Title: Da Capo

Pairing: P/R

Rating: M for language and sexual content

A/N: Based on a prompt from page 75 of the PR Drabble Meme Part 9. AU where there is no Finchel engagement. Rachel is disturbed at Puck's comment that he would either be dead or in jail in 2030, and talks to him about it. Also uses a photo prompt (link in my profile) as well as a couple other prompts that I don't remember the page numbers for. Please note, in this story Finn and Rachel are not engaged and Puck never slept with Shelby. I can only handle so much character assassination.

Disclaimer: I don't own anything. No copyright infringement intended. All mistakes are mine.

Da capo – in music, to repeat the piece from the beginning; to start again.

"Noah, could I talk to you for a minute?"

Puck looked up from his guitar to see Rachel hovering in the doorway, her hands wringing together nervously in front of her despite the look of determination on her face. He knew there was no denying her, but then again, when it came to Rachel Berry, there never was.

"Sure," he replied, setting down his guitar. "What's up Rach?"

She quickly entered the room and sat down in the chair next to Puck before looking nervously around the room. "I-" she began, licking her lips nervously. "I wanted to talk to you about what you said in Glee the other day… when Mr. Schuester asked us where we saw ourselves in 2030." She watched his face for any reaction, but Puck remained studiously blank. "What you said was… concerning to me. Do you really believe that, Noah? That you're either going to end up in jail or dead?"

Puck said nothing, but Rachel could see a muscle flexing in his jaw. Hesitantly, she reached out and wrapped a hand around his forearm, squeezing gently. "Because if you do, I know you're wrong. I know you're going to accomplish far more than that."

Finally she saw a flicker of emotion cross his face. He gave a derisive snort, his eyes flicking over to meet Rachel's. "Then you'd be the only one," he told her quietly. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm nothing but a total fuck up. A born and bred Lima Loser."

"Don't say that!" Rachel's eyes flashed, her hand squeezing his forearm more insistently. "You are not a loser, Noah Puckerman. You are a good, talented person. You shouldn't talk about yourself like that."

"Why not? It's the truth," Puck snorted, a self-loathing sneer on his face as he jerked away from Rachel and stood, pacing to the other side of the choir room. "I fuck everything up until I've got nothing left. I couldn't be what Lauren wanted, so she dumped me. I thought I had a chance to be a part of Beth's life, but then Quinn went all crazy and I tried to make it right but Shelby still took off without a fucking word. I got laid off at Sheets N' Things and I tried to go back to my pool cleaning business to make some money and help my mom out with bills and shit, but I can't even do that right because I don't want to be the guy that sleeps with cougars anymore." He ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "So now things are tight at home and there's nothing I can do to fix it. My mom tells me I'm no better than my fucking deadbeat father every time I disappoint her, which just makes me so pissed that I do something stupid and I disappoint her all over again." He spun back around to face Rachel, who was sitting frozen in her spot. "I've got no job, no relationship with my daughter, and a mother who thinks I'm no better than the asshole who ditched us. What about that doesn't say loser?"

Rachel felt the tears pricking behind her eyes, her heart aching for the broken boy standing in front of her. Ever since he prevented her from getting an ill-advised rhinoplasty, she and Noah had developed a quiet friendship. They may not have spoken much at school, but they spent time together at Temple and even occasionally would go out to eat afterwards. She knew she could depend on Noah if she needed him, and she had thought Noah felt the same about her. She thought she knew him, but how had she been so blind? How had she not noticed how much he was struggling?

"Noah…" she began then trailed off, unable to force words past the lump that had developed in her throat. Swallowing hard, she continued. "I'm sorry."

"I don't want your pity," Puck cut her off with a shake of his head. "And I don't want your guilt." His eyes met hers briefly before glancing away. "I know how busy you've been, how much you've been juggling. Applications, auditions, running for student council, Finn proposing."

"You know about that?" Rachel exclaimed, her eyes flying up to meet his.

Puck nodded. "He told me he was going to ask. Said that he had nothing special in his life and that asking you to marry him was going to fix it." His lips kicked up in a half smile. "Not gonna lie, I kind of wanted to hit him. Nothing special in his life, my ass. He has you, doesn't he?"

Rachel could feel herself blushing as her lips quirked up involuntarily at his subtle compliment. "He said the same thing to me and Kurt," she admitted softly. "That he had nothing special in his life," she clarified, seeing Puck's look of confusion.

Puck snorted. "He's an idiot," to told her bluntly.

"I told him no," Rachel confessed, needing to tell someone. "I love him, but we're too young to be engaged, much less married. I still want New York, and he doesn't. I told him when we got back together that I was going to New York next year no matter what, and he's given no indication that he wants to be anywhere else but here. If that's what he wants, that's fine, but I'm going to New York and never looking back. Not even for him. My dreams, my life, are not in this town." She looked up at Puck. "Does that make me an awful person?"

"Fuck, no," Puck told her emphatically. "You'd be an awful person if you gave up your dreams to stay in this town with him. You've wanted New York and Broadway forever; you should go get them. Don't let anybody or anything keep you from your dreams, Rachel. You're motivated enough to have them. Never give that up."

"You could come with me," Rachel offered, standing and walking towards where he stood. "There are so many schools in the city. You could apply and get in; we could take New York by storm together."

Puck shook his head. "I don't have the money or the grades for college. Besides, I don't think I'm cut out for higher education."

"Then you could get a job!" Rachel insisted. "You could work during the day and at night you could play your music in bars and clubs for scouts and your adoring fans!"

"Why do you care so much?" Puck wondered with a laugh.

"Because you're my friend, Noah," Rachel replied. "I know I've done an awful job of showing it lately, but I care about you. I know you're meant for more than a life spent in jail or a life spent in this town. I don't want to come back for our high school reunion and find out you're dead or in jail. You're better than that."

Puck was quiet for so long that Rachel began to worry that she had offended or angered him in some way. He was looking down at the floor, his hands shoved in his pockets. She was about to apologize when he lifted his head and met her gaze.

"I overheard Finn talking to Mr. Schue a while ago," he said. "He was telling him how he wanted to join the army like his dad. This was before he found out that his dad had PTSD and killed himself and thought that meant his dad was a coward and a loser, obviously," he added with a roll of his eyes. "But anyway, it got me thinking," he continued, his gaze returning to Rachel, his eyes catching hers and holding. "I could do that – join the military. It would give me direction, discipline; a purpose. I could channel all this – this stupid anger that I have – into something useful. I could stop being a burden to my ma – I could help her out, you know? It would get me out of this fucking town," he added with a bitter laugh. "And it… I could do something with my life, you know? I could be a part of something good, something important. I might still end up dead, but at least my life will have meant something." He looked at her. "What do you think?"

Rachel inhaled shakily, holding her tears at bay. She looked him in the eyes – eyes that were clearer, more vulnerable, and greener than she'd ever seen – and managed a tremulous smile. "I think," she whispered, taking a step towards him, "that your life already had meaning. I think that you're more important than you realize. I think that you mean something. I think that the idea of you being in danger terrifies me." She took another step, close enough to feel the heat radiating from his body. "I think that you are a brave, responsible, good person." She lifted her hands and pressed them against his chest, feeling the warm, solid muscles flex under her touch. "And I think that if this is what you want, then I'm so incredibly proud of you and I will support you all the way."

Puck's arms banded around her in a tight embrace, pulling her body flush against his. "Thank you," he whispered, his face buried in her hair.

"I mean it, Noah," Rachel spoke into the fabric of his black shirt, her hands bunching the fabric. She leaned back to meet his gaze again. "If you need someone to talk to, I'm here. I'd like to know what you decide."

Puck nodded in understanding. "The same goes for you, you know." At her questioning gaze, he smirked. "I want to know what big-time program is lucky enough to get you. Deal?"

Rachel smiled. "Deal."

Puck glanced over her shoulder at the clock. "Cool." He unwrapped his arms from around her body. "I gotta go pick up my sister from gymnastics, but I'll catch you later." He scooped up his backpack and guitar case and strode towards the exit. Reaching the door, he turned back. "Hey Rach?"

She looked over at him. "Yes, Noah?"

He smiled; a real, genuine, warm smile. "Thanks for caring." Then he was gone.

Rachel remained rooted to the spot, a bittersweet smile twisting at her lips. "I'll always care, Noah," she whispered into the empty room.

It was the middle of April when Rachel practically flew into school, hurrying through the hallways until she spotted the familiar Mohawk she was looking for.

"Noah!" she called, quickening her pace until she reached him. Almost at a run, she jumped into him, trusting him to catch her and wrap his arms around her waist, supporting her weight as her feet kicked through the air and she practically vibrated with excitement. Her arms locked around his neck, uncaring of the paper clutched in her hand that was now crushed against his back. "I got in!" she exclaimed gleefully.

Puck set her down and looked at the beaming smile etched on her face. "Where?" he asked, reaching for the paper and smoothing it out.

"NYU's Steinhardt School of Music," Rachel told him. "They have a fantastic program for musical theater, and they offered me a scholarship! Can you believe it?" she asked, looking up at him with sparkling eyes.

Puck grinned. "Of course I can," he told her. "You're awesome. It's about time the rest of these fuckers figured that out." He grasped both her shoulders, ducking down so that they were at eye level. "Seriously, Rachel. Congratulations. I'm proud of you."

She beamed up at him, throwing her arms around him in another hug. "Thank you!" Stepping back, she glanced down at her watch. "Excuse me, Noah, but I have to go find Finn and tell him the good news before classes start. I'll see you later!"

Puck watched her as she took off down the hall to find her boyfriend, the smile on his face fading. Heaving a sigh, he shouldered his backpack and headed for the guidance office. He had a decision to make.

At lunch later that day, Puck anxiously scoured the cafeteria looking for Rachel, frowning when he couldn't find her. He stopped at the usual gleek table. "Yo, Hummel, you seen Rachel?"

Kurt looked up at him, an expression of mild surprise on his face. "No," he replied. "I haven't seen her all day." He looked at Puck suspiciously. "Why are you looking for her?"

"No reason," Puck said with a shrug. "Later." He exited the cafeteria and headed towards the choir room. Peeking in the window, he saw Rachel sitting at the piano in her blue sundress, her fingers moving slowly over the keys.

"There you are," he said, pushing open the door and heading towards her. "I've been looking everywhere for you. I…" he trailed off when Rachel jerked around in surprise, her face wet with tears.

"Hey." He moved closer, gently tugging her up off the piano bench and standing with his hands on her upper arms. "What's wrong? Did something happen with NYU?" His hands moved soothingly up and down her arms.

Rachel relaxed into his hold, her forehead leaning briefly against his warm, solid chest. She inhaled a shuddering breath, taking in the mix of Old Spice and subtle cologne she associated with Noah, drawing strength from his comforting scent. "I told Finn I got into Steinhardt," she murmured into the soft material of his olive t-shirt. "And he broke up with me." She felt Puck stiffen against her, his hands halting in their rhythmic stroking. "He told me that if I was so intent on leaving him then there was no point in delaying the inevitable. He said that if I was so selfish that I put my dreams ahead of our relationship and his feelings, then we were over. He dumped me, right there in the middle of the hallway, and walked away without looking back."

She pulled away from Puck, looking up at the ceiling as she wiped her cheeks with her hand. "And it's stupid that I'm so upset over this, right? I knew it was coming. I knew we were going to break up before I went to college. But it still hurts," she admitted, the tears continuing to fall.

Puck smiled sadly, his hand reaching up to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. "You guys were together for a while. You loved him. I think it's normal for it to hurt."

Rachel nodded. "I guess… I guess I thought he wouldn't begrudge me my dreams. I guess I thought he'd want me to achieve my goals, just like I want for him. I thought he'd want me to be happy."

Puck took her face strongly in his hands. "He's a fucking asshole for saying that shit to you, Rachel. You are not selfish. Finn's just pissed that you want more from life than to settle down in Lima and have his kids while he runs Burt's tire shop. Don't you dare let him make you feel guilty for wanting what you want."

"Thank you, Noah," Rachel whispered, her hands coming up to loosely clasp around his wrists. They remained in that position for a few moments before Rachel slowly pulled away.

"Enough about my drama, Noah," she said with a wry chuckle. "Why were you looking for me?" She turned away to lower the lid of the piano.

"I met with a Marine recruiter today," he told her. Rachel stiffened momentarily, then turned back to face him.

"And?" she asked, attempting to keep her voice casual.

"And I enlisted," Puck finished, his voice calm and sure, sounding more mature than he usually was. "It's the best fit for me."

Rachel exhaled shakily. "What did your mother say when you told her?"

"I haven't yet," Puck admitted. "I wanted you to be the first to know. Besides, I'm 18; it doesn't matter what my mother thinks."

She nodded, taking a step towards him. "When do you leave?" she asked quietly, her eyes clinging to his.

"The day after graduation," he replied, his voice just as quiet.

Rachel nodded again, staring at him for another moment before throwing herself into his arms. "I'm proud of you, Noah," she told him fiercely, her arms wrapping around his back and squeezing tightly. "But I'm going to miss you so much."

Puck closed his eyes and rested his head atop hers, breathing in the tropical scent of her shampoo. "I'm going to miss you too, Rach," he admitted. "So fucking much." He tightened his arms around her, his hands stroking softly up and down her back.

"What the hell?" came Finn's angry voice from the doorway, causing Puck and Rachel to jerk apart in surprise.

"What do you want, Hudson?" Puck asked, turning to face his former best friend, arms crossed in front of his chest.

"I want you to get away from Rachel."

"Whether I'm around Rachel or not is really none of your business," Puck pointed out calmly, feeling Rachel come to stand next to him though his eyes never left Finn's. "She and I are friends. That has nothing to do with you."

Rachel felt her heart warm at Puck's casual confirmation of their friendship, but she could tell Finn was not impressed.

"You told me you'd stay away from her!" he cried accusingly at Puck. "I should have known you wouldn't wait long to make a move. You've always wanted my girlfriends. I bet you just couldn't wait."

Puck bit back a sarcastic retort about people wanting what they can't have (which was, after all, the story of every Finn/Rachel breakup) and settled instead on grinding his jaw so hard he thought he was going to break a tooth.

Rachel laid a calming hand on Puck's bicep before glaring at her ex-boyfriend. "You are completely out of line, Finn!" she told him, her body and voice vibrating with fury. "Noah wasn't making any kind of move on me. He was congratulating me on getting into NYU and encouraging me to follow my dreams, something you couldn't be bothered to do." She glanced at Puck, her gaze softening. "He was telling me how much he was going to miss me."

Finn's lip curled in a sneer. "Of course he's going to miss you. You're going off to New York and he's going to be stuck in this town, cleaning pools and stealing people's girlfriends. That's all he's good for. He's a loser, Rachel," he spoke as if Puck wasn't standing right there. "Don't waste your time on him."

"You're a dick, Finn," Puck told him bluntly. "You dumped her because she got into NYU? You knew all along that she was leaving! And yeah, I agreed not to try and get with Rachel, but I never fucking agreed to stop being her friend. She's fucking amazing, and if you're too blind and consumed by your own shit, then you don't deserve her."

"Neither do you, Puck," Finn shot back. "You can pine after her all you want but you don't deserve her. You can't be in a relationship! Girls may want you for sex, but that's all they want. That's all you're good for. You support Rachel's dreams because you don't have any of your own. You're a loser, and that's all you're ever going to be."

Without a word, Puck shrugged Rachel's hand off his body. Though Rachel could see the tension and anger radiating off his body, he silently walked past Finn and out of the room, not even sparing a glance towards the other boy. Rachel went to follow, but paused when she reached Finn.

"You couldn't be more wrong about him," she told him simply, her voice matter-of-fact. "He is not a loser, he will not be stuck in this town, and he is worth so much more than you think. He's a better person than you are, Finn." She spared him one more glance. "And you and I are done."

Rachel hurried down the hall towards the parking lot, anxious to find Puck. She spotted him by his truck in the nearly empty lot, pacing back and forth in front of the driver's side door. As she approached, she saw him thump his fist on the hood in frustration.

"Noah," she called, hastening towards him.

Puck turned as she approached. She could see the pulse throbbing in his jaw as he struggled to maintain calm, but more than that, she could see the sadness in his eyes.

"Noah," she repeated as she reached his truck. "I'm so sorry. Finn has no right to go off on you like that."

"I don't need you to apologize for Finn, Rachel. We both know that he meant it. And I can't even say he's wrong. It's nothing I haven't thought before," he admitted honestly, shrugging his shoulders emptily.

"You're wrong," Rachel insisted. "He's wrong. Anyone who thinks you're incapable of a relationship, anyone who thinks you're a loser, anyone who thinks you don't have dreams – they're all wrong. They don't know you like I do." Rachel took hold of his shoulders, forcing him to face her. "I know you, Noah. I know you're good. I know that you have dreams. I know that you're a wonderful boyfriend; you were to me." She smiled up at him. "Don't let anyone tell you differently, okay?"

Puck nodded. "Sure, Rach."

Rachel worried her bottom lip between her teeth. "Noah…"

"It's fine, Rachel," Puck cut her off. "Finn's a douche." He scanned the parking lot, not meeting Rachel's eye. "The bell's gonna ring soon. I should get to class."

"Okay," Rachel sighed, knowing he didn't want to talk about it anymore. She tipped up on her toes and brushed a kiss against his cheek. "I'll see you later?" she asked hopefully.

Puck nodded and flashed a smile. "Definitely. Dinner at my house tonight? Sarah's been bugging me to watch Beauty and the Beast with her."

"My favorite," Rachel replied. "I'll be there."

"Okay. I'll meet you at your locker after school." He motioned toward the school. "I've got history on the other side of school, so I gotta jet."

Rachel watched him walk back to school, an unfamiliar ache pressing on her chest. Distantly, she heard the warning bell. Jarring her out of her thoughts, she hurried back towards the choir room.

If the amount of noise coming from the house and yard were any indication, the graduation part Mike was throwing was in full swing, Rachel thought with a roll of her eyes as she pulled up to the two-story structure and turned off her car. Exiting the vehicle, she straightened her red sundress, dropped her keys in her purse and headed towards the front door. Halfway across the lawn, a particularly loud chorus of yells echoed across the yard. She stopped and frowned. The party was far too loud – the police would surely be called to check on the noise soon, and Rachel had no interest in being arrested tonight, especially where her sole purpose on coming had been to say goodbye to Noah. Fishing her phone out of her purse, she checked the time. It was still relatively early – not even ten o'clock. Perhaps she could call Noah and ask him to meet her somewhere else – somewhere they'd actually be able to hear each other speak without the possibility of being arrested. She had begun punching in his number when the sound of approaching footsteps made her look up to find Noah himself waking towards his truck.

"Noah!" she called, walking to intercept him. She met him at the side of his truck, which was parked on the other side of the street, and wrapped her arms around him in a warm hug. "I'm so glad I ran into you. I was just about to call you and ask you to meet me somewhere else since this party is getting extremely out of hand and I have no interest in getting in trouble with local law enforcement tonight – or ever, for that matter."

He grinned and took a step back. "Yeah, I was just about to leave. Shit's getting crazy in there. The last fucking thing I need is to get busted by the cops the night before I leave for boot camp or to show up with a hangover. That probably wouldn't go over too well." He ran a hand over his head, causing Rachel to gasp.

"Noah, your Mohawk! It's gone!"

Puck chuckled. "Yeah, I shaved it off earlier. I figured the Marines wouldn't appreciate the badassness of the 'hawk, so I got rid of it. Took out my piercing too. It feels fucking weird."

Rachel opened her mouth to reply but was interrupted by a chant of "Chug! Chug! Chug!" coming from the backyard.

She looked up at Puck. "Can we go somewhere else?"

"Sure," Puck replied with a nod. He gestured towards her car. "Follow me."

Ten minutes later, they were sitting on the bleachers of the football field. Remnants of the graduation ceremony earlier that day were littered around them.

Rachel fingered the edge of a discarded program absently. "I can't believe we graduated today," she said, her voice soft.

"Me either," Puck agreed. "I kept thinking Figgins was going to take back my diploma."

"It's just… so much happened the past four years, good and bad. And now it's just… over."

Puck nudged Rachel's shoulder with his. "And now you're going to go off to NYC, make it your bitch, and show all these morons who hassled you that you're better than all of them."

Rachel giggled for a moment before growing serious. "And you're heading off to basic training in the morning. When do you leave?" she asked.

"I'm taking the 8:00 AM bus out of the recruiting center in Cleveland," Puck replied. "Straight through to South Carolina."

"Are you nervous?" Rachel inquired, glancing over at him out of the corner of her eye.

"A little," Puck admitted. "Mostly I'm just glad to be getting out of this fucking town."

Rachel was quiet for a moment. "How long is your training?"

"Thirteen weeks," Puck sighed. "And then I get a week of leave before I have to report back for either more training or deployment."

"What did the rest of the club say when you told them you were joining the Marines?"

"Shit, Rach, are you kidding? Nobody else knows. Nobody else even cared to ask. They probably all think I'm staying here, taking classes at community college or, more likely, working some dead-end job."

Rachel stared at him, dumbfounded. "I'm the only one who knows?"

"Besides my mom and my sister and your dads?" Puck clarified. "Yeah."

"Noah!" Rachel exclaimed, pushing his chest. "That's awful."

"What?" Puck protested. "If they want to think I'm a loser, fine. I'm not doing this for them. I did it for me. I know I'm getting out of here, and that's enough. I don't fucking need their approval." Only yours, he added silently, staring out across the field.

They both were silent for a minute, the only sound the soft buzz of the lights illuminating the field.

Rachel leaned into him, her shoulder brushing his. "Can I tell you something?" she asked quietly.

Puck glanced over at her, taking in her serious expression. "Sure."

"I wish you were coming with me to New York," she admitted, her eyes fixed on his. "Just so I could make sure you were safe."

The corners of Puck's mouth quirked up gently as he slung an arm around Rachel's shoulders and pulled her into his side. "I'll be safe." He spoke into her hair, lips brushing against the top of her head with every word he spoke. "I promise."

Rachel turned her head into his chest, reaching across his body to intertwine her fingers with those of his other hand. "Will you be able to write or talk while you're in training?" she wondered, her eyes on their joined hands.

"Probably not," Puck answered, stroking his thumb over her knuckles carefully. "But my mom should be able to give you my address once it's okay to write." He chuckled, his chest vibrating under Rachel's ear. "Besides, you don't want me for a pen pal. I'm not too good with words."

Rachel squeezed his hand gently. "I think you do all right."

They remained on the bleachers in silence, sitting together in the warm May air, Puck's cheek pressed against the top of Rachel's hair and her cheek pressed against his blue t-shirt.

Some time later, the beeping of Rachel's cell phone interrupted their peaceful moment. Pulling her phone out of the pocket of her cardigan, she saw a text from her fathers wondering when she was coming home. Glancing at the time, she gasped.

"Oh my gosh, it's almost one in the morning!" She looked at Noah, scrambling to her feet. "You have to be up in four hours! You should be asleep! A good night's sleep is essential when going off to basic training."

Puck stood as well, grinning as he grabbed Rachel's hand and tugged her back to the parking lot. "Chill, Rach. I'll sleep on the bus. It's fine. 'Sides, why would I have wanted to spend my last night in Lima asleep when I could spend it hanging with you?"

Rachel felt her cheeks heat in a blush as they stopped at her car. The blush faded, however, as the reality of their goodbye set in, and tears flooded her eyes instead. She closed her eyes, trying to prevent them from overflowing.

Her eyes fluttered open as she felt Puck's rough fingertips brush gently against her cheek, wicking away the moisture from tears that had fallen. She looked up at him through her lashes, the sad smile on his lips made blurry by the tears.

"Don't cry, Rachel," he murmured, fingers still moving slowly over her cheeks. "It's goodbye for a while, not forever. I promise."

Choking on a sob, Rachel threw her arms around Puck's neck and pressed as tight as she could, listening to the steady thump of his heart under her ear. She breathed him in, wanting to memorize everything about him. "I'm going to miss you so much," she whispered, her heart aching inside her chest.

Puck's arms banded around her waist and he hauled her close, burying his face in her hair for one last inhale of that tropical scent he loved. "God, I am going to fucking miss you," he whispered hoarsely.

As his lips brushed against her neck with every word he spoke, Rachel felt a shiver run through her body. Pulling back slightly, she looked up at him. He was leaving. She might never see him again, might never get lost in the green flecks in his eyes or hear him tease her or be completely wrapped up in his arms again. She might never get to kiss him again…

Mind made up, she slid her hand to cup his neck, drawing his head down to hers so she could press her lips to his. Her eyes snapped closed as she immediately lost herself in the kiss. It was slow and deep, their tongues tangling as Puck responded to her kiss, one hand slowly sliding up her back to gently cup the back of her neck and tilt her head into the kiss. They remained locked in the embrace for an endless, perfect moment until air became a necessity and Rachel pulled back, staring up into Puck's eyes with her own equally hazy gaze. She grazed her thumb against his bottom lip, wiping away a smear of her lip gloss.

Gently extricating herself from his embrace, Rachel swallowed hard and tried to smile even as the tears returned full force. "Take care of yourself, Noah," she rasped out before turning and fleeing into her car, quickly starting the ignition and driving away, her eyes trained on the image of Puck in the rearview mirror, staring after her until her tail lights disappeared, hands shoved in the pockets of his jeans and the taste of her on his lips.

Rachel tilted her head back as the warm August sun shone down on her and a soft breeze ruffled her hair. She couldn't believe she was finally in New York – moved in to her dorm room and just days away from starting classes. All her hard work, her drive, her crazy determination to be the best, had finally paid off. She was in the city, sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park just watching people go by, and she couldn't be happier. She was finally where she belonged. Smiling, she closed her eyes, basking in the sunshine and a perfect August afternoon.

"You know, I think this is the most peaceful I've ever seen you," a deep, familiar voice commented.

Rachel's eyes flew open with a gasp of surprise, looking up from her bench to find Puck standing a few feet away, resplendent in his blue dress uniform. "Noah," she breathed, flying off the bench and into his arms, pressing her cheek against his chest as tears of happiness pricked her eyes.

Puck closed his eyes as his arms tightened around Rachel's waist and back, pulling her body tighter into his. "Hey, baby," he murmured.

"What are you doing here?" Rachel asked in wonder, pulling back to look up and meet his eyes.

He shrugged. "I finished with basic training and had a week of leave, so I went home to visit my mom and Sarah. I ran into your dads at temple and they said you'd moved to the city early for a summer workshop, and I… I wanted to see you," he admitted, running a hand over the back of his neck. "I went to your dorm, and your roommate said I could find you here." He looked at her. "Are you mad?"

"Of course not!" Rachel answered him. "I'm so happy you're here. It's just a surprise." She took a step back. "Let me look at you," she insisted, her eyes moving over him. He was even more achingly gorgeous than he'd been before he left; his face was leaner, more angular. His skin was deeply tanned after spending weeks training outdoors, making his green eyes stand out even more. But even more telling of the change he had gone through was the way he carried himself. He stood taller; his posture spoke of confidence and strength. Noah had matured from a boy afraid for his future to a man who knew who he was, a man of honor and integrity.

"You've changed," she said softly, a smile lighting her face. "In a good way."

Puck grinned, his own gaze moving slowly over her in return. She looked relaxed and carefree in her denim shorts, flip-flops, and white tank top, her hair hanging loose and curly around her shoulders. She practically fucking glowed with happiness, as stupid of a thought as that was. "You've changed too," he told her, his grin morphing into a familiar smirk. "In the best way."

Rachel felt her face flush at his words and lifted a hand to tuck her hair behind her ear, her eyes darting away momentarily before returning to his. "How long are you here for?" she asked, not-so-subtly trying to change the subject to hide her blushing.

If Puck noticed her reddened face, he didn't comment (who was she kidding. Of course he noticed; he was just nice enough not to call her out on it). "Just for tonight. I have to report back tomorrow night. I'm leaving tomorrow morning."

Rachel felt her heart drop at his words. "And then what?"

"I have another month or so of training. After that, no idea," Puck responded with a shrug.

She nodded, chewing on her bottom lip, averting her gaze from his. Puck's rough fingertips gently tilted her chin up, his piercing green gaze probing her own.

"What's wrong?"

Managing a weak smile, she shook her head. "Nothing. I'm so glad you're here. I just wish it was for longer."

Puck nodded in understanding. "Me too. But we have tonight, at least." He smirked at her. "So what do you say, Rach? Wanna paint the town with me?"

This time, her smile was brighter. "I'd love to."

He took her hand in his. "Sweet. Let's go." He turned to tug her along with him.

"Wait!" Rachel exclaimed. "I can't go with you looking like this! You're wearing that, and I look like a slob," she gestured to his outfit.

"Are you shitting me?" Puck asked with a quirk of his eyebrow. "You look fine. Totally hot. Now c'mon."

They spent hours in a small vegan-friendly restaurant Puck had found, talking about Puck's training, Rachel's workshop, and whatever else came to mind. Puck shared stories of crawling through the mud and eating bugs, making Rachel shriek and squirm. She told him about her program and how talented everyone was but that she was sure she could handle it.

After dinner, Rachel took Noah on a tour of NYU and the surrounding area, pointing out where her classes were and her favorite coffee shop she had found a few blocks from her dorm. She kept her hand tucked in the crook of his elbow, her head occasionally leaning to rest against his bicep as they strolled the streets. Finally, they arrived in front of Rachel's building and drew to a stop. Rachel turned to face Noah, her hand sliding from his elbow to grasp his hand.

"Where are you staying?" she asked quietly, her eyes staring down intently at their entwined hands.

"A hotel a couple of blocks away," Puck murmured, gesturing down the street.

"No… I mean, where are you staying permanently? How can I contact you?" Rachel clarified, her eyes moving up to meet his.

"Rachel…" Puck sighed, running a hand over his head. "I'm not sure that's a good idea."

"What? Why would you think that?" Rachel asked in confusion.

"Because I don't want you to worry about me."

"And you somehow think that me not being able to talk to you is going to mean I don't worry? If anything it's going to make me worry more!" Rachel argued.

Puck shook his head. "Look, Rachel, you start college in a few days. You're going to be focused on classes and singing and being the best damn person on that stage. And you should be. You should be focusing on that. You don't need to be distracted worrying about me, wondering if every time you write and I don't respond right away it means something's happened to me. You don't deserve that shit." He looked at her steadily. "Just forget about me and focus on your dreams."

Rachel stared at him in disbelief. "Is that why you came here? To say goodbye?" Puck remained silent. She shook her head. "Well sorry to disappoint you, Noah, but I don't want to say goodbye. When are you going to get it through that thick skull of yours that I care about you?" She stared up at him, tears sparkling in her eyes. "I care about you, Noah! And no matter how stupidly noble you try to be, I'm going to think about you and worry about you. You said – you said it was only goodbye for a while, not forever. That night on the bleachers? You promised. So why now does saying goodbye for a while have to mean saying goodbye for good?"

Puck lifted a hand to cup the back of her head, pressing his lips to her forehead as her body shook with quiet sobs. "I care about you too, Rachel," he whispered. "But it's better this way. I've had a lot of time to think these past couple of months, and I can't put you through it. The worry? Never knowing if I'm alive, if I'm going to make it back to you? You don't deserve that, and I won't fucking put you through it." He swallowed tightly. "I'm sorry." Turning on his heel, he marched away without looking back.

Thirty minutes later, Puck was sitting on the edge of his hotel room bed, dressed in black sweatpants and a white t-shirt and staring blankly ahead, when someone started pounding on his door. Crossing the room, he jerked it open to find a puffy-eyed but composed Rachel Berry standing on the other side. "Rach, what are you doing here?" he groaned.

Rachel ignored him as she strode into the room, spinning to face him once she reached the middle of the room. "You left me crying in the middle of the sidewalk," she began. "And at first, I was devastated. Then I got angry. But that's what you wanted, isn't it?" she asked, staring him down. "You wanted to make me so furious that I'd say 'to hell with you' and forget about you. Well, it's not going to work. You're not going to make me forget about you. I can't, Noah. I won't. So you can try to be as noble as you want. You can refuse to give me your address. You can walk away if you want, act like we mean less to each other than we do, like it's easy to say goodbye. But I will spend every day thinking about you and wondering where you are and if you're okay. You can't stop me," she finished, raising her chin defiantly."

Puck remained silent for a minute, staring her down. When she refused to budge, he crossed his arms in front of his chest. "Are you done? Is that why you came here? To tell me that my plan won't work?" he challenged.

Rachel shook her head, walking closer until they were chest to chest, her fiery glare burning him. "No, I told you that before. I came here because you may be an ass, and we may never see each other again, after tonight, but I'll be damned if I spend the rest of my life wondering what it feels like to be with you." Reaching up, she snaked her hand up behind his neck and yanked his head down, crushing her lips to his.

With a groan, Puck's arms banded around her, one hand fisting in the back of her tank top while the other cupped her neck, holding her to him as closely as he could. His mouth slanted against hers again and again, the tips of his fingers twisting in the hair at the nape of her neck much in the same way his tongue twisted against hers. He felt Rachel's hands at the hem of his t-shirt, slipping underneath the fabric to caress his stomach. When she pushed the fabric up in an attempt to remove it, he tore his mouth from hers.

"Rachel," he gasped, stepping back and gently grabbing her hands in his.

Pulling her hands from his grasp, Rachel took a step forward, shaking her head. "Shut up, Noah," she whispered, her hands cupping his face as she brushed her lips against his.

Puck kissed her back for a moment before forcing himself to pull away. "Are you sure?" he murmured. He couldn't, wouldn't have her regret this.

A soft smile lit her face as she nodded. "Absolutely." Her eyes met his. "Are you?"

In response, Puck took Rachel's hands and led them to the hem of his shirt and together they pulled it off his body. He leaned in and kissed her softly, one hand cupping her cheek as the other rested at her hip. The kiss intensified immediately, his hand sliding from her cheek to tangle in her hair as he crushed her against him. His other hand slid under the fabric of her tank top, fingers trailing patterns over the smooth skin of her lower back.

Rachel's hands began eagerly exploring the contours of Puck's chest and stomach, her fingers tracing the lines of his defined abdominals, feeling them clench under her touch. When she felt his hands sliding under her shirt and dancing across her skin, she pulled back for the briefest moment to strip her tank top off her body before pressing herself back against him, her bra-covered breasts flat against the solid muscle of his chest. Her hands slid over his shoulders, caressing the muscle she found there as their lips and tongues continued to tangle.

Blindly, Puck began walking Rachel backwards towards the bed, his hand sliding up her back to undo the clasp of her bra. His lips trailed down her jaw and neck and across her collarbone as he pulled the offending garment off her body and dropped it to the floor. His lips immediately sought out the newly revealed skin, trailing kisses along the tops of her breasts before ducking his head and taking a breast into his mouth, tongue wrapping around her nipple.

Rachel gasped at the sensation, her hand coming up to clench the short hair at the back of Puck's head and hold him to her. "Noah…" she said breathlessly, her eyes sliding closed. She felt the world tilt underneath her as he lowered her to the mattress, his attention shifting to her other breast. The arm still wrapped around her waist lifted her so that her head was lying back against the pillows.

Puck pulled away from her to meet her eyes, his fingers moving deftly to the button of her denim shorts. Wordlessly, he stripped them down her legs, taking her panties with them. His eyes drank in the sight of her naked body, her flushed skin and heaving chest and restlessly shifting legs. "You're so beautiful," he whispered, his body moving to cover hers, his lips seeking hers as his hand gently brushed her bangs out of her eyes.

Her heart stuttering at his words, Rachel lifted a shaky hand to Puck's face, thumb stroking slowly across his cheekbone as her other fingers played with the shell of his ear. Her foot slipped up and over his calf as her hips rolled against the erection pressing against her through the material of his sweatpants. "Noah… please…" she murmured against his mouth, her words turning into another gasp of pleasure as his hand slipped between their bodies. His fingers stroked between her folds as his thumb rubbed against her clit, and Rachel arched against him, her body tightening and vibrating with pleasure. Her own hands fell from his face, one settling on his lower back to press against his sweaty skin, the other dipping below the waistband of his sweatpants to wrap around him.

"Shit," Puck dropped his forehead to Rachel's shoulder, his fingers losing their rhythm as he felt her small hand stroking him, thumb rubbing the tip. His breaths came in harsh pants against her shoulder as he struggled to maintain his control, teeth and lips nipping at her shoulder. "Baby, you gotta stop that," he told her, his hand pulling away from her center to swat at her hand.

"Then stop teasing me," Rachel replied, bending and widening her legs until her toes reached the top of his pants and tugged them down his body. Her breath left her as she felt him, hard and ready, against her thigh. She shifted restlessly against him, pushing his head up so that she could kiss him. "Noah."

Puck continued to kiss her as he wrapped a hand around her thigh, opening her so that he was pressed against her, erection nudging her center. He was seconds from sliding into her when he stiffened and pulled back. "Fuck," he cursed, meeting Rachel's curious brown eyes. "I don't have a condom."

Rachel shook her head almost desperately, her hand cupping his neck and pulling him back to her. "I'm on the pill," she murmured against his moth. "I trust you. Please."

With a groan, Puck crushed his mouth to hers as he entered her with one smooth thrust. He felt her inner walls stretching to accommodate him and heard her indrawn breath against his mouth. He broke the kiss and lifted his head, watching as her eyes fluttered open. "You okay?" he asked, bracing himself on his hands above her.

Rachel nodded, flexing her muscles around him experimentally, her arms sliding under his to wrap around his shoulder blades. Her leg slid over his hip as she leveraged herself up to reattach their lips. "Perfect," she sighed as Puck rested more of his weight on her, his body rocking against hers with sure, steady strokes. She whimpered into his mouth as she felt the pleasure coiling inside her, building into a crescendo that had her crying out his name in ecstasy.

Puck swallowed her cry as he continued to thrust through her orgasm, determined to bring her to climax again before he let go. He slowed his strokes as she clenched around him, her fingernails biting into his bicep and shoulder blade. He continued to kiss Rachel voraciously, trying to use her mouth as a distraction from the sensation of her milking his cock. When she bit at his bottom lip, though, his control snapped. His hand reached up to grasp Rachel's hand on his shoulder, tangling their fingers as he pressed them into the mattress beside her head. He thrust into her relentlessly, propelling her into a second orgasm before finally coming with a groan.

Rachel fought to catch her breath, enjoying the feeling of Puck's body pressing against her. Her free hand gently stroked up and down his back, her lips brushing against his ear as his head rested in the crook of her shoulder.

"Am I crushing you?" Puck asked, his voice muffled by Rachel's skin. He moved to shift away but felt Rachel tighten her hold on him.

"No," she protested. "Stay. I like it."

Puck lifted his head to smile at her before leaning down to softly connect their lips. He kissed her like that for a few moments, sipping at her lips, before he rolled off her and onto his back, pulling Rachel into his side so that her head was snuggled into the crook of his neck. He pulled the bed sheet up around both of them, his fingers trailing up and down her side lazily.

Rachel closed her eyes, her index finger tracing patterns on the skin over his heart. "Thank you," she murmured, her head turning so she could press her lips to his skin.

Puck shook his head. "No," he replied, his lips brushing her hair. "Thank you."

The sun was only just beginning to peek over the horizon as Puck stood at the foot of the bed, fastening the last few buttons on his uniform as he gazed at the beautiful woman asleep in the bed. Rachel was on her stomach, one hand tucked underneath her as the other rested by her face, her hair in riotous tangles across her pillow. Her breathing was deep and even, a sure sign of her exhaustion. They'd had sex twice more before finally succumbing to sleep as they lay tangled together in the sheets. Thirty minutes ago he had gently disentangled himself from the slumbering woman next to him, showered and dressed, and packed his bag to return to base. He hated to leave her, but he couldn't bear to wake her. It was better for both of them if he slipped away quietly rather than have another emotional goodbye. Rounding to her side of the bed, Puck bent and placed an envelope on his pillow before tenderly brushing Rachel's hair off her forehead. He pressed his lips against her skin, wanting to memorize everything about her.

"I love you," he whispered. He straightened, retrieved his bag, and headed to the door. At the door, he paused and looked back, seeing the soft smile gracing Rachel's face as she dreamed. With one last wistful smile of his own, he left.

When Rachel awoke, she could tell immediately that he was gone. Sunlight filtered through the blinds, bathing the room in a warm glow, but the mattress next to hers was cool and the room was silent. She was tempted to bury her face in her pillow and block out everything, but she knew that would only be delaying the inevitable. Noah was gone, maybe for good, and she was alone. She lifted her head and looked around, hoping against hope that Noah would be sitting in the chair in the corner or would come walking through the door carrying coffee and muffins from the bakery down the street. He wasn't there, but there was an envelope sitting on Noah's pillow, her name written across it in his messy scrawl. Pushing herself up so she leaned back against the headboard, Rachel reached for the envelope. Her hands were shaking slightly as she lifted the seal and pulled out two sheets of paper neatly folded into thirds. Unfolding them, she saw the date at the top of the first page and was surprised to see it was dated from almost a week ago. Whatever this letter said, Noah had thought it out before he had come to see her, before they had taken their relationship, whatever it was, to the next level. She took a breath and began to read.


I know I'm usually shit when it comes to words and saying the right thing, but you deserve for me to at least try. Hell, you deserve more than just a letter, but this is the best way I know how to explain what I'm about to say.

I don't want you to waste your time writing me. I know right now you're probably rolling your eyes and think I'm ridiculous for even suggesting it, but hear me out. You've got college to focus on, a future to prepare for. My future is filled with uncertainty and danger and unpredictability. You don't need to get weighed down by all that. You deserve to live your life in New York free of all the drama and baggage that weighed you down in Lima, and that includes me. You cared about me, even after all the shit I did to you, and I am so fucking grateful for that. But baby, you shouldn't have to be worried about me. You should focus on being the amazing performer, the amazing person you are. Your life is just beginning, Rach. Don't spend it worrying about me.

You're probably pissed at me right now for saying all this. Maybe you even hate me right now. And that's okay. I meant what I said. You deserve every good thing you get, every success you're gonna achieve. Don't let anybody keep you from chasing your dreams, Rachel. Not even me. Be amazing, live your life, and just know that no matter where I am in the world, I am on your side supporting you, believing in you, and so fucking proud of you. You're a star, baby. Don't ever forget that.

I love you.


Rachel set his letter down with trembling hands, her eyes shimmering with tears. She reached down and grabbed Noah's pillow, bringing it to her and inhaling the scent of him that lingered on the fabric. And then she buried her face in it and cried.

Puck adjusted his dress uniform as he glanced around the elegant ballroom. He may not have been thrilled about being here, but even he could admit this was some classy shit. The ballroom of the Gaylord National Resort in Maryland was all decked out for the annual Marine Corps Ball, with high tables covered with silk tablecloths, a couple of fully stocked bars, and waiters walking around with hors d'oeuvres. It was Puck's first time attending the ball – hell, it was his first time spending more than a few days stateside in almost two years – and he was impressed. He watched as a middle-aged couple entered the room in formal wear, the woman reminding him of his mother. He'd gotten an extra ticket when he'd been invited to attend and had asked his mom, thinking she'd get a kick out of seeing him and getting to dress up in some fancy gown. Unfortunately, his sister had a big gymnastics meet so his mom couldn't make it, meaning he was on his own tonight.

He scanned the room again, hoping one of the other guys from his unit had showed up. They'd been invited because they'd earned Silver Stars, the Marine Corps' third highest honor for heroism, after saving a fellow Marine who'd been seriously injured in an IED attack. Puck didn't think there was anything particularly heroic about doing your job, but his commanding officer seemed to think so, so here he was. His hand unconsciously rose to brush against the medal pinned to his jacket as his eyes moved back to the ballroom entrance, and he froze when he saw an achingly familiar figure walking through the doors.

Despite having told her that it was better if they didn't stay in touch, not a day had gone by where Puck hadn't thought of Rachel. The way she smiled, the sound of her voice, the way she had felt underneath him - Puck had memorized them all. He had tried to bury them, push them away so they didn't make him break his promise to himself and drag her into his fucked up life. Seeing her now standing across the room, every feeling he had for her came rushing to the surface. Wearing a simple floor-length black gown that showed off her flat stomach and long-as-fuck legs, her hair falling in gentle curls that he wanted to run his hands through around her shoulders, she was even more beautiful than the last time he saw her. Puck saw her moving towards the bar and he swallowed against the sudden tightness in his throat as he approached her.

She was looking around the ballroom for him when she felt his presence behind her. "Rachel?" he asked, a note of disbelief in his voice. She closed her eyes at the sound, reveling in the deep voice she'd missed the past two years.

"Hello, Noah," she replied, turning around to look at him, her breath catching in her throat at the sight of him looking gorgeous in his dress uniform.

He shook his head slightly. "How – what are you doing here?"

She smiled softly, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. "Your mother was disappointed that she couldn't come, but she didn't want the ticket to go to waste. So she called me, and here I am."

"Why would she call you?" Puck asked, knowing that his mother certainly did not have Rachel's phone number the last he knew.

Rachel shrugged and took a step closer. "I told you, Noah. Just because you thought it was for the best that we didn't keep in touch didn't mean that I was going to stop thinking about you. I honored your request to not try and contact you, but I called your mother a few weeks after you left, and she's been keeping me updated ever since." She glanced down at the ground. "I know it's not what you wanted for me, but it's what I wanted for myself." She looked back up at him, and the emotion in her eyes hit him hard. "I couldn't… I couldn't not know that you were okay, Noah," she continued. "The worry would have made me crazy. And when your mother called to tell me about the bombing, I thought something had happened to you and it was like I couldn't breathe. But then she told me how you went back to save that man, that you risked your life for him… You're a hero, Noah. You're my hero. And I couldn't pass up the chance to tell you that myself, or to tell you that it's been two years and I still miss you every day."

He closed the distance between them, his hand coming up to cup the side of her neck, thumb stroking her jaw line as he stared at her. He swallowed hard. "Fuck, baby, I miss you," he rasped, pulling her into him. His hand tangled in her hair as his other pressed against her back.

Rachel went willingly, her body molding against his as her face found the curve between his neck and shoulder. It felt like coming home, being in his arms, inhaling the same combination of Old Spice, cologne, and just Noah that she remembered from that night two years ago. God, how she had missed him. She nuzzled against his neck, her lips pressing a soft kiss to the warm skin there. She felt him stiffen against her, tension filling his body, and she pulled back to find him looking down at her questioningly.

"Rachel," he murmured, his eyes roving over her face. He didn't want to misread her, didn't want to assume, but fuck if he didn't hope that kiss meant what he thought it meant. His hands slid to grasp her hips, his grip tightening reflexively when she slid her arms up around his neck and stared at him with her steady brown gaze.

"Did you mean what you wrote in the letter you left me, Noah?" she asked quietly, her nails gently scraping through the short hair at the nape of his neck.

"When I wrote it, I did," he replied. "You deserved to live your life without anything holding you back."

"And now? Do you still mean it?"

Puck blew out a heavy sigh. "Now… fuck, I don't know. I know you deserve someone who can be there for you, who's not hundreds or thousands of miles away. But I also know that I keep your senior picture in my damn helmet so that you're always with me. I know that I have tons of fucking letters with your name on them that I never sent. I think about you all the damn time. I've spent the past two years trying to not love you and it hasn't worked. And… shit, sometimes I think maybe that's enough."

Rachel stared at him through eyes shimmering with tears, her heart pounding in her chest. Her lips curved in a beautiful smile, one of her hands sliding around to cup his face, her thumb stroking over his defined cheekbone. "It is enough, Noah," she whispered. "It always has been." Tipping up on her toes, she pressed her lips to his.

Puck pulled her into him as his mouth moved gently against hers, mindful that this was not the place to kiss her like he really wanted to. He drew the kiss out slowly, his forehead dropping to hers. He stared at her, taking in her hazy gaze and flushed skin. "I really fucking love you," he confessed, brushing another kiss against her mouth.

Rachel's answering smile was brilliant, her breath catching as Puck's lips teasingly brushed against hers. "I love you too, Noah. So, so much." Pressing another kiss to his lips, she grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the dance floor where an orchestra was playing soft music and a few couples swayed back and forth. "Now come on, I want to dance with my boyfriend who looks incredibly handsome in his uniform."

Puck couldn't help but smile as he let Rachel lead him onto the floor, wrapping an arm around her waist and taking her hand with his. As they moved gently to the music, he leaned in close to her ear. "Where are you staying tonight?"

Rachel pulled back to look at him, a coy grin tugging at the edges of her mouth. "With you."

He raised an eyebrow. "Pretty confident that things would work out, were you?"

She shrugged. "When I want something, I don't stop until I get it. And I want you, Noah. I want us."

He kissed her slowly before guiding her head back to his shoulder, ducking his head so his mouth was by her ear. "Just wait until tonight, baby. I'll give you whatever you want."

She shivered against him. "Promise?"

He dropped a kiss to her hair to hide his grin. "Promise."

Later than night, as he stripped Rachel's dress slowly off her body, his lips tracing every inch he exposed, Puck whispered more promises into her skin. He took his time, making her tremble as he made up for lost time. She returned the favor in kind, leaving a trail of hot kisses down his chest and abdomen as she slowly removed his uniform. When at last they lay panting, sheets tangles around their legs and their heads resting on a shared pillow, Puck traced his fingertips up and down her spine.

"Are you sure about this?" he asked her quietly. "I still have another two years. I don't want to tie you down."

Her fingers gently rubbed the shell of his ear. "Noah," she sighed. "I don't want anyone else. I haven't for the past two years without you. Now that I'm with you, that certainly isn't going to change. You're going to serve your last two years, wherever you go, and we'll write and chat and Skype and see each other when we can. And then you'll come home, and I'll be graduating, and we can start the rest of our lives together. Okay?" She looked up at him hopefully, a soft smile gracing her face.

Puck nodded. "Okay," he agreed, leaning in and brushing kisses across her cheeks, her nose, her eyelids, before reaching her lips. "Okay."

The June afternoon air was warm without being suffocating as Puck stood waiting outside the stage door of the Booth Theatre, his standard issue duffel bag at his feet. He checked his watch, knowing Rachel's show would be over soon and so fucking excited to see her he could barely stand still. The past two years had been tough but totally worth it. Even though he and Rachel had been in different places (different continents, usually), it was awesome to have somebody he could talk to about the crazy shit he saw and did, and hearing about Rachel's life helped him feel sort of normal. They'd only seen each other in person three times, the last time over nine months ago, so he was damn excited to get his girl back in his arms. It had been too damn long since he felt her body against his. The last time he held her had been as they stood in the airport saying their goodbyes. She had just gotten off the phone with a casting director who she had auditioned for a few weeks back. He offered her a role in a new Broadway musical about a group of college friends struggling to adapt to life after graduation. She had accepted on the spot and then thrown herself into his arms, laughing and crying.

In the nine months since then, she'd deferred her last semester at NYU and two weeks ago opened in a Broadway show to mostly positive reviews. Puck had hated that he couldn't be home in time for her first opening night, couldn't comfort her when one dickhead critic had called her 'unmemorable.' But he'd told her he'd be home soon, and it had comforted both of them to know that they were so close to starting their lives together. Rachel wasn't expecting him until tomorrow, but he'd managed to squeeze on board an earlier military cargo plane and now here he was to surprise her. He nodded at the security guard who had just finished setting up the metal barriers outside the stage door, pulling off his sunglasses and tucking them into his gray v-neck t-shirt. Any minute now, he'd see Rachel. He was so fucking anxious it was ridiculous, but he'd missed the hell out of his girl.

Soon a crowd had gathered outside the stage door eagerly awaiting the cast to come out and sign their playbills. Puck hung back, his eyes staying focused on the door. He watched as a few people came out and left, probably stage hands and musicians. And then the cast slowly started trickling out, prompting the crowd to cheer and move closer to the barricade. Puck saw Rachel come out talking to one of her costars, his heart clenching at how happy she looked. He watched as she signed autographs, chatting with fans and posing for pictures, a huge smile of her face. Puck could feel a matching grin on his own face as he watched her be completely in her element.

As she neared the end of the line, signing the last few playbills, Puck stepped closer. He waited until she'd signed the last one before speaking. "Look at you. Rachel Berry, Broadway star."

Rachel froze in the midst of putting her sharpie back in her bag. Her brain knew who that voice belonged to, but her heart almost couldn't believe it was true. Her eyes flew up, taking in the man before her, his jeans and t-shirt clad figure a sight for sore eyes. The duffel bag at his feet reminded her that this was no ordinary visit. He was home. That thought jolted her into action and she dashed around the barricade and threw herself at him, mindless of anyone who was around them.

Puck caught her, one arm banding around her waist as the other slid under the backs of her jean covered thighs, hoisting her up in his arms as he held her tight. Her legs locked around his waist, her hands cupping his neck as she peppered kisses across his face.

"You're home," she cried, tears pooling in her eyes as she pressed her lips to his. "Oh god, Noah," she whispered, thumbs stroking his jaw. "I've missed you so much."

Puck lifted a hand to the back of her heard, stroking her hair as he kissed her back. "Missed you too, baby," he murmured against her lips.

Rachel unwrapped her legs from his waist and let him ease her back to her feet, her mouth still attached to his. She pulled away after a moment, smiling as Puck lifted a hand to brush the tears from her cheeks. "I love you," she told him, hands pressed to his chest.

"Love you too, Rach," he replied, his thumb still stroking against her cheek, his eyes on hers.

"You're here for good?" she asked, curling her fingers in the material of his t-shirt. "You're not leaving again?"

Puck shook his head. "I'm not leaving. It's gonna be you, me, and New York from here on out. How's that sound, babe?"

Rachel smiled up at him. "Perfect," she replied, her hand tangling with his.

Puck grinned down at her, reaching down to grab his duffel with his other hand. "Good," he murmured, pressing a sound kiss to her forehead.

Rachel tugged him towards the street, a blinding smile on her face. "Come on, Noah. We have a life to start."

He looked down at her, taking in the curve of her face, the way her hair fell past her shoulders. Four years ago he thought the most he could expect out of life as a jail sentence or to end up dead. Rachel had changed that, made him see that he was more than just a fucked-up kid who'd made some bad choices. She gave him the confidence to become the best man he could. He'd been foolish enough to try and push her away, but she hadn't let him. And now he had a life, a future, and he had Rachel.

He smirked to himself. His life hadn't ended in high school – it was just getting started.