances at her, her jeans and her cute plaid button down that he's never seen before and wouldn't expect of her. "Although..."
She actually blushes. "Stop it."
"Come in," he insists. He drops the box by the door and locks it behind them. She slips off her flats once she's inside the apartment.
It's decorated nicely, shades of gray mostly, which wouldn't be her choice, but it works here. There's a wall of exposed brick and a sofa that has seen better days. His guitar sits in one corner of the living room, and through another door she can see his bedroom, bed neatly made and no clutter on the floor. The kitchen is small, but open to the dining area, and it smells amazing, what he's cooking. She's not surprised. The table is set and he grabs a bottle of wine from the fridge, which makes her raise her brow.
She notices the way he smiles and shakes his head as he reaches for the corkscrew.
It's like he's a different person.
She leans against the counter across from him and watches him, the way his eyes seem brighter, his movements less heavy. He smiles at her as he passes her a wine glass, winks at her as he pours.
"You're different," she notes quietly.
"Uh...yeah," he says sheepishly. "I've uh...I've been working on some stuff, you know? Like...well, me, mostly."
She wants to start crying. She thinks their breakup pushed him to deal with his issues. She doesn't know whether to be happy and take credit, or to selfishly hate that she couldn't get him to do it when they were together.
"That's great," she says, smiling at him across the counter. He turns back to the stove and tends to their food.
They make idle chat. He asks about work, laughs when she complains a little bit about the 'amateurish' production she has to promote. He tells her about his promotion and his life, and she looks so proud of him that he thinks his heart might be beating so loud she can hear it.
He tells her about Josh (leaving out certain details) and how he hasn't had a drink in months. She smiles at that, but tries to hide it, and he can tell.
When they're done eating, they're sitting there at the table, and she's twirling the stem of her wine glass between her fingers, looking at it instead of him. Their plates are cleared and it's quiet, and the late-day sun is seeping into the apartment.
"Look, Rach, I'm sorry," he says before he can stop himself. "I know how...how I treated you, and it wasn't right."
She looks up at him and shakes her head. "No, it wasn't."
"I'm sorry," he says earnestly. She smiles and nods a little bit. He sees the tears welling in her eyes. "I...fuck. There's so much shit I want to tell you. Stuff I should have told you before, and now...fuck. Now you don't want to hear it."
She looks over at him and their eyes lock. "What gave you that idea?" she asks quietly.
He's never loved her more.
"Oh, I dunno," he says, grinning at her across the table. "Maybe the brutal breakup or the fact that we haven't spoken in months."
"Noah," she giggles.
He takes her hand across the table and then moves to sit in the chair closer to her at the end of the table. He brings her fingertips to the scar on his left bicep, the one she always used to trace when they were sitting together on her couch.
"I got this during basic training," he tells her. Her eyes go wide. "Fucking rainiest day in Texas history or some shit, and we didn't get the day off. I snagged it on a piece of barbed wire during some agility training."
"Noah, you were..."
"Special Forces," he tells her, eyes still locked with hers. "For 12 years."
"You didn't tell me," she says needlessly. "Why didn't you tell me?"
He looks down to the table, realizes he's still holding her hand and traces his thumb over her knuckles. "I saw a lot of stuff, Rachel, and...I hadn't come to terms with any of it. I lost...There was stuff that happened that...I'm really not proud of, and it was just too hard."
"But I would have..."
"I know," he tells her. "Fuck, I know that now. I didn't then." She takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. "But I want to tell you stuff now." She bites her bottom lip, and she's on the verge of tears, he can tell, so he squeezes her hand and she laughs tearfully. "I mean, if you're serious about hearing all my crazy shit."
She nods, uses her free hand to wipe away the tear that falls down her cheek, and when he says her name softly, she wants to tell him that she loves him, that she never stopped.
It's not that they're wrong for each other. They never were. The timing was just off. He needed more of it and she was begging him for things that version of himself couldn't give her.
This, him being so honest with her, so open, is like him telling her that he'll do anything for her, without him actually saying the words.
So when she leans forward and kisses him gently, it doesn't feel wrong or rushed. Not at all.
"I want to hear everything," she whispers against his lips.
He closes his eyes and lets out a breath, kisses her again. He wants so bad to tell her that he loves her. He wants to take her into his bedroom and make it official using the best way he knows how.
But it's too soon for that.
Right now, all he wants to do is talk to her.
He leads her to the sofa, sits down next to her and toys with her fingers, traces the delicate skin of her hand as he tells her all the things he was too afraid to tell her before. He loves her for listening.
She can't believe this is happening, really. He tells her about Josh and Gene, and he explains that there are still thinks he's not getting into with her yet, like the Smithson thing, and she holds his hand and tells him she understands. She's just happy he's letting her in at all. He tells her about training and living in Washington and his three tours of duty. He tells her about how when he left the Forces, he needed a place loud and distracting enough to keep him out of his own head, and New York seemed perfect.
Everything makes so much more sense to her now, and she's never, ever seen him so honest. She knows it is a big deal that he's doing this with her, for her. She loves him for it.
She stays the night, because they talk until well after midnight and he won't let her travel home alone. He sleeps on the sofa and she sleeps in his bed.
He dreams of her. A real dream. A happy dream.