Disclaimer/Author's Notes: The title of this fic is from the Allman Brothers' song of the same title.
The High Cost of Low Living
Puck hasn't slept in three days when he runs into Rachel Berry in New York City of all places. Rachel can't believe how skinny he is when she runs up to him and gives him a big hug, and the smell of stale smoke and booze hangs on him. She steps back and looks at him critically, as only Rachel can, and says, "Noah... Come have dinner with me?"
The man grins, and though his body has changed, that grin is still the same one Rachel remembers from high school. "Sure," he says, with a shrug.
The two of them make their way to a small diner where Puck picks at his food. If Rachel's intuition didn't tell her before that something's wrong, his lack of appetite certainly does.
Much to her dismay, however, Rachel's fine-tuned probing skills are of little use against the wall Noah has built around himself. And after dinner, he leaves her confused and worried.
Three months later, a concert in Cleveland brings Puck face to face with his best friend from high school. Finn doesn't look any different. Still freakishly tall, and in really good shape for a dude who plays too many video games, and considers grilled cheese a food group.
The new manager has started cracking the whip, making sure Puck and his bandmates remain clean, and (at least mostly) sober. He throws away Puck's cigarettes if he catches him with a pack, and tells him that his voice and his guitar skills are the only things standing between him and being a pool boy in Lima, Ohio again, and that screwing his voice up with cigarettes makes him a dumbass.
Puck can't exactly say he's wrong, but nic fits suck.
Just the same, he does look better. So much so that Finn thinks Rachel must've been exaggerating when she called him 3 months ago to tell him how worried she was.
A year, and two managers later, while visiting the drummer in rehab, Puck rents a car to drive the two hours to Phoenix to see Quinn. Truth be told, he probably should've stayed at the rehab center... checked in himself. But he didn't.
He pulls into the driveway, surprised when Quinn's there. She's a guidance counselor, and he'd expected her to still be at school. He was planning to wait. That's when he remembers: it's July. No school.
Quinn opens the door when Puck knocks, and she almost doesn't recognize him. Dark circles under his sunken eyes, and a body that looks somewhere around 30 pounds too light for his frame are hard things to hide. Quinn asks him in, and he comes inside for a while, shifting nervously. She asks calmly, as only a guidance counselor can, when his last fix was, but he only shrugs, as if he doesn't know what she's talking about.
A few hours later, he rises from the chair and walks over to where she's sitting. Leaning over her, he kisses her cheek. "Goodbye, Quinn," he whispers, before walking out the door.
As soon as the door shuts behind him, the woman bursts into tears. Somehow, goodbye seems a lot more final when the one saying it looks like Puck did in her living room.
It's late fall in Cincinnati, and Puck and the band are back together again, after their drummer's release from rehab, and they're playing a show every night. This particular night, Puck's had a few too many drinks, and maybe a hit of something less than legal, but he's not saying anything about that one way or another.
When Santana and Brittany find him, he's got his arms around two girls who barely look legal, and definitely look drunk. Each of the two girls is trying to attract him more by out-slutting the other, and Santana rolls her eyes. Puck's a manwhore, and always has been, but with these two girls, she fears for what might happen if he got caught.
"B," she says to her girlfriend. "I'm about to say something, but it's not true, OK?"
"Why are you gonna lie?" Brittany whispers back, a confused look (one Santana has grown very used to) on her face.
"Because," the Latina replies. "Puck's in trouble, and we have to help him... So just follow my lead, OK?"
Santana crosses her arms, walking up to where Puck is all but hanging between the two groupies. She is followed by Brittany, who also crosses her arms. "Excuse me," she demands, in a tone that can be described as nothing less than fierce. "What the hell are you doing? That's my boyfriend!"
Puck is stunned to see her, and the shocked look on his face combined with the way he stammers, "S... San? What're you doing here?" only serve to further the charade with the groupies.
"That's MY boyfriend!" Brittany insists, glaring at the two girls, though not quite so menacingly as Santana had.
The two girls look at one another, then at Santana and Brittany. And while the draw of screwing someone famous is strong, the fear of the look on Santana's face is stronger, and the two girls get away from Puck quickly.
"What the hell are you doing?" Puck demands, shaking his head. "I was gonna get laid..."
"And probably arrested from the looks of them," Santana responds, sounding bored by the whole thing. That's when she realizes how messed up he is. His words are slurred... really slurred, and she shakes her head. "Come on, Puckerman,." she says, reaching out to take Puck's arm, more because she's scared he'll fall if he steps away from the wall he's leaning on than for any other reason.
Brittany takes his other arm before Santana realizes the girl is still following her lead. "Britt," she says, glancing at her girlfriend. "You can stop following now."
The band has just attempted an intervention when Puck runs into Mercedes in L.A. They're is missing more and more tour dates because of his habit, and they're sick of it. PR is lying for him left and right. He's sick. A major case of laryngitis. A cold. The flu. But none of it is true, and the fans know it as well as he does.
Mercedes knows, too. At least, the worried look on her face certainly makes it seem that way. Puck can't look her in the eyes, because the worry and disappointment just hurts too much, and he hasn't had his fix today. So dealing with the look she's giving him isn't top on his list of things he really wants to do.
"Puck, are you OK?" she finally asks, reaching out to touch his arm, which is surprisingly bony underneath the long-sleeved shirt he's wearing.
He gives her a weak version of the badass smirk he'd so often worn when they were students together, one eyebrow arching as he says, "Sure... Why wouldn't I be? I've got number one records and stuff..."
The woman's heart aches for the boy who'd once been so strong and handsome. He is a shadow of who she once knew, and she doesn't even know what to say. Awkwardly, he runs a hand over his shaved head. "I... I gotta go," he says finally. "Good seeing you."
As soon as he walks away, Mercedes hits Tina's number on speed dial.
Early May in Lima, Ohio, and Puck can't figure out what he's doing here. All he wanted for the time he was at McKinley High was to get out, move away from this cow town and make something of himself... Prove to the world that he wasn't a deadbeat.
But here he was, standing in the WMHS choir room, gently fingering the sheet music stacked on the piano. "Lights" by Journey's on top, and he can't help the faint smile. Some things really never change.
"Can I help you?" says a familiar voice behind him, and Puck turns around to face Will Schuester.
"Mr. Schue?" he replies, peering at his teacher through sunken dark eyes.
"Puck?" The older man is entirely caught off guard. Will Schuester largely ignores tabloids, and though he's seen several headlines involving his former student, his usual reaction is always to shake his head and laugh. Those people have no idea who Puck is...
But from the looks of his former student, the tabloids were kind in their description of the situation. If not for the voice, Will wouldn't believe this was Puck standing in front of him. His body looks weak, too thin... Will wonders briefly when the boy... er... man last ate. "What're you doing here?" he asks. "I thought you were on tour..."
"Nah," Puck says. "We're taking some time off... or something..." He doesn't mention that the time off is related to the fact that he can barely walk on stage and pick up his guitar, much less play it or sing.
"So, you just stopped by to say hello?" Will prompts, looking at his former student with a teacher's concern in his eyes.
Puck nods. "Yeah," he said. "I'll be back again, though. Soon."
Will certainly hopes so.
Six months later, the band is back onstage. Puck's habit isn't gone, but he's just gotten better at hiding it... Or so he thinks. The band's main concern is their shows, and he's making it through those, despite the fact that he resembles a strange scarecrow with a guitar.
As he yells into the mic in true rocker fashion, "Good night, Chicago!" he sees the dark rimmed glasses in the handicapped seating section. After the show, he fights his way through the crowd, blowing off the post-show autograph deal to find his boy, Artie.
"Dude!" he says, clapping his hand in Artie's. For the first time in months, Puck feels something. The feeling of brotherhood was always strong between the two of them in high school, and though his schedule had made it impossible to keep in touch, seeing Artie right now, Puck still knows that his boy has his back. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming? I would've let you in backstage and everything..."
"You're a tough guy to get in touch with," Artie says with a shrug. He doesn't let his worry show, though he's pretty sure if Puck loses 5 more pounds, a strong wind will blow him away.
"Look, I'm only here tonight, but... Do you wanna chill or something?" Puck asks. He doesn't want to lose the first feeling he's had in so long. He needs this time with perhaps the truest friend he's ever had.
Artie nods. "Why don't you just crash at my place? I'll make sure you get back in time."
The grin on Puck's face is genuine, and he grabs his stuff off the bus while everyone's occupied inside, heading to Artie's apartment.
Three hours, and a pot of coffee later, Artie and Puck are still wide awake. "Puck," Artie finally says. "You... You look really bad."
Puck smirks. "Thanks a lot," he quips, leaning back in his chair. "Millions of screaming chicks totally disagree, though."
Artie can't hide his grin. Puck may be way too skinny, and obviously addicted to something very bad for him, but he's still Puck. "Dude," he finally says. "Have you thought about rehab?"
"Sure," he replies. "The guys in the band told me I had to straighten out if I wanted to keep singing, so I... thought about rehab." He shrugs. "I'm not really the rehab type... But they kept telling me, 'Man, do it for the band. Do it for your friends. What about your fans, Puckerman?'" He's still smiling, but Artie knows better than to think there's any real joy in the smile.
"What about you?" he asks simply, eyes watching Puck's for some sign of a response.
"What about me?" comes the somewhat terse reply.
"Have you looked at yourself?" Artie's high level of honesty has been one of his biggest flaws at various times in his life, but he doesn't think this is one of those times. Puck needs to hear this. "Puck, you're falling apart... You look like you might die tomorrow..."
Dangerous dark eyes dart toward the man in the wheelchair. "I..." He's not gonna cry, because Noah Puckerman doesn't cry. What he is going to do is tell the truth. "I don't wanna die."
And his best friend has no intention of letting him.
A few phone calls to the right people (thanks to Santana's dad, who's a doctor), and Artie finds Puck a bed at a nearby rehab center. "It's up to you, Puckerman," he says quietly. "I don't want you to die, but you have to make this choice for yourself. The bed's yours if you want it."
The understanding woman on the other line gives him until eight a.m. to decide. In the end, despite the terror of detox, and the even bigger terror of living without his fix, Puck makes the call himself to accept the bed, then passes out from sheer exhaustion on the couch.
The bag of clothes (and smack) from off the bus is the only thing Puck brought with him, and Artie stands... or more correctly... sits beside him as he drops the last of his junk into the toilet, and throws away the syringes.
Dressing in clean clothes, thanks to a load of laundry done in the midst of the previous night's coffee drinking, Puck makes his way out of Artie's apartment, and the two of them go to the rehab center together. At the desk, the nurse has them say their goodbyes for now.
Puck claps his hand in Artie's. "I'll see you later, dude," he says. Then, more quietly, "Thanks."
Artie grins at him. "Always had faith in you, Puck."
"Thanks, man..." he replies. "I... uh... I'm glad you were at the show last night."
"Me, too," Artie replies, pushing his glasses up on his nose. "See ya later."
And for the first time in he doesn't know how long, he doesn't feel like "See ya later" is so much a hope as a promise.