Sam liked to call them in-body experiences. These were moments where he was hyper-aware of his own existence—his senses, his skin, heartbeat, breathing. You know, things people normally took for granted. It was in these moments that he seriously questioned reality.
Like was his hair really real? Was the pressure against his skin really there? Was the ground he was standing on really there? Or was this all just in his head? Blame it on The Matrix, but there have been many an hour wasted on morbid contemplations of the legitimacy of reality as he knew it.
Usually it happened while he was zoning off in the middle of homework, working out, or taking a shower. But there was just something about this about-to-begin performance that had him deciding that now was the perfect time to be deep and existential.
It wasn’t until he finally sat down in one of the auditorium seats that he told himself, Yes, your knuckles are very real and can do a lot of very real damage too.
So Sam unclenched his fists and moved them to strangle the mic stand in front of him instead.
He felt her come up to the other mic beside him after her mandatory meeting with the musicians behind them. She was ten feet away—“meticulously pre-measured, of course, to ensure optimum poignancy for both sound and visuals” were her exact words—but after everything, he felt like she was right up next to him.
She’d ordered him not to look at her—not until they’d finished and walked off the stage. So he wound up staring at an empty seat straight ahead since he was definitely not gonna look at any of the gleeks. Not after everything. He was singing this song for so many reasons, and he wasn’t singing it for so many reasons too—if that made any sense. He sang it because it made sense and it was kind of applicable, you know? But he wasn’t singing it to make a point. He wasn’t trying to prove anything. Schue, at a loss for even half a teaspoon’s worth of originality, paired them up via names in a hat and tested their musical theory by having them sing songs that weren’t originally duets. He was just doing his assignment. Sam was just doing his assignment.
That was all.
Then he heard Tina begin playing the first chords on the piano. The blue spotlight beamed down at him, and he stepped closer to the mic.
“I can’t believe I had to see,” he sang, still staring at the empty seat even though he saw Quinn shift in her seat upon recognizing the song, “the girl of my dreams cheating on me.”
It was just an assignment. It was just an assignment. It was just an assignment.
He wasn’t even the one who picked the song anyway.
“The pain you caused has left me dead inside. I’m gonna make sure you regret that night,” he continued, glaring at the seat now. “I feel you close, I feel you breathe, and now it’s like you’re here. You’re haunting me. You’re out of line, you’re out of sight. You’re the reason that we started this fight.”
Gray lights slid up from the floor to their backs as the cymbals crashed, and a soft purple light shone down on Rachel as she belted out the chorus. “But I, I, I know I just gotta let it go. I, I should’ve known. I gotta learn to say goodbye now. I throw my armor down and leave the battleground for the final time now. I, I, I know I’m running from a warzone.”
He was watching the screen, definitely. Watching, though, really isn’t the same as seeing. He knew things were happening in front of him, but it just wasn’t registering.
Typical, of course.
If he’d been honest with himself, he wouldn’t have wasted his money at the movies. He would’ve been staring at the wall of his room for free instead. But was he honest with himself?
Not this time, at least.
He’d been honest with himself once, and look how that turned out. He dumped the most amazing girl he’d ever had the privilege of dating. Okay, yeah, she cheated on him, but he didn’t really help by forcing her to kiss Finn at that godforsaken kissing booth. He wondered if that thing was still intact. He needed to burn it. He’d recruit Puck and everything, and they’d make a party out of it.
But instead of doing that, he was sitting in the movies.
All by himself.
Well, not really. There was a couple making out in the far corner of the back and making these pretty nasty-sounding sucking noises. He swore to God that if he heard something unzipping, he was gonna intervene.
But for now, he would just have to make do with pretending to get his money’s worth. Frankly, he couldn’t even remember what movie he’d bought tickets for. He was pretty sure that the movie he asked for didn’t even match up with the theater he walked into. But it hardly mattered. He just picked the movie with the nearest show time. He sighed and settled back into his seat, wishing that Avatar was still playing in theaters. He could have at least tried to lose himself in Pandora.
The theater door slamming shut was perfectly timed with the explosion from some trailer of some action movie, and out of reflex, he turned to watch the newcomer emerge from the entrance tunnel.
As soon as he spotted Rachel, one arm wrapped around a bag of popcorn and the other hand holding a drink while a box of Cookie Dough Bites was tucked under her arm, his hand shot up and waved. He didn’t duck down or try to hide his face—like how he’d heard some of the other guys on the football team did. He liked Rachel. She was annoying in her passion; he was the same way about Avatar.
“Rach!” he called out, rising up from his seat a little. Those two in the back would hardly care if he sang that Annie song to welcome Rachel to the movies, so he could make as much of a racket as he wanted. “Over here!”
She spotted him, grinned brightly, and then headed up the steps to his row. He smiled lopsidedly at her cream sweater with a light brown monkey hugging her left arm. Her skirt was fortunately a couple inches longer than the ones she normally wore, but still short enough to seriously make him worried about how she managed to live through Ohio winters without hypothermia. Those tights didn’t look like they’d help very much.
“Hello, Sam,” she greeted him brightly, setting her drink in the cup holder beside him.
He pushed down her seat and offered his hand for the popcorn so she could sit down easily. “Hey, how’s it going?”
“I’m very well, thank you. Oh, good! It’s still the previews. Fancy seeing you here, though I shouldn’t be so surprised considering your appreciation for special effects,” she said, taking the popcorn back once she was situated.
He blinked. “What’s special effects got to do with anything?”
She frowned in confusion. “Didn’t you see the previews for I Am Number Four? Alex Pettyfer’s character has some fairly impressive alien powers. And while it may not exactly be the same type of special effects as Avatar, since the latter is more focused on CGI rather than explosions and beams of light, I did expect you to be interested in this movie. All things considered, it is still an action-adventure.”
Oh. That’s what he was watching.
“Wait, what do you mean ‘all things considered?’”
She cocked her head to the side and tucked the popcorn between her knees. “You mean…you don’t see the resemblance?”
He glanced at the screen and then looked back at Rachel. “Of who and who?”
She shot him an uncertain look as if regretting saying anything. “Of Dianna Agron, the lead female, a-and, um, Quinn.”
Sam blinked again. “Just because they’re blonde, Rach, doesn’t mean they look anything alike. It’s cool.” Lie, lie, lie, lie. Change the subject! “Hey, um, I thought you were a vegan.”
Rachel looked genuinely surprised that he remembered—or even knew the information. “Oh, I am.”
He pointed at the candy in her hand. “Then why’ve you got Cookie Dough Bites?”
As if remembering what she was holding, he looked down at the offending box and scowled. “It was Jacob Ben-Israel. It seems he got a part-time job at the snack counter, and while I only asked for popcorn and Hi-C, he insisted on trying to ingratiate himself by pushing this candy on me for free. Do you want it? I don’t want to throw it out. Oh, no, wait—your diet—”
He plucked the box out of her hands. “I can indulge a little. Thanks.”
She smiled. “You’re free to share my popcorn as well. He gave me a large to score more brownie points.”
“Jeez,” Sam muttered, ripping open the box and pulling out the plastic bag. “Why didn’t he just give you one of everything?”
Rachel snorted. “He certainly tried hard enough.”
“So what about you?” he asked. “This doesn’t seem like the kind of movie you’d watch.”
“Would you like to retain your image of me or would you rather I tarnish it?”
He turned and stared at her. She looked so totally serious that he grinned—a first real, thorough grin since the fallout of Fabrevans. “Tarnish it.”
She sighed dramatically, pulled out a small Purell bottle from her handbag, and squeezed out a small dollop in the middle of her palm. “I’ve had a secret crush on Alex Pettyfer ever since that Alex Rider: Stormbreaker movie.”
He held his hand out for a dollop and continued grinning at her. “You’re watching this because of a celebrity crush? Are you even interested in the plot?”
She blushed and stowed the bottle back in her bag as they both rubbed their hands. “The story of an alien with superpowers trying to find shelter on Earth does have its interesting aspects. Timothy Olyphant can be relied on to bring a solid dramatic performance, and I’m curious to see who Teresa Palmer will play.”
“Yes or no?”
She huffed in defeat. “A little bit—enough to waste an afternoon watching it, I suppose.”
But they didn’t. Not really.
Alex Pettyfer really was only good for eye candy, so all Rachel had to do was glance at the screen to be satisfied. Timothy Olyphant wound up dying, so that definitely decreased the movie in her eyes. Not to mention that bizarre performance he gave where he was making the weirdest expressions after his little fight with John. For Sam, though, his excuse for not watching was obvious enough. Dianna and Quinn did look too much alike.
However, they did watch the final battle. The effects had been pretty cool—Number Six and John duking it out with that other alien. That recharging-thing between them was kind of awkward, though—the fan fiction that must’ve already been written inspired by that scene… But aside from that, he and Rachel wound up talking right through the whole thing.
Of course, there was that brief pause of awkwardness when the couple in the back started moaning, and Sam hooted out, “Oh, yeah! Get it! Get it! Oooh, yes!” His timing was perfect, of course, because John was beating up some kids, so his outburst could’ve gone both ways. Rachel was reduced to silent hysterics, and the moaning immediately stopped. The sucking noises resumed some three minutes later anyway.
It was pretty surprising, talking to Rachel. She only mentioned Broadway a few times, and it was only to better illustrate certain parallels. He found that he liked talking to her. She appreciated the occasional Sean Connery and James Earl Jones impression, and her expansive knowledge of stories and how to manipulate them so that the characters could be seen in a more dimensional perspective had him almost kowtowing to her. But most of all, she was funny. She could be funny in her naïve, innocent moments. She could be funny when she was all huffy after he teased her. She was funny when she was manically into something. She was just…really funny.
And for the first time in several days, the only times he thought about Quinn was when he turned and looked at the screen and saw Sarah. Otherwise, he was too preoccupied talking to Rachel.
She even managed to piss him off by pointing out that the only thing Avatar really had going for itself was its cinematography and special effects.
“Sam, for all intents and purposes, Avatar is just an alien version of Pocahontas.”
His mouth dropped. “Rachel!”
“No! No buts!” she insisted, picking up the half-empty popcorn bag and then setting it on his lap so she could shift in her seat to face. “The invasion of Pandora by humans searching for unobtanium—which is such an inspired and brilliant, name by the way—is essentially the same thing as the British invasion of the New World in search for gold! Jake is John Smith, Neytiri is Pocahontas, Quaritch is Radcliffe, Eytukan is Powhatan, Tsu’tey is Kokoum, and Grace is Thomas! Even the purpose of the story is the same thing! We can even transpose ‘Colors of the Wind’ during Jake’s training with the Na’vi, and it would work—all the flying and whatnot.”
Sam pursed his lips. “Well, fine. If we’re gonna talk about parallels, why don’t we throw in the similarities between that and Princess Mononoke?”
Rachel flipped her hair over her shoulder with a jerk of her head. “While the two movies do have certain similarities, Princess Mononoke is definitely more original with the integration of the spirits, the wolves, Lady Eboshi’s allegiances, and Prince Ashitaka’s original intentions of setting out to find the cure for the boar’s curse. You might find more parallels with Dances With Wolves.”
Sam balked at her. “How do you know all this?”
“Daddy’s a major movie buff. If you come to my house, you’ll see exactly how bad it is,” she sighed, sounding both proud and a little exasperated.
Sam smiled and nodded. “How about after the movie then? I’m free.”
Rachel looked a little shocked but masked it quickly. “Uh, sure! Dad and Daddy will be home, so you can really get the full tour, I suppose.”
“Sweet,” Sam said cheerfully. “Can’t wait.”
She looked at him with a funny expression—as if she was floored that he actually wanted to go to her house. And suddenly, he was feeling bad all over again. Even though she was the female lead of glee and the ex-girlfriend of the football quarterback, she was still a social pariah. She was an annoying, obsessive diva who cheated on Lima’s alleged golden boy with the heir to the cardboard crown of Lima Loserdom. Puck himself may have disagreed with Santana’s statement during Sectionals—about no one really liking Rachel—but the fact of the matter was that the rest of the gleeks only tolerated her because they knew she was their ticket to winning. They couldn’t live with her personality, but they couldn’t live without her talent either.
Because they only looked at her skin-deep. They only interacted with her in glee, and that was pretty much a battleground in and of itself. Not exactly the best place to have fun, easy conversations when Person A was bitching out on Person B, and Person C was having some sort of personal crisis involving Person D, E, and F. She was an outcast in all senses of the word. She was an outcast among outcasts, and that was a pretty sucky position right there.
Now don’t get him wrong—he wasn’t hanging out with her out of pity. He was hanging out with her because she was actually pretty awesome—if, you know, she wasn’t sending you to crackhouses because she felt threatened by your talent. Which was obviously not one of her better traits. He liked her. She was nice, smart, funny, and a serious movie buff—even if it was only because of her dad. She was a little messed up in her reasoning concerning some things, but all in all, she was one heck of a chick.
And honestly? He just really wanted a friend.
“You know, I’m actually quite happy with this movie,” she said as John and Six put the two rocks together.
“Really?” Sam asked disbelievingly.
“Oh, don’t sound so shocked. I’m satisfied with the action, the plot, the effects, and even the romance. It wasn’t one of those cliché popular-student-falls-for-the-outcast kind of dynamic that I’m well and sick of.”
He wondered if she was psychic. But what came out of his mouth instead (thankfully) was, “You sure? I thought you’d like that sort of thing?”
She sighed. “Normally, yes, I would. But things change. That metaphor is…wrong.”
Sam flipped his hair out of his eyes—a habit easily picked up but unfortunately, embarrassingly hard to stop—and cocked his head to the side. “Explain. Metaphor?”
“Yes, you see, when people watch movies or read stories, they immediately begin to empathize with the protagonist. And usually that protagonist is some sort of social outcast in order to subconsciously call out a reader’s insecurities to set up a foundation of how the story can be applied in real life. The love interest of the protagonist usually is someone pretty or handsome and well-liked and sweet in order to convey the message that perfection can be achieved.”
“But it’s just a fairy tale,” Sam continued for her, beginning to understand her thought process. “I mean, yeah, it’s a nice idea, but it’s not realistic. It’s like one of those old Disney movies. Sometimes there isn’t gonna be someone out there riding to your rescue in the nick of time.”
“Exactly. I appreciate Disney’s influence on my childhood because they taught me that I can achieve my dreams, but in the matters of the heart—”
“They really went all out bejeweling that bar and raising it up higher than anyone should ever really go.”
She blinked at him, and a smile slowly spread across her face. “Exactly.”
Yep, he’d definitely be hanging out with her more often.
“I want a realistic story,” she said. “I don’t want perfect anymore. I don’t want some ideal guy who matches up with the outline of the dream guy Disney encouraged me to have. I want someone real, someone I can talk to who listens, someone who values me as a person not as a singer or a trophy or a-a-a dream.”
“And is Finn that person?”
“He… Sam, Finn is…”
Sam reached out and rubbed her back reassuringly. “He’s the golden boy of Lima, Ohio who decided to brave the ruthless waters of social boundaries to find gold in the mysterious fathoms below.”
“We watch too many movies.”
“And he found gold—you.”
Her eyes softened, and she smiled a little. “Sam—”
“But just like Governor Radcliffe, he was wrong. He found gold in the metaphorical sense because he found you, but you’re not gold.”
She stiffened. “Okay, you went from complimenting me to insulting me, and now I don’t know how to feel about this.”
“You’re corn, Rachel.”
“Now I’m definitely insulted. Thank you.”
“You’re beautiful, golden, nutritious, delicious, natural, useful, real, a necessity—but Finn is still stupidly searching for gold because he doesn’t know a good thing if it danced the cha-cha slide in front of him and then crawled up his nose as a grand finale.”
“That was not a pretty picture, Samuel.”
“But it’s true, isn’t it?” Sam insisted knowingly. “You’re not the typical girl, Rach. You’re not cold, hard, worthless, useless gold. You’re corn.”
She leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “You’re corn too, Sam,” she said. “And to hell with Finn and Quinn because they just don’t deserve us.”
He understood her because he knew what it felt like to be unwanted.
The blue and purple spotlights lightened into soft white as the lights behind them continued to rotate. Schue was bobbing his head with the beat Puck was drumming out—a break from the norm since he didn’t want to be stuck forever as the guitar player. He nodded at Rachel, a habit they formed a long time ago from all the performances she made him put on in JCC.
“In our house, I hate that place,” she sang deeply, her voice reaching down into the lower registers as she dramatically surveyed the auditorium with a bitter eye—or so she said she was trying to do. “Everywhere I walk, I see your face—try to erase a memory with a flame and hope I’ll never see you again. Standing here, in this burning room, you know the end could never come so soon.”
“It’s clear to me the lies you used—the ones that killed me ain’t hurting you. So I, I, I know,” Sam sang, focusing on the way the shadow of Rachel’s hips swung back and forth with the rhythm. “I just gotta let it go. I, I should’ve known I gotta learn to say goodbye now. I throw my armor down and leave the battleground for the final time now.”
Santana, Mercedes, Brittany, and Artie were waving their phones like lighters. Mike and Lauren were mouthing along. Finn was smiling, actually enjoying the song. But still, Sam wouldn’t look at Quinn.
“I, I, I know,” he sang through gritted teeth. “I’m running from a warzone.”
“No, Sam—remember SOH-CAH-TOA!”
“Rachel, I’m dyslexic! When numbers are purposely mixed with words, I’m screwed!”
“Stop with the defeatist attitude, Sam!” she barked, gripping her mechanical pencil tighter. “We’re going to master this!”
The door to Rachel’s bedroom suddenly swung open and Leroy Berry gawped at the state. Books, papers, pencils, and notebooks were strewn all over the desk, the floor, and the bed. Two pencils were holding up the bun in Rachel’s hair, while the right half of Sam’s was sticking up from all the times he kept yanking on it. Their fingers were smudged with lead, and eraser shavings were turning portions of Rachel’s cream carpet dusty.
“If you haven’t mastered it after four nonstop hours, I think it’s time to call it a day,” Leroy said blandly. “Especially considering the three hours you were working on it before dinner.”
“Fine,” Rachel ceded, beginning to put away the books and papers.
“Leave it,” Sam said, pulling himself off her floor and holding out his hand for hers. “Let’s have a snack, and then we’ll clean this up.”
“Sam, you’re staying the night, right?” Leroy asked, then answered himself, “Of course you are. You’re going to be my guinea pig for the new pancake idea I’ve got for tomorrow morning. I’ll prep the guest room. I don’t even know why I bothered to ask; I already spoke to your father. By the way, don’t remind him of the forty I owe him from last week’s poker game.”
Sam grinned as he tugged a reluctant Rachel away from the aftermath of the catastrophe of Trigonometry tutoring. “Come on,” he urged, choosing to let her think she was too heavy to be dragged.
“Sam?” Leroy called out from where he’d headed into the guest room. “It’s in the pantry!”
“Thanks, Mr. Berry!” Sam called back.
“Leroy! For the love of God, it’s Leroy!” The tall man barked before disappearing into the room again, grumbling about Puck always calling him “homes” and not knowing which one was more preferable.
Sam laughed and finally hauled Rachel out of her room and nudged her down the stairs.
“What’s in the pantry?” she demanded as he led her into the kitchen.
“You’ll see,” he answered. “Go set up the fire, would you?”
“Sam Evans, it’s entirely too hot to be ‘setting up’ the fireplace,” Rachel said in perfect scolding-mother tone.
Sam paused in front of the closed pantry doors and shrugged his shoulders in defeat. “I guess you’ll never know what I had planned then,” he said disappointedly.
Rachel sighed and rolled her eyes, crossing her arms over her chest. She waited two seconds before giving up and walking back into the living room. “Your acting certainly has gotten better. I actually felt the inclination to believe you that time.”
“Ouch, Rach,” Sam said, not even bothering to hide his grin. “Ouch.”
He listened to her tossing blocks of firewood into the fireplace and striking matches as he pulled out the fixings for s’mores. He’d requested Mr. Be—Leroy—to get some vegan chocolate, vegan marshmallows, and vegan graham crackers after hearing from Puck about Rachel’s lack of experience with the staple childhood food. Apparently, summer camp was not the real summer camp Rachel.
So he was going to rectify that.
After that fateful day in the movies, Rachel could often be seen with her tall, blonde shadow. Finn didn’t take it very well and neither did Quinn, but considering their circumstances, they weren’t in any positions to complain. The rest of the gleeks seemed to take it all in their stride, only taking three days to get used to the sight of the two most unlikely people in the group hanging out together.
Puck and Lauren, though, were the ones who didn’t seem at all fazed. Sam refused to ask why. Those two were crazy, and he didn’t wanna get infected.
His hands were full with Rachel already anyway. Not that he was complaining. She swept into his life with scheduled movie nights, mandatory dinners with both families, tutoring, weekly scholarship searches, glee practice—she even forced him into yoga, and his back had never been more grateful.
When Sam’s dad had confided in Leroy and Hiram about being laid off, the Berrys stepped in and helped him find a new job to keep the Evanses from having to move into a motel. Rachel herself eagerly took Stevie and Stacy to Chuck E. Cheese, the park, the fair, the amusement park, the lake, the movies, and everywhere else she could possibly think a kid could have fun and not worry about the state of the family finances. She helped Sam with school, devising strategies for him to keep up with work in spite of his dyslexia. She distracted him from dwelling too much on Finn and Quinn’s reunion—to the point where he actually managed to get over Quinn.
She saved his life.
She was his best friend.
So if all he could do in return was show her how awesome s’mores were, then he’d do it to the best of his abilities.
He ducked out of the kitchen and nearly smacked into Hiram Berry.
“Here,” the older man said excitedly, handing him the rolled-up sleeping bag. “Have fun, and please don’t burn the house down.”
“I know, Mr. Be—Hiram,” Sam corrected himself in time.
Hiram smiled at him wryly. “Thank you, Samuel. Now go! She’s gonna get suspicious if you don’t show up soon.”
Sam shot him another smile before tucking the sleeping back under his arm, dashing back into the kitchen to grab the stuff, and then jogging into the living room. Rachel was waiting on the couch, a small fire already blazing behind the grate.
She stood up as soon as he walked in. “Sam, what is all that?”
He ignored her while he set everything down, pushed the coffee table aside, spread out the sleeping bag, and gestured for her to sit.
“So I was talking to Puck, and he wound up telling me about how you two went to summer camp together,” Sam said by means of an explanation. She smoothed down the back of her skirt and sat down primly. Then he handed her a long metal rod with a marshmallow already stuck to the end. “Apparently, you didn’t get the full experience, and don’t you tell you had it because you don’t have the full experience of summer camp until you’ve had s’mores.”
“But I’m ve—”
“—gan,” he finished for her wryly. He moved the grate away from the fire, picked up his own skewered marshmallow, sat down beside her, and then started roasting. “I know. That’s why I got your dads to help me. Leroy made sure all the food’s vegan-friendly since the store’s on his way home from work, and Hiram found the sleeping bag in the attic.”
He glanced at her to see she was watching him with her eyes all misty.
“Oh, hey, don’t start that,” he said, throwing an arm around her shoulder and setting down his marshmallow so he could help her with hers. “It’s just s’mores, Rach. After everything you’ve done for me, this is nothing.”
She shook her head and sniffled a little. “Yeah,” she chuckled thickly. “It’s just s’mores.”
“There you go!” he said, grinning. “Now just hold it over the fire long enough so…”
And then he taught her how to roast marshmallows. Yes, he got burned about eight times, and it took them close to twenty marshmallows to get the perfect one, but in the end it was all worth it. As soon as Rachel took her first bite, her mouth dropped and she glared at him.
“Make me more,” she ordered through a mouthful.
Sam laughed and prepared another marshmallow. “Hence the name.”
She finished off the one in her hand and settled closer to his side, her head resting on his shoulder. “So what else did Noah tell you about summer camp?” she asked knowingly.
Sam glanced down at her and blushed a little. He scratched his head in embarrassment and grinned sheepishly. “Just the s’mores thing.”
“Of course, that would be his most outstanding memory of summer camp,” she huffed, rolling her eyes. “He spent the entire week trying to force feed me marshmallows. Even when I told him I’d eat it if it was vegan, he insisted that I hated marshmallows and was a disgrace to children around the world. Oh, don’t worry. He became less dramatic as we passed into junior high, but I’m sure he’s retained some of that melodramatic tendencies over the years.”
Sam chuckled. “So what else happened if you’re so disappointed that was all he remembered?”
“He set Jacob Ben-Israel’s hair on fire,” she answered blandly.
Sam nearly set himself on fire when he collapsed in a fit of hysterics.
“It’s really not funny! That’s what started Noah on the pyromania and his hobby of bullying Jacob!” Rachel protested half-heartedly, unable to hide her own smile.
“Is that why—his hair is all—funky like it is now?” Sam wheezed between laughs.
Rachel shook her head, chuckling. “If it isn’t, I’m sure it was a contributing factor.”
“Did you get pushed into the lake?” Sam continued, righting himself so he could keep roasting the marshmallow.
“No, I didn’t get infected by poison ivy or bitten by anything either,” she added as an afterthought. “I was in charge of fireside jams, naturally. Noah was my guitarist and backup vocalist or duet partner, of course.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “Wouldn’t have expected anything less.”
“He was my first kiss too.”
The marshmallow turned to ashes. “What?”
“He was my first kiss,” she repeated, unfazed. “We were arguing about song selection when he just leaned forward and planted one on me. I’m sure it was just to shut me up, but it was my first kiss nonetheless. I know for a fact that I was his too—but he’ll probably never admit to that. Uh, why are you looking at me like that?”
“Do you…like Puck? I mean, you two grew up together. From a cinematic point of view, I think you two getting together would make a lot of sense, actually,” Sam observed casually.
But Rachel knew better. She sat up and faced him. “It does, actually. I mean, the parallels between our lives would naturally lead a third party to see how a relationship could easily blossom between Noah and myself. However this isn’t a movie, Sam. Noah…is my friend. If Lauren wasn’t dating him and if…” She trailed off, her eyes moving away to frown at the box of graham crackers.
He watched her carefully. “If Finn?” he prompted.
Her frown darkened. “No, I wasn’t going to say Finn,” she said. “Finn… Looking back now, I know that Finn and I wouldn’t have worked out well. Sure, we may have survived high school, but if you put us any further into the future, it all would’ve fallen apart. We’re not good for each other in that way, I know that now.”
Sam rubbed his neck. “So who were you going to say?”
“Do you remember Dawson’s Creek?”
“Uh, yeah—I don’t wanna wait—that one, right?”
She laughed, and his chest got all warm. “Yeah, that one. Well, in the series finale, everyone thought that Joey was going to end up with Dawson. For the entire run of the show, those two were dancing around each other. Oh, sure they dated other people, but they were always on each other’s peripheries.”
“Are you saying Puck is your Dawson?”
She ignored him. “Well, in the finale, they both agreed that they were best friends, lovers, soul mates,” she continued. He watched her hands moving around, gesturing emphatically. “They were beyond soul mates, in fact—that was what they meant to each other. No word could truly encompass what they were.”
“And Joey ended up with Pacey, Dawson’s goofy clown of a best friend.”
“Rachel, where are you going with this?”
“If our lives were a movie or a TV show, I would think that Finn was my Dawson, and Noah was my Pacey,” she explained. “But this is real life, Sam. This isn’t The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, or even Dawson’s Creek.”
She twiddled her fingers, her hair falling around her face. “So I don’t want Dawson or Pacey. I want…” She finally looked up, her teeth biting down on her lower lip. “I don’t want gold—I want corn.”
Now Sam may have been dyslexic, but he was most definitely not stupid. Not by a long shot. As soon as she started that Dawson’s Creek spiel, he kind of figured out where the conversation was going.
They had started out right—they had been friends. But when she bought him a pack of Chapstick when Karofsky and Azimio stole his stash and hid it claiming that they were trying to keep him from emasculating himself by using lipstick, she became his best friend. When she showed up at his house with a bag of food, demanding an Avatar marathon on the afternoon of the day Finn and Quinn started dating again, he started to understand exactly why Puck and Lauren looked at him and Rachel the way they did. When she didn’t tell a soul about his family’s money issues even though he never asked her to, he started to fall in love with her little by little.
It stung. Oh, it stung like the spawn of jellyfish and electric eels mated with the offspring of wasps and fire ants. Quinn…hurt him. He still could barely look at her let alone carry a conversation or even say “hi.” He was afraid that meant he was still hung up on her, but he was never jealous of Finn. They deserved each other, frankly. But that didn’t take away from the fact that there were exes who could be friends and exes who just can’t. He and Quinn were the latter. He wished her the best, but he also wished the best for her was far, far away.
But whenever he thought of relationships, Rachel was never far from his mind. She was abrasive, obnoxious, annoying, mean, and vindictive. She was sweet, talented, loving, considerate, innocent, and beautiful. She was a sour gummy worm, a cactus fig, a rose. She was the girl who didn’t grimace at him when he went off on a movie-related tangent. She was the girl who either passionately agreed with him or fought him until he had to get her a cold drink to calm down. She was the girl who comforted him, made him laugh, pissed him off, made him happy. Rachel was an all-or-nothing girl. She was fire or ice. She was both volatile ends of the spectrum, and his world had never been more colorful.
He set the metal rod down, cupped her face in his hands, lifted her head up, and kissed her.
She ruined s’mores for him that night. Because they would never taste as good unless they were on her lips.
“I’m running from a warzone,” Rachel sang, the lights in a frenzy behind them. “I can’t do this anymore.”
Sam gripped the microphone tighter, throat and chest humming. He knew this song, he understood the song, he felt the freaking song. Sometimes he really hated how Rachel knew how to pick songs. “I’m running from a warzone. What are we fighting for?”
And then he finally looked at her. Guilt, sadness, regret—all plastered across her beautiful face. Because no matter how much Quinn hurt him, Sam was a good guy. He wouldn’t call her ugly because she wasn’t. She was just…screwed up. She was a beautiful, sweet girl who wasn’t done making mistakes yet. But he was done with her.
It was only a matter of time before she and Finn started dating again, and while Rachel was still a little sore over him dumping her for essentially the same thing he’d done, she’d admitted that she was over him. She’d packed up, left, and was now scouring the countryside for greener pastures.
So it was high time he moved on too. He didn’t know where, but unlike Quinn, he knew he’d be moving on to something better. Because sometimes love didn’t have to be a battlefield.
“Mmm, I’m running from a warzone…”
She was perfect.
You couldn’t see it if you just saw her walking down the hallway, no. You had to have a…different perspective. You had to appreciate every single part of her individually—realize that it was perfect in and of itself. Every cell, every inch, every quirk.
She complained about her eyes constantly. They were just a boring brown, nothing significant, but she was wrong. The way they darkened when he’d pull her onto his lap and kiss her bare shoulder, his tongue flicking out to taste her skin, the way they glittered when he sang a note just right or answered a problem flawlessly or when she was simply looking at him, the way they’d consume him as she locked eyes with him as she came—hard, hot, wet, and tight around his cock. Her eyes were perfect.
She wasn’t a fan of her fingers. Even though they were small, they weren’t…delicate and slim like Quinn’s. But she was wrong again. They were soft and gentle when he held her hand in his and when she ran her fingers through his hair. He’d noticed them the first time they’d rehearsed their “Warzone” duet—she was playing the piano intro, and he wondered why she never played it during glee before. She always played the most beautiful songs on the piano—light melodies and soft lullabies that made him feel like what he was hearing was Rachel in music form. Those fingers managed to imbue every cookie, brownie, cupcake, and pie she made with a kind of magic comparable to crack. Those fingers were warm and tender when she stroked his face or brushed his hair back from his forehead. Those fingers were strong, firm, loving, gentle, and every other contradiction in the world when she held him. Her fingers were perfect.
She didn’t have abs. Her stomach was soft and just a little bit rounded if she had a big meal. But he loved that stomach. He loved lying on it, rubbing it as he spooned her from behind, kissing it, nibbling on it, imagining how she’d look pregnant with his baby. He loved pressing his ear against it and teasing her when he heard her stomach rumble. He loved how she’d instinctively curl up so she was cradling his head. He loved cooking for her and making it round all by himself. He liked knowing that he could cook for her and that she actually liked it. Her tummy was perfect.
She bemoaned her impulse control. She hated how her lack of it could sometimes get the best of her—alienating people with her painful-but-truthful comments, hurting people by sending them to inactive crackhouses, and unintentionally insulting others when she was simply trying to emphasize her own talents. Honestly, he loved it. He’d never say it out loud because it would sound disturbingly misogynistic, but he loved that she needed him to control her. He loved that he was the one everyone relied on to keep Rachel from saying something that could get her slapped by Santana. He loved that she needed him. And he most certainly loved it when she’d randomly hop onto his lap and start kissing and grinding on him. Her impulse control was perfect.
She worried about her own pride. She worried that while she was proud of herself, it had probably long-since turned into arrogance. Pride comes before the fall and all that jazz. But he loved her pride. He loved that she could stand up and say that she was obscenely talented because it was true. He never worried about her arrogance because he knew about all the fears and insecurities that she harbored. He knew that if she didn’t have that—that abundance of confidence—she would never have touched a microphone. He loved her arrogance because it kept her from hiding. And if there was ever a person who shouldn’t hide, it was Rachel Berry. Because a star should never hide. Her pride was perfect.
She hated her nose. Simple as that. It was a big Jewish nose that, when accidentally broken by Finn, was very nearly replaced with a copy of Quinn’s when her idiot doctor told her she’d be better off. He loved that nose. He loved that it was what she used to tie herself to Babs. He loved that it set her apart from all those other girls whose noses were just some facial feature that you could easily glaze over. He loved that he could kiss it without him feeling like his damned huge lips made it look like he was eating her face. Her nose was perfectly proportioned, perfectly sculpted, and perfectly suited her face because Sam Evans would not change a thing on Rachel Berry’s person under pain of death. Her nose was perfect.
Her body was perfect. Her mind was perfect. Her personality was perfect. Her spirit was perfect. Because every single part of her made her Rachel Berry, and if anything changed, it wouldn’t be her. You couldn’t mix and match other people’s parts to make up a perfect human being. It’d just be a patchwork job where nothing worked with anything else. With Rachel, everything worked together in perfect harmony.
She was perfect.
And he wanted her. He needed her. He loved her.
And she wanted him back, needed him back, loved him back.
And then they sang together for the first time in perfect, painful, beautiful harmony, “I, I, I know I just gotta let it go. I, I should’ve known I gotta learn to say goodbye now. I throw my armor down and leave the battleground for the final time now. I, I, I know I’m running from a warzone.”
The gleeks applauded, Schue gave them A’s or whatever he gave out for “assignments,” they thanked Puck and Tina, and then left the auditorium.
“Are you okay?” Rachel asked him worriedly as they walked down the hallway.
“Yeah,” he answered truthfully. “Yeah, I’m good.”
“You’ll find someone, you know,” she reassured him earnestly, her hand on his arm. “You’ll find someone who’s right for you. They’ll know what they want so you don’t have to worry about being jealous. And they will most definitely never let you go, Sam.”
He smiled down at her lopsidedly and nodded. He reached up to put his hand over hers and squeeze. “I know.”
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