A/N - Just a little one-shot action I had in my head for a while now. Don't worry, I'm still working on T.Y.M. Hopefully this will hold the faithful until then. Thanks to JannP for quickly betaing this little story of mine.

Canon - This is NOT part of the '7 Steps' universe and complies with current canon.

Disclaimer - No, I don't own Glee. Fox Network and Ryan Murphy beat me to it.

Sectionals 2011. It had seemed a far off thing for Rachel, even back when New Directions was competing at Nationals. This last year held so much drama, so much transformation for the group of twelve (now fourteen) students who comprised the show choir. She had gone through so much change herself, as well. Learning, growing, regretting and standing up for herself; each part of her current personality could be traced back to actions and events over the last year.

Most of them directly related to the tall boy sitting beside her.

She glanced over to him as he sat in the chair beside her, leaning back and doing something decidedly un-Finn-like that she was still having a hard time getting used to: reading. And not just the cursory kind of reading he used to do with books and assignments; this was intense reading. Like he was studying, almost, completely focused: with a serious expression on his face, eyes narrowed, wheels of his mind turning. And he wasn't focusing on a comic book (sorry, graphic novel…whatever) or the latest edition of Modern Drummer or Sports Illustrated. He was studying the program for tonight's show and trying, it seemed, to soak in the details for each competing group. They had drawn the last slot for the show tonight, which allowed them to enjoy the other two shows from the audience seats.

She gazed at him while he continued to read the program, oblivious to her stare. He looked so serious she had to smile. "Find anything interesting?" She teased as she bumped against his shoulder.

He shrugged slightly. "Not really. Warblers seem to be our biggest threat, but they're down five members and Blaine told me their new soloist can't hit the high B. Jane Addams Academy is doing some kind of Beyonce tribute and Mr. Schue agreed with me that that won't fly with this crowd. "

Rachel frowned. "Why not? She's a popular artist, isn't she?"

"Depends on the crowd," Finn said. He motioned around the auditorium with his hand. "If you look carefully, you'll notice most of the crowd here are parents and teachers and adults over the age of forty-five. It's not the type of crowd that's going to like modern pop music. And the problem both schools have is that they're same-gender groups that can't sing with any kind of male/female contrast. Only New Directions can give the crowd that kind of range differential, so I think we have an advantage."

The young brunette's eyes widened a little. Male/Female contrast? Range differential? Did Finn Hudson really just say those words together in coherent sentences? "That's…that's very insightful, Finn. How did you draw all these conclusions?"

Again, the tall quarterback shrugged. "Just applying my training. Study your enemy, learn their weakness..." He gave her his trademarked lopsided grin, which always caused her heart to skip a beat. "You know, all that stuff."

Rachel looked away quickly and uneasily, unsure what to make of this new, improved, and startlingly perceptive Finn Hudson. After Nationals in early June, she had declined his offer - no, plea - to get back together romantically. The torment and anguish of the previous year was still too fresh in her mind and she had decided her heart was too vulnerable to take a chance on him. In response to his own heartbreak, Finn had decided to join the National Guard in Ohio and left for his basic training during the summer. At first she had been relieved to not see him around Lima every couple of days, having fun instead with her own summer job teaching a music day camp at her synagogue, spending her evenings with Kurt and Mercedes, or just having some quality time with her dads. But gradually, she found her heart heavy as she noticed his absence more and more. Even after they had broken up, they had somehow worked themselves back into each other's lives, texting here and there, talking about Glee projects then having lunch at school while discussing assignments, or even her listening while Finn complained in his second attempt at a relationship with Quinn (she still didn't comprehend why he even thought it would work the second time around when the first time had been disastrous for him). She had tried for a long time to help him see her as she was, before her fiasco and poor judgment in kissing Puck, but it never quite worked; well, either that or Finn was just being obstinate. But with Finn gone every day and every night over the summer, with no communication from him whatsoever, she found her thoughts turning to him more and more, worrying and fretful about his safety, wondering about his state of mind, and hoping maybe, just maybe, they could try again when they did meet. It had been one of the longest summers of her life, and other than the occasional poignant conversation with Kurt, she hadn't received much in the way of any information regarding Finn or what he'd been doing with the Guard. When Kurt had texted her, after his brother returned and two days before school started, he'd warned her * This is NOT the same Finn Hudson.*

She hadn't believed there were any differences, other than obviously shorter hair and more muscular frame, when he had given her a big hug and kiss on the forehead upon seeing her during their first Glee rehearsal. They had gone for coffee afterward so he could fill her in on his summer. Rachel knew there were things about his training he left out, and though he mentioned being called into a 'hot zone' related to some natural disaster in one of the southern states, he refused to reveal the details. Then other little things began to make themselves apparent; he walked taller and with his shoulders back, he listened in classes and took notes on what the teachers were saying rather than relying on friends (her) for assistance. He jumped right in and took initiative whenever anyone needed help of any kind. When a group of juniors started circling a freshman around the dumpster to toss him in, Finn had walked right into the group and stood in front of the new high school student and told everyone else to back off. And there were five juniors around him, all of which he stared down. The most startling was when she received her normal almost-weekly-slushie-facial, courtesy of some new football player. Finn had actually grabbed the student by the collar of his shirt, hoisted him up off his feet, and slammed him into the lockers, then kept him pinned there with a forearm just under the guy's neck. He declared loudly that Rachel Berry was his friend and completely off limits for any kind of abuse. The student must have had the fear of God put into him by Finn and spread the word, because that was the last slushie facial she had ever endured in McKinley's halls.

This Finn was more focused, emotionally stronger, more confident, serious about his family and friendships, completely aware of his surroundings, and insightful about the situations in which he found himself. He no longer participated in any sort of school gossip, had dismissed rumours about his dating life by refusing to answer Jacob's questions, and simply shrugged off the fact the school paper declared his popularity was sagging. She watched in amazement as he immersed himself in all of his activities, whether it be football (they had only lost one game all season), Glee, drumming, or even his homework. And every fourth weekend, again, he disappeared for further work and training with his National Guard unit.

She'd never been more proud of Finn...and yet, never so unsure of herself around him, either. His confidence had also had the unfortunate side effect of giving him a slight aloofness. The signals she'd been sending like rubbing his shoulders after a football game, lightly touching him when they talked closely about something, hugging him everytime they met, and even snuggling into him when they had decided to go to a movie together last weekend had all been greatly appreciated by him-and returned-but he never took things further. He hadn't yet bent down to try and kiss her or asked any questions about the two of them possibly reuniting romantically. Her frustration was seriously starting to get the better of her.

Deciding to send another subtle (fine, not-so-subtle) signal to him, she linked her arm in his and squeezed it slightly. "So, who do you think will come in second?"

Finn smiled down at her, catching on to her implied belief that New Directions would win. "We will," he said without hesitation.

Rachel gasped and looked at him in shock. "You don't think we'll win?"

"Of course I do," Finn replied, his eyes dancing with mirth. "Our show is so epic, we'll get first, second, and third place. The Warblers and Jane Addams will have to settle for fourth and fifth."

She stared at him, dumfounded by the answer, then burst out laughing at his remark. Finn Hudson from two years ago would never have used a question like that to inject humour into the situation; instead, he would have looked confused, mulled over an answer, and then fumbled through his response. This Finn Hudson didn't have the same hesitation with his thoughts. Another sign of his increased confidence which, combined with his sense of humour, really made Rachel long to be back in his arms. "Alright, I'll admit that was funny."

Finn grinned. "Good. Always happy to make you smile."

Again, with the comments Finn would never have made before his summer with the National Guard. She shook her head in amusement before flashing him a thousand watt smile that was entirely false and cheesy, causing him to spill a bit of water from his water bottle as he laughed out loud while trying to take a drink. A few heads to turn in his direction, glaring at him for his sudden outburst, but they both dismissed it. The show hadn't even started yet, after all. "And I'm happy to return the favour," Rachel said then smiled more genuinely. Finn nodded in appreciation as he recapped the water bottle. "But you still haven't really answered my question, you know."

The tall quarterback sighed and leaned back in his chair, which Rachel knew was to actually stretch his long legs a little. He'd never been comfortable in theatre or auditorium seats, so he often leaned back to work out little kinks which manifested themselves in his thighs and hips. Once finished, he looked up to the ceiling, no doubt contemplating a satisfactory answer (she knew he knew she wouldn't just accept a straight answer without a reason). Finally, he turned back and regarded her seriously.


Rachel frowned at the one word answer. Children? I ask him who's going to come in second in this competition and his answer is children? What kind of answer is that? Rachel glanced back up to him curiously, with one eyebrow raised. "I…I don't…are you sure you heard the question correctly?"

"Mmm-hmmm," Finn replied quietly, nodding a bit but his eyes never leaving hers. "It's just taken me ten months to have the courage to tell you truthfully."

Ten months? I just asked the question two minutes ago! Is he on drugs? "Your answer makes no sense whatsoever. Are you sick? Do you have a fever?" Rachel made a slightly scoffing sound and pressed her wrist against his forehead, pretending to check.

He gently grabbed her hand and enfolded it in both of his, his eyes serious and staring straight through to her soul. She stilled, lost in the mesmerizing cinnamon gaze. "I was sick when you asked the question ten months ago."

Asked the question ten months ago? He was sick – HOLY CRAP! When he had mono! I asked him-

"You asked what I saw when I kissed Quinn." His voice interrupted her thoughts, even though he had lowered it so only the two of them could share in the conversation. "I said fireworks, which at the time, I did. Then you asked what I saw when I kissed you, and I couldn't answer because I was still too hurt and afraid to open myself up to you like that. So I tried to just shrug it off because I knew if I told you the truth I'd…I'd be trapped between wanting you with me and away from me at the same time. I wasn't ready then, but now…now I am. So that's my answer. When I kissed you, I saw children."

Rachel frowned a bit at the answer, looking into Finn's earnest eyes and trying to formulate a suitable response. This really wasn't how she had expected him to answer that question. She always imagined (or hoped) that the answer would be epically romantic, something which could lift her spirits and make her feel as though she were flying above the clouds. But Finn had never been one for grand romantic gestures. His were smaller, more frequent, more heartfelt gestures of affection rather than one individual action that could sweep someone off her feet. Rachel knew this and yet, when confronted with the reality of it rather than what she had imagined it should be, she couldn't help but feel a tad disheartened.

But it wouldn't do to let Finn see how his answer had disappointed her, especially when he was trying hard to be honest, so she gave a small smile and shrugged. "Well, that's certainly unique. I have to say though, no offense, that I never really saw a bunch of kids running around when I kissed you. "

"You're not understanding, Rach," Finn responded with a small sigh and swallowed. Rachel, for her part, had internally jumped for joy at the use of his pet nickname for her. He hadn't used it since he had left for the summer, and she had really missed it. She turned up to look at him, and Finn leaned in so close that their foreheads were almost touching. "I didn't just see children when I kissed you... I saw our children."

She couldn't help it. Her breath hitched in her throat and tears sprang from her eyes instantly while her heart hammered loudly in her ears and so hard it seemed ready to burst from her chest. Everything about that conversation from ten months ago, a conversation she had almost successfully forgotten, came flooding back to her; each and every detail she had questioned suddenly made sense. He had smiled goofily when she asked, his eyes lost in thought or memories, and yet he hadn't responded. She had assumed that meant there wasn't anything left between them and he was trying to let her down easy, but now she knew the real reason why. Admitting it at that time would have meant admitting the true strength of his feelings; feelings which had warred within him after their wounding breakup and time apart over Christmas. And Kurt had revealed that Finn hadn't talked about any of it with anyone in his family. He had kept it all inside, trying to hold back a river of emotions all alone. His behavior afterwards suddenly seemed almost understandable.

Without asking, indicating, or thinking about it, their lips suddenly met in what Rachel could only describe as the most honest, emotional kiss they had ever shared. Both were heedless of the others around them and her spirit ignited as she felt his lips against hers. It wasn't long or supremely passionate, like some epic screen kiss out of a movie, but it held all the promise, love, warmth and gentleness of the young man in front of her. It was all very Finn. And she wouldn't want anything else from it, because she knew in that moment that she was completely, undeniably and still utterly in love with Finn Hudson.

The pulled apart and their foreheads touched just as a rough kick was given to the back of both their chairs. They turned to see Puck sitting behind them with a small bag of popcorn in one hand and a large cola in the other, grinning like an idiot. "'Bout fuckin' time you guys figured it out. Shit, I could see this comin' back in September. Now do the rest of us a favour and watch the show, 'cause I don't want to be staring at you guys suckin' face all night. Capiche? "

Finn laughed a bit and turned around while Rachel quickly rubbed her tears away and glared at the mohawked teen. "Your timing and manners are atrocious, Noah. Thank you so much for ruining what was a beautiful moment between us. "

"Happy to help. Now quit your jabbering and watch some epic fail, 'kay?" He stuffed a too large hand of popcorn into his mouth.

Rachel sighed in exasperation but turned around and clasped Finn's hand in hers, their fingers finally, after far too long, entwining with each other in that same familiar manner. She looked up at him even as he glanced down at her. I love you! She mouthed silently, finally giving voice to feelings she'd buried but had somehow never banished.

Without a sound, he mouthed back I've always loved you. Always. The lights went down, and the Warblers came on stage to start the show. Rachel sighed in contentment and leaned her head on his shoulder, finally feeling as though every piece in the puzzle of her life had returned to where it had been a year ago.

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