Noah starts classes in September, though they don't really interfere too much with the time they spend together given that they don't get too much of that in the first place. He refuses to take a Monday night class and lose their one night together a week, and he does most of his homework on the weekends out of necessity and convenience.

Seeing how much he's enjoying his job and his classes just makes Rachel's own unhappiness with her job that much more stark. When Jessica excuses herself to the restroom just before a pre-show meeting and comes back in tears, whispering with one of the other chorus girls about 'maybe next month,' Rachel loses it just a tiny bit, and she leaves Lorelai a message at her office that night.

"I want to do something else," she says simply when the agent returns the call the next morning. "Something more, even if it's off-Broadway."

"Of course, Rachel, but Jessica-"

"Started her period last night," she interrupts flatly. She's beyond propriety regarding this situation; in fact, she thinks that she passed that point three months ago when she realized that she could time Jessica's menstrual cycle with uncomfortable accuracy. "Look, I'm not leaving Sunset until I have somewhere else to go, but I need to know that you're trying to find something else for me."

"Okay," Lorelai says simply. And that's that.

When he's there for the first time to see it, Puck decides that he really likes fall in New York, even if it is a fucking cliché. But the tree on the corner of his street is the color of the top of a bonfire and the air is crisp. Nothing slows down, because work is kind of nuts with the Connecticut project and he's about thisclose to being spread too thin between it and school and trying to spend some actual time with Rachel, but he kind of loves it.

Who the hell would have predicted five years ago that Noah Puckerman would be happy working his ass off?

Of course, he would be happier if Rachel wasn't bordering on miserable.

She's trying to keep it together, he can tell, but her cracks are showing. She's not really the type to pick fights and make everybody around her feel like shit, too, so when she comes home from work one Sunday night all fighty, he knows that something's up. Seriously, she picks a fight about the way that he hangs the towels in his bathroom, which is not only stupid, but not really any of her business. (That's part of the reason that they don't actually live together.)

He gets up earlier than usual the next morning, but instead of showering and getting ready for work, he calls in sick. He hasn't lied about being sick to get out of doing something since his freshman year of college, when he missed a deadline for a paper because he was hungover but managed to convince the professor that he had food poisoning. (Like no one's ever used that excuse before.) It isn't something he's going to make a habit of, but Puck thinks that having a whole day together can only improve her mood.

Rachel panics when she wakes up at 9:30 and he's still asleep beside her, grabbing his shoulder and shaking him roughly while hissing his name. "You're supposed to be at work!" she insists when he mumbles something into his pillow.

"Stop," he orders gruffly. "I called in."

She stops moving immediately, trying to slide her hand across his forehead to feel for a temperature, scowling when he bats her hand away. "What's wrong?"

Puck turns over onto his back and takes a deep breath when he realizes that now that she's up and asking questions, he isn't going to be getting any more sleep today. "You," he answers without thinking, shaking his head when she narrows her eyes. "I mean I wanted to be able to spend some actual time with you."

She starts spouting shit about personal integrity and work ethic - which he has, so whatever - but he's sort of distracted by the way she looks in her pale blue satin slip of a nightgown, her hair all wild from sleeping on it. He leans up on his elbows to nip at her shoulder, kissing along her collarbone and up the side of her neck until she's moaning instead of talking and letting him pull her over to straddle his hips.

If there's a better way than sex to start the day, Puck hasn't found it.

The thing about calling in sick when you aren't actually sick is that you can't go anywhere without worrying that the wrong person is going to see you. As such, Rachel thinks that they should spend the day inside his apartment and staying far away from anywhere that he might see anyone that he knows from work.

Puck is a badass at heart though, still, and he isn't worried about getting caught. They only have so many more days when being outside is pleasant, something you actually want to do rather than something you have to do to get places, and he wants to take advantage of them.

"I'm frustrated," she admits when they're walking through a park near NYU's campus. "I think I'm better than this, so it's hard."

"You just gotta be patient, baby." She scowls up at him, so Puck takes her hand, weaving their fingers together as they walk. "And you have to chill with the nitpicking, 'cause you're giving me war flashbacks." Her eyebrows furrow. "To living with Santana," he clarifies, snickering when she sends an elbow into his ribs and attempts, unsuccessfully, to tug her hand away from his.

When Rachel gets to the theater on Sunday afternoon, there's a letter-sized envelope with her name on it taped to her mirror in the dressing room she shares with three other girls in the chorus. Inside, she finds a photograph and a note written on a sheet of creased wide-ruled notebook paper.


I thought Noah might want to have this.


Rachel's hands are shaking when she picks up the photograph of Beth, all blonde curls and a bright smile.

For the last few months, Rachel has been able to separate her life into two distinct categories: personal and career. While her career isn't quite following the trajectory she'd like, her personal life is; her relationship with Noah is as stable as anything she's ever had. The idea that Shelby could come back again and potentially interfere with that is infuriating. She meant it when she told the woman to stay out of her life. Each time she comes back, something falls apart.

It's tempting to throw the envelope away and pretend that she never saw it. It would be so much easier to just forget about it.

Except, she realizes between the matinee and the evening show, for the fact that she wouldn't be able to forget about it at all, and if Noah ever found out that she lied again...she doesn't know that their relationship could handle another lie about Shelby

(She hates her mother more than she ever has in this moment. She was supposed to go away.)

Puck knows something's up when Rachel gets to his apartment on Sunday evening. She comes straight to where he's sitting on the couch and sits beside him, which she never does. She always goes to wash her face and change her clothes, claiming that if she sits down and gets too comfortable, she won't want to get up again. That shit's true, too; Puck's tested it a couple of times, and it's always been worth it, even when he had to listen to her bitch about sleeping in her makeup the next morning.

She folds her legs one over the other, sitting sideways on the cushion, facing him. "This was waiting for me when I got to the theater today," she says quietly, holding out an envelope.

Rachel doesn't watch his face when he pulls the photograph out of the envelope. To see the expression there feels too close, like she's intruding on a private moment. It's too much.

"She looks like Quinn," he says after a moment.

Rachel looks up and meets his eyes, shaking her head a little. "She looks like both of you," she corrects quietly. "But she certainly has Quinn's hair."

He can't quite name the look on Rachel's face. He's never seen it before, but he hates that it's there. It's almost like she's afraid of what he's going to say about this. "So, what? Shelby's stalking you?" he asks after a minute.

"Looks that way," she deadpans, then she sighs. "I told her to leave me alone."

Every time Shelby comes back into Rachel's life, Puck thinks about what he would do if it was his dad, and he's been sure of one thing each and every time: Rachel handles all the bullshit a lot more calmly than he would. "Fuck her," he says, meeting her eyes seriously. "You don't need this, and neither do I. I don't have to see pictures of her to know that she's better with Shelby than she would have been with me and Quinn."

Her heart aches. "Are you sure?" She still has Shelby's card, tucked into a copy of Mommie Dearest she picked up at a used bookstore on her bookshelf that she has no intention of ever reading. (She appreciates the symbolism.) Noah could contact Shelby, could build some sort of relationship so that he could at least see what his daughter looks like as she grows.

Puck stands up, dropping the envelope with the note and the photo onto the coffee table before taking Rachel's hands and tugging her with him. "Yeah."

Wednesdays are Noah's busy days. He has a three-hour class that he goes to immediately after leaving work, and he's always exhausted by the time he gets home. It's the one night a week that they never spend together.

That's why it's the day that Rachel chooses to drive out to Hartford to see her mother.

There are decorative heaps of sugar pumpkins and gourds on the front steps of the Morris house, which is just as impressive in the last light of day as it was at night, and a wreath hanging on the front door made of twigs and decorated with autumn maple leaves. Shelby doesn't seem at all surprised when she opens the front door and sees Rachel standing there with her hands tucked into the pockets of her long navy cardigan against the chill. It's strange, how calm she appears. "Rachel."

"How did you even know that Noah was in the city?" she asks in lieu of a greeting. She's beyond pleasantries with this woman.

"I saw you together outside the theater after I came to see the show," she answers simply. She steps aside a little. "Please, come in."

"No. I can appreciate what you were trying to do for Noah, and it's a lovely gesture, but it isn't something that he needs. He believes that what they did for Beth was the right thing, and that's enough for him."

Shelby nods. "I just thought that since I've been sending Quinn photos, I could do the same for Noah, but if-"

"You're in contact with Quinn Fabray?" Rachel interrupts, stricken.

"Quinn Foster, now," Shelby corrects. "She's married. She found me online a couple of years ago and asked if I would be willing to share some pictures. Twice a year, I put together an envelope and mail them, and that's all, but if that isn't what Noah wants, I won't do that for him."

"It isn't," Rachel agrees, forcing herself to speak normally. "And I meant it when I asked you to leave me alone." She takes a deep breath and looks Shelby in the eye. "I can't stop you from following my career and coming to shows, but I don't want to see you or hear from you. Not ever again."

She doesn't give Shelby a chance to say anything, though she does take her first two steps away from the door backwards to watch the woman's face. Her eyes are wide, her lips parted just a bit, and Rachel can see her chest moving as she takes shallow breaths. Once she's back in the car, driving out the fancy neighborhood, she wishes that she'd just turned around and walked away though; she's rather not have that expression burned into her mind, and now it's there for good.

They have Thanksgiving together just like last year, where Rachel orders stuff and cooks too much food, because as much as Puck wants to go back home for Thanksgiving - and yeah, he really does - he doesn't want to leave Rachel here alone, and she has a show on Friday that she insists she can't miss.

(Sometimes, he wishes that she was more selfish at the right times and would do something at the expense of someone else that would make her happy instead of helping her career or whatever else.)

It is different this year though, because Rachel invites Amanda, one of the girls from her show who just can't afford to go back home to Iowa for Thanksgiving, and Puck invites Lucas, one of the receptionists from Helmsley and Monroe who fucking hates his job but is sort of hilariously snarky, kind of like a male version of Santana. (Not living with her left a hole in his life, apparently, and he had to find someone to fill it.)

Since Puck doesn't have to work on Friday, he convinced Rachel to sleep in a little longer than she normally would. That's why he's super fucking annoyed when her phone starts ringing on her bedside table at seven fucking thirty. She sounds completely normal when she answers the phone, even though she's still just as asleep as he is. He has no clue how she does that, but right now, he just wants her to be quiet. They were up half the night working off their dinner (heh), and he needs sleep.

"I know it's early," Lorelai says when Rachel answers the phone, "but I wanted to give you plenty of time to call in and let them know that you aren't doing the show tonight."

"Excuse me?" She's half-asleep, yes, but she's pretty sure Lorelai just told her to call in to work.

"You have a meeting with a director about a new show this afternoon," Lorelai says, sounding a bit smug.

"What?" She pushes herself up into a sitting position, ignoring Noah's protest when the comforter shifts and exposes his shoulders to the cool air of the room.

"You've met her. Angela Chatworth, the Brit. She's bringing her revival of Closer to the states, and she needs an Alice. It isn't a musical, but it's a hell of an opportunity, Rachel, and you should at least meet with her, especially since she called me to ask about you."

"Of course," Rachel agrees. "What time?"

She hangs up after Lorelai has given her the details of this meeting (and she won't have to miss the show at all, silly woman) and looks down at Noah. His face is mostly buried in his pillow, and he has the comforter pulled up nearly to his chin now, but she can see that he has one eye open and on her. "I have a meeting with a director about a play," she says simply.

"That's great, baby." Early. He was supposed to get to sleep in, and it's early.

"A play that was made into a movie. A role that got Natalie Portman an Oscar nomination," she goes on, almost disbelievingly. Rachel is a singer before she's an actress, and now she's being sought out to play a very important part that doesn't require her to sing a single note. "I have to decide what to wear."

Puck can see exactly where this is going. "I like what you got on now," he offers lasciviously, though it isn't really a joke. She's in one of his white undershirts, which is almost completely see-through, and she has awesome tits. He slides his hand up her thigh under the covers, stopping when his fingertips hit the cotton of her panties at her hip. "The director dude'll love it."

"It's a woman," she informs him, laughing when he shrugs.

"Doesn't matter." He slides his hand up until he's flat on her stomach beneath her shirt, pushing her onto her back and fitting himself between her thighs, ignoring her protests. "When's your meeting?" he asks, nuzzling at her neck.

"Two." He presses his hips into hers and she feels his half-hard length against the inside of her thigh. "What are you doing?"

"Try'na do you," he mutters, pushing the shirt up over her head and dropping it off the side of the bed."

"But-" She gasps when he closes his mouth around her nipple, pushing her hand into the back of his hair. "I have to get ready."

He scrapes his teeth over her nipple gently, until her back arches like it always does. "You have hours," he points out, rolling his eyes when he sees the look on her face. "Fuck, I'll help you figure out what to wear."

She shifts her hips, letting out a breath when he presses against her center. "Without complaining?"

"Yeah, baby." He's like, two minutes from being inside her; he'll say anything.

When Rachel meets Angela Chatworth at a restaurant in midtown (wearing dark skinny jeans, cognac leather boots, and the cream-colored cashmere sweater that Noah loves so much), she isn't exactly sure what to expect. She doesn't really know what she wants out of the meeting either, honestly, other than that she always wants to make a good impression when she makes a connection with someone new.

Angela is a director that Rachel met ages ago through school, at one reception or another, and she's since seen the short film that Rachel did as a favor for one of Mike's friends nearly two years ago. It's apparently floating around on YouTube, and while Rachel hasn't made an effort to put it out there (and neither has Lorelai), that doesn't stop it from appearing when someone googles 'Rachel Berry.'

"Alice a charming, vulnerable character," Angela says once they've gotten past the pleasantries and are actually discussing the play. "Most of what we see of her is a lie, and it takes someone special to still make the audience love her."

Rachel thinks that means that Angela thinks that she could be that special someone.

Angela is bringing the show back to Broadway following it's West End revival, and save for the girl who played Alice, she's bringing the West End cast with her, including Jonathan Rhys Meyer as Dan. Rachel has to force herself to remain neutral when she hears that; she's quite liked everything she's ever seen him in, particularly August Rush (which she thinks is underrated), in which he plays a rather charming if misguided musician.

"I'm looking at a couple of other girls," Angela says candidly, "and I know that you're a singer, but I'd like to see you audition, if you're interested."

"I'm interested," Rachel says simply. She is interested, even if she isn't completely convinced, and she isn't going to let a bit of unsurity stop her from seeing what could come of this.

"Great. Jonathan's going to be in town next week, so I'll have my assistant call and schedule and appointment, probably Tuesday or Wednesday morning so you don't miss a show."

Rachel nods, not trusting her voice.

She's really just going through the motions on stage that night, not that the show ever really requires more of her than that. (That isn't to say that she doesn't give it her all every night; she does, because she respects the stage too much to phone it in.) It's just that she's distracted, thinking about next week and the copy of the play that's sitting in her bag in the dressing room and what doing this play could mean for her career.

"What if I do this and people forget that I can sing?" she asks Noah that night, scowling at him when he scoffs. She's sitting up in his bed facing him while he leans back against the headboard.

"Baby, people aren't going to forget you can sing," he tells her seriously. "You know what I think will happen?" he asks, reaching for her hand. "I think this is going to show people that you're a hell of an actress, too, and they'll want you that much more."

She bites her lip. "You really think so?"

"I really do."

Puck isn't going to tell her this, but after she left for her meeting this afternoon, he found her copy of the movie and watched it. He never would have said anything, but he really couldn't picture her doing a play instead of a musical, and he wanted to see what this was all about. Having watched it, he really does think that she'd kill it.

She moves so she's under the covers and curls into his side, pressing a little kiss to his chest through his tee shirt. "Thank you," she murmurs, curling her fingers into the fabric at his chest.

He drops a kiss to the top of her head. "Any time, baby."

They hire her on the spot.

They hire her on the spot.

Her audition with Jonathan Rhys Meyer (at some point, she knows she's going to have to stop thinking of him by his full name, but not just yet) is the scene from the bus for Angela and two of the producers. Rachel understands how important the casting for this particular play is, given that it's only the four actors, and she wants to be a part of it. The other three actors have been working together for nearly a year in the West End show, but their Alice got married and is trying to have a baby (a theme in Rachel's professional life, apparently), so they're trying to find the perfect replacement. It's intimidating, coming into this tight-knit group of people who are older and more experienced on the stage than she is, but, god, she wants it.

Apparently it shows, because they hire her on the spot.

She forces herself to walk a full five blocks away from Angela's office before she ducks into an empty doorway and allows herself a moment jump up and down and squeal (squeak, really) in excitement. It isn't at all how she pictured it, but she's just been cast in her first lead in a Broadway production. It isn't Fanny Brice or Elphaba or Maria or any of the other roles she's imagined playing, but she feels so amazingly perfect now that she knows that it's right for her.

She calls her father first, interrupting some meeting that he's in, though he isn't at all annoyed when she shares her big news. "I'm so proud of you," he tells her, and she can hear the tears in his voice. "You're going to be amazing, angelfish, and your daddy would be so happy for you."

She chokes back tears, not wanting to be the girl crying on the streets of Manhattan, but she knows that her dad is right. Her daddy would be happy for her.

She tells Noah next, calling reception at Helmsley and Monroe and asking for him, claiming an emergency per their agreement. (She feels guilty, lying like that, though he insisted that karma won't come back and 'bite her in the ass,' but this is their code. It's an emergency if she gets the part, and if she didn't, she was going to just send him a text message.)

"You got it?" he says when he picks up the line.

"I got it," she confirms, laughing though she doesn't know why exactly. Probably because she's so happy.

"I knew you would," he says, and he means it. He doesn't care who else was auditioning; he helped her run lines for this thing, and she's amazing. Pretending to be this Dan guy for her, he fell in love with Alice.

That wasn't much of a stretch though, given that he's already in love with Rachel, but he's pretty sure that everyone else is going to fall in love with her, too.

Rachel gives notice for Sunset Boulevard that afternoon when she gets to the theater. She's going to miss the people that she works with, but she doesn't think that she'll miss the show itself.

Rehearsals are going to start after New Year's with previews scheduled to begin in mid-March, which means that she'll have three free weeks, right at Christmas and Hanukkah, and another three months where she'll actually be able to spend more than one evening a week with her boyfriend. As much as she loves performing, and even though she knew exactly what she was getting into when she started pursuing a career on stage, she's so glad that they're going to get that time together.

Puck asks Rachel if she can get him a ticket to her last show of Sunset Boulevard.

"Don't you want to wait to see me in a show where I actually speak?" she asks.

"No." She frowns. "Rach, you've been doing this show for months, and I've never seen it," he lies. He doesn't feel bad about that though; it's pretty dumb when you think about it. She's been doing eight shows a week since June, and as far as she knows, he hasn't seen it once?

"Okay," she concedes after a moment. "But only because it's the last show."

He meets her after the show with a bouquet of white roses. "What did you think of the show?" she asks before he gets a chance to say anything.

He shrugs. "I was too busy watching the hot ass chorus girl in the back to pay attention to the story."

She just shakes her head and loops her arm through his to let him lead her towards the subway station.

(Truth? He liked the movie better.)

The first day of Hanukkah falls on Christmas this year, which is also a Sunday, which is perfect. Rachel and Noah make plans to go back to Ohio for a few days. Rachel hasn't been back in over two years, and she's dying to have a chance to spend a bit of time with her dad.

She has nothing but free time in the weeks that lead up to their trip, so Rachel throws herself into shopping for holiday gifts and making sure that she and Noah see everything that the city has to offer this time of year. They're Jewish, yes, but Rachel's daddy was raised Christian, and liking Christmas trees and window displays on Fifth Avenue doesn't mean they aren't proud of their heritage.

Puck likes going along with whatever makes her happy, really, because he can see how happy she is. It's a stark contrast to how unhappy she was before, and he'll do just about anything to keep her that way.

He makes the mistake of saying that to his mom on the phone when he mentions that he and Rachel went to see the tree at Rockefeller Center, and she makes this little noise and sighs, "Oh, Noah. You just love her."

Yeah, he does.

They do all of the first night stuff at the Puckerman house with Marlene and Abby, and Rachel tries to quash the guilt she feels about the fact she hasn't been around for the holidays for the last two years, and she hasn't been home for Hanukkah since she was still living in Columbus. She's also disappointed about the fact that she hasn't properly celebrated the holiday in years, not necessarily because she finds the ritual so important, but because she likes it. She'll take the festival of lights over Christmas any day (even if she does convince Noah that they need to drive around town looking at lights on houses; you just don't seem them like this in New York).

Puck's pretty sure his mom has made it her mission to get him to gain ten pounds in the four days they're in Ohio, and she's doing an awesome job. He knows how to feed himself and there are a million restaurants in the city, but nothing beats his mom's brisket and latkes.

Rachel goes home with her dad after dinner, and Abby leaves to go over to her boyfriend's house. (When the fuck did Abby get old enough to drive? Or to have a fucking boyfriend, for that matter?) Puck ends up sitting at the kitchen table drinking peppermint tea with his mom.

"This time of year must be hard for Rachel," she comments, looking at him pointedly over the rim of her cup when she takes a sip of tea.

Puck rolls his eyes. Subtle as a freight train. "Naw, she does all right." Actually, he knows that the days around when her dad died are a lot harder for her than the holidays. "She's really happy about getting started on this play next week."

"I watched that movie. Is Rachel going to be naked on stage every night?"

Puck scowls. "No. She said it's all about the suggestion or whatever, so she'll be up there in lingerie." Which he hates.

"I could come out for a visit when the play starts," she muses, looking at a spot above Puck's head. "See your place, see Rachel's play."

"I see where I rank." She raises an eyebrow. "Admit it, you like Rachel better than me."

"That just isn't true, Noah. She's a lovely girl, but I love her most for making you happy."

It's the sappiest shit he's ever heard, but his mom might be the only person on the planet who likes him better than Rachel, so he'll take it. And yeah, Rachel does make him happy.

Rachel wakes up a little after three in the morning in her childhood bed and can't fall asleep. She and Noah have been spending nearly every night together since he came to the city, and between being alone and the fact that this bed is less firm (and therefore less comfortable) than either hers or Noah's in New York, she can't get back to sleep. They're flying out this afternoon, and she really doesn't want to be exhausted on the plane, so she decides to go make herself a cup of chamomile tea rather than just tossing and turning.

(She's already thinking about next August, when her lease ends, and what it would be like to move in with Noah. That's ages away, but if things keep going the way that they have with their relationship, it doesn't seem too far-fetched.)

She's surprised to find her dad sitting at the kitchen table in his bathrobe and slippers with his hands wrapped around a mug, Rock Hudson curled at his feet.

He looks up when he hears her step into the room. "What are you doing up?"

"Couldn't sleep," she answers with a little shrug. "You?"

"Insomnia," he answers tiredly. "Sitting here awake is better than lying there awake." She nods, and walks to the stove to get the kettle, and it's still hot enough that she doesn't bother putting it back on the burner.

She prepares herself a cup of tea and carries it with her to the table, where she sits on the side adjacent to her father. "I'm sorry it's been so long since I've been home," she murmurs after a moment, fiddling with the tag on her tea bag instead of looking at him.

"Oh, angelfish. You aren't supposed to be here," he says gently. He's smiling a little when she hazards a glance in his direction. "I've known that you were on your way since you were five years old, Rachel. You're where you're meant to be in New York."

She swallows hard against the lump in her throat. "You really think so?"

"I really do."

She takes a deep, slow breath and nods, smiling a little when he reaches across the table to take her hand. "You know, Daddy always told me that there were great plays on Broadway that weren't musicals," she says quietly. "I think he'd be happy that I'm doing this one."

She hasn't said the words aloud, though it's been swimming through her mind since the moment that Lorelai told her about the opportunity. Daddy was the one who first gave her the film; it was his copy that she stole to take with her to OSU when she first went off to school. She knows that he was always proud of what she did, but this just seems...different, somehow. Like something special just between them, even though he isn't here any more.

Maybe this is what people mean when they say they can feel their loved ones looking over them.

"He'd be very proud of you," Dad agrees, squeezing her hand gently. "Well, except for the part where his daughter is playing a stripper."

Rachel dissolves in giggles at the words, which forces the tears that had welled up in her eyes down her cheeks, and before she knows what's happening, she's a laughing, crying mess, and her father is right there with her.

Rachel suggests that Puck spend his first New Year's Eve in New York in Times Square. "It'll be fun!" she insists.

Puck would rather cut off his left arm than be in Times Square with that many fucking people, and it doesn't matter how much Rachel pouts when he tells her that, he isn't changing his mind.

Honestly, he'd rather just stay in at one of their places, split a bottle of champagne and some pizza, and ring in the new year with an orgasm or five, but Rachel insists that they have to do something.

(Puck thinks she just wants an excuse to dress up. He knows that she's got some hot new dress hidden in the back of her closet that she bought back before they went back to Ohio, and she's itching for a reason to wear it.)

He finally agrees to go to this party that a friend of a friend of Mike's is throwing in some loft in SoHo. Rachel has an excuse to wear her dress (which is really fucking short, covered in silver sequins, and sexy as hell), and Puck probably won't have to deal with anyone that he wants to punch in the face.

Rachel spends the evening drinking champagne from a plastic flute and coercing Noah into dancing with her. (It's going to take a month to get through all of the sexual favors that she promises, but that makes the deal a complete win-win situation. She regrets nothing.)

He kisses her at midnight, slipping his hand into the back of her hair and pulling her against his body. "Happy new year, baby."

She stands on her toes to nip at his lips again. "Take me home, Noah."

He flat out insists that she get him tickets to the first preview of the play. She's been pulling this 'not until it's perfect' crap like he hasn't known her forever, like she didn't drag him into making the world's worst music video when they were back in high school. He's seen her look fucking ridiculous, way worse then she would be caught dead looking on a Broadway stage. There isn't anything she could do in this very first show that would top that shit.

"Fine," she finally says. She pouts until he kisses the look off her face, pressing his fingers against her through the thin cotton of her pajama pants and making her whimper against his lips.

Rachel's nervous on the night of the first preview. There's an entire audience of people with incredibly high expectations, and it's her show to ruin. The rest of the cast is perfect, and it doesn't matter than Jonathan told her that she's going to be exceptional, she's terrified of being the weak link.

She's surprised that knowing that Noah is sitting out there in the audience actually makes her feel better; she had expected that his presence would add to the pressure she felt. He's never seen her perform like this in person (seeing grainy videos of her college productions doesn't even rank), not in something so important.

She wouldn't call it perfect, but she's prone to nitpicking her own performances to death, and besides that, previews are designed to give everyone involved a chance to work out any kinks there might be, the sorts of things that only come up during a real performance.

One of the stagehands takes Puck back to her dressing room after the show. "You were amazing," he tells her when they're alone. He means it, too. And not only was she amazing, but he was into the show enough that it wasn't until about five minutes into the scene that it registered that his girlfriend was on stage in skimpy-ass lingerie and stripper heels for everybody to see. (Honestly, after running lines with her and seeing the play, he thinks it might be his favorite scene in the whole thing, however bizarre that is coming from the boyfriend.)

He's impressed with her right now, completely.

(It isn't the first time.)

She wraps her arms around him, pressing her cheek against his chest and breathing him in. "Thank you."

Later, once they're in bed in her apartment, he presses his chest to her back in the dark. "Thanks for finally letting me come watch you," he murmurs against her ear.

She turns her head to brush her lips against his. "I'm really glad you were there," she admits, bringing her hand up to graze her fingertips over the back of his neck the way that always makes him shiver.

It's wonderful, sharing this with him. It makes her feel...everything. Noah makes her feel everything.

Sometimes, a show opens in previews that seem to last forever before it has an actual opening night (hello, Spiderman), but this production isn't like that at all. Previews begin in mid-March, and it's never even suggested that they might be extended beyond the originally planned mid-April official opening. It's fortunate, because despite her warnings, both her father and Noah's mother have booked flights to and hotel rooms in the city for that week, insisting that they be at her first offical show.

When someone from the theater's ticket office stops by her dressing room one afternoon to ask her what, exactly, she needs for opening night, she surprises herself when she asks for five tickets. One is for Noah, of course, and one for each of their parents.

The other two go into an envelope with a note that says This changes nothing.

There's something about taking control of the situation, inviting Shelby on her own terms instead of wondering if the woman is going to appear out of nowhere again, that lifts a weight off her shoulders that she didn't even know was there. And it really doesn't change anything; she still isn't interested in having a relationship with Shelby. She doesn't even want to see her.

Noah smiles when she tells him, leaning over to press his lips to her temple before taking a sip of his beer and looking back to the hockey game he was watching when she came in and sat down beside him.

She loves him for not making a big deal of it, because it isn't a big deal.

"'Rachel Berry is as compelling an Alice as the stage has ever seen,'" Puck reads aloud from the review in the post the next morning. He skimmed past all the boring bits about the staging and the director and the Irish dude, focusing in on her name. "'Her inclusion in the cast makes the new Broadway production superior to the play's stint in the West End.'" He grins when she snatches the paper away from him, but sets his hand on her cheek to make her look at him. "They love you."

"I can't believe it," she murmurs. She's truly in a state of disbelief. It feels incredibly surreal, her name in print like this.

She watches him turn away from her, reaching over to pull open the drawer of his bedside table. When he turns back, he's holding a Sharpie and a Playbill. "Can I have your autograph before you get to famous and important to give it to me?"

She pushes him onto his back with a laugh, straddling his hips and kissing him so good it pulls a moan from the back of his throat. "I'll give it to you," she teases, leaning back to pull her nightgown up over her head. He isn't totally kidding though, and after she's had her way with him, he insists that he needs her autograph.

She does eventually sign her name on the Playbill, but not until she's written it on his skin over his heart.

(He wonders if she realizes that her name has been written on his heart for years now.)

A/N: That's the end, kittens! I cannot offer enough thanks to everyone who read this story, and I do hope that you enjoyed it. If you're so inclined, I'd love it if you told me what you think. If not, thank you anyhow for coming on the journey!