I don't own anything except my mistakes.
I might also be responsible for Rachel's somewhat less highstrung vocabulary
(because, let's face it, I'm just not good enough to write tirades like that!),
but that might also just be a coincidence. ;)

A/N: This was supposed to be a short one chapter-story but as usual, Rachel talked a bit too much and Puck acted out and… It ended up a lot longer than expected.
For the readers of "Time Heals all Wounds": Don't worry! It's still being written! This is just a little something I had to get out of my system. ;)

As always, Anna, I couldn't do this without you. You're the best BETA ever. Love you!

Part 16 – unexpected saviours:
They arrived to school the way they usually did, nowadays: in his truck, him opening the door for her and kissing her on the way down. He always took advantage of her body pressed up against his own, even if it was for just a few seconds. He made them count!

Her cheeks always seemed to be slightly flushed when they entered school grounds, and his eyes were filled with more than his usual cocky challenge. They held a smile that made people treat him differently. Less like a dumb jock and bully and more like an intelligent human being that might actually have a care. Like he was grown up. He noticed it, not only at school but at home and during practices too.
So maybe people didn't flee before him as they used to, and a few of his former victims actually dared to meet his eyes every now and then, but he didn't really mind.

His grades were slowly going up, his mom spoke to him as if he was man enough to make his own decisions (fi-fucking-nally!) and his sister had taken to kissing him goodnight, something she'd stopped doing when she was four and he'd growled at her in a particularly menacing way when she tried.
He liked it that she had taken it up again. Made him feel like someone to be counted on.
As if maybe, just maybe, he wasn't destined to become a carbon copy of his dad after all.

…and it wasn't like he didn't know who was responsible for the change in him.

So when he picked her up after class, to take her to lunch, he actually came from class too. Meaning that he was a little late. Just a minute or so, but that was enough, apparently because there she was. Tiny, toned body in an atypically un-schoolgirl-esque outfit consisting of a pair of black slacks and a fitted tee, her brown hair cascading down her back… and dripping with crushed ice and purple corn syrup, that had been unceremoniously dumped over her head by a laughing Karofsky, cup still in his hand as he carelessly spat out his final humiliation of the girl:
"Freak! Where's that pussy, loser-boyfriend of yours now, huh?"

He saw red.

"I'm right here, fuckface… And we'll see about the pussy, because I'm about to rip you your own."
His voice was a deep rumbling and the hallway cleared magically as everyone suddenly stood pressed up against the lockers when his fists clenched and his eyes started blazing in that way every single WMHS-student knew just too well. All hell was about to break loose, but just as he was about to punch Karofsky's nose in he was shoved aside by Sue Sylvester who caught the hockey player by the lapels of his jacket, slammed him up against the locker and started talking in that strangely lilting, nonchalant way of hers.
"Why, Dave Karofsky. How's that bed wetting problem of yours working out nowadays? I seem to remember you crying like a little girl when you were supposed to go to hockey camp. It was pathetic, really!"
Karofsky's face blushed crimson and his mouth hang agape in a very unbecoming manner, which Sue immediately took advantage of.
"Close your mouth. You'll catch more flies than normal if you keep it open and in that case you won't be hungry for lunch. Come to think of it, that might be a good idea, because I seem to have caught you accidentally dropping your slushie on Rachel Berry here and were I to believe that it was on purpose… I might have to bring you to the principal's office. It would probably get ugly and you would most certainly miss lunch. Probably lose that scholarship too, that you are so dependant on…"
Sue cocked her eyebrow at him and sneered in her patented way before she continued:
"…but I am sure you were JUST about to apologize for your lack of common coordination… since I guess it's not your fault you're dumb as a sack of bricks and just as good looking, and that you'll make sure that there is never another accident like this one again. In school or elsewhere. Am I right?"

A mortified Karofsky had no other options than to ask Rachel for forgiveness, and while most anyone else would have taken the opportunity to embarrass him further, Rachel just nodded and said
"I forgive you."
before she watched Karofsky slink off towards the cafeteria. As soon as he'd left, Sue spun around, taking off in another direction, but not before her eyes drilled into Rachel's and she casually spat out.
"I'll see you at Cheerio practice on Tuesday. Santana will set you up."

Part 17 – trying out new grounds:
Santana was angry for all about fifteen minutes. She'd known about the Cheerios needing fresh blood for quite some time, the need especially pressing since Quinn didn't seem as motivated as before, and she had to admit that Rachel Berry, no matter how annoying, had crossed her mind as a possible candidate. She would have suggested it, too, if she'd thought Sue Sylvester would have ever listened to advice.
It was logical, really! The tiny diva probably weighed less than a regular size Chihuahua, which meant she could easily be hauled to the top of a pyramid (unless she was scared of heights. And if she was, she'd have to work through it. Sue Sylvester didn't take no for an answer, unless it was followed by a death certificate or a medical proof of a gender change. Santana wasn't even sure those would help.) and since Berry was a dancer she'd probably learn the steps rapidly.

That's how Rachel Berry found herself with her own arms linked with Santana's and Brittany's after English Lit-class on Tuesday, something that made carrying her books rather difficult – but she managed.

Santana casually struck up her conversation with the one thing everyone gossiped about.
"So… You and Puck, huh?"
Rachel blinked and stammered something unintelligible, but that didn't matter because Santana didn't wait around for a reply on Rachel's part. She just prattled on about Cheerio practice, the uniform and every now and then, she paused to explain something to the blonde girl on the other side of Rachel.

Spotting Puck at the other end of the hallway, Santana stopped. Unfortunately, Britt wasn't as quick on the uptake and as she kept walking, she made a half circle back again. She almost pulled Rachel with her, making the two dark haired girls stand eye to eye as she finally ceased her moving with an "Oh! Guys, we stopped!"
Santana shook her head and rolled her eyes, but there was a smile on her lips when she told Brittany off, and then turned to Rachel again.
"Be fifteen minutes early for practice. We'll get you a uniform. And before you ask… No, you don't have to wear it to school. We usually do, because… you know – it IS a cheerleader uniform and most of us aren't freaky enough to prefer weird argyle jumper sets and pleated skirts, but since I guess YOU do… You're allowed. Any questions?"

Rachel couldn't even remember how to spell her own name, the confusion of suddenly becoming a cheerleader and being spoken to by Santana Lopez too fresh in her mind, so Santana just snagged her phone from her hands and programmed it to hold her number as well as Brittany's.
"There. Call if there's anything. We're like… friends now or whatever. Oh. And Britt doesn't always remember how to answer her phone so don't worry if she doesn't pick up. Ciao!"

Puck laughed out loud as the cheerleaders left a dizzy looking Rachel standing in the middle of the hallway, her face a perfect image of bewilderment.
"Hey babe. Made some new friends?"
He caught her around the waist and spun her around, kissing her soundly before setting her feet back on the ground. They walked hand in hand to the cafeteria, talking about everyday things and never even noticing the way the hallways cleared before them.

They didn't know it, but they were quickly becoming the school's new power couple.

Part 18 – bumps in the road:
He hung around the gym after football practice, passing time by checking his mail and updating his facebook-status via his phone while he waited for her, not wanting to admit that he was a bit nervous on her behalf. He knew she'd be a little later than him, since she had to try out her new uniform and undergo Sue Sylvester's rigorous training, not to mention the try-out session that had proven enough to make many tough girls cry.
He hoped Sylvester would be in one of her almost-human moods and that Rachel didn't take it too hard if she failed.

He shouldn't have worried. She exited the gym wearing a Cheerio uniform, a heavy Cheerio bag on one shoulder and her school bag on the other. On her face, a huge smile that only grew wider when she saw him waiting for her.
"Noah! It was so much fun! Miss Sylvester said I was, and I quote 'almost half decent, and if it weren't for the sloppy landings, I'd remind her of a young Sue Sylvester'! According to Santana, that's more praise than she's given anyone since Quinn tried out!"
He was proud of her, and he told her as much, while he gave her the bouquet of flowers he'd picked up at the gas station before football practice.
It wasn't exactly the prettiest bouquet she'd ever seen, its flowers slightly droopy from having being stored under the seat of his car (because he didn't want her to see them before he knew how it had gone) and the colours kind of washed out from having stood too long in the same water, but to her, they were more precious than gold.
Her eyes were glittering with tears and happiness, all at once, as she got up on her toes and kissed him.
"Thank you, Noah. No one has ever believed in me, the way you do!"

He just smiled and said "Ditto, babe."

It wasn't until after he'd dropped her off at her door (the goodbye-kiss came as naturally as breathing now and he didn't even try to press the matter anymore, because he knew she wouldn't have it. He also knew he'd see her soon and that kissing would only be part of the fun, so he was not complaining in the least. Not even when Rachel's neighbour, old Mrs Tierney stuck her head up over her hedge and coughed loudly until they separated.) that he even reflected on the fact that, once again and this time without even aiming for it, he had a Cheerio girlfriend. Or, you know. Whatever she was?

The thought that stuck in his brain wasn't the first, as you might have thought, considering his hormones and history. It was the latter.
Was this the real deal? And in that case, did she think so too?

His mother cringed slightly at the sight of her son's frowned forehead and squared jaw. They were never good signs, but he just nodded at her, mussed his sister's hair and hung his jacket by the door (as in "did not just toss it to the floor, in the hopes that it'd magically hang itself or get hung by his mom.") before he went upstairs, saying he had to do homework.
The Puckerman women stared at each other in disbelief.

He felt like he needed a break, so after he'd done his homework (yes. He actually did do them.) and taken a trip to the mall for a few errands like getting a slushie, buying dip and investing in a new set of earbuds for his iphone plus a few more stops here and there, he turned his phone off, before he drove home and spent the evening shooting aliens on his X-box and thinking.

So when the following day came, Rachel was a bit antsy.
He swung by, same time as always, and their rituals played out the same way they had since he'd started taking her to school in the morning. They sat comfortably in silence for all about ten seconds before she anxiously asked him why he hadn't returned her calls. He just shrugged and told her that his phone had been out of juice.
They could both hear the lie in his voice.

She said nothing else during the ride and by the time he pulled into the parking lot, the air in the truck was pretty tense. He turned to her and smiled while hastily caressing her cheek, but the smile didn't quite reach his eyes.
"Listen, babe… It's nothing. Kay?"
She offered one of her most radiant fake smiles and assured him that she was just fine, and that nothing was wrong at all. He nodded and got out of the car, but before he got over to the passenger side to lift her down, she was already on the ground.
He cocked an eyebrow and grinned at her.
"In a hurry somewhere?"

"No, I…"
She fell silent and they entered school awkwardly hand in hand, while they both wished they knew what the other was thinking.

Part 19 - staking his claim:

Just as they reached her locker, Puck finally tossed caution to the wind. He caught Rachel around the waist and pulled her into his body and away from the streams of students that flowed into through the doors.
"Fuck. I was gonna do this later, but I'm shitty when it comes to waiting."

Ice cold terror flew through Rachel's veins. She blamed herself. She should have known it was too good to be true, but she just hadn't thought it'd go down like this – not in public (he'd pretty much chosen the heaviest populated spot of WMHS and during rush hour too…!) and most certainly not after she'd been picked to be a Cheerio and Karofsky was out of the picture… She braced herself for the big break-up scene but was taken aback completely as he kissed her softly and when he spoke, she had to pause to understand what he was saying, because despite her excellent grasp of the English language, the words just didn't seem to compute.
She stared wordlessly into his eyes, the lump in her throat keeping her from any kind of coherent reply aside from the slight nod she offered him while she tried to ignore the audience that buzzed around them, all the curious eyes and ears that were on them as he let go of her hand and dug his hand into the pocket of his jeans.

Inside Rachel's head, four words played themselves on a loop. "I will not cry". So far, she was doing good, her facial expressions blank and her eyes not giving away the discomfort and sudden loneliness that she felt. If she'd been able to speak, no one would have known.
"Fuck. I should have paid more attention in English class…" he chuckled, hands dug deep into his pockets and shoulders squared, while his hazel eyes searched her face for something… She just didn't know what.

Just as she was about to scream or beg him to please end it, he nudged her towards her locker.
"Just… Open it?"
She hesitantly started twirling her combination into the lock, thankful for the excuse to turn her back on him and the curious crowd that seemed to never stop gathering. When her locker door swung open, her jaw dropped.
Inside the confines of the metal box was a single red rose and a small package wrapped in shiny white paper, gold stars all over it. Noah's arms snaked around her waist as she stood silently, just watching the contents. She spun around.
"You knew?"
"Well… You're my girlfriend, right? Of course I know it's your birthday."
His smile was like a sunrise after a storm and suddenly, she didn't care who was watching. Her lips found his and her tongue met his in a heated kiss that made him groan low into her mouth, and caused his hands to dig into her ass, pushing her towards him.
They were interrupted by Santana's voice, loudly ringing out just behind them.
"Get a fucking room. …but open that present first, B! I wanna know what he gotcha!"

Rachel felt light headed and realized that she'd forgotten to breathe, but she turned back to the locker, obediently unwrapping the small present, careful not to damage the beautiful wrapping paper.
As she finally got the paper off, she held a small paper box in her hands and inside it, on a bed of white cotton, laid a small but delicate gold star on a gold chain. She held it up towards the light and admired the way the light caught in the one small pearl that was embedded in the star pendant and yet again, she was left without words, only for a completely different reason.

She could feel Noah's arms tensing up around her waist and she understood. Spinning around towards him, she allowed her tears to fill her eyes as she grazed him with a 100% natural smile, more radiant than any of her Broadway ones. He laughed, with happiness and relief, at the sight before bowing down to kiss her lips lightly and take the necklace away from her, fastening it around her slender waist instead.
"Noah… I am…"
"Speechless? And in public too, never thought that'd happen!"
He winked exaggeratedly at her and she couldn't help but laugh at his silliness before they both grew serious again, their eyes locked and his hands in her hair, one of her hands resting lightly on his cheekbone and the other touching the gold star that hung just below that hollow at the base of her throat that he loved to kiss, as if she was afraid it'd disappear if she lost contact with it for one second.

"It is the most thoughtful thing anyone has ever done for me, Noah. Thank you!"
He kissed her again, then, his eyes liquid and a ghost of a smile on his lips still when he raised his head and looked her straight in the eye.
"It reminded me of you, Rachel."

Part 20 – the end:
His way of saying her name was more than a word. It was little short of begging. Almost a prayer, but not quite. It sounded, to her, mostly like a plea. As if he were somehow appealing to her better judgement, but she figured that her better judgement had left her all those weeks back when she'd agreed to teach Finn a lesson by being the arm candy and pretend girlfriend of Noah Puckerman. The lesson, it turned out, was more likely to be one of their very own while all thoughts of Finn were left behind like a faded memory.

It didn't feel like pretending anymore. In fact, it hadn't for a very long time. Maybe it never did.

His eyes were sincere when he held her close, looked her in the eye and whispered sweet little nothings. She was almost sure he said that he loved her, as his fingers gently touched hers where they rested on the gold star, but she kind of shook the thought off. There was just no way – her ears and her mind had to be playing tricks on her.
Teaming up to make her feel even more confused than before.

But then, there it was again, his soft lips descended on hers and his breath was a hot caress on her skin as he kissed her gently and breathed out, again
"I love you, babe."

If this was a dream, Rachel Berry thought to herself, then no one dare pinching her because she really didn't feel like waking up. She captured his big strong hand in both of hers and drew a little heart on his skin with her fingernail while she tried to compose herself.
It took all of her breathing exercises and all her voice training to keep her voice still and even, as she met his gaze and smiled.

"I love you too."