|Heart's False Start
Author: Sappho's Ghost PM
It begins as most things do: with a kiss. / After a break up with Brittany, Santana moves in with Quinn and things spin out of control. Future fic, rated M. Contains graphic depictions of violence.Rated: Fiction M - English - Drama/Angst - Quinn F. & Santana L. - Chapters: 5 - Words: 73,027 - Reviews: 301 - Favs: 393 - Follows: 431 - Updated: 02-01-13 - Published: 04-16-12 - Status: Complete - id: 8030864
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A/N: It's been a very long time coming, but here it is: my swan song. Started for Faye, finished for myself, and written with every ounce of strength that I contain. Thank you for your devotion to my words, and for your patience.
Please note that this chapter contains graphic depictions of violence.
The specialist waits patiently at the makeshift airfield set up a hundred yards beyond the perimeter of the As Sweimreh fence. His hands shake as he clings awkwardly to his rifle. He needs to make that stop, and soon. When the Blackhawks touch down, he won't be afforded the luxury of nerves. He has a duty to attend to. It's not right that his charges be greeted by a soldier with shaking hands. He's thankful, at least, that he's not the one out there retrieving them.
He's barely twenty years old, on his first tour and perpetually scared shitless. These hand tremors aren't new, but there's less fear in them tonight, and more nerves. He wants to do a good job, please his commander, bring honor to his charges while they're in his care. That's what he's been told to call them: charges. He's in charge of them, in charge of making sure they're taken care of, that all their things are accounted for, that they're sent back to their families in pristine condition.
Well, as pristine as one can be when one is missing several important body parts.
The Blackhawk can be heard a long way off, and its blinking landing lights loom overhead as he takes a few steps back, shielding his eyes from the violent spray of sand that the rotating blades kick up. When the legs land firm, three grunts jump from the body of the chopper and begin their duty. It's part of what they do. When things take a turn for the worse and search and rescue becomes search and recovery, the grunts go out and come back with whatever's left. That's what he's been told, anyway.
"You from M.A.?" one of them shouts over the heavy drum of the engine. The specialist nods and the grunt returns the gesture. "Never seen you before. Shit luck, a rookie like you getting a job like this. This one ain't pretty."
"Are they ever?" the specialist asks, and the grunt shakes his head.
"No. I guess they're not. Happy fuckin' New Year."
The grunts pull the black plastic bags from the chopper and put them on the waiting gurneys. He leads the group back inside the perimeter fence and into the bunker they'd dug out for this express purpose. They can't do this type of work above ground, where temperatures can get up to a hundred and thirty degrees. The specialist pushes open the aluminum door and a burst of cool air comes rushing out. He urges the grunts and their gurneys down the entrance ramp and quickly through, trying to keep the interior as cold as possible. It's a delicate balance, and he can't screw it up on his first job. They leave the gurneys and go in quick, snapping, heel-toe formation. There are other missions, other search and recoveries. These aren't the only soldiers to have died.
There are four other specialists in the large stone room. They're all young, like him, except the one in the corner that watches their movements as they bump into one another in their rush to begin. This is an intricate dance, and the old man in the corner has gone through the motions with them, but this is their first solo run. He won't step in unless there's a catastrophe. But at this point, the biggest of the catastrophes in their charges' lives have long since passed.
There's a procedure they have to follow. This is the army; there's a procedure for everything. The two specialists over the table remove the clothes, giving all possessions found on the body to the two with the clipboards. While they catalog every item and its condition, down to the serial number on the crumpled five dollar bill in the left breast pocket, the first two specialists begin assessing their charge.
There's a form they must fill out, with an outline of a body on a blank white page. They have to begin by noting each birthmark, scar and tattoo. Their size and shape and color, with a description. It's common for soldiers to get their ID numbers tattooed in various places around their bodies, in case they were killed without their dog tags, and they needed another form of identification.
Then they'll note each place in which their charge has been wounded. A black X for each bullet or shrapnel entrance wound. A slash for every cut. Sometimes their charges are too badly damaged to recognized, or they come back home missing pieces, and the recovery team couldn't find that particular piece. If that's the case, then they shade it black on their form.
The specialist and his colleague lift the first black bag onto a steel table beneath a row of fluorescent lights. The other two gather their paperwork, making sure they have everything they need before they begin. The bag is unzipped and pulled away, and even with a mask over his face, the specialist has to swallow the bile that rises in his throat from the smell.
The body is rancid. It had taken them too long to recover it, nearly two days after the informant had given up its location in the desert. The flesh is red and bloated from being slow-cooked in the Syrian sun. As he attempts to bend the joints in the arms, stiff with rigor, to remove the bloodstained clothing and inspect every angle, the specialist hears them scrape and groan. The only point that isn't unforgiving is the torso, which pivots loosely enough that he can pull the corpse into a sitting position. His charge is shirtless, but he must inspect every inch to be thorough.
There are no dog tags on the body, and he can understand why, but he's lucky enough to find an identification number tattooed down the torso. He calls it out, and it's written down. There are innumberable slashes crisscrossing the back, seeping and infested with maggots. Their charge was whipped again and again, then dumped on his back in the sand.
Make the marks, he tells his colleague. Count them again, to make sure. Then add an X in the bicep, four inches from the elbow. Two more, one in each knee, where bullets shattered the caps to powder, and a fifth in the right calf, which is hardly visible beneath the extensive burns that cover most of that leg. Make a note about the feet, he says. They're swollen and bruised, and not just from the blood pooling. It's a common form of torture, the beating of the feet. With cables or pipes or ropes. Whatever's handy. The specialist suspects a pipe here. He looks up at his superior, sitting grim-faced in the corner. The older man nods his agreement with the specialist's assessment. Write that down, he says. His colleague does as he's told, and the specialist lays the body back down and reaches for the hose to begin washing it clean.
"And the head," he says, breathing through his mouth. "Shade it black."
Quinn stumbles through the snow on the stoop of Rivke's tiny little building, cursing as she slips up the steps. She yanks her suitcase up behind her, feeling the wheels get stuck in the slush. Her keys jingle in her mittened hand, and the hat on her head begins to slip down over her eyes as she fumbles to find the main door key in the mess of them on her ring.
"Goddamn it," she hisses, and stops halfway up the steps. She adjusts her hat, finds the key, and hoists the suitcase up and over the drift so she can make it to the top without killing herself. The sweet relief of the warmth inside the foyer greets her wind-burned cheeks, and she stops to bask in it, pulling a small smile.
"You got mail," Rivke says from her open door, a hand on her fleshy hip. "It don't fit in box while you were gone. Take it, get it out of my house."
Quinn is too happy to be home to squabble with her landlady about the snowy stoop, so she takes the pile of mail from Rivke's hand. "Thank you," she says, wondering what could possibly have arrived for her in the week that she'd gone back to Ohio for Christmas. "And Happy New Year, Rivke."
"Happy nothing until I get rent check," she snaps, and shuts her door with a bang.
It's good to be home, Quinn thinks, and schleps her bag up the flight of stairs. She's still searching for the house key when the door flies open and Brittany sweeps her inside, pulling the suitcase-snow and all-into the living room. As soon as the door is shut and locked, a set of strong arms are around her shoulders, pinning her elbows to her sides.
"It hasn't been that long, Britt," she says, patting the small of Brittany's back until she's released, and sucks in a deep breath that she'd been kept from taking in Brittany's hold. "Did you take some kind of Krav Maga class while you were in LA? Jesus, I think you broke my ribs." She rubs her sides and Britt laughs.
"I just missed you is all," she says, helping Quinn out of her coat and pulling her down onto the couch. "How was Christmas in Ohio?"
Boring, she says. She fought with her mom ("You have all those loans to pay off, Quinnie, and still no man to take care of you!") and her dad got drunk when they went out to dinner ("It was bad enough that your sister is a divorcee, but now you're telling me you're one of those queers?"), so she left before dessert arrived and didn't return his phone calls. But it's nothing new in this long, repetitive history of the relationship between Russell Fabray and his daughter.
"What about you?" she asks, smiling and poking Brittany in the side. "Did you see Alex while you were in LA?"
Britt bites her lower lip and stares at her hands. She's been biting her nails again, and Quinn can see they're down to nubs.
"Britt?" There's a pause that sucks the air from the room and Quinn can think of only two ways that the tension will be broken.
"Yeah, I saw him."
It's a vague answer, and she knows it. Quinn can hear the hesitation in it, and what sounds a lot like guilt. She cocks her head to one side, scooting closer on the couch.
"And?" she asks, softening her tone so there's no pressure on Brittany to answer if she doesn't want to.
There's a pause, a heavy swallow. Quinn knows what that means.
She had seen it coming, really. It was one of only two options for Brittany once she was back in LA. The other would have been Brittany skulking around LA avoiding him at all cost (despite their agreement that she would talk to him while she was there), only seeing him from across a room or at an industry party. Sleeping with him seemed more likely, though. Brittany had never been one to skulk.
Quinn takes the worry-bitten hands in hers and pulls them into her lap. She doesn't say anything, just waits.
"We went out to dinner, just to talk," Brittany says, trying to explain, or convince herself that she's okay with what happened. "We split a bottle of wine, and it was like nothing had ever happened. Even after six months he just wanted to make sure I was happy and he didn't try to win me back or anything or pressure me and I remembered what it felt like to have someone who wanted to be with me. I spent so much time pining over Santana that I'd forgotten how good it feels to be the first thing someone thinks about when they wake up. I was tipsy and it just happened, and now I don't know what to do."
Quinn lifts a hand and uses her thumb to swipe the tear that had fallen from the corner of Brittany's eye. She scoots closer on the couch and pulls Brittany into a hug that rivaled the one she'd received when she'd gotten home.
"Do you want to make it work with him?" she asks, and Brittany scooches in tight against her side.
"I don't know," she says. "It's there, all those things I used to feel. But there's this... guilt? For being able to forgive him so easily for what he did, for being happy when Santana is gone."
Quinn nods solemnly, stroking a hand through Brittany's long, light hair. Her fingers untangle the knots and brush it smooth. She smells like jasmine and vanilla, and it's a smell that's become both familiar and comforting. She can't imagine Brittany leaving, taking that smell with her if she decided to go back to LA, back to Alex. She doesn't think she could handle all of this on her own.
"He didn't know, B," she says, despite herself. "He thought he was taking care of you. He couldn't have known what he was doing. And I don't think I've ever seen a guy work so hard to prove how sorry he is." The warmth of the body next to her rubs off the chill of the evening, and she swallows the last of her selfishness. "There's nothing wrong with wanting to be happy. She would want that for you."
Brittany lets out something that sounds like a laugh-sob and she nods into Quinn's shoulder. "Isn't that just the thing, though?" she says. "Maybe I can't be happy with anyone else. Look how quickly I ran when... look at how quickly I ruined it, when she came between me and Alex."
She squeezes Brittany tighter to her body, knowing how she feels. That fear that she might never be happy, that she'd given up her one shot at it. She feels it so deep in her bones in her every waking moment, and it lingers on in her dreams. Dreams of Santana alone in the dark and suddenly she's taken by plumes of fire and all the while it's silent, and Quinn can do nothing but watch from somewhere high above.
"You didn't ruin anything," she says, pressing her lips to the top of Brittany's head. "You have a guy in LA who basically stopped his life to wait for you to come around. He loves you. And you love him, don't you? After all this time apart, you think about him, you miss him."
"Of course," Brittany says, surprising only herself at the quickness of her response. "But I might hate myself for settling, if I go back."
Quinn scoffs and rolls her eyes. "No you wouldn't. How is going back to LA to be happy with someone you love settling?"
Brittany's head is tucked beneath Quinn's arm, her cheek on Quinn's chest. She takes a deep, thoughtful breath that Quinn can feel, so she knows Brittany is at least considering what she said. She takes a few more of them, audible in the quiet of the small apartment, just thinking. And Quinn doesn't push further, because this isn't an instantaneous decision. There are factors to account for, feelings that need to be processed. And Brittany has to do that on her own.
"Say you're right," she says, after the silence had grown from moments to minutes. "Say I go back to LA, and I'm happy. What happens to you?"
The hand moving through Brittany's hair stills at her temple, fingers laced at the scalp. "I stay here. Work, try to find a job. It's not about me, anyway. You go get your guy. I'll be okay." She smiles and kisses the top of Brittany's head, to reinforce the point.
"I don't think you will be, though." Brittany slips out from under Quinn's arm and sits upright, tucking her legs underneath her. "Maybe I'm not the only one that needs to be convinced I deserve happiness."
"No, you let me finish." Brittany's eyes narrow and her brows knit together in a stern, maternal sort of way that ought to be accompanied by a wagging finger. But Brittany's hands stay in her lap, thumbs twiddling. So Quinn demures, slumping like an apologetic child.
"You do deserve happiness, Quinn. And love. I don't think you know that. Ever knew it, really. Your life has just been one mess after another, ever since we were kids. You needed all this love that you just never got, so you loved yourself and no one else. Not, like, selfishly. You just did what you had to because no one ever loved you like you needed. No one ever taught you what it felt like. So when you finally had it, you didn't know what to do, and you panicked. It's totally understandable."
"I know how to love, Brittany." Quinn crosses her arms over her chest defensively, pressing her back against the arm of the couch like she's being backed into a corner. "I've loved so many people in my life. Puck, Finn, Sam, Joe..."
Brittany scoffs and Quinn is a little offended. "Did you really loved those guys, or were you telling yourself that because it felt better than admitting that you were using them?" she asks, leaning forward and yanking Quinn's hands out from her crossed arms to squeeze them tightly. "And did any of them ever really love you?"
Quinn is quiet, staring at a fray in the upholstery of the couch. She pulls one of her hands free to pick at it.
"Other than Beth," Brittany presses. "Has anyone ever loved you-truly loved you, Quinn, unconditionally-in your entire life?"
They both know the answer, and Brittany isn't going to force Quinn to say it out loud. It would be salt in the wound. She's already made Quinn cry, her head hung and face hidden behind a waterfall of hair so the only way she knows Quinn is crying is by the drops of water falling on their entwined hands. Brittany gives her a minute, letting her pick at that thread like a scab.
"It's just so funny, you know?" she says, pulling Quinn's hand back into hers when the hole in the fabric begins to widen. "Because Santana had the same problem. No one ever loved her. Even me, for a while. I didn't choose her first. And even though you both were going through the same thing you had such different reactions. You don't know how to love other people, but she doesn't know how to love herself. So you both need some lessons. And I think the only people who can really teach you are each other. You just fit right."
Brittany pulls Quinn off the arm of the couch, fighting to get her to come out of her corner until Quinn concedes and allows Brittany to hold her. They fit better this way, Brittany's long arms wrapping fully around Quinn and cradling her. There's nothing left for either of them to say, so it's best to just sit like this, stew in it for a while.
She looks around the living room where she's lived for the last six months. There's a Japanese folding shade set up in the corner, where a single bed has been set up behind it. The couch is actually a couch again, even though it makes the room even smaller than it already was. Quinn has never complained, and Brittany gets a sudden sense of what it must have been like for Santana after she'd fled LA. Being swaddled in this environment that's a safety net against everything that's chasing you. It's comforting. She can see why Santana came here, why she stayed, and, after spending so much time with Quinn, how she fell in love. She doesn't like it, but she understands it.
Leaning forward, she picks the stack of mail Quinn had brought in up off the coffee table, she flips through it, sorting Quinn's letters from hers before handing a stack, including the large white folded envelope, over to Quinn.
It's a domestic little affair, going through their mail together. Separating bill from junk, because that's all they ever get these days. Brittany still has a permanent address in LA, but some of that has been forwarded along. She's done before Quinn, who seems stuck on the contents of that big envelope. Her eyes are wide and flicking left to right as she reads, lips parted as if to speak.
"What is it?" she asks, and Quinn lowers the folded stack of paper.
"Britt," Quinn says, lifting her gaze to meet Brittany's as the corners of her mouth curl upward. "I did it. I passed the Bar."
They arrive home nearly seven months after they left, a week after the rest of world had rung in a new year. It's a silent, solemn affair. Their escorts don't like the duty, but in war certain traditions must be upheld. They honor the dead, going through the motions of unfolding new flags, ironing them free of their pressed wrinkles and laying them with precision over the temporary metal boxes that have been used to carry a hundred other bodies back to weeping families. These dutiful men greet these families at the front of the hanger, and escort them to their proper caskets. The military chaplains are ever-present, lingering at the edges of the hanger to wait for a polite way to introduce themselves. Most families want this sort of surface level comfort, despite knowing that each chaplain has a monologue prepared. The army gives them a script from which they're told not to deviate. Most of them are seasoned enough to know what to say to just be vague enough that no one really gets hurt. Or more hurt than they already are.
"Your son gave his life for his country," he will say. "Your daughter is a hero. We are all called to serve, and they answered the call and served with honor. You should be proud of their sacrifice."
But the parents of a dead child find it difficult to take pride in death. The wives of dead husbands holding the hands of fatherless children see murder, not sacrifice.
"Private Erickson was a courageous man, ma'am," the chaplain says on that cold January day, and Georgia clings to Ana in silence. "I spoke to his commanding officer, and he tells me your husband was very brave during his captivity. He died a hero."
Georgia refuses to cry. Not in front of her daughter, who asks for daddy every day. Not in front of this chaplain, who's just doing his job, but whom she wants to slap for his assertion. She'd watched the ransom video that the insurgents had sent to the military. She'd seen her husband on his knees with AK-47s at his temple. He'd had a bag over his head and a painful burn on his leg. He'd soiled himself. He looked the opposite of a hero. And she was sure he'd have said so, too.
I shat myself, G, he would have said. What kind of a hero shits himself?
"If there is anything I or the army can do for you in this devastating time, please don't hesitate to call me." He presses a business card into her hand and she nods, but doesn't intend to call anyone. The army has taken everything from her, but she won't take a thing from them. She swears on her husband's makeshift coffin that she won't let them own her. Not like they had owned Bobby, like they had used him and thrown him away.
There are Mortuary Affairs teams waiting to transfer the plywood coffins within the aluminum cases into the care of a local morticians hired by the families. They take over once the chaplain has walked away, and Georgia waves them on, wanting it done and over with so she can go on planning his funeral in peace.
She's not quite sure that peace is what she'll get, but she hopes for it anyway.
"Dada," Ana mumbles, pointing at the room full of flag-draped boxes. The flag had always been associated with daddy. Georgia is sure that her daughter will have this association for the rest of her life. When she's twenty-five and walking down the street and sees the Stars and Stripes waving overhead, she'll stop and pause and feel a pang, even though she's not sure why. Maybe she'll mistake it for a sense of patriotism. Only Georgia will remember this day, when they'd come to bring daddy home, only to take a flag back with them instead.
"Dada's in heaven, baby," Georgia says, bouncing the toddler on her hip. "Dada's gone away. But he loves you very much."
Ana's lower lip juts and trembles, and Georgia pulls her in tight to her chest. The last thing she needs is a sobbing child's cries echoing off the walls of the air hanger. There are other people mourning, other wives and other children. Today is a day of sadness for everyone. It isn't right that their lives be interrupted any more than they already are. The little body struggles against hers for a moment before settling. The girl brings her hand to her mouth and sucks on her fingers self-soothingly. She has nothing else to calm her down.
There are a dozen other caskets, a dozen other families. At the far end of the hanger, she sees Jenny all in black, her body draped across the top of a box, wracked with sobs. She can hear her from here, screaming, "Why, why? God, please, why?" as though God will give her answers. There are no answers for something like this. There are no reasons. Only chaplains standing by, talking about sacrifice.
There are two older women with her. One is clearly her mother, and the other is probably Williams'. Mrs. Williams has a handkerchief pressed to her nose and sunglasses over her eyes, standing stiff and straight. Jenny's mother rubs her daughter's back and tries to soothe her. Nothing will calm the girl, and Georgia admires her ability to completely lose control. It's not something that she has the luxury to do.
The rest of the boxes, she assumes, are filled with other remains. Pieces, like Bobby.
They had briefed her one what to expect when his body was returned. They'd told her, but she didn't believe it. She couldn't comprehend that kind of violence. They had told her that she didn't want to see it, but it was her prerogative if that's what she decided. But he wouldn't be whole. He wouldn't have an open casket. They'd recommended cremation before they shipped him home, even offered to take care of it for her. But how was she supposed to be satisfied with that? She sent away a man. She wouldn't be returned an urn full of ash.
It doesn't matter that he isn't whole. That he doesn't have all the characteristics of the husband that had left her on the tarmac seven months before. His clear blue eyes and his big ears and sharp jaw. They're gone. Unrecoverable. She'd rather have what's left, even if she doesn't have the strength to look at it for herself.
The funeral director is shutting the door to the hearse, and the Mortuary Affairs officers are carefully folding Bobby's flag. The younger of the two, no more than twenty, presents it to her, swallowing hard as she takes it.
"This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation and the United States Army as a token of appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service."
His heels click and he's off to fold another flag, recite another line. The army got a soldier. She got a body and a flag.
"San'na," Ana says around wet fingers. "Mama, San'na."
Georgia bites her lip. That's just one more thing she can't explain to a toddler, and she thinks losing daddy is quite enough for one day. "Santana's not here, baby. Let's go home, okay?"
"San'na," she insists, kicking her feet and screwing up her face in anger. "San'na!"
Counting to ten isn't going to release the frustration Georgia feels building, but she tries it anyway. She closes her eyes and rocks her daughter quietly, mouthing the numbers while she listens to the idling engine of the hearse just outside the hanger.
She gets to six before she hears an unfamiliar sound that doesn't mesh with the sobs of the families or the rumbling of engines. A soft click shuffle click that moves closer while her eyes are shut.
"San'na," Ana says again, and Georgia feels another person standing next to her as the click shuffle click comes to a stop.
"The Kid's got a good memory," Santana says, and Georgia opens her eyes.
Her closest friend stands on crutches, her weight leaning on her hands and wrists. The usually crisp green dress uniform is rumpled at her sides, where the cushions have wrinkled the polyester jacket. There's a Purple Heart dangling from her chest beneath a row of multicolored bars, indicating her service overseas and her commendations. Her beret is askew on top of her hair, slicked neatly into a bun set low on her head. She's pale, or as pale as she can be. Her face is drawn and thin, with dark circles beneath heavy-lidded eyes. There's a still-healing scar that runs from her temple down the side of her face and neck, disappearing under the collar of her blouse. Pink, raging welts spiderweb the backs of her hands where the fire burned her, and her fingertips on her left hand are still bandaged. She can only guess why.
None of that hits her as hard as seeing the left leg of Santana's straight green dress slacks tied off at the knee.
"Sorry I didn't get here sooner," she says, with the weakest smile Georgia has ever seen. "You take things like walking for granted until you can't do them anymore."
Ana reaches out with both chubby arms and Santana leans down to let the toddler put her wet, sticky hands on her cheeks and squeeze, just to make sure she's real. Georgia watches, sees how Santana's remaining leg trembles with effort and steps in to put an arm under hers to ease the burden.
"When did you get back?" she asks, letting Santana lean on her until she's regained her posture.
"Yesterday," Santana says, and adjusts her grip on the crutches. "They had me in Germany for a week or so before that, but I don't really remember most of it. Was pumped full of those fancy drugs they give people after they hack their legs off." She tries to grin, but it turns into a grimace and Georgia knows she's still in a lot of pain.
"I'm just..." Georgia bites her lip and looks out at all the coffins they're surrounded by. "I'm just glad you're alive."
Santana snorts bitterly. "That makes one of us."
She has a hard time sleeping. She, who can slip into a coma just about anywhere. Instead, she sits awake long after Quinn has gone to bed, legs outstretched on her little single bed beneath the window, in the corner behind the room divider, with the thin curtain pulled aside. Almost a week since Quinn came home, and she's still mulling. Her mind just won't shut down, so she sits and thinks and not-sleeps.
It's snowing again, but lightly and in a way that suggests a calmness outside. It drifts quietly, like billions of delicate feathers, powdering the tops of the already large mounds along the street. It's only January and there has already been several snowfalls, which is a change from the last few years for her. She'd missed it, she remembered, when she'd been in Los Angeles. She missed the cold and the snow and all the things that came along with both. Cuddling and hot chocolate and furry hats with poms on top and making angels on your back while staring up at the sky, hoping the real angels would see and smile.
Back in Los Angeles, when she was with Santana, and she thought life was going to be so easy, as long as nothing ever changed. How stupid she had been.
Now she's got a cot in a corner and a small window in a small apartment, and Quinn. It's the last place she'd ever have expected to end up, but she can't honestly say she's unhappy. She has problems, worries, insecurities, sure. Things that she's running from and things she's avoiding. But she's sitting up on her bed with her arms wrapped around her propped-up knees and she's staring at snow and smiling up at the angels, hoping that they'll see. It's not bad, being here. If she has to be here, if she has to be someplace other than Los Angeles, in her own bed; if she has to be in this limbo of waiting for Santana to come home or not come home... this isn't a bad place to be.
She'd gone back to LA and found that life had moved along without her. Her landlord had rented out her apartment to a subletter and her manager had found new clients, clients who would take gigs overseas and not flake out and run to New York City without warning or explanation. Her friends had made new friends or gotten engaged or broken up. People got up and went to work, came home at night. Repeated the process again the next day. She'd somehow thought that things would stop, that she'd get back there and it would be like it had been when she'd left. But six months is a long time, especially in a city that moves as fast as LA. She'd hoped that her life would go back to the way it was, before. That this thing with Santana and Quinn wouldn't pry her out of the bubble she'd created and force her to live outside it. But she'd flown in and got off the plane and she could smell it in the air.
Change has a pungent scent. Like wet leaves under the first heavy rain of autumn, or steam rising off the sidewalk on the hottest day of summer. It's wet and sticky and thick and when you smell it your nose wrinkles and you look around for a moment, wondering what it could be. Sometimes it's unpleasant, like exhaust and sweat mixing in close quarters. Other times it's not so bad, like the steam that wafts from the bathroom after you've showered, trailing the sweet scent of flowers behind you in a visible train.
Going back to Los Angeles, the smell had been inextricable. She'd wandered though LAX with it hovering over her, a cloud of unnamed things that were different and unknowable. The cab was just like any other cab, but it felt wrong. Her friend's apartment, where she stayed, was the same and yet all together different. Things were moved; little things like lamps and ash trays. There had been a photo of Brittany with this friend on the mantle above the fireplace. Now the frame contained someone unfamiliar. And always, the smell followed her.
But then she'd called Alex. She gathered up her nerve and opened a window and called him, and when he pulled her chair out for her at dinner, she smelled his cologne. Not wet and sticky and thick, but musky and reminiscent of every morning in her bathroom, when he spritzed himself with it and she took in a long, heady breath of him. His hand on the small of her back still felt like safety, and his smile felt like comfort.
"I'm glad you called," he'd said with an easy grace. "How are you? How's Santana?"
"I don't want to talk about her," she'd said, though it left the taste of guilt on her tongue. "All I do is talk about Santana, and Santana-and-Quinn and Santana-at-war. I want to talk about something else. Tell me about the studio."
So they'd talked about his music, his new artists, a few that had made it to the charts, sold some albums. She told him about the dance classes she taught in New York. He asked about touring, travel, and was disappointed to hear that she hadn't done any of that since she'd left LA.
"Your life doesn't stop because she's overseas, Britt," he'd said gently, apprehensive. And although she might have been angry with anyone else for that kind of a statement, she couldn't be angry with him. So she had sighed and said, "I know."
There'd been a break there, when they sat in silence and sipped their wine and stared at the flickering candles on the table. Neither knew where to go next, so he said the only thing he could.
"I'm sorry." He'd reached out as if to take her hand, but thought better of it. "For making you miss the phone call. I'm sorry. There are no excuses."
And now, back here in New York where she's submerged in nothing but mourning Santana, who isn't even dead, she sees her reaction to that apology. She'd taken his outstretched hand in hers and brushed it off as nothing, as though there had been nothing to apologize for. Had that been her desperate need for his affection? Or had it been the truth? That he really hadn't done anything wrong, that it was an accident, that he couldn't have known. And the morning after, when she woke up in his bed with his arm beneath her head and tiny whispered, "I love you"s on his lips, she'd known that she'd forgiven him, truly.
She finally falls asleep and dreams about hiking in the Hollywood hills, overlooking the city and its constant and choking haze of smog. The smog reaches out and follows her, and she runs from it, trying to scream for help but finding she has no voice. Her feet become heavier and heavier as she climbs until she looks down and realizes that she's sinking into the ground, and the smog is at her back. She's choking on dirt and noxious air when a hand grabs her wrist and yanks, pulling her up, into the sky, and she's flying, gasping. Santana is lifting her into the air, saving her, pulling her from certain death.
"Open your eyes," Santana says as they float higher and the smog disappears, leaving nothing stars surrounding them. "Open your eyes, and look."
And she does, but there are no stars to look at. She's staring at the cracked ceiling of the apartment she can't even call her own, and there's a squawking coming from the coffee table, where her phone sits. It vibrates violently against the wood, and she pulls herself from her bed, shivering in the cold. The screen reads "UNKNOWN" where the number ought to be, and for half a second she considers letting it go to voicemail. It could be a creditor, someone trying to track down an unpaid bill. But she remembers what happened the last time a call had been sent to voicemail, and she rethinks it.
"Hello?" shes says, dragging her tongue across the roof of her mouth to clear away the sticky morning voice. On the other end there's dull static, and then someone familiar, and her stomach drops out.
"Brittany, it's Maribel. We need to talk."
She waits a week before bringing the letter from the Bar Association into the office. She figures that after the holiday, Mr. Waters and Mr. Young will need a few days to catch up on business before they can give her request its fair hearing. Even then, she's afraid of pushing her luck too soon, but she has so many things rattling around loose in her life at the moment that she feels like this could be the one stable thing she's got going for her. And after working here for half a year, she's got enough clout to ask, at least.
Quinn intercepts Gary Young's secretary, Marla, before he gets into the office. The aging woman with her glasses on a chain isn't keen on the idea, because she knows that Young doesn't like meetings to start his day. But Quinn puts on her best, "This is a dire emergency" face and throws in a little pout, just for good measure. Marla caves under the condition that Mr. Young gets an hour in his office before Quinn bothers him, and then pencils her name into the date book on her desk.
"You know that we have a meeting scheduler through our email client, right? You can use that instead of having that old book taking up space on your desk."
Marla just glares, the glasses sitting low on her nose so Quinn can see her eyes over the top of them. "And if the power goes out? If the computer breaks? Mr. Young still has to know his schedule."
Marla's old school, and Quinn kind of loves that about her.
The meeting won't happen until ten-thirty, so she has some time to kill. She tries to come up with a script in her head of what she wants to say. She can't go in there and demand a promotion, but she thinks that anything less than that will get her a pat on the head and polite rejection. And she's made it this far, so she can't accept anything less than a junior associate position. She's worked too hard to keep taking one step forward, two steps back. If passing the Bar had been running a marathon, keeping a job as a paralegal afterward would be stopping two feet short of the finish line and calling it good enough. She's finally gaining some ground, and there's no way she can allow herself to lose momentum now.
The clock moves so slowly that she feels her plans unraveling. Practiced words disappear and she's sweating through her blazer. The confidence she had in her sweeping argument dwindles, and she starts to pace in the aisle between her cube and another paralegal's. The middle-aged woman scowls at her, but keeps her mouth shut while Quinn strips off her jacket and drapes it over the back of her chair and shakes out out her arms. She stretches her neck, rolling her head from left to right. She feels like she's prepping for a triathlon, not a meeting with her boss.
She watches Mr. Young walk through the hall of the office, laughing jovially with a few of the associates. He pats them on the back like proper colleagues, and heads to his office. It's ten-fifteen, and she doesn't think she can wait any longer. His door is already closed when she gets there. Proper office decorum says that when a door is closed, it means the person inside wants to be left alone. She's beyond caring, and knocks anyway.
"Mr. Young?" she says, pushing the door open without waiting for an answer. "I'm sorry to bother you, but I'd like to talk to you, if you have a minute. I'm a little early for our appointment..."
He's never been an unkind man, or impolite in any way, but she's still relieved that he looks up and smiles, waving her in.
"Quinn! Of course. How was your holiday? Good, I hope."
He still reminds her of her father. Or maybe just of what she thinks her father ought to be. "It was, sir. Thank you. Very good, in fact. I heard back from the Bar Association. I passed my exam."
"Fantastic!" he says. His face lights up, and she gets a flutter of excitement in her stomach at his enthusiasm. There's hope. "Quinn, that's really just spectacular. We need to celebrate. I'll have Marla break out the champagne. You should have said something! We could have ordered a cake. Ah, well. Marla has Crumbs on speed dial."
"That's very generous, sir, thank you," she says, the flutters making her meek. "But I'd really like to talk to you about my future with Waters, Young & Associates."
He's already on the intercom, ordering Marla to collect party supplies. "You're not leaving us so soon are you, Quinn?" he asks after Marla grumbles her reply. "We'd be sad to see you go. You're a valuable part of this team."
She gulps. This conversation has taken a turn that she hadn't expected. "No, sir, not at a-"
"Gary, please. You're a lawyer now, Quinn, formalities are behind you."
"Gary," she nods. "No, I don't want to leave the firm. That's why I'm here, actually. I was hoping you might find a place for me on your junior associate's staff. I have a good rapport with everyone in the office, I'm apprised of all your cases, and I've done significant work on many of them. As you said yourself, I'm a valuable member of the team. I'd like a chance to prove my worth in a different capacity."
That was it. That was the speech she'd worried herself into a panic attack over. And now that it's over, and she sees that the smile on Gary's face has fallen, she wonders if she'd said enough, or even said the right thing. He clears his throat and leans back in his chair, his fingers laced and resting on a portly belly. He takes a few seconds, licking his lips and staring at his desk instead of at her, which turns those excited flutters in her gut to venomous snakes that are trying to eat their way out.
"We do value your work here, Quinn," he says at last, sitting forward and putting his elbows on his desk. "No one is denying that you're a talented young woman with a bright future. But when I hired you, I hired you as a paralegal, because that's what the firm needed to get our work done. We have a very limited budget to hire new junior associates each year, and unfortunately, we've already allocated those funds to prospects who were more suited to the positions. We're more than than happy to keep you on in your current capacity. I think we might even be able to provide you with a bit of a raise, given your new accreditation. But I'm afraid it's out of my hands. We can't offer you a junior associate position. Not this year."
There's a numbness that spreads quickly from her chest outward, rendering her speechless and frozen. Prospects more suited to the position means prospects who hadn't failed their Bar exam the first time around. It mean he sees her as a perpetual screw up, despite the work she's done for him for the last eight months. It means the only future she has here is as a glorified secretary, and it makes the snakes in her belly very angry.
"Thank you for your... candor, sir," she says, standing.
"No, please," she holds up a hand to stop him from trying to explain himself. "I understand completely, sir. It's out of your hands."
She shows herself out and goes back to her desk, plopping there and staring at the waves of color on her computer's screensaver. If there's no future here, what's the point in staying? What's the point, when she knows she's a pity case, taken in like a stray and treated like one, despite constant loyalty and devotion to her job? She'd run the marathon, finished it, and gone to collect her reward only to be told that she was disqualified back at mile three, sorry, too bad for you. Forget gaining ground, forget momentum. She'd done everything that was asked of her, and it wasn't enough.
When Marla's voice drawls over the PA system for everyone to come to the conference room, she's more inclined to keep staring at her computer screen than comply. But there's an addendum to the announcement that forces her from her seat.
"That means you, Quinn."
She rolls her eyes as trudges to the conference room, only to arrive to a round of applause. Mr. Young, his face no longer grim, pops a bottle of champagne and pours a round for everyone. He raises his glass, smiling at everyone but her.
"To our intrepid young soldier," he says, the bubbles fizzing up the sides of the flute as he sloshes it around. "Who fought a hard battle after being beaten back by difficult times. May she go ever forward in her travels, never back, and find that which makes her whole."
The group, a dozen junior associates and the secretaries and paralegals, drink deeply of their champagne, taking advantage of the auspicious occasion to get a little tipsy at work. No one notices that Quinn doesn't drink, but instead stares at her glass. Mr. Young had called her a soldier, fighting hard battles. But what does she know of battle? Or war? She spent years hiding in a classroom, studying old books and avoiding human contact. She sat in a conference hall and took a test. He told her to go ever forward, but she'd sat in his office and allowed him to tell her she wasn't good enough, then just walked away.
She suddenly misses Santana so mightily that she shatters the glass in her hand with a tight squeeze of her fist.
The room goes silent as she stands there, staring down at her hand that drips champagne and blood onto the carpet. No one rushes to her aid, and she blinks a few times before looking up, scanning them each in turn. Their expressions range from blank to confusion, but she's never really felt more clear.
No one gets in her way as she walks out, shaking off her hand and wrapping a napkin around the gash in her palm. She doesn't even feel it, really. Her adrenaline is rushing and for the first time today she smiles broadly. There's nothing at her desk worth keeping. No photos, nothing personal. Maybe that was the reason many of her colleagues had been wary of her. If you don't plan on staying long, you don't make your workspace personal. She'd done everything in her power to alienate them, and now that she's leaving-with a flourish, she might add-they couldn't care less. And she likes it that way.
The wind slaps her in the face when she leaves the lobby. She pulls out her phone and calls the one person she knows will have her back on this.
"Brittany, oh my god. You'll never guess what just-"
And Quinn does, abruptly and in the middle of the sidewalk on a busy street, which causes a few curses from the people making their way behind her. But the sound of Brittany's voice has never been so grave. The adrenaline from a moment before has stopped so suddenly that she feels faint. She leans against a mailbox to hold herself upright.
"Is it Santana?"
"Just come home, Quinn. And hurry."
It snows during Bobby's funeral. The world has gone grey, devoid of color except for the unyielding red, white and blue of the flag draped over his coffin. Even the evergreens are white, buried in a thick blanket of last night's flurry.
Bobby could have been buried at Arlington, where Jenny is burying Williams, where Digger's family is laying him to rest. But Georgia couldn't send him so far away again. She wants him near, so when Ana is old enough and asks about daddy, she has someplace tangible to take her. To say, this is where Daddy went, here, in the ground. She stands beside the coffin she'd bought at Costco, dressed all in black while the falling snow speckles her shoulders and melts away. Ana lays in her arms, sucking on her mittened fingers and staring at the casket as it disappears into the ground. If she understands what's happening, she makes no sign of it.
There's a twenty-one gun salute, and a pair of skinny soldiers folding another flag to present to Georgia. The few members of the unit that made it home from Syria are there, and a handful of officers from Fort Dix. The ones who made it home are injured or on leave for the funeral. Bobby had been well-liked, even if Santana had not.
Santana's back is rigid and she stares straight ahead. Her thumb is tucked tightly against her palm and her arm is angled exactly as her drill sergeant had instructed, with the side of her middle and index fingers lightly touching her eyebrow. Bobby would have laughed at how determined she looks, trying to be perfect. He would have laughed, and she would have shoved him for making her break focus.
She holds both her crutches under her left arm, and for once in her life she's thankful for being a lefty. She's not sure that her right arm would have borne the weight. As it is, the limb is trembling and her right leg aches with the strain of balancing on wet, soggy ground.
The left was lost just above her knee. She can still feel it, still feel her phantom toes wiggling, feel the cold on her skin. At night she goes to scratch an itch and finds the bed where her calf used to be. Her mind still believes her foot is there, and demands that it be stretched. She goes to pivot her ankle and, to her frustration, cannot.
What's left of it, the stump, is healing. It's only been two weeks since they chopped it off, but the doctors seem pretty insistent that she be up and moving already. There's a bandage over it, and now her ASUs cover that. It's against regs, but she ties the pant leg up so the cold and wind will keep off the bandage. The doctors at the VA keep yelling at her for leaving the hospital, telling her that she's prone to infection and gangrene, that she needs fluids because she's not eating. Yes, get up and move around. Don't get up and move around all the way to New Jersey.
The physical therapist gets annoyed when she misses her twice-daily appointments, but she's getting around well enough. They're already telling her that she ought to consider what she wants out of her prosthesis. It'll be a while before she actually gets it, so she's pushing it to the back of her mind. She can't bear the thought of needing someone to teach her to walk again, like a child. Without the joint in her knee, she might not be fully mobile for years, and she has better things to do than spend that much time dwelling on the loss of a limb. Like figuring out what to do with the shambles that are left of her life. The crutches will serve just fine for that purpose. She doesn't need anybody's help.
Ana's nose has gone red in the cold, and when the wind kicks up she starts to howl right along with it. The minister at the foot of the casket says his last words over the girl's screams, and Georgia bends down to throw a fistful of dirt on top of the coffin. Santana wants to, but her one leg won't bend and lift the way two would have, so she keeps her finger tips at her eyebrow and blinks rapidly against the biting wind. Georgia barely sees her. A trumpeter is playing Taps as the cemetery director lowers Bobby's body into the ground, and Santana watches as Georgia's knees begin to quiver. There's nothing she can do, her own leg shaking under her own weight, and she nudges the stranger standing next to her. He's one of the officers from Fort Dix, there out of obligation more than anything, but he does his duty and moves to Georgia's side. He holds her up while the procession of mourners walks by the deep hole, each throwing a handful of cold, wet earth back from whence it came. She's sobbing, but hers is silent and more in her body. It contrasts sharply with Ana's cries, which seem to grow and fill the cemetery with the reminder that life goes on, even when we're not sure we want it to.
Georgia won't leave the grave site, even though Ana is shivering and coughing. The reverend brings over a rusty folding chair for her, casting Santana a hesitant look before turning to leave . They're alone now, the three of them, standing in the falling snow. Santana finally lowers her hand from her brow in a slow, reverent salute, and feels the sweet relief of taking all her weight off one arm. She's careful on the uneven, slippery ground, and stands guard over Georgia while she rocks back and forth and holds her child close.
The sun sets early in January, and it's barely past four when it begins to get dark. The cemetery isn't well lit, but still Georgia sits. Santana doesn't have the heart to make her stand, or the will to leave her alone. Her gloved hands have gone numb, between the cold and the pressure of her body weight on the handles of the crutches. She's exhausted; she hasn't been this long on her feet-foot-since back in Syria. She's waning, in the wind and cold and snow. So she does something she promised herself she wouldn't do today. She speaks.
"He was brave," she says, looking at the hole in the ground, not at Georgia. "When we were being held. He was brave."
Georgia squeezes Ana tighter, the little girl snuffling herself into silence, having cried herself out. She doesn't say anything.
"When the humvee hit the IED, I thought I was dead," Santana presses, filling the expansive quiet with her voice, hoping it will move the widow out of the chair, out of this cemetery, out of the cold. "I saw the sky one last time, felt the fire reaching up around me like some burning hand of God, and I thought that I was dead. But Bobby didn't believe it, and he dragged my body off the road and into a ditch. A defensible position. He took out five insurgents before he ran out of bullets. When they took us, he-"
A tight, cold grip seizes her wrist and she stops. Georgia can't look at her, and Santana can't look at Georgia, so they both stare at their hands, one clasping the other in a way that can only mean, "Don't."
So Santana stops. She swallows her story, the words she'd told again and again to commanding officers in debriefings and interviews. The story she'd never wanted to tell again, but knew Georgia deserved to hear. But maybe now isn't the time. Not at Bobby's funeral, when Santana's wounds are healing, but Georgia's are ripped open over and over, every moment that he's below the ground and she's still above it.
"How will you get back?" Georgia stands with great effort and changes the subject. She doesn't say "home" because she knows as well as Santana that a VA hospital can't be home.
"One of the officers from Fort Dix offered to drive me," she says, readjusting her weight on the crutches as she begins the slow march along the cemetery road to the massive wrought iron gates at the entrance. Georgia follows, the smoke of their breaths mingling and disappearing into the sky.
"Will you be there much longer?" It's small talk now. Maybe Georgia even wants to know the answer, but the tone sounds distracted, asked more out of obligation than curiosity. Santana doesn't want to force a conversation, or make Georgia care when it obvious she has bigger things to worry about.
"No," she says. "I'll go home soon."
She doesn't know, and Georgia doesn't ask, where that home will be.
You've reached Santana Lopez of the United States Army Reserve. Please leave a message and I'll get back to you as soon as possible.
Quinn throws her phone against the wall, screaming in equal parts rage and satisfaction as it shatters.
"The only thing that accomplished was temporary stress relief, Quinn." Brittany sits at the kitchen table, her nose inches away from her laptop screen as she searches through more backlogged news stories in hopes of finding out something-anything-about Santana. "Now you have to clean it up, fix the hole in the wall, and buy yourself a new phone. Which, good luck with that, because you're unemployed."
"Thank you, Brittany. Really. I appreciate the reminder. That's incredibly helpful."
She sits back on the couch, her head thrown back, and puts a pillow over her face. She's sick of the bickering, sick of the uncertainty, sick of the waiting. She picked a really bad time to quit her job. At least then she might have had a distraction, but now she just has to sit here and stew in the fact that Santana is missing, and there's nothing they can do to help.
"We should go back to Fort Dix," she says through the pillow, and Brittany throws an apple core at her to make her put it down and repeat herself. "We should go back, and see if they can tell us anything."
Brittany rolls her eyes and scrolls down her screen. "They'd arrest you on sight. They have your photo up at the entrances as a threat to security. They probably put you on some kind of CIA watchlist. You honestly think they're going to just let you waltz in and ask questions? Again?"
The pillow goes back to its place over her face and she lets out a scream of frustration. The first trip out to Fort Dix hadn't been that bad, as far as she remembers. Yes, she'd done a bit of yelling and they'd been escorted off the base, but when some guy with no neck and a bunch of stripes on his sleeve told her there was nothing that he could do to help her, she knew he was lying. Of course he knew where Santana was, and of course he could've told them. But he didn't, and made a big show of the fact that she wasn't family and wasn't listed as Santana's emergency contact, so whatever had happened to Specialist Santana Lopez is classified information and cannot be released due Article Something of the What The Fuck Are You Talking About Proclamation.
So she'd started throwing things. He was a big guy, and it was a little stapler.
"Tell me again what Maribel said." Quinn puts down the pillow, the back of her head resting on the back of the couch. She turns it, so Brittany and the world exist at a ninety degree angle. Brittany sighs heavily and turns in her chair to face Quinn, exasperation etched into the lines on her forehead.
"We can't keep doing this."
Another sigh, and Brittany pinches the bridge of her nose. "Quinn, please, can w-"
"I need to hear it," Quinn snaps, sitting upright. "And you're the only one who can tell me. Believe me, if there was someone else I could talk to about this, I would. Because you're really getting on my last fucking nerve, Brittany. How can you just sit there? She's missing, and you act like you don't even care!"
"I've been staring at this laptop six hours a day, every day for the last three weeks," Brittany says, slamming the screen shut with a bang that Quinn thinks might have cracked the screen. "In what universe does that mean I don't care? She's not missing. She's just not in Syria anymore. She's alive, Quinn. I'm worried, but as long as I know that much, I'm not going to start attacking military personnel."
Quinn's shoulders slump, resigned. Brittany's right of course. She's worked just as hard as Quinn has to find anything they can. Granted, it's been at that computer while Quinn screams at anyone who'll listen. Maybe they just have different ways of dealing with their shit.
Brittany slinks over and sits next to her on the couch. Quinn leans her head against that bony shoulder and picks at the fray in the couch. The upholstery has taken a lot of abuse since that phone call came in. But judging by the amount of damage her phone had done to the drywall, it's probably for the best.
"Tell me?" she begs. "Please? Just one last time."
Quinn's entire body moves with the force of Brittany's sigh, but her friend nods anyway.
"Maribel called me in the morning, on the seventh of January. She said, 'Brittany, it's Maribel. We need to talk.' And then she told me that Santana had been discharged from service and was no longer in Syria. 'She's alive,' she said. 'She's out of harm's way. She wanted you to know that.' And when I tried to ask her more, she said she was sorry, and that she had to go. She hung up."
Quinn exhales deeply, letting the air out after holding her breath for so long. "And you tried to call her back?"
"And I tried to call her back," Brittany repeats, putting her hand on top of Quinn's and squeezing. "She didn't pick up. She hasn't since."
"Hmm." Quinn lets Brittany hold her hand, even though all she really wants to do is get up and pace. She'd expected to be spending her time off after quitting looking for a new job, not looking for Santana. She had been, but only because Brittany forced her to with promises of accompanying Quinn on trips to City Hall and every recruiting station in the city. She'd even gotten a couple interviews, but she's been more concerned with other things than getting hired. Looking at the shattered remains of her phone on the floor, though, makes her rethink her priorities a little bit.
"So what are our options, then?" she asks, watching the door to Santana's whereabouts closing in front of her.
Brittany shrugs. "Fort Dix is stonewalling. Smitty hasn't heard a word from her since she told him she was going overseas. Maribel is the only one we know has information, and she's not returning our calls. We don't have options, really. We have dead ends."
Quinn mulls it over, wondering if she could remember the names of any of the other soldiers in Santana's squad. Erickson and Williams... or was it Williamson? And she doesn't know their first names, or where they were from, so there's another dead end. Not the army, not her boss, not her friends, not her mom...
"She won't return our calls," Quinn says slowly, rolling the idea around in her mouth before she forms it fully. "But she can't avoid us if we're at her front door."
The hand on hers squeezes tightly and Brittany pulls her in for a hard, sudden hug.
"You always were the smart one," she says, and Quinn smiles.
"Ten more seconds."
"Yes, you can. Eight seconds."
"No, I can't. I'm going to fall."
"You won't fall. I order you not to fall. Don't you dare touch that bar, Specialist. Four seconds."
"Stop telling me how much time I have left!"
Santana collapses into the bar, and her trembling leg goes out from under her. The trampoline she'd been balancing on catches her before she hits the ground, and she bounces on it, one hand still clinging to the bar that is now above her head. She stares at herself in the floor-to-ceiling mirror that lines the wall, red faced and sweating. Three weeks she's been at this. Balance exercises and strength training and coordination and she still falls on her ass every single time. Her right leg feels just as useless as her left. She reaches out, grabs the first thing she can get a hand on, and pitches it with all her strength across the room. Peter's clipboard lands with a clatter, startling one of the occupational patients and earning a nasty look from his therapist.
"You're gonna go get that and bring it back," Peter sighs. "And your little tantrum just earned you three more sessions with the Doc."
"You have gotta be shitting me," she says. "I don't get to be a little frustrated? I don't get to lose my temper? My fucking leg is missing, Pete. It's just fucking gone. I get to be pissed off."
Peter shakes his head, and stands up from where he'd been crouching at her side. "Everyone here lost something, Specialist. They're all dealing with it. You deal with it, too. Like a soldier, not like a petulant child. Now go pick up that clipboard, or I'll make it six sessions and ten laps around the room."
Her physical therapist walks away and leaves her sitting on the trampoline, to go and check on the other patient she'd frightened with her outburst. He looks over his broad shoulder at her, and she watches as he speaks carefully and slowly to the man in the wheelchair. She's very sorry, he tells the man. She's having a bad day.
The man in the wheelchair's name is Kyle. He's nineteen and he has shrapnel in his brain from a suicide bomber in Aleppo. He'll never be able to feed himself again, or walk or drive a car. He'll be two years old for the rest of his life. Santana looks away, ashamed of herself.
Peter's a good guy, she knows that. He's doing what he can for her, but she's been fighting him. Feeling sorry for herself. It's not like she doesn't know how lucky she is. It's been drilled into her head every waking moment for the last three weeks. Every time she comes into the workroom and there's a guy with half a brain or no limbs at all. She's lucky. She says it again and again, repeating it like counting sheep to try and get herself to sleep at night. Not that it helps.
I'm lucky. I'm lucky. I'm lucky. I'm fucking lucky.
It's hard to feel lucky when all you have are nightmares and phantom itches.
After she'd snuck out for Bobby's funeral, the hospital had put her on lockdown. No visitors, no privileges. It's a military hospital, they can do that. But just the same she keeps asking if anyone's tried to see her and all the nurses tell her no one's been by. She calls her mom a lot, who's long since back in Ohio because Santana couldn't stand her hovering.
"I can come back, Santanita," she says. "I'll be on a plane in an hour, you just say the word."
But Santana is well aware of what her life would be like if her mother was here to "assist" in her recovery. She'd hate herself even more than she does right now. But she still likes to call, because a familiar voice is better than none at all. And she asks the same thing every time.
"Have you heard from Quinn? Or Britt?"
"No, Santanita. I called Brittany when you left Germany, like you asked. She never called me back. I'm so sorry, mija."
She's torn about that. On the one hand, she's depressed that her best friend and the girl she thought might really love her haven't come swooping in to save her from this shithole, or even expressed slight concern over her welfare. That stings a little bit. But it's tempered with the knowledge that she doesn't really want to see them anyway. Not like this; falling on her ass, skin and bone, pale and sans a limb. Most mornings she doesn't even recognize herself. How can she just go back to the way things were before when she's not the same as she used to be? No, it's better this way. Better to find out if she can be something close to human again before she tests the limits of their love. That way she won't disappoint, or be disappointed.
So Santana just kind of goes through the motions, and lets her frustration, anger, and exhaustion build until she gets pissed and Peter has to teach her a lesson about patience. Like this one, right now, where he leaves her on the floor by herself and expects her to get across the room on her own.
She has a little bit of leverage because of the height of the trampoline, which she uses to get a good grip on the bar attached to the wall. The skin on the back of her hands is still tight from the skin grafts they placed to heal her burns, which makes it hard to fully close her fist, but the bar is thick enough that she can get a good grip on it. She's also got one good leg, and even though it's still a bit shaky, she braces it on the floor. One hand stays flat on the tile to make up for her missing foot, and she takes a deep breath. One, two...
"Three." She pushes up with leg and arm, the one on the bar balancing her out, like some freakshow form of Twister. Right hand, bar. Left hand, floor. Left foot... medical waste.
But she's standing. She's putting a lot of her weight on her arm against the bar, but she's up, and all she has to do is make it across the room. Seems easy enough. She looks around for her crutches, only to see Peter waving at her from the corner, where he leans against the wall with his clipboard at his feet and those crutches at his side. She curses him under her breath and vows to either make his life miserable or make sure he knows that she's the best patient he's ever going to get.
Hopping is probably the only way this is going to work, but her balance is still so off that she's about ninety percent sure she's going to fall and break her other leg in the process. She refuses to crawl, because how fucking humiliating is that? So she needs to find another way, if only to save herself the embarrassment of falling again.
About fifteen feet away, there's a rolling stool that Peter uses during strength training exercises. You're meant to sit on it and pull yourself across the room using just your legs. She's never been able to make it the whole distance, working at half capacity and all, but it's what she's got if she has any shot at proving Peter wrong. She leans on the bar, which gives a little under her weight, and takes one hesitant hop forward. Her knee quivers, but holds, and she pulls herself a little further along the wall.
One more hop. A tremble, a bend, but she's still upright. And she's halfway there.
"Yay, Santana!" Kyle claps his hands and shrieks and she nearly falls at the sound. She looks up and realizes that the entire workroom has stopped to watch her, and she flushes brighter than she already was. She's making a spectacle of herself, and for the first time in her life she hates it.
But she has a clipboard to pick up.
It's easier to hop if she starts with a bent leg, but it also means more work for the only muscle that holds her upright. So another hop later, she's sweating, her shirt sticking to her back. The group cheers her on and she really wants to tell them all to just shut the fuck up, but she's out of breath and not about to waste it on being a bitch to people who are trying to help her out.
She's close enough that she thinks she might be able to bend and reach for the stool. If her leg can handle just a few seconds of crouching, she could totally have this shit. She could just reach out, wrap her hand around the leg, and pull it to her. She could-
But she's face down on the floor, blood pooling where her nose impacted with the tile, and she's done. There are three sets of feet around her head, hauling her up by her arms and sliding the stool under her rear so she can sit. A towel is pressed to her face and she winces.
"Almost had it, killer," Peter says, and he's never sounded prouder. "Maybe next time."
"Dext tibe get your owd damb clipboard," she mumbles, head tilted back, with the towel over her broken nose, but smiling just the same.
"You know what would make this a lot easier? For next time?"
She stares up at him. "By crutches?" she snarks.
He shakes his head and pats her stump affectionately. "A new leg. Time to get you fitted for a prosthetic, Specialist. You've earned it."
The train car shudders so roughly that her teeth rattle in her mouth, and she grinds them together to stop her jaw from falling away from her skull. Brittany is in the seat opposite her, her pillow propped between her head and the window. She's fast asleep, despite the clattering of the train and the persistent blowing of the conductor's whistle.
Quinn wishes desperately that she could sleep. That she could work herself into enough exhaustion that she had no choice but to fall unconscious. But her mind is working overtime. Has been, really, since Brittany got that call from Maribel and they've been living in the dark about Santana, since she'd gotten an offer from a firm downtown. She has two weeks to accept it or move on, whether she finds Santana or not. The thought of starting her life over while Santana is still missing, though, was too much to bear. So they bought train tickets, and started toward Lima.
But Brittany has a keen ability to fall asleep anywhere, situation be damned. Santana may be missing, but she'll be damned if Brittany doesn't get a solid eight hours every single night. And good luck trying to wake her up in the morning. It's ludicrous.
So she's a little jealous, watching Brittany sleeping across from her, with her eyes twitching delicately in a dream. Her face is slack, mouth hanging open just enough that a thin line of drool runs out the corner and catches on the pillow. She smiles, remembering all the sleepovers as children where they'd made fun of Brittany for that same little bit of drool, not really understanding that they did the exact same thing. And she'd never said a word against them, just shrugged and wiped the corner of her mouth with the back of her hand. Santana would try to look grossed out and tough, but Quinn always noticed the tiny smile she gave Brittany. A smile that was reserved for her, and her alone. A smile that even now she knows she'll never get from Santana. She can only hope that, if they ever find her, she'll be able to coax a different kind of smile from Santana. One that she could call her own.
"Next stop, Toledo!"
The conductor has been shouting at them all night, announcing the stops as they reach them. It's a commuter train, the only one they could get on short notice, so they stop in every major city between New York and Chicago. The closest they can get to Lima is Toledo, so this is their stop, and still Brittany slumbers on. Quinn sighs and leans forward, shaking her lightly by the arm.
"Britt, wake up. We're almost there." But her friend snuffles softly and curls into a tight ball on the bench, covering her face with her hand.
Santana had always complained about this. How Brittany could sleep through a hurricane, how hard it was to wake her up. Quinn had never had any reason to wake her before, but the train is slowing down outside of Toledo and they'll need to get off, or they're going to be on this train until Fort Wayne, and god only knows how much she hates Indiana. It's almost as bad as Ohio.
"Britt!" she shouts and gives Brittany a hard shove, immediately pulling back in case Brittany is a kicker. She's not, and blinks rapidly against the light above them, then buries her face in her pillow.
"No," she mumbles into the fabric. "Too early."
"It's four in the morning," she corrects and yanks the pillow out from Brittany's grasp. "It's more late than early. Now just wake up, we'll be in Toledo soon, and we can't keep Frannie waiting."
Her sister is in the parking lot of the Amtrak station with her motor running and her music blasting. She's got a styrofoam cup of coffee in her hands, and two more in the cup holders waiting for them. Quinn throws the small bags they'd packed in the trunk and climbs in the front, where Frannie smiles sleepily at her and leans over the console for a hug.
"I've missed you, baby sister," Frannie says. "I'm glad you called. After the row with Daddy, I wasn't sure we'd ever see you again."
Quinn smirks and takes a long, deep drag from her coffee. Brittany immediately passes out in the back seat.
"I was only too happy to take some of the heat off you after the divorce," she says, sighing at the familiarity of the yellow lines down the middle of I-75. "And you know how I love it when Daddy turns that very specific shade of purple."
Frannie smiles and sips her coffee. "I do. And I'm sure he'd be positively eggplant with rage if he knew you were here in search of your lost lesbian lover. Daddy was never fond of Santana to begin with. Her roots, and all. But knowing his baby girl is sleeping with the help? The female help? I'd have loved to have been there when you told him."
It's not meant to be cruel. Quinn knows she and Frannie grew up in the same house, with the same set of ideologies and opinions, and that they parted ways on those ideologies a long time ago. But it still aches deep in her belly that Frannie, the one she'd called for help, would think of Santana that way. She grits her teeth and stares out the window, the fog of her breath steaming up the glass against the cold outside.
"Don't pout, Quinnie," she says softly, her tone apologetic. "I didn't mean it like that. But you have to know that that's what Daddy thinks, right? I mean, you were knocked up in high school, and now you're in this little affair with a girl. It's a little confusing for all of us. So please don't be mad. I'm sorry. I'm just... I don't understand. But I'd like to."
Quinn takes another drag of her coffee, letting it burn on her tongue for a few seconds before swallowing. As much as she'd hoped that Frannie would just pick them up without question, she'd expected this. The need for explanation. They hadn't spoken much since Quinn left for New York. A few times a year when Quinn is home for holidays, when their mother has one of her dramatic episodes and demands her girls be at her bedside. But they'd stopped talking about anything deeply personal. So the Santana thing had been as much a shock to Frannie as anyone else. And Quinn gets that, so she supposes she owes her sister that much. Answers.
"I mean..." she begins slowly, exhaling hard, trying to piece the words together in a way Frannie might understand. "When you married Michael, you loved him, right? Even though it ended badly and you kind of hated each other, you loved him when it started. Would you go back and do it over again, knowing what you know now?"
Frannie frowns and sips her coffee, staring at the lines on the road ahead of her. "Yeah," she says after a beat. "I loved him. So much. I'd do it again."
"So I guess you and Michael, even though you went through hell and you hated each other sometimes... you were inevitable. Something that couldn't be stopped, even if you knew how bad it would turn out."
Her sister nods and finishes the coffee, before crushing the cup in her hand.
Quinn takes the crushed cup from her sister and wraps her fingers around Frannie's. "I guess me and Santana are kind of like that. We were kids together, we grew up together, and maybe we didn't see it back then, but we were just as inevitable as you and Michael. We always seem to find our way back to each other. Sure, we fight like cats sometimes and I know I hated her and she hated me at different points. But even if I knew it was going to turn out bad-and maybe it will, it has before-I'd still try. Because me and Santana... it makes sense, you know? It makes sense because I think we need each other. I never expected it to be her that I needed, but I needed someone. And there she was. Put in my life right when I needed her the most, and right when she needed me. We were inevitable."
Frannie doesn't say anything, just drives in silence until they reach the Lima city limit and the sun begins to rise behind them. Frannie drops them at the only motel in town, knowing Quinn doesn't want to stay with their mother and can't stay with their father. Brittany is once again shaken awake, and Quinn ushers her inside out of the cold before she returns to Frannie at the car.
"I get it," Frannie says after their fingers have started to go numb in the cold. "I remember feeling inevitable, like it was the only thing that made sense, being with him. And I envy you that, now. Because I also remember how we ended, and how that felt inevitable, too. So I get it, baby sister. And I hope you find her, wherever she is. And I hope you don't find out what the other end of inevitable feels like."
Frannie kisses her on the side of the head, not waiting for a reply before hopping back into her car and leaving Quinn there in the parking lot. Quinn thinks that maybe she still doesn't really "get" it, but she did the best she could. She tried, and that's really all she can ask for.
Brittany is sitting up on the edge of the motel bed when Quinn goes inside. She's listing, still trying to wake herself fully, but she's upright and conscious, so that's a positive sign.
"Maribel is always up by six," she says, muffled through her hand and a yawn. "Leftover habit from carting us to morning Cheerios practices. We could go now, or wait. Up to you."
"You're going to be impossible to wake up if you go back to sleep, aren't you?" Quinn asks, and Brittany shrugs and nods.
"Now it is, then."
The Lopez house is exactly as Quinn remembers it. Large and imposing on a block of ramshackle ranches, it towers over the rest of the neighborhood. Dr. Lopez had bought the property when he'd first started medical school, as a promise to Maribel that they wouldn't always be poor. They built a mansion on it when Santana was still a baby, and watched over the next ten years as the neighborhood fell to ruins around them. Lima Heights Adjacent, once a prosperous part of Lima Proper, went from wealthy families to broken homes. But Dr. Lopez was stubborn and refused to leave. Santana said he wanted to teach his family a lesson in humility. All it taught her, she'd said, was how to drink and fight in two hundred dollar pumps.
The garden walkway is still well maintained, even with Santana and her brothers gone. The hedges are neatly trimmed and the pavement cleared from the few inches of snow that are on the ground. The sun glints off it and blinds her, and Quinn puts a hand up to shield her eyes as they walk up the path to the porch. When she lowers it, the big red front door with its imposing lion-head knocker has been opened, and Maribel stands there, arms crossed over her chest.
"I knew you'd show up here eventually," she says, lips pursed and hair perfectly in place. "I assumed it would be at a reasonable hour, though."
Quinn smirks bitterly. "It's nice to see you too, Maribel."
Santana's mother had been no more fond of Quinn that her own father had been of Santana. Something about her privilege and pride being more important than her friends, as Santana had put it. Quinn is sure that their many tiffs over their high school years didn't help matters. So she's not surprised by the icy welcome she receives. What is unexpected, though, is that Maribel's expression doesn't change when Brittany appears from behind her.
"Is she here?" she asks from Quinn's side, a tremor in her voice. "Santana. Is she here?"
Maribel sniffs and flicks her eyes between the two of them. "No, she's not here."
"Could we talk, then? Please?" Brittany shuffles her feet contritely.
The corner of Maribel's mouth twitches, and Quinn thinks she might be letting Brittany get to her. They'd been so close once, with Maribel considering Brittany a second daughter. But the twitch is almost immediately controlled, and her mouth remains firm as she steps aside to let the two into the foyer. They take off their shoes, as they'd been instructed to do since they were twelve, and follow Maribel into the living room. She, the eternal hostess, doesn't offer them coffee.
"You want to talk about Santana," she says, sitting down across from them with a table in between, like a barrier. "Let's talk about Santana."
She seems prepared for them, already hostile with her jaw set and her arms crossed. Brittany gulps audibly next to Quinn and sits up straighter. Quinn can tell she's not used to seeing this side of the woman she'd once called Mama Maribel.
"We just want to know where she is," she says. "We're worried, and we want to see her so we can know that she's okay."
"I've already told you that she's fine." Maribel sizes both of them up, and Quinn thinks maybe they should have waited a few hours and gotten some rest before taking on a mother lion. "That's all you need to know."
"But that's not good enough," Quinn says too quickly, and Maribel bristles.
"Good enough? Who are you to tell me what's good enough? And in my own home. You have a lot of nerve, Quinn. I'll tell you what I think you need to hear, and nothing more. Right now, my decision is that you only need to hear that she's alive, and safe, and doing perfectly fine without you."
"Your decision?" Brittany inches forward in her seat, back still straight. "Was it your decision not to tell us where Santana is? Or is that hers? She's an adult, Maribel, she can make her own decisions."
"Don't you lecture me about my daughter's decisions." Maribel's voice goes low, hissing her words through her teeth. "You, who broke her heart for the one decision she ever made for herself. Selfish, selfish girl. She loved you. Worshipped you. Left her family behind and went across the country for you, and you ruined her. Made her run even farther away from us, put her in danger because you couldn't keep her happy. Don't you dare lecture me, Brittany. Have more respect than that."
Brittany is crying, her face in her hands and her body bent double. She's had this argument with herself before, and with Quinn. But hearing it from this woman, whom she'd called mother, is a blow she was unprepared for. Quinn puts a hand on her back and tries to soothe her as she just whispers, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
"I understand that you're trying to protect her, Maribel," Quinn says, trying to balance staying calm for Brittany and not lunging at Maribel across the table for making her cry. "But we wouldn't be here if we didn't care about Santana just as much as you do."
Maribel snorts and leans forward in her chair, eyes narrowed.
"And you, Quinn," she says, menace and anger bubbling beneath her cool exterior. "Santana came to you when she needed a friend the most and you took advantage of her vulnerability, made her feel whole, then broke her all over again. You sent her off to a war already wounded. Tell me, is that how much you care for my daughter? Because I'd rather see her alone than being 'cared for' like that. I don't trust you. You've broken her heart, but you've also broken my trust. And once that's broken, I am not a very flexible woman when it comes to fixing it."
Quinn evens out her breathing by counting to three with each inhale and exhale. In, two, three. Out, two, three. In, two, three. Out, two, three. Never taking her eyes off Maribel.
"You've been waiting a long time to get that off your chest, haven't you?" she asks, as evenly as her counted breaths will allow. "Are you finished now? Are we all through with being angry at one another? Because frankly, Maribel, I don't give a shit if you don't think we're capable of caring for Santana up to your standards, or if you'll hate me for the rest of my life. It's not your call, in the end. It's Santana's. And you don't get to come between her and the people who care about her, no matter how much you think you're protecting her."
Maribel allows a small smile of satisfaction to curl across her lips, and she relaxes back into her finely upholstered chair.
"Ah, but that's just the thing, isn't it?" she says, standing so she can tower over them. "I can come between you, because I won't be telling you where she is. And if you're here, I can only assume you've exhausted all your other options."
Quinn doesn't answer, but never breaks Maribel's penetrating gaze, standing her ground.
"I thought as much. Which means you're out of luck, Quinn. And maybe, as you see yourselves out, you'll consider this: If Santana had wanted to see you, wouldn't she have reached out to you by now?"
When Maribel sweeps from the room, Quinn can almost see a trail of destruction left behind. They've hit a wall, crashing into it head first at full speed. Brittany is still crying next to her, and she's still trying to regain the feeling in her face from what felt like ten minutes of being slapped again and again. But they're no longer welcome in Maribel's home, and Quinn can only assume that it will be mere minutes before she calls the police if they haven't left on their own. So she pulls Brittany to her feet and drags her unceremoniously out the door, slamming it behind them.
"She was right," Brittany says as they walk down the immaculate walkway, her voice barely audible above the cold wind that's picked up. "We don't deserve her. We're not good enough. We ruined her." Her tears are falling and freezing to her cheeks, and Quinn has to stop them both at the curb and pull Brittany's face into her gloved hands.
"Don't," she commands. "Don't do this. We've been over this, Brittany. A hundred times and a hundred ways, and yes, we fucked up, but only Santana can say we're unforgivable. And until she does, we keep trying. We care about her. Fuck Maribel. We'll find Santana, and we'll get her back. Now come on, it's freezing out here."
Quinn wraps her arm through Brittany's and ushers her down the slippery street. It's a mile back to the motel, and even though she knows they could take a cab, she thinks it'll be better for both of them if they walk.
"What if Maribel was right, though?" Brittany asks, a few blocks from the Lopez house. "About Santana not wanting to see us. She could have called by now, right? If Maribel was telling the truth and she's safe and okay, she'd have called us if she wanted to see us."
Quinn doesn't want to think about it. She thought they were headed toward a good place, after the letters and her postcards. But maybe it just wasn't enough, in the end. Maybe not saying the thing she wanted to say was what kept Santana from them. It feels hopeless, this not knowing.
The motel is warm and clean and there isn't much else they can ask for. There's a double bed, so they curl up with Brittany spooning Quinn from behind in a way that makes neither of them uncomfortable. Quinn, who had earlier longed for exhaustion, feels beaten down by it now. Her whole body aches with Maribel's words and with Brittany's tears and her own longing to tell Santana the thing she feels so deeply that it's taken over every organ in her body, not just her heart. And she knows with confidence that if she doesn't find Santana soon, those organs will fail under the pressure of that thing she feels, and she'll never recover.
She aches, so she closes her eyes, and lets the exhaustion win.
It's night when she's awakened by the persistent vibration of her phone against the bedside table. Quinn fumbles with it, blinded by the brightness of the screen. Her hands are less than nimble with sleep but she answers groggily, her eyes closed against the offensive light.
"Frannie? S'that you?"
"No, I'm sorry," comes an unfamiliar voice on the other end, shaky with nerves. "I don't mean to bother you, but my name is Georgia Erickson. I'm a friend of Santana's. Do you have a minute?"
She's awake now.
The socket pinches at her inner thigh when she puts her weight down on it, taking slow and calculated steps. The compression sock that protects her stump is slipping, and the plastic of the preparatory prosthesis rubs fiercely against the still-swollen flesh there. She could just take it off, but she's being stubborn. She only uses the crutches wedged under her arms for balance, because she's still new at this... walking thing. It's frustratingly tedious, because her brain knows how it works, how to put one foot in front of the other and power forward. But the polycarbonate fiber leg with the magnetic knee cap that pivots on a limited axis with a fixed spring doesn't communicate with her brain very well, so her brain is shouting orders and the leg does what it wants. She's ended up on her ass more than a few times but, with the crutches, she thinks she can make it through the park without falling. As long as she avoids the ice.
It's not as cold today as it had been earlier in the week, and she's thankful for that as she makes deliberately easy progress from the gate of the park to the grassy field about a quarter mile in. Her hands need to be steady on the grips of the crutches, not frozen and numb. She kicks her left leg out, using what little she has left of her damaged muscle to thrust the prosthetic out, heel to the ground, and dig in. Once she feels it find traction on the concrete, she applies pressure and the joint at the knee bends, pulling her one step forward, then straightens as it falls behind. Her right leg is less of a chore to move, but she's sore and tired from using all her energy on the other half-limb. Her hips are splayed at awkward angles because of the contraption that's strapped to her stump and around her waist, making this long walk-the longest she's taken on the new leg-a weary one. But she has some place to be, and she's already late.
She's sweating by the time she rounds the bend in the path and sees a streak of pink hurtling toward her. The Kid that had once had so much trouble taking a few steps is now running as fast as her tiny legs can carry her, arms outstretched and a shriek announcing her intentions. Santana prepares for a blow that will probably knock her over, grinding her teeth and bracing, but the shriek is cut off just before it reaches its target, and she lets one eye sneak open.
"I could have met you at the VA," Georgia says, fighting against a squirming Kid in a bright pink snowsuit. "You shouldn't be out here. That's not a coat, and those are not snow boots. And I'm pretty sure you were banned from leaving after your last breakout."
Santana looks down at her outfit. Her combat jacket hangs loosely around her thin shoulders, over a black PT sweatshirt. Her fatigues don't really fit her right anymore, since she's lost so much weight and her fake leg doesn't fill them out the same, but the canvas belt around her waist holds them up just fine. Her combat boots were the only ones she trusted to keep her upright on the ice, so she shrugs off Georgia's assertion and takes a step around her, moving toward a bench just down the path.
"You don't want to go to the VA," she says, lowering herself slowly, like Peter had shown her, still not truly trusting the joint in the knee. "It's too..."
"What?" Georgia asks, incredulous. "Depressing? Because it couldn't be any more depressing than sleeping with an empty space in the bed next to me every night."
She lets Ana down, and The Kid scrambles up into Santana's lap, babbling a string of what might have been words if her little mouth could calm down enough to form them properly. Santana puts her crutches aside and hugs her tightly, as she hadn't been able to do since getting back from Syria. She feels tiny arms wrap around her neck and squeeze, and it takes her breath away.
"San'na, home. Home, home."
Her pink snow boots are covered in slush and digging sharply into Santana's thighs, sending a shock of pain through her body that she doesn't expect. Georgia sees it, despite her attempt to hide it, and she pulls The Kid off her lap and sends her running off into the snowy field.
"She just keeps getting bigger," Santana says with a wince, palming her thigh and trying to rub away the throb. "Unfortunately."
"They don't tend to stay cute and tiny for long." Georgia watches her daughter digging through the snow, pulling out mittenfuls and tossing them limply or simply shoving them directly in her mouth. "She keeps asking for Daddy. And you. Her best buddies. Forget me, I'm just the one that birthed her."
Santana watches them both. The steam of the even breaths that flare from Georgia's nostrils, with dark, flitting eyes that betray her thoughts. Ana's sturdy legs that carry her across the thickly crusted snow with a shriek and a flail. She's a little disappointed about that, if she's honest. That The Kid can run so easily now. She was hoping to have a kindred spirit in a wavering, unsteady toddler. Someone to learn with.
"I need to tell you about it," Santana says after a while, when Ana has fallen on her back and is swishing her arms and legs wide to make a tiny angel in the snow. "If you'll let me."
Georgia purses her lips, grinding her teeth. She hadn't wanted this. She'd gotten enough of the details from the military during her debriefing, from Bobby's CO when he'd come in for the funeral. She'd heard enough to last a lifetime. And at Santana's insistence, knowing what she wanted to say, she'd met her here anyway. To relive it all over again. She sighs.
"Do I have a choice?" she asks, and Santana nods.
"Of course. It's not... I just... My shrink says I'm bottling shit up. If I won't talk to her, I need to find someone I can talk to. Even if they just listen. And you're it, G. You're all I've got. And I think maybe you don't know as much as you think you do."
"What about Quinn? Or Brittany? Your parents?" She's searching for an out, Santana hears it in her voice.
"If I wanted my parents involved in this garbage I wouldn't have sent them home when I got stateside. And the others... I'm not ready for that. They can't see me like this. I'm half human."
"They can't see you," Georgia presses, "but I can?"
Santana sighs heavily and lifts the collar of her combat jacket up around her neck to shield her from the wind. "You're different. You're in this as deep as I am. You know what it feels like. You're a little half human, too, without Bobby."
Georgia looks at her then, those cold, dark eyes searching for something. She measures the scar on Santana's face with a glance, examines her stiff, burned hands and fresh pink fingernails that she's stopped bandaging up. She traces a visual line over the thin rod of the prosthesis under the leg of Santana's fatigues. It makes Santana uncomfortable, feeling those eyes probing her, so she shuffles in her seat and looks back at Ana.
"It's okay," she says, shoving her hands in her pockets and shivering. "It doesn't matter. Forget I said anything."
But Georgia's hand reaches into Santana's pocket and pulls her left hand out, squeezing leathery fingers tightly in her soft, weary palm. They're cold, both of them. But the pressure Georgia applies feels like putting her hands up to a fire, and she's warmed. Welcomed. And suddenly relieved.
"Are you sure?" she asks, and Georgia hesitates just long enough to consider it seriously before nodding.
"Yes. I'm sure."
She's being dragged, her heels trailing on the ground behind her. Two sets of rough hands have her by her upper arms, and every bump in the rutted road feels like a knife wound. The corners of her eyes are flickering blurs of color, flashes of movement at her sides even in the darkness. The fire is still burning somewhere in the distance. She thinks she can still feel the heat of it. Her hands are searing, it must be close. Her ears have been stuffed with cotton; everything is muffled and incomprehensible. Someone is yelling in English, but even more shout back in Arabic and she can't fully understand any of them. She just feels the stabbing pain again and again as they drag her off the road and throw her like a rag doll into the back of a truck. The pain comes again as she lands on her left leg, and her entire body vibrates with it. Her stomach roils and she lurches, vomiting all over the bed of the truck. A rough hand seizes her by the hair and yanks her head back violently. Where did her helmet go?
The man attached to the hand in her hair is yelling, but she can't move, can barely make out his face. He spits on her, she thinks, but she doesn't feel it, and couldn't do anything about it if she had. He drops her unceremoniously and she flops, lifeless. More hands are on her, but they're tender, pulling her onto her back and out of the puddle of her own sick. Bobby is screaming and holding her head in his lap. There's a man standing over him in the bed of the truck, a rifle in his hand. He's yelling at Bobby who's yelling back and all she can think is, please please please, just stop, it hurts so much, please, make it stop.
The rifle comes down on Bobby's temple and he slumps. Blood from his wound drips as he falls on top of her, painting her forehead crimson. She tries to keep her eyes open, to wake Bobby up, but it hurts so much and she thinks if she just closes her eyes, it'll stop...
When she opens them again there are women standing over her. Women in hijabs with their faces exposed. Women with rifles slung across their backs. They hold her shoulders to the ground as she fights to free herself, but there are three of them, and she's weak and in pain. Every movement sends her eyes reeling with visions of stars. She thinks she sees Quinn in them. The women aren't being rough, though, and their soft hands placate her. Even though they don't speak the same language, she hears them hushing her quietly, like a mother over an injured child. She calms and the pain eases, but doesn't dissipate. She looks around and finds that's she's in a stone room, on a woven mat on the floor. Her left leg is bound in a splint of roughly hewn wood. There are bandages over much of the limb, bloodied and smelling of rot. Her hands, she realizes, are where most of her pain is coming from. They're bound up in cloth, each finger wrapped neatly and apart from the next, but underneath she feels the burn of exposed nerves. She stills smells of gasoline. It's in her hair and on her combat jacket, which she's glad to see is still on her body. She'd been afraid she might have been raped, but maybe that's what the women are there for. She tries to speak, but the side of her face twinges with each movement of her jaw. There's a deep gash, from temple to collarbone.
Her maimed hands reach for her chest, the pocket inside her flak jacket. But the flak jacket is gone, and with it her postcards and the notes she'd made so long ago it feels like another lifetime. Maybe it was. Someone else's life, someone else's love. Because she doesn't feel like the same girl who got drunk, got stupid, and fell in love with the last person she ever expected. She slumps back to the floor and stares up at the women around her.
"Help me," she hisses, because she dare not speak above a whisper, and because her throat is full of soot from the fire and dry as the desert she's trapped in. "Help me, please."
She's sure they understand, because they shake their heads and pat her shoulder, trying to get her to lay back down. They whisper things to one another in Arabic, talking over her as if she's not there. She hasn't been in the country long enough to know what they're saying, but she picks up a word here and there.
Woman. American. Dead. Three.
Three of their dead, or three of hers? Where's Bobby? Where is she? Is anyone coming for her? She's tired, and dehydrated, and she feels herself reeling again. Her head is spinning.
I'm going to die out here.
She closes her eyes and listens to the voices of the women as she does something she hasn't done in many, many years.
There is no concept of time in the windowless stone room, here with the women who come and go and then never come again, to be replaced by a new woman who is less friendly than the one before. They don't want them getting attached to me, she thinks, because they're going to kill me. They ladle water into her mouth that tastes of earth and sand, but she swallows it gratefully and takes the little comforts they offer. No men come in for hours, maybe a day, after she wakes. And how long had she been sleeping? But still they come, and the women scatter like mice against a tom cat. Two of them pull her to her feet and she screams as the wound on her leg-is it broken? burned? She can't even tell-sets her spine twisting like a captive snake. They blindfold her, drag her through halls and up a set of stairs into a large, airy chamber. Santana thinks there might even be a window. She feels a breeze against the hot, healing wound on her face. They force her to her knees and she screams again and retches. Nearby a body shuffles, and she can hear Bobby fighting to get to her. She hears him calling her name through a muffled gag, kicking out at his captors. She flails as best she can, but she's useless and lame and even though she screams for him, she can't get near or fight anyone off. They shove a rag in her mouth and she balks at the stench of it, then kick her in the ribs to make sure she understands she's beaten.
Bobby doesn't seem to understand, though, and she can hear him raging, trying to get to her. Fighting like hell while she rolls over, ready to die. Why don't they just get it over with already?
Even against the blackness of her blindfold, she sees a sudden bright light. Beneath the edge of the cloth over her eyes she sees the legs of a tripod, and then she understands.
They're ransoming us. They're making a video.
They're shuffled together, on their knees. Santana is bawling beneath her blindfold from the pain of the leg bent beneath her, and she can feel Bobby's trembling body at her side. She leans into him, shoulder to shoulder, to feel his warmth and let him know she's there. That she's alive and they'll be okay. He presses back, and she almost feels hopeful for a moment. Like they have a chance.
The light goes out and they're dragged apart again, and she's returned to her windowless room full of women. They redress her wounds, but they have no medication or even clean water, so another day in the room and it smells of death and rot and decay. She's feverish and freezing at the same time, and the women pile blankets on top of her to sweat out the fever. But she knows what infection feels like. She knows she's going to die, either at the hands of her captors or from her wounds. And sooner rather than later.
The third day-or maybe the fourth? In her mind things blend so fluidly between awake and asleep that she doesn't know anymore-the men come again. They bind and gag her, cover her eyes and drag her limp, fightless body into a different room than the one from before. She's sat in a chair with her burned hands tied behind her back. When they rip the blindfold off, Bobby is there across the room, similarly bound and gagged.
He fights his ropes viciously, just as he had before. Always fighting, always trying, but she had given up. Between the sickness and her captivity, she was a broken animal. Docile. But not Bobby. He saw her slumped in her chair and he nearly broke his own to cross the room to her. They knocked him out and let his bloodied head loll back, exposing his neck and a four-day beard. That's how she knows how long it's been.
One of his legs has been badly burned, she notices. The leg of his fatigue has been completely burned away, and singed fabric at his hip covers the rest of him. He's been similarly bandaged, with a dirty rag wrapped around his head from the butt of the rifle on the truck bed, and more around his bicep and calf, likely bullet wounds from the firefight. He's pale and sweaty, and sickly like he hasn't been fed. But he still fights for her. And she tries to sit up straighter, so he'll know when he wakes up that she's going to try to fight for him, too.
They're left alone in the room for barely a moment before a bent old man returns with two mute soldiers, shutting the door behind them. He carries a large carpet bag with him, which he opens and begins to empty on a long wooden table against a wall at Santana's back. He hums as he works, some Arabic tune she'd often heard the children in As Sweimreh sing when they played. His mute helpers take their places, one behind Santana and the other behind Bobby. The man appears in front of her, and smiles a mostly toothless grin.
"You will answer questions," he says in broken English, pulling the rag from her mouth. "Or your friend will suffer."
They hadn't trained for this. It wasn't part of some manual they get when joining the army. 101 Ways to Resist Torture. And the satisfied smile on his face tells her that he knows it, too. And it doesn't matter if they answer his questions. They're going to suffer anyway.
The man behind Bobby dumps a bucket of water over his head. He sputters and coughs as he wakes with a jolt. He tries desperately to spit out the gag, but he can't and is slapped hard for trying. The man walks, hunched, over to Bobby and repeats the warning he'd given to Santana. Bobby's eyes flash to meet hers, and she immediately shakes her head.
Don't you do it. Don't you say anything.
Not that they know anything worth telling. They're weekend warrior scum. Rankless pawns in a very large, violent chess game. Worthless, in the long run. Maybe the old man knows that already, too. Maybe he just really likes this job.
A quick nod from the old man sends Bobby onto his back at the hands of the mute soldier, his arms tied to his sides and his ankles bound to the legs of the chair. He's lost his boots, she notes, and his feet are black with dirt. The old man hands Bobby's captor a tool from his table, a steel pipe crusted with rust and thick as her wrist. The old man kneels at her side and whispers in her ear.
"Tell me the movements of your American soldiers. Where will they go next?"
It's almost as though he was hoping for that answer because he titters like a teenage girl and waves a hand at the man with the pipe. With one swift and sure stroke of his bullish arm, he brings the pipe down on the bottom of Bobby's feet, and they both scream together. Bobby shakes his head, tears erupting at the corners of his eyes, but he stares at her fiercely.
Don't break. We'll be okay. Don't break.
"Where will the soldiers go next?"
Her silence is met with another blow to Bobby's feet. And another a minute later, and another after that, again and again until they all hear a sickening crunch and not even the gag in his mouth can muffle Bobby's agony. She's sobbing, fighting her ropes and willing God to make it stop, if He exists. To show Himself and save them, save Bobby, because he's got a kid at home. Ana. His girl, Ana.
Maybe it was hours before they stopped. Maybe minutes. Time doesn't exist in windowless rooms and torture chambers. But the old man finally takes the pipe back and lays it down on the table.
"We will try again tomorrow," he says, and though his voice is disappointed, his smile says otherwise.
The next day Bobby is chained to the wall and whipped after she refuses to answer each question. Twenty lashes. Thirty. He back is sashimi by the time they're through, and he's a whimpering mess that crumples to the floor when they unshackle him. His bare chest, with his ID number tattooed down his torso, heaves as he tries to regain the breath the whip had stolen from him. His dog tags clatter lightly around his neck. He looks at her, and she knows he's fading.
"For Ana," she says to him before they gag her. "For Georgia."
The look in his eyes says, "For Quinn."
On the sixth day, the old man is impatient, and there are others in the room with him. Higher ups who are unhappy that his playtime is encroaching on their war. So they ask her a question, and when she refuses to answer, they put a bullet in Bobby's right knee cap. He's unconscious before she can even let out a scream. And she's grateful for that, because it means he doesn't feel the second one when she refuses to answer again.
The old man gives a barking command in Arabic, and once again Bobby is brought sputtering back to life.
He's delirious with pain. The only thing keeping him upright are the two massive hands on his shoulders. He's sobbing, begging for his mother. There's a sudden wave of something rank, and she knows that his bowels have failed. The old man just grins.
"Maybe we do this another way," he says. Bobby's gag is removed and the wail the echos off the stone is will-shattering. She's certain he's going to give in, and if he doesn't, she will.
"F-f-f..." he stammers while the old man peruses his table. "F-f-f..."
"For Ana," she finishes for him, and he nods.
His tongue won't form the words. He's trying, his mouth opening and closing, but he's too weak to make a sound.
"For Quinn," she says, and the smile he returns her is the most beautiful thing she's ever seen, broken teeth and blood and all.
But it disappears. A shadow falls over her, and the old man is there, a pair of pliers in his hand. Another barked Arabic command and she's gagged, then her left hand is undressed and exposed, and he's yanking the nail from her little finger.
It doesn't even hurt at first, because the agony of it is overshadowed by the sight of her burned flesh and the sudden exposure of it to air and dirt and rough, angry hands holding her wrist in place. She's just kind of watching it happen, like it's not her hand and not her body. She's just a spectator. But someone is screaming and she can't figure out who, because Bobby is calling her name and trying to calm her. But she's not the one who needs calming. Talk to whoever it is who's doing all that screaming, she thinks. What is she yelling about? Nothing could be as bad as this guy with his pliers.
Then she realizes she's the one screaming. Those fingers are hers and those pliers are pulling out her nails, and she's the one who's twisting and writhing so violently that three men are holding her still. She'd lost herself for a moment. It had been peaceful, at least. For that one moment.
I just filed that nail, she thinks. Goddamn it.
The second nail is worse than the first. And she's hysterical, pleading, begging for it to stop around the gag. She's weak. She's weak, she's not a fighter. She's not supposed to be here. Just a rich kid from a small town. She's not a soldier. She's not a warrior, she's not strong. Not like Bobby, not like Williams. Oh god, Williams. He's probably dead.
She's trying to make them stop, but nothing she says sounds like words. It's an incomprehensible jumble of shrieking and gibberish and slobber. She's half blind from tears and she can't see Bobby anymore, but she can hear him. He's still calling her name, still talking to her, even though he's stuttering. He's still there.
The pliers have stopped their work. Her left hand is on fire and there's blood pooling at her feet, and there's silence in the room.
"You still say nothing?" the old man says, holding the bloodied pliers under her nose. "Then you are useless." He spits on her face and stands. The pliers are thrown angrily across the room, and he shuffles to the door. He stops there and there's a purposeful, agonizing pause before he gives another command, in English so she understands.
Three men have Bobby on his shattered knees in an instant and he's screaming at her, "C-close your eyes! Santana d-don't you look, close your goddamn eyes! Tell G-georgia that I-"
She closed her eyes. But the sound of it still echoes across her thoughts, haunts her when she sleeps and when she wakes, follows her. They'd used a machete, long and sharp; more than a match for human anatomy. He'd screamed until they severed his vocal chords, and then it was a grinding sandpaper sound of metal on bone, muffled by the gurgle of blood mixing with air the escaping from his lungs. The thud his head had made when they'd dropped it on the floor made her vomit, and then black out. They'd taken his body, and thrown her back in with the women.
"The marines raided the building the next day, before they could execute me, too," Santana finishes. "They picked up Williams' and Digger's bodies near the truck, where they died, and Bobby's about five miles from there. You know all the rest."
Her entire body is numb to the cold, but her cheeks ache as she sniffs and tries to wipe her nose with the back of her sleeve. The tears frozen to her cheeks melt at her touch. She hadn't even realized she'd been crying.
Georgia has been tracing the cuticles on Santana's hand for a while, her finger going over them one by one like she'd never seen fingernails before. There's some horrified kind of awe glimmering in her eyes, and although Santana is glad they aren't so cold as when she'd arrived, she's also kicking herself for forcing Georgia to live through this with her. She's not a soldier. She's a woman, a mother, a widow.
Hell, maybe that made her stronger than Santana ever was.
"They're still thin," Santana says, prompting Georgia out of her reverie. "I take a lot of vitamins, so they grow back right. And they ache, sometimes. But my shrink says that's psychosomatic. Whatever that means."
Georgia looks up with wonder and terror and Santana sees behind those big dark eyes that things are never going to be the same. She's made a mistake, and she can't take it back. She pulls her hand from Georgia's death-like grasp and starts to cry, the full force of it hitting her in the chest so suddenly that she thinks she might be drowning in it.
She can't take it back. She can't unlive it. She can't go back to how it used to be. She's said it now. All of it. Someone else knows, and that makes it real. It really happened.
Her leg is gone. Her leg is gone, and Bobby is dead, and she'll never be the same again.
"I'm sorry," she says through her scarred hands, pressed to her scarred face to try and hold back the tidal wave. "I promised you I'd take care of him. I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
Georgia is calm while Santana sobs. She lets her friend cry and wail and go through all the stages of grief that Georgia herself has long since passed. She can't talk her through it, because what is there to say, after that? She knows now. She knows that maybe when the chaplain said that her husband had been brave, he meant it. She knows just how brave, just how noble and valiant and fierce he'd been. How hard he fought to come back to them. But he hadn't, and she couldn't blame Santana for that. And her life isn't her own to wallow in anymore. There's a little girl in a neon pink snowsuit running around in this park that needs her to be strong more than she needs to cry.
So she doesn't. She swallows it: all that knowledge, all that violence, all those images she's going to have to live with. It's there in her gut for the rest of her life, like a guarantee that the worst of it is over. Nothing on this earth could ever be worse than this thing she's swallowed. She survived that? She can survive anything.
Her friend has caught Ana's attention, and the little girl is creeping slowly up to the bench where they're sitting. Santana doesn't take any notice, so Georgia pulls her daughter into her lap and holds her tightly, humming into the snow-covered, pink hat on her head.
"San'na sad, Mama," Ana observes, and Georgia kisses her rosy-cold cheek.
"Yeah, baby. Santana's very sad. Why don't you go cheer her up. But be careful of her leg. She has a boo-boo."
Ana crawls across the bench in her cumbersome snow suit and nudges her way under Santana's arm, standing on the bench beside her maimed leg and laying her head across Santana's chest. Santana can feel her humming more than she can hear it, the soft vibration of her throat against her body warming her ever so slightly. Her small hand rubs her shoulder in a circular motion that Santana is sure mimics the one her father used to make when he comforted his daughter. She slips her arms around Ana's body and pulls her down so she's sitting on her good leg, holding her close with her chin resting on top of Ana's head. It calms her, having this little life piled into her lap, but she still can't stop crying.
"I don't know how to do this anymore," she says quietly, rocking Ana in her arms while the girl hums to herself.
Santana swallows hard, gulping down a mass of snot and baggage that nearly chokes her on the way down. "Live," she says, meeting Georgia's pitying gaze. "Like nothing ever happened. I can't. I think I might have been better off if they'd killed me over there with Bobby."
Georgia's eyes go dark and she looks away, staring off at the horizon while the muscles in her jaw flex where she grinds her teeth. Santana can see the gears working, the anger bubbling up to the surface, and how much strength her friend is employing to keep it all at bay.
"Bobby insisted that we name her Ana," she says, her voice hissing through her teeth like steam through a vent. "Because he told me you were the most obnoxious, hardheaded, enraging woman he'd ever met."
Santana can't help but smile, even though it hurts. "Sounds like an accurate description."
"Yeah? Well it pissed me off," Georgia snaps, and Santana falls quiet. "Because he wanted to name our daughter after another woman, and that made me so jealous that I thought about leaving him. He went on about you for days, weeks, talking about how much you made him angry and how much he wanted to knock you upside the head for never listening or breaking rank, and causing them all to do extra miles, extra push-ups. And then he'd tell me about how you'd keep him with the pack during a run, and how you never wavered in your beliefs, and how strong you were when assholes tried to take a cheap shot at you because you were gay or because you were a woman. And I understood why he'd want our daughter to be named after a person like that. A person of conviction and character. A woman she could look up to and model her life after. You don't get to tell me that you would have been better off if you had died over there, because there are people waiting for you that don't even know that you're alive. Do you really think that hiding from Quinn and Brittany, or sending your parents away, is helping you? Do you have any idea what I would give for someone to call me up and tell me that it's okay, Bobby is alive, he's just missing a few limbs? I would kill for that phone call, Santana. How dare you tell me that your life isn't worth living anymore. You made it through the worst possible thing that a person can live through. You're alive. You have another chance to do anything, be anything. And you have a chance to be as strong as Bobby thought you were, because he's not here anymore to tell Ana that she can be anything, too. And I'm sure as hell not strong enough to do it all on my own."
She stands and lifts The Kid from Santana's arms. She tries to get up as well, to plead for Georgia to wait, to listen, but her friend cuts her off.
"Bobby was taken from me for reasons that I can't even begin to fathom. You got yours back. It's your job to make the most of it."
Santana watches her walk away, holding Ana on her hip. There's no way she could catch her, even with a toddler weighing her down. So she sits and stares, waiting until she's disappeared around the corner before beginning to cry again.
Georgia can hear her, even through the wind and around the bend. She stops and sets Ana down, then pulls out her cell phone. She dials a number, takes a deep breath, and waits.
"Frannie?" a sleepy woman asks. "S'that you?"
"No, I'm sorry," she says, her voice trembling. "I don't mean to bother you, but my name is Georgia Erickson. I'm a friend of Santana's. Do you have a minute?"
Her leg bobs up and down at such a rate that it shakes the entire bench. Brittany is wide awake at her side, one hand at her mouth where she chews her nails mercilessly, and the other on Quinn's knee, trying to make the bobbing stop. The Manhattan skyline looms in the distance, a wall of black shadows dotted by bright lights against the night sky. The train car sways, and the knot in Quinn's stomach roils violently.
"I think I'm going to be sick," she says, the color in her face long since faded. Brittany squeezes her knee tighter. They sit silently, counting the seconds as the train pulls into Penn Station, and they disembark hand-in-hand.
There aren't any cabs for blocks in any direction, so they walk together, the arms not tangled together hailing anything that even looks yellow. They're walking south, toward 23rd Street, but the address that Georgia had given them is clear across town. It's freezing; their bodies huddle together against the cold. This is why there aren't any cabs. Everyone else is smart enough to have snatched them up already.
They settle for a crosstown bus, getting on board at 7th Avenue because they just can't stand the bitter chill anymore. The traffic makes the ride feel like hours, just as the sixteen-hour train ride from Toledo had felt like weeks. But still they're quiet, because at the end of this excruciating bus ride is what they've been searching for, and they don't know if they'll like what the find.
"First Avenue, 23rd Street," the driver says over the PA system, and they stand on nervous legs. "Transfer available to the M15 bus."
All they'd gotten was an address. Georgia had called and given it to them, insisting she couldn't say any more.
"It's not my place to tell you the rest," Quinn recalls her saying as she and Brittany exit the bus with their small bags slung over their shoulders. "But I know that if I were in your place, I would want someone to at least point me in the right direction."
So they'd gotten the next train they could, after Frannie dropped them back in Toledo, and now, nearing midnight, they stop in front of the address Georgia had given them.
"Five-Fifty First Avenue," Brittany says, and they both stare up at the massive building that towers over them. "This is NYU Hospital, Quinn. Santana's in the hospital."
Maybe they should have figured it out sooner, but somehow it doesn't seem real. She still clings to this notion that maybe Santana was just hiding from them because she'd changed her mind, because she didn't really love Quinn and didn't know how to face her. She'd never considered seriously that Santana might not be able to get to her. That she'd ended up in this place, so close to Quinn all this time, incapacitated and alone.
They push through the rotating doors and into the spacious lobby. It's quiet; this close to midnight, she's not surprised. There are armed Military Police guards at the entrance and although they don't stop them from entering, they watch Quinn and Brittany carefully as they find the service desk and ask for Specialist Santana Lopez.
The nurse at the desk looks weary, and similarly gives them a once over before checking her computer.
"Specialist Lopez is on restricted visitation," she says with a yawn. "No one except immediate family can see her. And even if you were family, it's after visiting hours. Have a good night."
The dismissal is so final that the nurse actually leaves her station, flicking her wrist at the guards as she slips behind a door marked "Authorized Personnel Only". They two men in full combat gear and helmets approach them, and before they can object, they're escorted outside.
The wind slaps them hard across their faces, adding insult to injury. Brittany turns to try to go back in, but Quinn holds her arm steady and shakes her head.
"Tomorrow," she says. "We know she's here. We'll come back tomorrow."
And they do, bright and early. The nurse on the morning shift is kinder, but gives them the same song about restricted visitation. The MPs at the door, different than the ones from the night before, don't need to escort them out. They leave on their own, without a fight.
"They're never going to let us in." Brittany says as they make their way back to Washington Heights. "We're not going to just walk away, are we? We can't leave Santana alone in that place."
Quinn shakes her head. "Never. We'll never stop, Britt. I promise."
They try again the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that for a week, unrelenting. Different nurses give them the same answer. She's on restricted visitation. No, I can't tell you why. No, I can't tell you her status. They see the same nurses a few times, some who become aggravated at their stubbornness, and others who are endeared to it.
"Look," one of them says on the eighth day, a mousey young thing who's probably new and finds their persistence charming. "Come back at five. There's a shift change, and you can walk right through to the elevators. Eleventh floor. She has PT then. You'll find her in the workroom."
February is exhaling, the cold beginning to wane and the snow and cold subsiding. They can't go home, not when their window of opportunity is so small, so they wander in circles around the hospital, walking the boardwalk along the East River until their feet ache and their nerves have eaten away at their stomachs with angry snakes of acid. They hold hands and sit on the riverside, watching winter's last breaths send waves across the water.
"What do we say to her?" Quinn asks, more to herself than Brittany.
"That we love her," Brittany answers anyway, and Quinn smiles. Of course.
At four-fifty-nine they're outside the revolving doors, watching the nurses gather their things for the shift change. The mousey one from that morning casts a quick look over her shoulder to the door before disappearing from sight, and the lobby is unattended. They surge forward, calmly and with purpose, then follow the signs to the elevator. No one is around to stop them.
Eleven floors may as well have been eleven hundred. The elevator climbs slowly, and the clear back shows them the sheer scope of the hospital that reaches up another fifteen floors beyond the eleventh they're waiting for. Doctors get on and off at every level. Patients in wheelchairs, families, military personnel. No one says anything to them. There's no reason.
They slip off at their stop. Quinn's hands are shaking, her palms slick with nervous sweat. Brittany grabs one of them and squeezes. There are signs pointing the way, and they follow them down corridor after corridor of sterile white walls and bright fluorescent lights. They reach a double door with two small windows, thin wire mesh running between double paned glass. Next to the doors is a sign. Workroom.
Quinn's trembling hand reaches out, and pushes the doors wide.
She's on a treadmill. Walking, talking. Alive. Her back is to them, but her high ponytail is the same as ever and her long black hair sways lightly with her jerky, unbalanced movements. She's wearing a grey PT t-shirt, like the ones she'd left sweaty and smelling all over their apartment, before. There's a dark line down her back. She's been working hard, even though she's walking slowly on the treadmill. Her shorts are black, stopping at mid-thigh, and then...
There's a metal rod with a joint at the knee where her left leg used to be.
"Oh my god," Quinn says, so low she's not even sure she really said it. But every head in the room turns, and she's suddenly aware that yes, she really did.
Santana's neck rotates just enough for Quinn to see the scar that runs down her face to her collarbone. She sees the burns on the backs of her hands, the maimed leg that she's relearning to walk on. Santana sees her, too, and her eyes go wide in... what? Surprise? Terror? And she loses her balance, falling.
Quinn tries to run to her, but there are strong hands on her arms, holding her back. The MPs from the lobby are behind them, holding them still.
"Let me go!" she shrieks, trying to pull herself free, trying to get to Santana, to help her. "She needs me!"
But there's a shuffle of movement by the treadmill, and Quinn looks back to see Santana upright, a man with a clipboard at her side. He's whispering to her, trying to calm her down, but her chest is heaving and she can't seem to breathe.
"Get them out," she says, hissing to the man at her side while her wild eyes find the floor, the ceiling, anything but Quinn and Brittany. "Get them out, I don't want them here."
"Santana, please," Brittany pleads as the MP begins to pull them toward the door.
"Get them out of here! Get out, get out, get out!" The shout echoes down the hall while Quinn and Brittany are dragged away, listening to the sounds of sobs as the doors close behind them.
Tick tick tick.
The clock on the wall is making her twitch. She stares at it, the second hand clacking out each movement as though it needs to announce just how slow this session is going.
Tick tick tick.
The woman across from her in a high-backed, upholstered chair sits with her elbows on the armrests and her fingers folded in a pyramid across her mouth. She just watches, waiting expectantly. She has the patience of a Ghandi, Santana knows this, and they'll both sit here listening to the clock in silence for the entire hour if she lets them.
Tick tick tick.
Santana pulls at the lining of her socket beneath her pant leg. She pretends to find it incredibly fascinating, but she can still feel the burn of her therapist's gaze boring holes through her skin. She should be used to this by now, because this is the same routine they go through every day. But today is entirely different, because today Quinn and Brittany have seen her, and for the first time since she got home from Germany, she feels the harsh sting of reality.
"Can you look somewhere else, please?" she asks, and the woman lowers her hands to her lap.
"What about my looking at you bothers you, Santana?"
"I just don't like being stared at."
It's not a lie. But in another life, she'd loved being the center of attention; the one everyone turned to watch as she walked past, the one with the power to drop jaws and make girlfriends break up with their boyfriends. In another life, being stared at was a sport. Now, even in the confinement of this little office on the twelfth floor of the VA hospital with just this one middle-aged woman watching her, she feels naked and exposed.
Her therapist, Joan, turns up the corners of her mouth in what might have been a smile if her eyes had followed suit. But the green-greys are sad, and they remind Santana a little too much of Quinn.
"Do you want to tell me what happened at physical therapy last night?" Joan asks, uncrossing and recrossing her legs. Santana feels a pang of jealousy.
Joan nods and looks down at the notebook she has open in her lap. She rustles through the pages, reading a few lines here and there while Santana shuffles uncomfortably in her seat. The awkward quiet might be worse than the talking.
"Peter told me you had a couple visitors," Joan says, pushing the issue anyway. "They really upset you. The doctor on call says he had to sedate you after they left."
Santana stares at the floor between her feet. With her shoes on, they're identical. She'll never wear a tight dress again, or knee-high boots, or heels. But in pants, no one would be the wiser. She'd rather think about that-that maybe one day she'll walk into a room and no one will see her as the amputee-than talk about last night.
"Who were they, Santana?"
She's so tired, despite twelve hours of dead sleep. The sedative had done its job, knocked her out and kept her out for longer than she'd slept since arriving stateside, but she feels lethargic and hungover as a result. She doesn't want to talk about this. She hasn't talked to Joan about anything before, why would she start now?
"Okay," Joan says, closing the notebook and putting the end of her pen to her lip. "Okay, let's talk about something else. What did you do when you left the hospital last week? Who did you see?"
Santana picks at her nails, wishing desperately for a file. They don't allow those kinds of things in here when she's alone with the doctor. Too many PTSD soldiers with the potential to freak out and lunge.
"You'd been ordered not to leave the hospital without an escort. What could possibly be worth the hassle of leaving in your condition? Weren't you afraid you would injure yourself?"
There are a lot of things she's afraid of, but getting hurt is no longer one of them. Syria had pulled that out of her, one nail at a time. Pain doesn't really have a meaning anymore. So no, she wasn't afraid. Desperate, maybe. Desperation is something she's still well aware of.
"You seemed better when you came back. Lighter, like you'd been unburdened. You even smiled a few times. You don't speak to me, but I think you may have found someone to talk to about your ordeal in Syria. Who did you speak to? A relative? A lover?"
"A friend," Santana corrects, her hands in her lap, knotted and white-knuckled in the material of her shirt. "Someone who understands."
Santana doesn't look up, but she feels Joan's movement as the woman leans forward in her chair. The air crackles with the therapist's excitement. She might smirk if she was still the same girl that grew up in Lima Heights Adjacent. But she's not.
"Another soldier, then?" When Santana is quiet, Joan inhales then nods. "The widow, Private Erickson's wife. Did she understand you, Santana? Do you think it's the same, your pain and hers?"
She sits in her chair, following the lines in her palm with her eyes. Her lifeline, the one that spans the width of her hand. It's long. She thinks it might be mocking her.
"No," she says, lifting her head and meeting Joan's penetrating stare. "No, I think her pain is worse. I can get better. She can never get Bobby back."
Joan's smile finally reaches her eyes, and Santana is inclined to return it. It didn't hurt like she thought it would, talking to Joan. And the proud-mother grin is hard to turn her nose up at.
"What did you tell Private Erickson's wife when you went to see her?"
Too much, she thinks, and wonders if maybe it was even enough at all. Georgia would never feel the way she'd felt when they'd held Bobby on his knees. She'd feel the pain of his loss for the rest of her life, though. That's plenty.
"That Bobby died brave," she says. "How it was over there for us. How he fought and how much he loved her."
"And what did you tell her about you, Santana?"
She bites her lip. She doesn't want to talk about it again, force herself to go through it. It already plays like a projector on the inside of her eyelids whenever she closes them.
"Santana?" Joan prompts, sitting on the edge of her seat. "What did you tell Mrs. Erickson about yourself?"
"That I was weak," she says, and the lifeline on her palm becomes a riverbed as tears fall, creating deltas and streams in her hands. "That Bobby fought hard and I didn't, and he died. And I should have died out there with him."
Joan sets aside her notebook and pen with deliberate caution. She stands up from her high-backed chair and crosses the small space between the two of them. She sits on the opposite end of the couch that Santana occupies, but makes no move to get any closer.
"Santana," Joan says, her voice softening. "You just told me that you can get better. It was the first thing you've said to me in weeks. That tells me you believe it to be true. Is death really something you wish for?"
She can't say that she hasn't thought about dying. At the beginning, when the pain meds were wearing off and she finally saw how mangled she really was. When her mother sobbed on her father's chest. When they fit her with the prosthetic. When Quinn and Brittany didn't call, not once, and then showed up like nothing had happened.
Sure, she's thought about it. But every thought is always followed by Bobby's voice telling her, "Don't break. We'll be okay. Don't break." And Quinn's eyes in the stars in the Syrian desert. And she knows she never would.
"No," she says. "I want to live."
Joan seems satisfied with that. "That's very good to know, Santana." She slips back into her chair, Santana breathing a little easier with the space between them. "Now we need to focus on the quality of the life you want to have when you leave here. Today has been good. Going out and finding someone you felt comfortable with to talk things through, that was even better. I know it's hard, but I need you to trust me. Do that, and I promise that I will do everything in my power to help you get back to feeling as close to normal as possible."
Santana digs the heel of her hand into her thigh, feeling the ache of what's left of the muscle. She bites the inside of her cheek, staring at the way her pant leg falls over the thin metal rod of her prosthesis. Syria had taken a piece of her body, and the doctors had given her a replacement. Though not quite as good as the original, it was functional, and it had helped her stand up on her own again. But now she thinks a piece of her soul might be missing as well, the part that lets her feel happiness or joy or love. And she's not really sure there's a prosthesis for that.
"How?" she asks, wringing her hands together. She hopes, if somewhat vainly, that even if she can't get that bit of herself back, Joan can help her find something to fill in the gap, or ways of coping without it.
Her therapist smiles with such deep satisfaction that Santana thinks she might have just had what could be termed a "breakthrough".
"With patience," Joan says, resuming the position with her elbows on her armrests and her fingers steepled at her lips. "And with the knowledge that the past does not determine the future, and with a support system to help you when you need it. Maybe you could start by telling me about the two women who snuck in last night."
Santana, who had felt almost at ease a moment before, tenses. up. "I don't want to talk about them."
"Does it make you uncomfortable?"
She nods and stares out the small, dirty window with a view of a brick wall.
"Will you be less uncomfortable about them tomorrow, or the day after?"
She considers that. Quinn and Brittany appeared back in her life, after she'd written them off as lost. She'd made it this far-alive, home, walking-all on her own, and now she has to deal with the fact that they're not actually lost after all, and what that means to her in the long run.
And how Quinn's eyes in the stars are still the only things she dreams about that don't cause her to wake up screaming.
"No," she says. "They'll always make me uncomfortable."
"Then why put off 'til tomorrow, what makes you uncomfortable today, hmm?" Joan is trying to be funny, and even though it really isn't, Santana grins anyway. She shakes her head, because she's not quite sure how much this is going to hurt. Like ripping off a bandaid, or pulling fingernails with pliers?
"They were my friends." She picks at her nails while she speaks, distracting herself from her own story. "Well, more than that. It's complicated. We all grew up together. I loved them both at different points in my life. But when I left... they were just my friends."
Joan inches forward in her seat, engaged fully. She doesn't say anything, in case it pulls Santana off her focus. They're finally getting somewhere.
"Brittany, she was the first girl I ever loved." Joan notes the broad curve of Santana's reminiscent smile. "We grew up together, had all our firsts together. Including my first heartbreak. Maybe my second and third, too. But definitely not my last. That one belongs to Quinn."
The smile fades and the room goes quiet. Outside on the street far below, the cars shout back and forth at once another, fighting for space. A pigeon lands on the windowsill, cocking its head at both of them. Santana swallows and yearns again for a nail file.
"Quinn is, was, well... she saved me. Then she ruined me. Then she saved me again, when I was over there, even though she didn't know she did it. Then she showed up here, and ruined me all over again."
"Why did it ruin you?" Joan asks, head cocked curiously. "What were your first thoughts when you saw them last night?"
Santana fidgets, pulling at the hem of her shirt. There had been so many things she'd thought when she'd seen Quinn's face, Brittany's too. The first of which was relief. The second was terror.
"I thought they'd given up on me," she says. "My mom said she called them and told them about me, but they never tried to come see me. Until last night, anyway. So when I saw them I was so happy, and so scared."
"Why were you scared?"
"Because even though they hadn't come to see me, I realized I hadn't wanted them to. I'm not ready. I'm not whole yet."
Joan smiles again. "But you want to be whole."
It's not a question, but Santana nods. "I thought I could do this, get on with my life, pretend for a while that I'm not a disaster. But then they walk in and suddenly I'm a wreck and I can't pretend anymore. So tell me, Doc. How do I stop being a wreck? Because I want to see them. I want to be able to love Quinn again, without letting the sight of her ruin me. So how can I just love her and not let this-" she jabs her index finger into her temple ,"-or this-" another jab, this time at her leg, "-prevent me from ever being normal again?"
Joan licks her lips and sits back, her head tilted and her eyes wandering over Santana's face. She examines her, looking for something, then she laces her fingers together in her lap. "Trust, Santana. Trust me, trust your family, trust your friends. Trust them like you trusted Mrs. Erickson, because even if they don't understand, they came here, and that means they want to try."
Santana chews on that for a while, looking out the window at the pigeon who paces up and down the sill, looking for a way in out of the cold. She wrings her hands, thinking. Trust is hard to come by if you're a person with a whole brain. Finding it with her broken one is going to be hard. But if Joan is right, and Quinn and Brittany are willing to try, then so is she.
"Okay," she says. "Okay. I trust you."
Snow has given way to rain, and as she sits on a bench outside the VA hospital, Quinn drowns in it. She holds an umbrella over her head, but it doesn't protect her legs or feet, or prevent the water on the bench beside her from soaking into her pants. She shivers, but still she sits.
They won't even let her in the building anymore. All the nurses have been informed that she's a menace, and disturbs the patients. Like she's some kind of criminal, her photo hangs behind the reception desk. It's the same at the emergency entrance, and at the service door as well. Some of them look at her with pity, but send her away all the same.
"Please," she says, "Just for a minute. You can come with me, all I want to do is see her."
But they shake their heads and threaten softly, their hands on the phone with security on speed dial. They all know she's not going to cause a scene, but she tries every day just the same. What else can she do, really, but try?
She's already been sent away once today. She'll go back again at the shift change, but until then, she sits in the rain, thinking. Her time is almost up. The offer from the firm downtown is going to expire tomorrow, and she finds herself no caring all that much. If she doesn't have Santana, why should she care about a job she doesn't really want anyway? It's not a very good firm, with little reputation to speak of. It's far away from home, further from the hospital, and what can she expect to get done when all she's thinking about is Santana, screaming.
Get them out of here! Get out, get out, get out!
It repeats in her dreams. Again and again, Santana's cries become like banshee shrieks, deafening her. She wakes up sweating, or with Brittany shaking her.
"Quinn, you're crying. It's okay, it's okay."
Brittany will meet her here later, once she's done with her classes at the studio. She's moving on, getting up in the morning with more spring in her step, a smile on her face.
"How can you go about like nothing's wrong?" Quinn keeps asking, but Brittany just pats her on the shoulder, then kisses her forehead.
"She's been through hell. When she's ready, she'll call us."
But Quinn isn't so sure. The screams are still etched on her eardrums, and even though she knows Santana has been through a lot, it felt personal. Like maybe Santana was ready, but maybe just not ready for Quinn. And it makes her chest clench violently, her lungs stop working and her heart refuse to pump, just for a second. Because what if Santana never wanted to see her again? What if Quinn could never tell her this thing she's been holding on to? What if the Santana she knew died out there, in Syria?
She can't allow that. Not for one second. She'd given up before, pushed Santana away and made her think that she wasn't enough. But Quinn is sure now. More than ever, she knows that the only thing Quinn really wants out of life is for Santana to share it with her. And no injury, no trauma, will ever change her mind about that. And if she has to sit on this bench until it rots away beneath her, then so be it.
At the very least, she'll sit here until Santana is released, job be damned. She'll find another one. One closer to home, so she can help Santana if she needs it. Or one close to the VA, so she can come see her during physical therapy, or take her to appointments. Be the cheerleader she deserves. Hell, she'll even break out her old pompons. At least until Santana is ready to be on her own. Quinn knows her girl could never be off her feet for long. And Quinn wants to be there for all of it. She just needs to find a way to prove that to Santana. That she's in this, no matter what.
She's smiling when a body plops next to her, and huddles underneath half her umbrella. Brittany shivers in the cold and shakes off her wet hair like a tall, gangly golden retriever.
"Ugh," she whines, dragging out her throaty groan dramatically and slipping an arm through Quinn's. "How can you sit out here all day, Q? It's a miracle you don't have pneumonia."
"The power of positive thinking," she says with a grin, and nudges Brittany with her elbow.
"Since when have you ever been a positive thinker?"
Quinn tilts her umbrella back, the rain pelting her in the cheeks as she looks up at the facade of the VA, searching the windows for a familiar face. She finds none, but smiles just the same. "Since there's no other option. If I want Santana back, I have to work for it, and this is where I start."
Brittany eyes her warily. "Here? On this bench, in the rain?"
She nods. "And if I'm going start here, then I'm going to do it thinking positively. Because I can be cold and wet and unhappy, or I can be cold and wet and hopeful. I'm choosing the latter."
Pressure is applied to her arm, a worried hand tightening there. "What about the job?"
Her mother's voice sing-songs in her head. Quinnie, honey, you need to get a good job so you can marry a successful lawyer who will take care of you when you have your babies. And she laughs at herself for ever thinking that her mother would see her job anything other than a means to an end.
"I've spent most of my adult life working toward a goal," she says, watching the cars passing on the street and the people walking with their umbrellas open and collars up around their ears, going about their days, unencumbered. "I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to prove that I was better than Lima, better than my mother, better than my father. It became this sort of mythical notion, like attaining it would give me the keys to Mount Olympus or something. Like everything in my life would just start working if I could just become this one thing. Then Santana showed up and my plan stopped making sense. The idea that I could be happy with her was terrifying. It's Santana, you know what she's like. What I'm like. And the two of us together?"
Brittany snorts. "World war three. I remember. Stop the violence."
She can still feel the sting of Santana's hand across her cheek, feel her fingers knotting in Santana's ponytail. It really wasn't any different than some of the activities they'd engaged in when they were living together. Although, the end result of those activities wasn't usually a slew of insults and a teacher touching her inappropriately, but rather a snicker, a cigarette, and a nap. Quinn heaves, reminiscent, forcing out all the hot, stale air from her lungs to form a thick cloud against the cold. "I didn't know what to do. So I ruined it, like I ruin everything. But I kept going anyway, because that's what I do. I keep going, no matter what. And I'm a lawyer now. I have this opportunity to work at this firm and actually make something of myself, but the only thing I can think about right now is that Santana is up there, and I'm down here. I've got what I wanted, Britt. But it's not going to make me happy. The only thing that will make me happy is up there."
She gestures up to the building in front of them, somewhere in the vicinity of the eleventh floor, somewhere near Santana. As close as she can get, really. This sweeping motion of her arm that could encompass the whole building. So close, and yet...
Brittany follows her gesticulation and stares quietly up at the hospital facade and the mostly darkened windows. Quinn wonders if she's still talking to Alex, if she's going to leave now that they know Santana is alive and, if not well, then on her way to being. She wonders, selfishly, if she'll have to sit on this bench alone soon.
"You can have both," Brittany says, her eyes still lifted into the rain. "Her and the job. You're strong enough to do both."
"My little feminist," Quinn muses and squeezes Brittany's arm. "I know, B. But for right now, with things the way they are, I couldn't be happy taking a job that I don't really want when I could be making up for lost time with her. It's been a year now. And I think she needs me, even if she's not ready just yet. So I'm going to wait until she is. And I don't want to be in some stuffy office, distracted, when that happens. I just wish they'd let me tell her that."
There's no answer from her friend, and Quinn turns to find Brittany focused intently on the building in front of them, brows knit in deep concentration. Her head is cocked, like a confused puppy, and Quinn resists the urge to scratch behind her ears. Brittany shoots to her feet, the sodden umbrella shoved aside so that they're both immediately soaked in the deluge.
"I have an idea," she says and, without waiting for Quinn, takes off in long, quick strides toward First Avenue. Quinn huffs and charges after her, trying to hold the umbrella over her head against the wind, but failing miserably. Her teeth are chattering by the time she catches up to Brittany and her long legs at the bus stop.
"Does this idea involve a wet t-shirt contest? Because I think I might win," Quinn says, her jaw aching as she tries to stop the violent clatter of her teeth.
Brittany shakes her head and steps up into the warm dryness of the bus that has arrived, pulling Quinn behind her. "Nope, but it does involve getting you out of the rain. You can't have the flu when we go talk to Santana."
The thought warms Quinn, and she settles into a seat next to Brittany. "Okay," she says with a grin. "I trust you."
The social worker on the other side of the desk is disheveled. The nameplate on her desk tells Santana that her name is Rita DeAngeles. She's a civilian, dressed in her black polyester suit with a garish orange blouse underneath. Santana thinks it's supposed to be some kind of pastel, but it's only a few shades away from neon and the woman looks like a scarecrow you'd find decorating a porch in Lima on Halloween.
Beware, trick-or-treaters, or you'll end up a haggard desk jockey, too.
"What were your skills, prior to enlisting?" she asks, shuffling piles of papers from one side of her desk to the other. Shifting mountains, the god of her domain.
Santana shrugs. "Slinging beers, avoiding grabby-handed drunks, chipping gum off the undersides of tables. I shook a pretty mean pompon back in the day. Sang a few songs on a few stages, too."
Rita looks up over the top of her glasses, skeptical. Santana's been through too much to see that reproachful face and flinch, so she snaps her gum and grins.
"Specialist..." she shuffles through a pile of folders and flips one open, confirming she's talking to the right person, "Lopez, I'm trying to help you reintegrate successfully into civilian life." She shuffles more papers, flips through a file with someone else's name on the tab. "At least do me the courtesy of being twenty-five percent serious."
"Well, if we're only going for twenty-five percent, then I take back what I said about the pompons."
She doesn't laugh, and Santana sinks back into her well-worn chair. She rubs the joint in her prosthetic, feeling an ache that isn't really there, like she's an old woman with arthritis that flares up when it rains. And it's pouring outside. Has been for days, and she wishes it would just go back to snowing. Snow they could shovel off the sidewalks, put down salt to keep ice from building up. Rain everywhere and streets slippery and gutters ankle-deep with water made it hard for her to go take the walks she found herself desiring. They'd lifted her restricted access, but the rain prevented her from leaving just the same. It figured.
"Computers?" she asks, pushing forward and ignoring Santana's flip comment. "Typing? Customer service? Anything at all?"
Santana sighs. "Lady, I left high school and spent the next four years pouring beers in shitty bars. I joined the reserves because it was supposed to be the career I was looking for. And look how that turned out." She pats her metal knee almost affectionately. "You want to talk careers? Why didn't you pop up in my life when I was eighteen? I needed a career counselor then a lot more than I do now."
She slumps back in her seat dejectedly. This feels like a waste of time. She has no idea what to do now; she has nothing left to fall back on. She's sure that Smitty would take pity on her and give her her old job back, but who wants to hit on a bartender with one leg and big ass scars all over her face and hands? And forget about working during the rush. She'll fall over for sure, on all that beer and spit and sweat that ends up on the floor. No, she's a hazard to Smitty's business. She can't ask him to risk himself like that. So what else does she have? Nothing.
"I understand this is a difficult adjustment period in your life," her social worker says, lacing her fingers together, her elbows on her desk. "Your injury and your... time in the service makes you a high risk case. Your therapist has diagnosed you with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, you're no longer suited for many jobs you might have been able to hold without your disability, and you have no family in the immediate area. The way I see it, when you're discharged you'll have three options: One, you could enter a residential facility for veterans; a halfway house with other soldiers in similar situations. Get a job at McDonald's. Two, you go home to your parents. Let them figure out what to do with you. Three, live a meager life on your own with the assistance of your disability and social security benefits, which won't even cover the rent. Chances are you'll be homeless within a year. There are three quarters of a million homeless veterans in the United States. They can't keep jobs or a current address because of their PTSD or other disabilities. You have both. You have no identifiable skills, you have no family, no friends. It's not a huge leap to assume that, without assistance, you'll fall through the cracks. I'm here to make sure that doesn't happen."
Santana stares at the stacks of folders on Rita's desk, growing like tumors here and there. The wall behind her is lined with file cabinets, filled with more folders filled with stories about other soldiers just like her. Wounded, alone, no prospects to speak of. Nameless men and women who fought to keep their country free, and to help free those who could not free themselves. And this woman was the best they could do. A woman who didn't even know her name.
"You're it, huh?" Santana says, still studying the room, estimating the number of cases this social worker might see on a daily basis, how many people are in her care that she doesn't actually care about. "The last line of defense between me and panhandling on the subway for change? I wasn't kidding about singing on stages, I could probably make a go of it singing on the streets. If you're the best the army has to offer, I think I'll take my chances."
"Save it," Santana puts up her hand and waves the woman off. "You're overwhelmed, I get it. It looks to me like you might be one of a handful of social workers in the tristate area, given the files you've got piled up here. Working out mathematically that there are three quarters of a million homeless vets in this country, that means about forty-five thousand of them are in your jurisdiction. Now, I'm not blaming you for all of it because I'm sure some were beyond help long before you started here. But I'm sure as hell not going to put my future in the hands of someone-in the hands of a system-with a record like that."
She pushes herself to her feet, and takes up the cane next to her chair. She's gotten pretty good with it, even though she still feels unstable without her crutches.
"I'm not a charity case." She looms over the desk, and the haggard social worker doesn't blink. "I'm worth more than a halfway house and a job at McDonald's. I gave my leg for this country. My friends gave a helluva lot more. And I'll be damned if I just sit here and let you tell me that I only have three options for my future, when up until five minutes ago you didn't even know my goddamn name."
She's breathing heavy, at once angry and elated. Her spine feels straighter, her shoulders broader, her leg stronger. She's standing tall, on her own, for the first time in a very long time. And she thinks she might actually be smiling.
There's a lull in the room. A pause that's filled with the honking of horns outside the window on the street below, the buzz of traffic, the pattering of the rain. The social worker takes off her glasses and leans back in her chair.
"You don't want to be a charity case?" Rita asks. "Good. The army doesn't want that either. So how about instead of yelling at me, you tell me how I can help you, so those three options don't become all there is."
Santana eyes her for a moment before lowering herself shakily into the chair she'd just risen from. She nods and hangs her cane from the arm, settling back in. "Sorry."
Rita shrugs. "You didn't throw anything. No harm done. Now, you don't like your options. Fine. Give me another one, and I'll do my best to make it happen."
She wilts, leaning back and staring out the window. For all her shouting about not being a charity case, deserving a better future, she doesn't really see one. She doesn't have anything; no skills, no background, no work experience. She had Smitty's, and she had the Reserves, and she had Quinn. That had been enough. But now all of it is gone. It's overwhelming.
"You said you could have used me when you were eighteen," Rita prompts, drawing Santana's attention away from the window, slick with rivulets that distort the outside like a carnival mirror. "Imagine that you are eighteen."
Santana scoffs and rolls her eyes, but Rita holds up her hand.
"Now, wait a minute. Think about it. You said you could have used guidance back then. Why?"
She shrugs. "My dad wanted me to go to medical school. He's a doctor. I didn't want to do anything that would make him happy. So I moved to LA with my girlfriend and slung beer until I hated myself, and then I joined the army. I thought it would give me purpose."
"Was that what you wanted? To move to LA?" Santana shakes her head and averts her eyes, and Rita pushes. "If someone other than your dad had asked you what you wanted to do, what would you have told them?"
Silence hangs over them while Santana ponders. She thinks about herself at 18, about the check her mother had given her when she graduated, how she'd cashed it and packed for LA with Brittany. She thinks about the scholarship at Louisville she turned down because she didn't want to be seen as just a cheerleader for the rest of her life. She thinks about what that scholarship might have given her other than the cheerleader reputation. Respect, an education, a career, a future. One that didn't involve battling the hands of drunks and reeking of beer or losing a leg in a war.
"I want to go to college," she says, and the sound of it surprises both of them.
Rita nods, with a smile that is both proud of Santana and self-satisfied spreading from ear to ear. "Okay," she says. "I think I can help you with that."
The first sunny and mild day of the year finds Santana in Sheep Meadow, sitting on a blanket near the treeline while Georgia chases Ana around the grass, just within shouting distance. She leans back on her hands, her legs-leg-stretched out in front of her. The sky above is some of the brightest blue she's ever seen, with thick, pillowy clouds that hover comfortingly. There's little wind, so they drift to and fro, stretching and reforming as they will. She watches them, then Ana in turn. The little girl is out of her pink snowsuit and her legs have grown stronger, more stable and confident on the safety of dry grass. It'll be spring in a few weeks, and now that the snow has melted, it seemed like a good time to introduce her to Central Park. Georgia had called and informed her that the three of them would be making the trip. Santana didn't have to agree. It was a given that she'd do as Georgia asked.
Her jailbreaks to Jersey had been silent car rides with Fort Dix officers and one tumultuous and nauseatingly expensive cab. But when she'd left the VA to meet Georgia, she'd taken the subway for the first time in almost a year. Unsteadily she'd leaned on her cane as she descended the stairs onto the platform, standing well back from the edge in case she was bumped or jostled. She's still unsure in crowds, feeling claustrophobic and nervous that one push could send her careening, or the brush against her shoulder isn't an innocent mistake, but someone trying to tie her to a chair. It'd been a silly thing to think, of course, but she couldn't help it. There's a terrible sense of paranoia that takes over whenever she leaves the safety of the hospital. But when she'd told Joan about Georgia's invitation and her reservations, her doctor had insisted she go. Immersion therapy, she called it. Surround yourself by that which you fear, and it will no longer scare you. So she stood on the subway platform, in the throngs of commuters on their way about their days, between Chinese tourists carrying bags and bags of shopping, between mothers pushing strollers and not caring who they run over in the process. She'd stepped carefully onto the subway car, leaning on her cane and holding onto the pole for balance, and took a deep breath.
A young man with tattoos had given up his seat for her, seeing her combat jacket, her scars, her cane. He called her ma'am. She thought maybe the world wasn't so bad after all. And twenty minutes later, she was outside the park entrance, unscathed.
Walking alone in the crowds of Central Park after the train had been just as scary as the train itself. She'd felt like she needed a man on her six, watching her back with a rifle. It was hard to know that the only men she trusted like that, to have her back, were dead now. She'd shuddered, but steeled herself just the same. She couldn't think like that here. It wasn't the same as it was back in Syria. This was her home. Or at least the closest she could come by. She'd be discharged at the end of the month, once she'd been cleared by Joan, and she still didn't know where she'd be going. She'd hoped to maybe ask Georgia to let her come back today. If it wasn't too much trouble.
Of course, she made it safely onto the meadow to find Georgia and Ana sitting with the blanket. There had been lunch waiting for her: sandwiches and potato salad, some apple juice and bottled water. Santana was grateful for anything that wasn't hospital food, and thanked Georgia as she helped herself to seconds of everything. They talked for awhile, about Ana, and Georgia's new job as a secretary for the Harbor Master at the docks, who'd heard about Bobby and asked her if he could help. She hadn't wanted charity, just a way to make a living wage. Bobby's death benefits were going into a college fund for Ana. She wasn't about to use that to keep them day to day when she was perfectly capable of getting work and providing for her child. Santana had understood, of course, having had a similar conversation with Rita not long before. No one likes being the charity case.
She'd told Georgia about college. How she'd start at CUNY in the fall, taking classes at Hunter.
"Psychology," she'd said through her bites of bologna and cheese on white. "And then maybe a Master's, so I can be a counselor, or a social worker. Help other people like me get their lives back. The GI Bill should cover most of it. In the meantime I'll try tending bar again, somewhere dark so no one has to look at the scarred up, crippled vet too closely."
Georgia had scolded her for that last bit, but had been too proud of the rest to linger on it long. She'd pulled Santana into a hug she hadn't known she'd needed, and it had left both of them in tears.
Ana had gotten restless and wanted to run. She'd tried pulling Santana up, but Georgia intervened and began chasing her. Across the meadow and in between the other picnickers, they had their fun while Santana wiped her eyes and watched.
She's there now, on that blanket, alternating between the clouds and The Kid. There's still the itch she feels to reach for her sidearm whenever she sees someone moves too quickly out of the corner of her eye, but she's slowly letting it go. Her prosthesis is off and resting at her side, letting her chafed skin and aching muscles breathe for a bit. She smirks to herself and sighs, thinking, Damn, I'm out of shape. She closes her eyes and lets the sun, which she hasn't seen since Christmas, cleanse her. It's lighter than the sun in Syria, where the sky was a constant shade of yellow-white, washed out in the heat and the barrenness of the desert. It filters through her thin lids so her vision is a haze of deep reds and oranges that flicker with the movements of her eyes and emphasize the veins there. Here, with the clear cerulean sky overhead, there's life. Not just from the rains that have brought the trees to bud, or the children running around her with their shrieks of innocent laughter, but everywhere. In the grass, in the air, in her, where she hadn't felt it sparking since before. She feels it now, somewhere in her gut. Not a fire yet, but a spark. And that's good enough for now.
The orange haze grows darker as a shadow crosses her path. Santana opens one eye and squints through it, seeing Georgia standing above her with flush-faced Ana in her arms.
"Don't be angry, okay?" she says, then bites her lower lip and looks up at the treeline behind them.
Santana turns as far as her leg will allow, her hand over her eyes like a visor. Shadowed beneath a canopy of bare branches, standing shoulder to shoulder with their hands held between them, are Quinn and Brittany.
There's an instantaneous moment of panic that jolts through her body like lightning, and she tries to scramble to her feet, only to realize that she's taken her leg off, and she's trapped there. Her cheeks flush and her stomach clenches and she turns away, reaching for the prosthesis and cursing Georgia under her breath.
"No," she hisses, trying not to let them hear her, her shaky fingers fumbling with the velcro straps. "What the fuck, Georgia? No."
There's no sound behind her, Quinn and Brittany making no move to come closer. Georgia squats at her side and props Ana up on her hip. "Hear them out," she says, and leans in to kiss Santana on the temple. "Please. I'll be right over there the whole time."
Georgia pushes herself to standing, gives a nod to the pair that are still behind Santana, and takes cautious steps backward. Santana stiffens and tries to call Georgia back, but her friend turns and keeps walking with Ana staring at her over her shoulder.
She refuses to turn around. She squeezes her eyes shut and waits for approaching footsteps, but hears none. They're keeping their distance. She's grateful for that.
"You don't have to say anything," Quinn says, her voice trembling. "But if you could just listen, maybe... you'll never have to see us again, if you don't want to. Just listen, okay?"
That voice. That voice she'd heard in her head a thousand times when she couldn't sleep in the silence. That voice that spoke to her while she was in the dark room with those women, when she was tied to a chair, when Bobby... It had never trembled like that. It was never scared, like she had been in Syria. It was strong because she needed it to be. Now that voice is nervous and hopeful and at the same time she hears joy in it. She doesn't speak, just sits and stares ahead, trying to control the shaking of her hands.
There's a pause, a rustle, a whispered exchange. When next she hears, it's Brittany who speaks, not Quinn. "We don't know what you've been through," she says, and in the distance Santana listens for Ana's shrieking giggle. "And we don't expect anything from you. We just wanted to come and tell you that we're here for you. If you need us. If you want us." There's a muffled thud, like an elbow hitting a ribcage. "And we're sorry it took us so long to find you. We should have been here sooner."
She's clenching and unclenching her hands, watching the tremors in her burned fingers and feeling the tightness of the skin there. She can't imagine them showing up when the skin had been raw and pink and smelling of infection. If they had seen her like that, would they still be saying they're sorry? Or would they be searching for a way out?
"In our defense, it took us awhile to figure out where you were," Brittany says, and it doesn't sound like an excuse. "Your mom stopped taking our calls and we were nearly arrested trying to get information from Fort Dix. We even went back to Lima to try to talk to Maribel in person, but she wasn't exactly forthcoming. If it hadn't been for Georgia we might still be looking for you. She's worried about you. We all are."
They're pulling at one another, Brittany poking Quinn and trying to shove her forward, toward where Santana sits with her leg half off and her brain a tangled knot of confusion. Quinn is resisting, and Santana would still just really prefer that they went away, if only so she can yell at Georgia in peace.
"Your mom called us back in January," Brittany says when the silence has grown thick between them. "She told us you were out of Syria, and that you were okay. And that was it. She didn't tell us..."
She trails off, sniffling, and Santana's interest is piqued now. She turns her head enough that Brittany and Quinn are just beyond her periphery, but she can hear them better. She knew her mom was manipulative, but this?
"We spent months looking for you," she continues, her words jumbling together as she tries to explain, to justify why they were so long in arriving. "We called Maribel every day. She never answered. I swear, Santana, we would have been there for everything if we had only known..."
And all the while Quinn stands silently at her side, staring. Santana can feel Quinn's eyes on her neck, her shoulders, her back, drinking her in. She feels them stop on her exposed hands, the scars spiderwebbing from her fingertips to her wrists, and again on her face, the side of which is turned toward them just enough to show them the remains of the wound that cut her from her temple to her collarbone. She can feel it, but she doesn't feel pity, as she'd expected. She feels guilt and remorse and please turn around. But she can't. Her life with Quinn ended a year ago, and she's not ready to begin a new one. Not yet.
And yet, she still needs to know...
"She really didn't tell you what happened?" she asks, so quiet she thinks she might have to repeat herself. "My mom. She told you I was okay?"
"She said you were alive, and out of harm's way, and that you wanted us to know that," Brittany recites almost excitedly, hopeful at Santana's response, and remembering each and every time Quinn had made her repeat Maribel's words. "But then she hung up, and we never heard from her again. Not until we went to see her, in Lima. And even then... She thought we would hurt you again. She was trying to protect you, Santana. You shouldn't be mad at her, if that's what you're thinking about... God, I wish you'd tell us what you're thinking. I wish you'd talk to us, tell us what we can do for you. But if you don't want to, we'll go now."
They wait, hands held tightly between them, their palms clammy with nervous sweat. Santana's face is turned ever so slightly toward them, but her eyes are on the trees, their limbs swaying in the breeze. She makes no move to look at them, to say anything, to tell them they should stay. And their hearts sink as one.
"Maybe she's just not ready," Brittany whispers, trying to conceal her voice from Santana, who doesn't seem to be listening. "I was wrong, Quinn. I'm sorry, this was a bad idea. I thought that if she saw us again..."
Quinn is fighting her tears, fighting her desire to run to Santana, who is so close and yet might as well be back in Syria. The clenching in her throat feels like a hand trying to suffocate her, to squeeze the air from her lungs. She can't wait any longer, she can't hold it back, this thing she needs to say. She'd wanted to wait until Santana was ready, but what if she never is? What if this is the last chance she has?
"I love you."
It comes in a burst, like it had been struggling to get out and finally found the strength to escape the place in Quinn's chest where it had been held captive. It echoes in the barren trees, whose limbs sway and shake under the force of it. Santana sits rigid, her back stiff and military straight, and Quinn has to take a deep breath-several-to try and control the quickening in her chest. She's waited so long for this, and she already feels like she's screwed it up. But it's been released, and now that the dam is broken, there's no stopping the rest of it from tumbling out in a deluge.
"I love you," she repeats. "I love you, and I'm so sorry that I'm an idiot and it took me so long to tell you. I wanted to, so badly. Before I got your letters, before you went to Syria. Hell, even before you left me. And when you wrote to me, it was the only thing I wanted to tell you. But I needed the first time I said it to be to your face, so you could see how much I meant it. So I just begged you to come back to me, so I could do that. Do this. I need you to know that I love you, Santana. I love you as a bartender, I love you as a soldier, I love with with both your legs or completely limbless. I'll love you even if you never want to see me again. And I know it might be too late now. But I needed you to know, because you did come back to me, and if I didn't tell you, even if if doesn't mean anything to you anymore, I'd never forgive myself if I didn't say it. Because you deserve to know that you're loved, Santana, even if I have to love you from somewhere else."
Children laugh across the field. Birds fly overhead, their wings flapping to keep them aloft. A cart vendor pushes his wares along a path, a bell jingling with each step. Quinn's chest expands and contracts in deep, desperate gulps. She can't seem to get enough air. And Santana still isn't turning around. She's fiddling with the straps on her artificial limb, and Quinn realizes that there's nothing left to say.
"I love you," she says again, and Brittany is pulling on her arm, gently reminding her that she needs to respect Santana's wishes. And even though it's the worst thing she's ever done-worse than their fights in high school, worse than being withholding during their relationship, worse than valuing her success over everything else, worse than waiting this long to tell her that she loved her-she turns away, to leave.
Brittany is clinging to her, making sure she doesn't look back, pulling her forward, one foot in front of the other. They move together, hip-to-hip, stoic. All Quinn can think is, I don't blame her. Her eyes are swollen and her nose is running so badly that she doesn't even try to dam it. There are worse things than looking like a punching bag. Walking away? That's one of them.
The command is sharp and impersonal, but they both whirl, fighting to stay upright on the slippery grass. They find their balance on one another, and there, next to her blanket, is Santana. She's standing, leaning on her cane with her back as military straight as she can make it. Her face is unreadable; she stands like she would in rank, chin high and shoulders stiff.
"San-" Quinn begins, but she's quickly cut off.
Brittany and Quinn are frozen in place as they do as Santana asks, and wait. She watches them, hesitant, before she takes a step toward them. They both inhale, holding their breaths.
Her artificial leg kicks out, the heel digging into the wet ground and finding purchase. She pulls herself forward slowly, leaning on her cane when it digs into the mud with a squish. Her good leg swings round and she's beginning the cycle again, proving a point that they are sure to understand. Another step, the leg swinging outward and coming back down, heel first. Quinn thinks back to that day in the workroom, the Santana she saw on the treadmill, the one who'd fallen at the sight of them and screamed in terror. She looks at this woman now, striding toward them with dignity and purpose, and she realizes she's crying again.
That's my girl.
Santana stops just out of arm's reach, straightening up once more. She looks back and forth between the two of them, her eyes not giving away her intentions. Quinn is prepared to be slapped. She deserves that much.
But Santana surprises both of them by letting her shoulders relax, and softening her voice. "I am not a victim," she says. "I'm a soldier. I'm a survivor."
"I know," Quinn murmurs, her fingers itching to be holding a hand other than Brittany's. "I know, you're strong."
"You can't fix me. I'm not your charity case." Santana takes a small step closer, and Quinn pulls her fingers free
"I don't want to fix you," she says, her palm up but her arm at her side. "I don't even think you're broken."
"I don't need saving. I save myself." Another step. Quinn can see in graphic detail the scars that riddle Santana's skin. She reaches out, but Santana stiffens and she immediately pulls back.
"Of course," she agrees, flexing her stupidly overreactive hand into and out of a fist. Her nails dig into her palms and she studies the way Santana's eyes have creased at the edges, little deltas in the corners that are remnants of a long, hard life lived in a very short period of time. "Santana, yes. Of course."
"You weren't there." Her voice is a hushed whisper, reverent and frightened and hollow. Santana fixates on Quinn, those wizened eyes searching for a connection she'd thought she'd lost. "You weren't there. In Syria, in that room, when I got out. You'll never know, and I don't know if I can ever tell you."
"You don't have to." Quinn flexes again, but this time it's Santana that reaches out, her pink-patterned hand flailing for something to hold, and Quinn obliges. She closes the last step between them and her fingers find Santana's, and it's as though someone has just put a still-beating heart in her palm. She turns it over, inspecting the way the grafts grew against Santana's own skin. The way the burns had caused her fingers to curl into a tight ball, only to be freed by German doctors debriding the wounds with scalpel slices from joint to joint. Quinn wonders if the nerves are intact, if Santana can feel her own fingers tracing the scars, in awe of them, and of the woman who wears them. She brings the hand to her lips and traces them again and again, trying to soothe their shaking.
She slips her free hand into the pocket of her dress, feeling the item she's held on to for so long that it's become an extension of herself. She pulls it out and presses it into Santana's curled fingers.
Santana stares at it, disbelieving. The note card is soft like cloth from wear, but her own handwriting is still legible beneath a ringed water stain. The number in the corner is nearly invisible, and the neon highlighter has faded to a baby pink pastel. It's the last part of a life she'd thought she'd lost in that explosion on a dark road in Syria, with the rest of the notes and Quinn's postcards and a piece of her soul.
I know you're scared, it says. And she is.
"Quinn..." Santana's throat chokes off the name, and Quinn looks up. The deltas at the corners of Santana's eyes are now flooded rivers, and she wipes them all away. "Quinn, say it again. Please."
"I love you," she says, winding a hand around her too-thin waist and letting her forehead rest gently against Santana's, so their eyes are locked. "I love you as a bartender, I love you as a soldier. I love you with both your legs or completely limbless. I'll love you if you never want to see me again, or if you let me see you every day for the rest of our lives."
Lips unmarred by war find hers and they are as they were before, hands and heat and desire. Hands to hold each other up. Heat to keep them warm. Desire to be nothing but together, together, together. For as long as they can be, for as long as inevitability will let them.
I love you, they say.
I love you.
Across the green, Brittany leans against the thick trunk of a old elm, just beginning to bud. They hadn't even noticed her step away. She takes a deep breath, watching the two of them together, and she's surprised at the ease she feels about that. There's no pang of jealousy in her heart, no stab of remorse in her gut. She's comfortable, seeing them together, their heads bent together and their hands woven like the threads of a quilt. She's happy for them. And she's ready to move on.
For a moment she wrinkles her nose, catching a scent. Maybe it's the beginning of the bloom that carries on the breeze, or a caretaker mowing the grass somewhere nearby. But the smell is distinct, and she thinks she knows what it might be, truly.
She inhales again, drinking of it. She gives Quinn and Santana one last look, but they're too enamored of one another to notice. Taking the phone from her pocket, she turns and begins an unhurried stroll down the cobblestone path and out of the park. The number is easy to remember, even though it's been so long since she's used it. She waits for the voice, and can't stop herself from smiling when she hears it.
"Alex," she says. "I love you. I'm coming home."