Author's Note: Thank you so much to everyone who read or reviewed the first chapter! I was so wary of posting that rambling ode to Rachel, but now knowing people enjoyed/understood what I was trying to do makes me feel so much better about it. So, here is the next installment...I hope people enjoy it as much.

Also, for the record, Santana is my second favorite character. (Yeah, I know. I look at Rachel, and then I look at her, and it doesn't actually make sense to me either. But I can't help it. I adore them both.) And I hope to give her character fair attention and actual depth as the story progresses, but I'm not there yet. I hope that the way she's portrayed here doesn't offend any fans of Ms. Lopez. I love her too, I just think she can be a real bitch. ;)

Disclaimer: Not my characters, not my songs.

!

The combination of a persistent knocking and the repetitious ringing of her doorbell was irritatingly disruptive.

Since she'd made her way home, Rachel'd been laying, snuggled deep and desperate into her blankets, while the countless tissues used to mop at her tears littered her floor. Listlessly she'd watched the sunlight disappear from the day while she struggled with every breath, literally crying her eyes out, and she'd been grateful for the solitude provided by her fathers' business trip and the off button of her phone as she broke down.

But apparently, as of 6:45pm, someone was keen on stealing that solitude away from her, and she took a momentary reprieve from her suffering to be totally annoyed.

She begrudgingly managed to pull her tired limbs, aching with her overwhelming sadness, from the protection of her bed and stumbled down stairs. Only to be completely taken aback by the sight of Noah Puckerman when she finally opened her door.

She felt her throat fill with questions, but she never got to ask them. Puck immediately push passed her and into her home without waiting for an invitation, offering only an, "I drew the fuckin' short straw," as explanation for his presence.

Blinking with confusion, she shut the door and followed him into the Berry living room, still unable to get a word out.

"I brought pizza, and yes, it's vegan. I don't know what the hell that means exactly, but the punk at Angelino's promised it was." He put the box on the coffee table before plopping lazily down onto the couch and searching for the remote, acting as if it wasn't thoroughly surreal that he was there. He seemed unconcerned with her puzzlement as she stood gaping at him, and only further qualified that he wasn't watching anything in black and white, or that involved more singing than regular speaking, so she shouldn't even ask. "And please tell me you have cherry coke in this house, 'cause otherwise I'm getting the six-pack of Bud from my truck and I don't care if you approve or not."

She moved slowly, almost dazed, as she brought him a cola and then sat on the opposite end of the couch. He'd apparently found something watchable in her fathers' DVD collection as she noted the opening scene of Ocean's 11 playing across the screen. He made a displeased face at his first bite of the pizza, but then continued to eat it as he nudged the box closer to her and demanded with a look that she eat something.

Another ten minutes in, after it was clear that Puck actually rather enjoyed this movie and wasn't planning on saying anything further as to why he was even there, Rachel decided this was ridiculous. "Noah, I do not need a babysitter. Thanks for checking on me, but I'm fine. You can go home now."

The groan and dramatic eye roll this elicited from her mohawked companion was almost comical. He made a show of pausing the movie in exasperation before turning to look at her. "I get it, Berry. You don't want pity. But guess what? I ain't offerin' it. You wouldn't answer your phone all afternoon and some people got worried. Not that you couldn't be alone, just that you shouldn't be. So they sent me. Which, honestly, didn't seem like that great a plan in my eyes, but I'm sure they had their reasons. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to watch the movie. Quietly."

He was about to press play when she informed him, "I'm not making out with you this time."

"Glad to hear it," he threw back with a smile, which only caused her to glare at him. He continued with another eye roll. "Not that it wouldn't be hot, Berry, even though you are lookin' kinda pathetic right now. But I'm under strict instruction from Q to keep my lips and hands to myself. She threw out some pretty hardcore threats, full of language you would not expect from a chick who is always on about loving Jesus, and I think she must have meant them. So zip it, and let me fantasize about robbin' casinos."

He hit a button on the remote and threw her a warning glance as the dialogue picked back up, and Rachel settled in to watch the rest of the movie in near silence.

She must have fallen asleep at some point because the next thing she knew the TV was off and Noah was stacking their plates and cups to take into the kitchen. "You're lucky you don't snore or I'd have straight up thrown your ass off the couch."

She frowned at him as he stalked out of the room. Stretching to relieve the kinks from sleeping at an odd angle, she reeled at the sound of water running and dishes clanking about. Noah Puckerman rinsing dishes in her kitchen? Surely this was too strange to even be a dream.

She finally found the energy to stand just as he was walking back in to grab his coat. While still completely exhausted from the stress of her day, she was able to at least remember her manners. "Thank you for dinner, Noah. And for cleaning up."

He looked at her appraisingly a long moment before nodding.

"See you tomorrow, Berry." Then he quietly let himself out.

Making her way upstairs and getting ready for bed, she reviewed the unforeseen events of her evening. She still felt the crushing, massive weight of this mess with Finn pressing down on her with every single second, but she was no longer drowning in her own tears, no longer hopeless. A new calm had come over her as she'd sat with Noah, and she didn't know what that meant or how his presence had helped, but she knew she'd apparently needed it. As her heavy eyes fell shut, her last thoughts were grateful.

!

Puck slouched low in his uncomfortable chair; head tilted back, eyes closed. Mr. Waterford had accepted ages ago that a sleeping Noah Puckerman was better for the rest of his class than an awake one, so Puck had been planning on getting at least a 40-minute nap in, no problem, during his joke of an economics course. But today there would be no such luck.

He heard her light steps and the familiar swishing of her Cheerio skirt as she approached, but even if he hadn't he would have known it was Quinn the moment she slipped into the seat beside him by the perfume she always wore.

"You survived, I see." Her statement sounded bored, but he knew she was bursting with curiosity. Otherwise she wouldn't be here, in the back row of class, yet again breaking their unspoken rule of mutual avoidance.

He opened one eye to look over at her, letting her know he wasn't sleeping yet and had heard her, but that was all he offered.

She sighed as she began to remove the necessary things from her backpack, obviously conflicted on whether to try again for information or to just write him off as useless, like always.

He'd just decided she was going to let him nap after all when she spoke again. "How was she?"

Puck huffed (though he was secretly astounded that Quinn had opted to come right out with it) and glared over at her as he sat up a little straighter and angled his torso towards the blonde who had the tendency to complicate his life.

"She was a mess. She obviously had been crying, lots, and she barely said a world all night. Which, while something I've prayed for often, didn't seem like a good sign." He watched her mouth twitch a little at the corner, but she still looked as if she wanted more information. "I honestly didn't gather much else on the situation. But that could be because it was a fuckin' crazy idea to send me in the first place."

Quinn's lips pursed in a way he was insanely familiar with and he knew she was reigning in her temper a little. She looked quickly to the other students around them and lowered her voice. "We sent you because you owe her. You played a handsy little part in how single she suddenly is, and since Finn isn't stalking around punching you this time, this was your karmic payback. Plus, you are too stubborn to have let her turn you away and too insensitive to tolerate excessive wallowing. Mercedes and I thought that was the necessary combination for getting her to pull herself together." She stared at him hard for a beat before continuing, "Plus, I knew you'd have nothing better to do."

Puck was glad that her also knowing he cared enough to agree to it in the first place didn't need to be said out loud.

He watched her turn fully towards the front of the class, trying to catch up with the lecture that had now been under way for several moments. He studied her profile and allowed himself a rare moment to remember the thorny past he shared with the beautiful girl beside him. He'd have never guessed joint concern for Rachel Berry would be what got them actually kind of talking again.

Feeling his stare, Quinn paused her note-taking to roll her eyes and turn back to him. "What?" she hissed.

"You like her."

Puck was amused as her jaw tensed and her eyes narrowed further. She obviously hated to hear the statement, but she wasn't denying it. Wonder of wonders. Finally she snapped, "You liked her first."

He chuckled as she went back to the lesson, writing furiously, leg tapping under the table in annoyance for the rest of class.

!

Rachel's day was going better than she expected. It was with deliberate effort that she walked around the halls with her head held high, smiling at the gleemates she passed (well, some of them) and confidently answering questions in class. It was a decision she made with each step to be okay, and so far it was working. And she hoped that meant it'd all become second nature again soon enough.

In the shower that morning, she'd allowed herself a few last tears and gave them each a specific dedication as they rolled down her cheeks. One for the relationship she'd had with Finn that was now lost; one for their friendship too. One for the regret she felt at her own actions in recent weeks. One for the resentment she still held for his. She cried a tear for Santana, who, unlike the rest of the club who seemed to be warming to her at least a little, would probably always be out of reach. She cried a tear for the knowledge that after years of torment from the pretty cheerleader, she still cared. She cried a final tear for the part of her future plans she'd devoted to Finn that would now never come true.

And then she was finished.

She had dressed herself carefully, even taking a moment to call Kurt quickly for advice on shoes (and to apologize for not calling him back the night before, and thank him for his concern, and assure him she was now fine. And ask how things were going with Blaine.)

She had mentally prepared herself as best she could for the torturous world of high school and the pay off was the wondrous feeling of control being restored in her life.

She didn't even flinch when Santana passed her in the hallway, smugly humming the tune she'd performed the day before. She just rolled her eyes and called the girl a witch under her breath.

Yes, she was Rachel Berry and she would be just fine. Eventually.

!

Stepping into glee later that afternoon, Rachel strode over to sit beside Mercedes.

"Girl, did you get a text from Kurt about this weekend?"

Rachel smiled at the evident enthusiasm on Mercedes' face. "Yes. I'll have to double check with my fathers, but I think there should be no problem with me going."

"No problem with going where?" Rachel turned to see Puck sit down on her other side.

"Kurt wants Rachel and me to go with him and a few of his new friends from Dalton to some dueling piano bar that just opened up north of Dayton."

"A bar?" Mercedes rolled her eyes at Puck's peaked interest.

"After 11 they kick out under-agers, but for the first part of the evening it's a regular restaurant and everything. But apparently an old Warbler got hired on as one of the pianists?"

"Huh. You'll have to let me know if it's worth the drive then, Berry."

Rachel nodded, a little confused by his interest, as Mercedes shot her a questioning glance. Sure, Puck had been occasionally nice to her in the one-on-one capacity since their brief fling last fall. But he hardly ever showed that side in front of their peers. And usually seemed to want rewarding for his rare kindness, typically in the form of making out.

But between his strange, yet surprisingly helpful, appearance last night and his casual interest in her life now, Rachel wondered if he would finally consider them friends.

She hoped so.

But she couldn't dwell on that as Mr. Schuester finally joined the now fully gathered glee club.

"Alright everyone, you know the assignment. Who's up today?"

"I'll go, Mr. Schue."

Every set of eyes, including Quinn's, shot to Sam with surprise as he made his way to the front of the room. Slipping his guitar strap over his shoulder, he cleared his throat lightly.

"So, I guess the unique quality I bring is, um, that I'm sort of mellow? Most of the suggestions Rachel made for me were by singer/songwriters, really laidback guys. And I liked that. Their smooth, but not overly complicated, and the music isn't about being showy but about something they have to say. I guess that's the part I relate to."

Mr. Schue smiled. "That's good, Sam. What are you going to perform for us today?"

"Well, I really liked this one song on the list. "Passing Afternoon" by Iron & Wine? I'm not sure I understood all of the words, but I still feel like I know what the guy meant." Sam shrugged a little.

The teacher gave an encouraging nod, and Rachel watched as Sam and Quinn shared a quick smile, before he began to play, his eyes falling shut as he sang.

"There are times that walk from you like some passing afternoon
Summer warmed the open window of her honeymoon
And she chose a yard to burn but the ground remembers her
Wooden spoons, her children stir her Bougainvillea blooms"

Rachel smiled to hear Sam's voice, rich yet unimposing, dip into the lyrics. He came off as such a simple guy, but she suspected he was a deeper soul than he felt the need to share with just anyone. It sounded as good as she'd thought it would, and she was proud to have assessed one of her newest teammates so well.

"There are things that drift away like our endless, numbered days
Autumn blew the quilt right off the perfect bed she made
And she's chosen to believe in the hymns her mother sings
Sunday pulls its children from their piles of fallen leaves"

Rachel watched Quinn's face as the girl listened to her boyfriend sing. A wet, glasslike quality made the green eyes seem brighter, and Rachel couldn't help but think the song probably appealed to Sam because there was something of Quinn in it. Beautiful, but sad, and with a profound understanding of how fleeting everything was, even the most important things.

It was one of the few times Rachel could ever remember looking at Quinn and not seeing the ghosts of her own past with the girl. Or Finn's or Noah's, or Beth's. She just saw Quinn, and she suddenly hoped more than ever that they could be friends someday. Turning back to Sam, still singing so earnestly, she was happy for the two of them. She didn't know if it was the kind of high school romance that could last forever, but she thought Sam Evans might be exactly what Quinn Fabray needed, at least for now.

"There are names across the sea, only now I do believe
Sometimes, with the windows closed, she'll sit and think of me
But she'll mend his tattered clothes and they'll kiss as if they know
A baby sleeps in all our bones, so scared to be alone"

Strumming the song to a close, Sam's eyes finally opened and widened, as if he'd forgotten he was singing in front of 12 other people.

Rachel was the first to start clapping, and she smiled when a blushing Sam returned to his seat where a sweet, chaste kiss was offered to him by Quinn.

After no one else volunteered as ready for their solo assignments yet, their teacher moved the class towards preparation for the first group piece of the semester. Rachel was working with Artie, Puck, and a few kids from the band on the chorus of their mash up of "Float On" and "Tonight, Tonight" when they found themselves being dismissed for the day.

Gathering her things she felt genuine pride in herself for making it through the day so nobly. She'd literally been too invested in Sam's performance, and in her team's efforts at perfecting a song, to have been too constantly aware of her ex-boyfriend sitting towards the back of the room.

Glancing at Noah as he finished up a conversation with Mike Chang, she couldn't resist the urge to test the friendship waters.

"So, should I be expecting you for a viewing of Ocean's 12 this evening?"

Puck just looked at her like she was crazy long enough for an embarrassed flush to stain her cheeks. God, was she not supposed to acknowledge the night before? Were there rules to this tentative whatever that she didn't know about? She began to panic, sure something cruel or mocking was about to be said in order to remind her they were not friends after all, when his lips pulled into a smile.

"No way. We're skipping to Ocean's 13. 12 sucked."

Rachel was amazed at the hit of relief she felt in her chest.

Things really were different. Finally.

They headed towards to the door, Mike and Tina asking to join them. "That's fine, Chang. But I'm warning you now, you do not want to eat vegan. Pick up tacos. Trust me."

She shoved at Noah playfully, shaking her head as she assured him they had non-vegan food in the house.

And her smile only faltered slightly at the feel of two brown eyes boring steadily into her back.

!

The next few days passed similarly for Rachel. Focusing on school, on contributing to glee with her revised attitude, on blossoming friendships, she found her heartache dulling. Make no mistake she still loved Finn. The (thankfully) rare sightings of him outside of glee, especially those with Santana hovering at his side, were like a dousing of ice water, a slap in the face. But she always bounced back, and she always kept going. She'd once thought, in a passing moment of desperation, that she couldn't survive without Finn. But she had survived; she still was surviving. And she knew she was stronger than she'd originally given herself credit for because she refused to let the loss of him define her.

And right now, what she felt defining her was growth. Every day she reveled in the progress she was making, not just with how her fellow gleeks saw her, but in how she saw herself. She didn't just help Mike Chang perfect his solo of "When You Were Young" by the Killers because she wanted him to like her. She did it because she was honestly excited by his potential and couldn't wait to see him surprise everyone, including himself, with what kind of performance he could deliver. She hadn't expected she could be that devoted to someone else's talent or success, but she liked what it implied.

When he shared his piece with the club on Thursday, hamming it up at every opportunity (like linking Rachel and Puck's hands at the first verse, patting the mohawked boy's shoulder as he sang the line "talks like a gentleman," reducing Rachel to giggles at the preposterous suggestion) and dancing like pro around the class the whole time, he was a shining example of an absolute triple threat. His impeccable dancing amplified by a strong vocal delivery and incredible comedic timing; he was like the Fred Astaire of McKinley High in her eyes. Rachel couldn't have been prouder if she herself had been the one receiving the applause.

She even had the passing thought that day that she'd maybe like to do what Mr. Schue was someday. After she'd decided she'd won enough Tonys, of course.

Walking into the choir room Friday, she felt solid, comfortable, in a way she could not have predicted earlier that week. As the rest of the club began to shuffle in she was greeted warmly more often than not, and soon found herself included in a conversation with Quinn about an upcoming English project while they waited for glee to start.

Rushing in at the last possible moment was Puck, stopping in front of Mercedes and staring expectantly until the girl, with an expression of exaggerated annoyance, moved down one seat so he could sit beside Rachel.

Rachel shook her head. She really didn't know what had gotten into him lately.

"Alright, guys, let's get started. Puck, you asked to go first today?"

"Yeah, Mr. Schue."

Puck stood and strode with his typical swagger to whisper something to the assembled members of the band, before strapping on an electric guitar and facing everyone.

"I bring undeniable sex appeal to this group through my innate badassness."

There was a collective groan, sprinkled with good-natured laughing. Even Mr. Schue had to shake his head a little.

"The list Berry gave me was made up what she called 'Musical Lotharios.' Later, I had her explain to me that this meant 'Panty-Droppers.'"

"Noah!" Rachel could feel the blush color her cheeks.

He rolled his eyes at her. "Obviously my word choice. I was summing up what took her twenty minutes to say."

She rolled her eyes right back at him.

"Anyway, I've prepared a song by one of current music's most notorious ladies' men…John Mayer."

He smirked to them all as the music started, and when he joined in with his guitar he offered a teasing wink to Rachel, stepping towards her, before he began to sing.

"No, I'm not the man I used to be lately

See you met me at an interesting time

And if my past is any sign of your future

You should be warned before I let you inside"

He sounded magnificent. He had more of a leading-man voice than he was given credit for usually, but this style especially suited him. And if Rachel was being honest, the musical icon did too.

Noah Puckerman was widely known for loving (physically) well, and loving (physically) many. But Rachel knew there was also an incredible sensitivity to him. The kind of sensitivity that was far sexier than any of his innuendo or his boasting.

She briefly wondered if in his younger years, John Mayer ever tried to steal things…

"Hold on to whatever you find, baby

Hold on to whatever will get you through

Hold on to whatever you find, baby

I don't trust myself with loving you.

I will beg my way into your garden

And then I'll break my way out when it rains

Just to get back to the place where I started

So I can want you back all over again

I don't really understand"

Rachel felt the blush returning to her cheeks as Puck continued to sing, his eyes trained on her the entire time. It was intense, and she didn't really know what to make of it. She offered him a shy smile, before her eyes flitted downward.

"Who do you love?

Girl, I see through, through your love

Who do you love?

Me, or the thought of me?

Me or the thought of me?"

As the song moved towards a more instrument-heavy close, Rachel's eyes lifted, only to slide without her permission to the tall boy seated on the other side of the room. Finn's gaze, eyes dark with hurt, and anger and confusion, didn't falter when she met it with her own. She saw the ripple at his jaw, the clenched fist resting on his knee, and she knew he wasn't over her.

But that didn't seem to do either of them any good.

"Excellent job," Mr. Schuester offered sincerely, clapping as Puck returned to his seat.

The boy gave an acknowledging nod before turning to Rachel. "What'd you think? Did I do it justice, Berry?"

She smiled though she couldn't shake the prickling feeling on the side of her face. She knew that Finn was still watching her closely. "Yes, Noah. I believe Mr. Mayer would have been quite proud."

"Yeah, yeah. My turn." Santana interrupted, stepping off the risers and into the center of the room with the confidence of a girl accustomed to getting her way.

Without preamble, she cued the band. The beat started, recognizable from a slightly older pop song but slowed slightly for a smoother R&B approach. Santana smiled in an almost predatory way, looking pointedly at Puck as she began to sing.

"I know you like me,

I know you do

That's why whenever I come around

She's all over you"

She looked briefly, and with a slight sneer, towards Rachel, before looking again to the boy she had a habit of always viewing as her own.

"I know you want it

It's easy to see

And in the back of your mind

I know you should be on with me

Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?
Don't cha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?
Don't cha, don't cha?
Don't cha wish your girlfriend was wrong like me?
Don't cha wish your girlfriend was fun like me?
Don't cha, don't cha?"

Rachel could feel the heat and color rise to her cheeks again, but not in a blush this time. She was certain that nothing else was inside her at that moment but fury.

She'd been naïve. She'd thought that, from the moment this girl had announced her past with Finn and instantly destroyed Rachel's world, the motivation must have been that Santana wanted what Finn and Rachel shared, or that maybe she just wanted Finn. But now, watching her perform an insult in song, even after she'd finally claimed Finn as her own, Rachel knew that it wasn't either of those things. Santana Lopez just hated her that much. She just wanted to cause her pain. She wanted to make trouble. And in her misinterpretation of the new friendship Rachel was forming with Puck, she'd thought she'd found her next weapon.

So caught up in her own anger, Rachel couldn't have noticed the irate expression of the boy beside her. She didn't turn her head slightly to see the clouds brewing in Finn's eyes. All she saw was Santana, smiling around her words in triumph, and the brightest of reds tinting her vision at the corners.

The music ended, but Santana herself wasn't finished, though she spoke rather than sang her final dig. "Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?" She leaned closer in and smiled. "Finn did."

Rachel was out of her chair in an instant, stepping into the Cheerio's personal space and looking up with the closest thing to hate she was capable of burning in her eyes.

So many insults were boiling on the tippiest tip of her tongue. Remarks on Santana's promiscuity, her fake boobs and her mediocre grades. Comments on how girls liked Santana peaked in high school, while her own life would be more, so much more, after she left these halls.

But she couldn't say them. She wanted to, she really did. But she couldn't.

If Santana was going to hate her, she'd rather it be for no reason. Letting herself hate Santana back was giving up power over herself that she didn't want to lose. Giving Santana power she didn't deserve.

Without breaking her stare with the taller girl, Rachel forced her voice into a tone of near-normalcy. "Are we finished for the day, Mr. Schue?"

The teacher swallowed nervously. Unsure of what all had just happened, and how the group of teenagers he cared so much about could be a happy family one moment and at each other's throats the next.

"Yeah, Rach. Let's call it a week."

"Great." Turning abruptly, uncaring as to whether Santana had to step back to avoid the swish of her hair, she strode quickly out of the room and towards her locker.

Rachel Berry preferred storming out in anger rather than sadness any day.