Noah 'Puck' Puckerman walked through the halls of McKinley High School with unprecedented swagger. He had confidence oozing off of him, dripping onto the floor along with the drool from nearly every single girl he passed. He was like royalty in these halls, sometimes roaming them during class periods just to soak up the superiority he never felt while inside the classroom.
He'd never admit it to anyone, but he was glad to be back.
Winter break was three weeks of a long ass time, much of it spent in the accompaniment of his bat-shit crazy mother and annoying-as-all-Hell little sister. Every year it was the same thing, hours of time spent listening to his mother lecture on and on about the upcoming year and righting the wrongs of decisions past. Her dedication to their religion went into overdrive around Hanukkah, so much so that he had to beg Finn to lie for him one night when she smelled the pork from the BBQ joint they'd stopped by before coming back to his house to play video games.
"Sinner," Finn had jokingly muttered on their way upstairs to his room, resulting in a manly shove and a death threat growled in Puck's low timbre.
Sure, it was nice to get away and not have to worry about homework and tests and stuff, but since Puck didn't spend time worrying about those things to begin with, high school wasn't so bad. It was all about appearances, and he wasn't necessarily lacking in that area. It was only about 65 degrees in the school since the administration had tried to save money by keeping the heat off for as long as they could during break, but Puck was still walking around in his standard jeans and T-shirt. His guns were on full display, causing the ladies to swoon and the nerds to run in terror.
And run they should, as Puck made it his new year's resolution to make every single one of those snot-nosed dickwads pay for throwing him in the garbage last year. Mohawk or not, he was still one badass Jew with whom no one should trifle. He seriously considered going all Call-of-Duty on their pocket-protecting asses, but the threat of juvie (and maybe a little fear of J-Dog) kept his mindset relatively calm.
Besides, that incident was months ago; he had bigger fish (Karofsky was one seriously big fish) to fry. The second stringers – nicknamed that not only for their position on the football team but for how Puck envisioned their future – seriously needed an ass-whopping of the Smackdown versus Raw proportion. They were starting to run amuck on Puck's coveted turf, and he wasn't particularly down with sharing.
"Good morning, Noah."
Exhibit A: Rachel Berry.
"Sup?" He answered in practiced disinterest, involuntarily straightening his posture. His mother had pointed out to him the so-called reflex during temple last week, and ever since then he couldn't help but notice the truth in her words. Whenever Rachel was around – which was a lot over break; for her anyway – Puck had this innate urge to appear tougher. It seemed ludicrous (any tougher and he'd be a freaking marble statue), but it didn't alter the validity of his actions.
Something about Rachel made him act differently.
"I didn't see you in Health class earlier." Puck turned his attention to the wall opposite of Rachel's locker, the small clock showing that nearly half the day had passed already. One more class after lunch followed by a two-hour nap until Glee, and it would be time for football practice before he knew it.
"I see you're just as observant in 2011 as you were in 2010."
"And you're obviously continuing to aggressively seek mediocrity." Rachel rolled her eyes into the insult, forcing her locker shut with one hand while the other held her books close to her chest. "What happened to being nicer to your fellow Jews?"
"You've been asking that for the past two weeks. I thought you were intelligent, Berry."
"Clearly I have yet to learn my lesson when it comes to you, Noah."
She brushed past him before he could respond, though for the life of him he didn't know what he'd say. His go-to response was usually something crude mixed with a flair for immature or childish, but her quick retort had rendered him momentarily speechless. Rachel had a way of doing that to him, sometimes because of the massive amount of words she spoke (many of which were out of his vocabulary range) and sometimes because of the way she said them.
The latter was what was currently giving him pause, though.
Hadn't learned her lesson? Did she mean by continuing to talk to him in spite of his desperate attempt to appear apathetic (sometimes in a rude fashion) or did she mean something else? Something … more?
"Welcome back, midget!" Santana snarled as she passed the petite brunette, her perfectly manicured hand coming out of her cross-armed stance to knock Rachel's books to the ground. One of the Cheerios in training stepped on Rachel's packed lunch while another kicked a folder just out of Rachel's grasp, the flimsy material sliding all the way back to where Puck stood twenty feet away.
"Satan." Rachel addressed the Latina with practiced coolness, her voice neither quivering nor showing any emotion that might suggest Santana's words had been hurtful. The nickname, however, was one of Puck's and it didn't go unnoticed by him.
"You better be careful, Berry." Puck extended the folder out toward her, keeping a five-foot buffer between his body and hers. It was something else his mother had made note of, but he didn't have time to dissect that one. Again. "She'll cut you."
"I am not intimated by individuals who resort to violence in times that do not call for such behavior."
"Does that mean you condone violence in situations that do call for it?" He smirked at her agape mouth, pleased that he had not only managed to shut her up (a feat, no doubt) but also followed her somewhat convoluted sentence.
"There is certain merit to the modern male's attempt at sixteenth-century chivalry, coming to the defense of a damsel in distress." Rachel shrugged one of her shoulders, eventually coming to a stand.
"Whatever happened to you broads looking for the old-fashioned knight in shining armor?"
"Noah." The way she said his name sent chills down his spine, even when it came out in admonishment (as it usually did). "You have never been old-fashioned."
The smile that followed her remark was blinding, so wide and white that he almost had to look away. But he didn't. He didn't often get to see that smile, and he was even less often the cause of her happiness. So he continued to stare at her, lost in his thoughts about why he suddenly seemed to care about her happiness.
OK, maybe it wasn't so suddenly. There had been a brief time when her happiness had been his compass in life, guiding his decisions when he didn't necessarily trust his own judgment. Their relationship had been short – even by high school standards – but its effect on him had been long lasting. There wasn't a day that went by where he didn't think of one of their moments together, whether it had been their conversation in the restroom or the somewhat ugly breakup scene on the bleachers.
Her reappearance in his world had been somewhat unexpected, Rachel's perfect life with Finn and his less-than-stellar life behind bars two of many reasons he expected her to ignore him at all costs. Aside from glee, they didn't share any of the same friends. From his spot at the top and hers somewhat lower than the AV kids, he should have been able to ignore her completely. But he couldn't.
Again, something about Rachel made him act differently.
"Would it be old-fashioned of me to offer to buy you lunch?" He asked, presenting her with his arm just as he had done three weeks ago. If she remembered the gesture, she didn't show it. In fact, if anything, her smile widened as she encircled her arm into his and walked toward the cafeteria with him.
"I have been protesting to the board of directors for months to extend the range of alternative choices for those of us who have dedicated our lives to a healthier lifestyle, but unfortunately my protests have gone unanswered."
"Maybe you should try that duct tape thing again." She glared at him through the corner of her eye, stepping in line with him even though she clearly wasn't going to eat the hot dog or even the fries offered. "I'm just saying; it seemed to work the last time."
"I think you of all people would find less humor in the fact that Ken and Barbie were the opening act to what can only be considered our first loss at Sectionals."
"We tied, Rach."
She scoffed at him, clearly of the mindset that a tie wasn't good enough. And if Puck was being fair, the whole thing did smell of a pity win - a sad attempt by the judges to make everyone a winner. If Rachel had been given a solo, those fruits from The Warblers would have dropped out in embarrassment. She had the best voice in town - in many towns, and certainly bigger towns than shitty Lima, Ohio - and no amount of cuteness (Ken and Barbie's shallow attempt at the connection Finn and Rachel had last year during Regionals) or showmanship (Santana strutting around the stage during Valerie like she wasn't sweating bullets) could ever deny that.
"That's it?" He asked, watching her look down at the small plastic bottle of soy milk with a frown.
"I'm a cheap date." She shrugged her shoulders softly, adding the beverage onto his tray before looking around self-consciously. Puck momentarily wondered if she was looking for Finn, but let that thought slide for now. "Besides, milk – even soy milk - does the body good."
"How long you've been drinking milk, babe?" He leered at her, taking the notably lewd comment for what it was worth, covering her lithe frame with his eyes.
"Noah." There was that tone again, followed by her standard roll of the eyes and he couldn't help but chuckle. He paid for her "meal" and his, moving to a table all by itself so they could continue talking. Puck noted the look of trepidation in Rachel's eyes, and he knew what had put it there. He also knew she'd never ask.
Even after two weeks of somewhat civilized friendship, she still expected him to sit with the rest of the football guys and pretend that the two of them had just happened to be next to each other in line. He could see it in her eyes, watched as they danced around the cafeteria while, amazingly, her already small body seemed to shrink into itself. It was like she was trying really hard to vanish. To act like she wasn't even there … looking back at him with the purest brown eyes he'd ever seen.
"All the milk in the world isn't going to help your bones from caving in on themselves if you keep sitting like that, Berry." His concern was masked by the harsh tone of his voice, and Rachel wasn't the type of person who made things like this easy. "If I didn't want to sit with you, I wouldn't be here."
God love her, Rachel cocked her head to one side, confusion etched on her face. She looked like a small dog, her eyes wide and searching Puck's from across the table. In retrospect, he probably shouldn't have laughed, but he couldn't help it. For someone who no doubt could party with Webster, sometimes the sincerest of words fell on her deaf ears.
"I'm having trouble figuring you out lately, Noah."
Puck inhaled a sharp breath, his own posture straightening along with hers. She popped the tab on her soy milk, sticking a straw into the creamy liquid before wrapping her pink, pouty lips over the opening of the device. He might have been in the middle of a nervous breakdown, but he was still a dude; he wasn't going to miss any subtle attempt – by Rachel or otherwise – at seductiveness.
"What's to figure out?" He eventually asked, demanding she finish her previous thought even though the answer could kill him.
All winter break they had gone back and forth, one day they were friends and the next enemies. She had been as understanding and perfect as always, but it was him who was running so hot and cold. There was part of him who couldn't let go of his reputation entirely. His physical prowess was the only thing in the whole damn town that had a bigger reputation than his am-badass-ador status, and those two qualities combined gave him a free pass to circumnavigate the teasing and bullying associated with the glee club, and even its lead member.
But there was another part of him - not as small as he hoped but at least not yet big enough to ignore the other part - that didn't care anymore. There had been a point where he tried to make glee cool, but even laced cupcakes couldn't help the jolly band of rejects from stepping into the mainstream. Homo Explosion (in hindsight he really wished he hadn't thought of that name) was always going to be at the bottom of the pedestal. And, frankly, he didn't care about his slushie-free education anymore.
Because he craved her.
Printed sweaters, old-lady loafers, and obsessive behavior be damned, he wanted her. Not just what was hiding underneath those knee-high socks and short skirts, but the gentler stuff, too. He wanted to be the one who heard the soft murmur of her voice when spoken intimately, one on one. He wanted to be there when they won Regionals, her arms wrapping around his neck when she jumped up in joy. He wanted to be the one she stared at longingly from across the room.
"I'm still sorry about that," he whispered, his head hanging down in shame (whether he was more ashamed of his extremely wussy thoughts or the pain that coursed through her eyes was up for debate). Even if she had planned on answering him (which he was pretty sure she hadn't), there was no turning back from a Finn trance. In true Rachel Berry fashion, however, she recovered quickly.
"Don't be." She nodded her head once in determination, setting him at ease. "All you did was simply lend a supportive ear and refuse to turn down my initial – albeit vulnerable – impure offer." She blew out a quick breath, her eyes eventually moving away from the tall quarterback and back toward him. "Your actions both that night and since have been nothing but admirable, Noah."
Again he wasn't quite sure what to say, so he simply lifted a shoulder complacently and crumbled his napkin up before tossing it onto his tray. Rachel seemed to detect his sudden introspection, distracting her usually talkative self with the rest of her meal. Puck managed a full minute of inward panic before he was forced to smile over her loud slurping, his eyes rolling at her lame attempt to garner his attention.
"Unlike you, I spent much of my break evaluating my past choices and how I might come into the new year with a better perspective on how to not just succeed professionally, but personally as well."
"And what exactly do you think I was doing all break?" He asks, somewhat hurt by her insinuation that he wasn't capable of picturing a better life for himself. Of all the people he never expected Rachel to resemble, Quinn was certainly at the top of the list.
"Given the conversation I had with your mother at temple last Friday, I am led to believe my previous assumption is somewhat spot-on." Noah groaned at the notion of Rachel and his mother sharing a conversation. No good could come from that. "But your absence from Health class today is another prime example in my arsenal."
"Will going to Math later get you off my back?"
"It's a start." She stood then, her smile wide even as she walked the fifty feet away from him to throw their garbage out, taking the time to recycle all the available pieces into the correct bins. He watched with an amused expression as she sauntered back to their table (theirs because no dared to sit with them as long as Rachel was at the table). They were both so caught up in their own game of cat and mouse that they didn't see Karofsky come around the corner, a bright red slushie tossed right in Rachel's face.
"Glee!" He announced with a sardonic chuckle, slapping high fives with three other football players while the rest of the cafeteria echoed in uncontrollable laughter.
Rachel sputtered some of the sugary drink out of her mouth, lifting her tiny hands up to her eyes to wipe them free of the frozen residue. Her eyes met Puck's in a desperate attempt at a connection, the sorrow in his doing nothing to stop her sudden dash out of the cafeteria. For a split second he contemplated following her, but then he had a better idea.
"Karofsky!" His voice boomed in the large room, the cackles of the cheerleaders and leftover amusement from the rest of the student body quickly evaporating. The stout linebacker turned around, facing his opposition with calculated bravery even as Puck grabbed a nearby student's tray of food. Puck surveyed the ingredients for a complete meal with little interest, letting it all fall to the floor while he patiently walked closer and closer to the second stringer.
He turned at the sound of Finn's voice, one eyebrow lifting up in confusion at about the same time Karofsky's fist connected with Puck's right cheek. His giant friend quickly came to his rescue, pulling him up off the ground and away from the circling crowd and taunting doughboy. Teachers suddenly flooded the area from each entrance, Finn and Puck raising their hands in surrender.
"What is going on here?" Mr. Schuester asked, looking to Puck and then Finn. "Who started this?"
"He did, Mr. Schue! Honestly!" Finn pointed to Karofsky and his merry men, who were currently getting an earful from Coach Beiste.
"What happened?" This time Mr. Schuester looked to Puck for answers, but he didn't have any. He didn't know what had gotten into him, and he certainly didn't know why Finn had stopped whatever it was. "Why don't you both head to class early?"
"Yes, Sir." Finn obeyed their teacher's wishes, going over to the table he'd been sitting at with Quinn, Sam, Santana, Brittany and a few other "cool" people to grab his bookbag before leaving through the same door Puck had exited. "Puck. Wait up."
He did as requested, if only because Puck didn't really have anywhere else to go. It would be a cold day in Hell when he showed up to a class on time, let alone early. Besides, it was taking everything in him not to go search each of the girls' restrooms trying to find Rachel. And since he definitely didn't want to do that, he stopped.
"What's your deal, Finnessa?"
"How about some freaking gratitude, man?" Finn scoffed, adjusting the strap of his bookbag on his tall frame. "Unless your plan is to start the new year in juvie, then …"
"It's my business either way." Puck pushed back his friend, deciding a trip to the nurse might not be a bad idea, for more reasons than just a nap. His cheek was throbbing and a few doses of aspirin might relieve some of the pain.
"It wasn't worth it."
Puck stopped abruptly, turning to face Finn again in almost slow motion. His eyes were in slits as he evaluated his former best friend. They'd known each other since elementary school. They all had, in fact. It was a small town and they'd all gone to the same schools with the exception of Rachel. She had started elementary school in some special theater school, but had left during middle school in what she calls her attempt at a normal life. She now says the hardships that she's had to deal with since leaving her privileged education will only make her more versatile on stage, but Puck still couldn't help but wonder if she regretted it.
Finn was actually only a few inches taller than Puck, but he'd been that height since eighth grade. The basketball coach nearly came in his pants when they had come back from summer vacation and seen how much Finn had grown. That was probably the first instance of Finn outdoing Puck. Up until that point, they had been pretty even. They got along when they were younger because they were both boys and both the same age. They stayed friends because they actually had a lot in common despite all the obvious differences. There had been a time when they had balanced each other out, Puck getting Finn into a little harmless trouble while Finn kept Puck out of real legal problems.
But now they were older, and the things that held them together before just weren't cutting it anymore for Puck.
"What isn't worth it?" He finally asked, pleading with his eyes for Finn to (for once!) think before he spoke. If he dared say that it wouldn't have been worth it to smack that tray right cross Karofsky's round, pudgy face because Rachel wasn't worth it, then he and Finn were going to throw down. There was no bro code that could save him.
"Picking a fight over a slushie facial." Finn seemed exasperated, and Puck half-wondered if the tall teen was simply mirroring Puck's expression. "It won't change anything. You'll be sent to juvie and the same thing will happen all over again tomorrow."
"Well maybe that's the problem." Puck shook his head, wondering why everyone put Finn on such a high pedestal. If anyone really kept track of the number of times he chose wrong over right, they'd see he wasn't the saint everyone made him out to be.
"What the hell is your problem lately? Ever since winter break you've been acting like a dick to me and I don't get it. If anyone should be pissed, it's me."
Puck took a threatening step forward, stopping only when he saw Rachel step out of the girls' restroom down the hall. Her hair was pulled back into a high ponytail and she wore a pair of tiny black shorts and a form-fitting red T-shirt with McKinley written in black in the center. It was her modified gym uniform, both sexy as hell and adorable at the exact same time.
The definition of Rachel Berry.
"You have no idea how lucky you are."
His response came out in a growl, his words surprisingly accurate for the question Finn previously posed. King Hudson really had no idea how lucky he was, both at that moment and in life in general. Walking down the hallway, both reasons were staring back at him with a crestfallen expression.
"Don't worry your pretty little head off, Berry. I wasn't going to hurt your precious Finn."
"Finn is of little concern to me, Noah." Rachel shook her head, her hands coming to rest on her hips even though her eyes never left his. "I'm more concerned with the growing bruise developing on your otherwise chiseled face." She didn't give him a chance to respond, grabbing his hand and leading him down the hallway. They passed Finn with two entirely different looks, Rachel's a little more civil than Puck's. "Excuse me! Medic!"
The nurse came around the corner of the office, her eyes furrowed at the sudden outburst and following list of injuries (spoken in words usually left for reruns of ER). Rachel made the poor elderly woman show her some identification, eventually claiming that her lack of a white lab coat gave Rachel cause to assume the worst. Puck and the nurse shared a look, hers a little more befuddled than Puck's. After all, he was sort of used to Rachel's craziness by now.
There was little that could be done, but the nurse did give him the aspirin he was seeking before ushering both he and Rachel out of her office. She made one comment about him being "patched up" and then had taken up an odd bout of silence. It was nice being with Rachel, especially when you didn't have to mentally flip through a thesaurus to understand what the hell she was saying, but anyone who knew her knew quietness was a red flag.
"I leave you alone for five minutes …" she trailed off, shaking her head up at him. How a girl nearly a foot shorter than he was managed to intimidate him, Puck would never know. "What are we going to do with you, Noah?"
"I can think of a few things." His patented response came in handy this time, covering up his internal struggle between those two dueling parts. The bell for the end of lunch just rung and the halls were filling back up with their fellow classmates. Part of him itched to roll his eyes and remind Rachel that there wasn't a "we" where they were concerned.
But the other part wished that weren't true.
"Go to math."
"And then maybe?" He asked, happy she gave him a way out.
"And then I'll see you in glee."
Puck bowed his head, hiding the small smile that formed on his face. For all her insecurities, which could no doubt give her plenty of reason to cling to his popularity and demand his attention, she seemed to be sensitive to his sudden split personality. Her willingness to take things as they come was certainly new, but he was never more grateful for it than at that moment … on his way to math.