Sex isn't dating. If it were, Brittany and Santana would be dating.
But they don't date, not for at least a year after Brittany spills their secret to the glee club. Nobody in the glee club seems to care that much anyway; other dramas are more entertaining, and it never gets mentioned again. Brittany and Santana keep dating boys in public, and whatever's between them stays in the background.
It's a good arrangement, and at any rate, they've got other things on their mind. New Directions does well in Regionals that first year, placing second to Vocal Adrenaline but leaving the competition with a lot of buzz. Local papers and TV stations do pieces on the "plucky little team that could." Mr. Shue keeps them performing in public for the rest of the year - another invitational at the school and shows at lame locations like retirement homes - but they're all having too much fun to complain.
In fact, nothing much changes for Brittany and Santana until the end of their junior year, when they blow past Vocal Adrenaline at Regionals and make it all the way to Nationals in DC, placing second out of twelve with no regrets, finishing with standing ovations and cries of encore as they stand breathless in the spotlights.
The celebration that night goes on nearly to dawn, the club running around the city with crazy abandon, high on the best night of their lives (and more than a little booze, courtesy of Puck). When Brittany and Santana make it back to their room, it's the most natural thing in the world to start making love, holding each other close, kissing and stripping and moving together until they both come, silently (the walls in their cheap hotel are ridiculously thin) but shaking with ecstasy. And it's only in the afterglow of a night like this that Santana can open up enough to tell Brittany that she loves her, and ask her to be her girlfriend. Brittany says nothing, but nods, and gives her a sweet, perfect kiss before they fall asleep in each others' arms.
That summer is the best of their lives. Santana works the counter at a burger joint and Brittany braids hair at the lame excuse for a local zoo, but beyond the hassle of dead-end summer jobs there's also hanging out with the glee kids, the complete lack of McKinley's social hierarchy, and seemingly endless days and nights filled with each other's company. The songs they sing in glee club and the poetry they read in English class talk about burning, all-consuming, endless love, and Santana knows that's what they have, right here, right now. It crosses her mind to wonder if this is the happiest she'll ever be, but she can't focus on wondering that very long when things are so perfect.
It's only when they get back to school for their senior year that things begin to cool off. Word gets around that Santana and Brittany were a couple over the summer, and even though their status doesn't slip that far - Santana's now firmly established as the head of the Cheerios, and the club's success outside of Lima actually makes it a social plus instead of a minus - they still feel pressure to hold back in public. It's a dance they never quite master. They'll try to hold hands or steal a kiss, but having to constantly look over their shoulders to see who might be watching means they can never capture the easy way they came together over the summer. Even their attempts at long-term planning fall through; every college Santana applies to is paired with a nearby dance academy that Brittany applies to, but when acceptances arrive, she ends up in San Francisco and Brittany ends up in Los Angeles. Their safety schools are together in Columbus, but neither one can live with the idea of holding the other one back, even though they're both willing to make the sacrifice if it means staying close.
So their relationship slowly fades throughout the rest of the year and into that last summer, which is cut short due to Brittany heading out early to look for an apartment and work. They have the phone, and email and video chat and everything else, but the planned visits for every other weekend turn into a monthly thing, then a bi-yearly thing, at best. Meanwhile, their lives continue.
Brittany's as good a dancer as anyone, but good dancers - even tall, blonde, gorgeous ones - are a dime a dozen in Los Angeles. She gets backup dancer work in music videos and the like and continues to study, but never finds her big break. LA is a tough, unforgiving town, and she doesn't have Santana around anymore to watch out for her. She smartens up a bit, but mostly stays aloof, trying to avoid being mocked for the random outbursts that've been her trademark for years. And she starts dating guys, since it's almost exclusively guys who are asking her out - the kind of smooth, good-looking, exciting guys that seem to be everywhere in LA - though nothing sticks.
Santana keeps head-down on her school work, the same drive and discipline that lead her out of Lima continuing to push her in California. She'd mellowed in the past few years with Brittany, but even if she still had the old killer social butterfly edge, she's out of her depth at college, which is too big and diverse to have any clear hierarchy. Besides, she has no time for dating, or even for all that many friends, and nobody clicks with her the way Brittany did. Looking back she figures she might have just been another high school LUG.
She does well in her classes, and though her school's reputation is good, the economy isn't doing well when she graduates. She's lucky to find the CPA job she does, but there's not much room for advancement, and the constant threats of downsizing and outsourcing keep her running full out just to stay in place. So it's no surprise that the few dates she does manage go out on are through work and work connections, and the one that turns serious, with a short, fit man with an easy smile named John, starts at the Starbuck's in the lobby of the building where she works. It's not the fiery passion of youth, and it may not even be love, really, but she thinks it's a reasonably good match, and she isn't sure she can do much better.
They're married at 26, in a small ceremony on the beach dominated by John's friends and family. Only Santana's mother and Brittany are there for her, Brittany arriving in town on a Harley behind a hulking, pony-tailed boyfriend named Clay. Santana doesn't much care for him. His smiles are greedy, predatory, especially when he looks at women, but she plays nice to keep the peace. She doesn't get many chances to see Brittany all that often, these days.
After the wedding they move to a small condo in the suburbs and just live life as best they can. Kids follow fairly quickly - a girl named Sara, and a boy named Steven two years later - and Santana does her best to be a good mother. But there's never quite enough money, never quite enough time, and not the kind of emotional support she was hoping for from marriage. Once the kids come along John grows more and more distant, doing what he has to do at work and at home but not giving her the kind of personal attention she could use. Sex becomes more and more infrequent, but she's frankly too tired for sex, most of the time. She's on her own, the kind of love and friendship that got her through high school fading into a distant memory.
And that's where things stand when she gets a late night phone call from a hospital in Los Angeles.
She drives down the next day, surprising even herself that she's capable and willing to drop everything on such short notice. But the hospital said they literally had no one else to call; Brittany's parents had passed years before, and her phone had been destroyed in the motorcycle accident. Brittany was apparently in a lot of pain and not communicating well, but she'd managed to give them Santana's number, which led to Santana standing by Brittany's bed late that evening, looking down at her unconscious friend.
The nurses tell her they'd been going through the mountains and lost control on a curve... and after a bit more prodding Santana gets the nurses to admit that Clay's blood tox report had shown significant amounts of crystal meth, although Brittany's had been clean. And while Clay is lying down in the morgue (good riddance, she thinks) Brittany is lying in traction, abrasions covering her face, a broken arm and a fractured leg, knocked out from the morphine. At least she'd been wearing a helmet.
Santana cries herself to sleep that night on a cheap, uncomfortable couch in Brittany's room, and in the morning, she begins the long process of figuring out how to navigate Brittany through this. Between health insurance through the dancer's union and long-term disability, the medical bills are largely covered. The bigger problem, which comes out through conversations during Brittany's lucid periods between pain pills, is that Brittany doesn't really have anyone to rely on in Los Angeles. Her entire social circle had narrowed down to Clay over the past few years, and with Clay gone, she doesn't have anyone left to call on.
Santana goes back to the Bay Area a few days later, but she's back at the end of the month when Brittany gets discharged from the hospital, in a U-Haul loaded with Brittany's stuff, ready to drive her up to a rented apartment a few miles away from Santana's place.
Santana's life becomes an endless treadmill over the next few months. Work hasn't gotten any easier, the kids are now old enough that they need to be ferried to weekend and after-school activities all the time, and now any spare moments get spent driving Brittany to the therapist office, or helping Brittany work through insurance issues, or any one of the dozen other things Brittany can't quite pull off on crutches.
For her part, Brittany alternates between feeling incredibly thankful for Santana's help, incredibly guilty that she's leaning on Santana as much as she is, and overwhelmed to the point of numbness that her life's come to this. Her dancing career's over - the doctors have told her she'll never regain full mobility in her leg, and even if she did, she left the work behind in Los Angeles. She can probably find work as a dance instructor, and starts shopping her resume to local studios, but she's left wondering what her life has come to at this point.
Still, it's not all bad. Seven months to the day after the accident, Brittany has her last physical therapy appointment. She has a slight limp, and will for the rest of her life, but she can walk, run, and even dance for short periods without pain. Brittany and Santana go out for drinks that evening to a local chain restaurant. The alcohol's overpriced, mixed with way too much flavored syrup, and they're surrounded by noisy families and screeching twenty-somethings, but having any opportunity to not have the weight of the world on her shoulders makes Santana almost giddy. They talk for hours, mostly about high school days in Cheerios and glee, and by the end of the evening they're tipsy enough to start singing, slightly off-key, to the emptying bar.
They take separate cabs home and Santana comes home with a smile on her face for the first time in months, if not years, only to find John waiting up for her at the kitchen table, telling her he wants a divorce.
The conversation doesn't go well, not that night, and not in the nights that follow. He says she's practically left him for her high school girlfriend, she tells him that she hasn't done anything with Brittany, that it was over years ago, and that he's the one who's all but checked out of the marriage. And it just gets worse from there, years of pent up anger and frustration spilling out as she cycles between wanting to throw things at John and worrying that they'll wake the kids.
By the end of the week he's moved out; by the end of the month she's been served divorce papers. John argues infidelity on her part, and says that he should be free of any financial obligations except child support. She's ready to fight it, ready to point out that he's already moved in with some woman from work, but her lawyer advises against it, saying that it's too hard to fight the charge, even with no proof on John's part. So she signs the settlement and it's done with.
Brittany's a saint during all this, stepping in at first to babysit the kids when she's trying to argue John out of it, then taking them out for activities when visits to her lawyer start sucking up Santana's time. She hears, second-hand, that John's been trying to turn the kids against Brittany as the bad guy in all this, but it's a losing battle; the kids love Brittany, and largely side against their father in the divorce. Part of her is sad to see it happen - Sara and Steven had had a pretty good relationship with their dad - but she's mostly relieved they're not turning against her, and he mostly vanishes pretty quickly from their lives after that.
Which leaves the problem of money. The were staying afloat, barely, on two salaries, but she can't really keep up with the mortgage by herself, even after cutting things back to the bare minimum. She's within a month of selling the house and moving to a cheaper apartment when Brittany offers to move in and help with the rent. Santana resists at first - it feels like John's being proved right, somehow - but at the end of the day she can't find any alternative. So Steven moves into John's old office downstairs, and the three bedrooms upstairs get turned into a kind of girl's dorm. Nothing much changes around the house. The kids were already used to Brittany coming by all the time during and after the divorce, it's just that Santana learns to expect Brittany making some godawful tofu stir-fry for dinner when she gets home rather than it being a surprise. But it's nice not to have everything on her shoulders, and it's nice to come home to someone who's honestly interested in her day and listens to her blow off steam over a hot meal.
Brittany starts dating, but again, nothing really sticks. Santana considers starting to get out again herself, but there's not much appeal to it; the kids are still young enough where they're home nights, and, for the most part, she'd rather drink a glass of wine and collapse into bed than deal with the dregs of the dating world desperate enough to date a single mother. Besides, Brittany's dancing keeps her young, but stress and a general lack of exercise are starting to wear Santana down. What used to be a svelte, athletic figure is now just bony and tired - at least, that's what Santana feels like, most days.
One Saturday evening when the kids are sleeping over at friends', they stay up late drinking and talking, interleaving memories of the good old days with gentle regrets about the way things turned out. It's on both of their minds, wondering what being together now would be like, both of them worrying things have changed too much in nearly twenty years, though they say nothing aloud. But they draw closer to each other as the night goes on, culminating in a nervous, clumsy kiss - Santana makes the first move - that leads to an awkward but enthusiastic make-out session on the couch. Finally Brittany takes Santana's hand and leads her upstairs.
It's not what it once was. Where before they flowed together like water, never any question about what should happen next or who would take the lead, now it's all false starts and mumbled apologies. When Santana finally comes, it's almost more like the memory of an orgasm, only a small part of her mind caught up in the moment while the rest of it holds back, observing, wondering, doubting. She wakes up the next morning in Brittany's unfamiliar bed with a hangover, and they stumble down to the kitchen together, saying nothing. Still, as Santana stares dead-eyed ahead at the coffee maker, waiting for the pot to finish, Brittany walks up behind her and wraps her arms around her waist, resting her head on Santana's shoulder. Without thinking Santana reaches back, strokes Brittany's hair and absentmindedly kisses her cheek. They don't talk about what happened any further, and the incident doesn't repeat itself during the next few weeks.
Time passes, and as she settles in over weeks and months, Brittany slowly lets herself feel things she's been pushing back for years. Contentment, for starters, being satisfied with her life day in and day out, not waiting for her career to take off or the right guy to come along or something else to make things make sense. The occasional burst of full-blown happiness, as some random bit of silliness escapes from Brittany's mouth and leaves them all cracking up, gasping for breath during a family dinner or movie night. Love. Not being in love the way they were, her every thought running towards Santana like rain down a window, but loving Santana and the kids as a steady background feature, a hot house flower that she steadily cultivates and nurtures, easing their troubles and doing what she can to make them smile now and then.
And hope, steadily turning to joy, when she realizes that Santana feels the same way about her, even after all these years and all the trouble she's put her through.
The dance studio Brittany's been co-managing closes down when the owner retires, and things snowball from there. Her salary's not as desperately needed as it once was, but Santana starts talking about adding Brittany to her health insurance as part of the household. The more they look into it, the more complex the legal hoops they have to jump through get, and the more they figure they should do, since they've gone this far - drawing up a will to make sure Brittany doesn't get kicked out of the house if something happens to Santana, giving her hospital visitation rights in case of emergencies, and a dozen other things that have to be explicitly laid out in legalese. Finally, late one evening, after reading through page forty-seven of a ninety-three page contract, Santana puts down her reading glasses, looks across the kitchen table at Brittany, and suggests they just get married instead.
Brittany never imagined herself as a bride when she was young, so it doesn't shatter any illusions when her wedding is an utterly unexceptional civil ceremony carried out by a judge in his chambers, early one weekday morning, his elderly and slightly disapproving secretary acting as witness. Nor does it bother her that there's no passionate kiss after the ceremony's over, just a fierce hug, a fast peck on the cheek, and Santana rushing to her car to get to work on time. But she buys a good bottle of wine on the way home, and they drink a half-ironic toast that night before heading to their separate beds, smiling as they fall asleep, feeling that things are finally, at long last, settled.
Two years later, Santana gets a job promotion and a transfer to Portland. John's long since moved cross country, so there are no problems with custody, and her current job isn't something Brittany desperately needs to hold on to. So they load up the rental trucks and drive up the coast. They take out a small business loan together and buy an old building in a gentrifying part of town; Brittany works on converting the downstairs to a dance studio, and the family works together on converting the upstairs to an apartment. There are only three bedrooms, so Brittany and Santana share a room, and a bed. Quick kisses goodnight gradually become longer make-out sessions, and then sex, and over time the sex becomes better and more frequent as they stop trying to be what they were decades ago and start learning each other all over from the beginning. But the real attraction is having someone close and warm in bed, and they hold each other through the long, rainy winter nights. Santana even learns to tolerate Brittany snoring like a lumberjack.
And for years afterwards, nothing happens but the gradual turn of their lives. The kids graduate and go off to college, and Santana feels a gentle ache when she thinks of them, but Brittany helps fill the void. The economy picks up, and Santana picks just the right moment to cash in her stocks and retire, though Brittany keeps her dance studio running for nearly a decade afterwards. The kids find serious relationships and get married, first Steven, then Sara. Santana sees John at the weddings, but can't find it in herself to be angry; in the long run, he did her a favor. And flying back from Sara's wedding to a man who was clearly crazy for her, she feels herself relax, letting go of a worry she wasn't even aware she had. The kids look like they've avoided the mistakes she made, and she can let go now.
Finally Brittany decides to sell the studio, and they use the money to move into a decent retirement home. It seems odd to Brittany that the staff treats them like an old married couple - she still thinks of Santana as simply her best friend - but they get used to it. One Valentine's Day the home hires a research company to find old pictures of their residents, and they arrive at their table for dinner to find a framed photo of themselves in glee club, young and perfect and smiling out across the decades. Brittany loves it, but Santana's quiet and brooding the rest of the evening. Later that night she tells Brittany that the photo reminds her of the time that they lost, how they should have stayed together after high school... but Brittany kisses her, and strokes her hair, and tells her that they've had nearly forty years together by now, and not to be greedy.
Brittany wakes up with chest pains late one night, and she's rushed to the hospital for heart surgery. She pulls through, but she's in the hospital recovering for weeks. Santana visits as often as she can, but she's still alone by herself much of the time, and she becomes cranky and short-tempered, feeling like something's missing that the nurses must have hidden. Part of herself is still lucid enough to stand outside and marvel that she's come to this; that the social queen of McKinley High is simply sad because she misses her girlfriend, and is taking it out on everyone else. But she can't help herself. It's only when Brittany returns that she lightens up, and though Brittany's largely confined to a wheelchair after the operation, it's Santana who clings to it, pushing Brittany around but also holding on to her for dear life.
A local high school choir comes to the home the following spring, supposedly to sing the old folks songs from their youth, but whoever picked the set list botched the job - it's all lame stuff from the 1960s and 70s, times not even the oldest residents in the home remember. Santana rolls her eyes in frustration, but Brittany calms her down by pointing towards the back, where a pair of girls are dressed in cheerleader uniforms, holding hands, occasionally sneaking shy looks at one another as they sing. She takes Brittany's hand in hers, and for a moment, lost in their memories, even the Monkees seem tolerable.
In the end, Brittany just can't get out of bed one morning. The staff doctor examines her and gives her a few more days, at best, but tells her that at least she'll be lucid and pain free. There's just enough time for Sara and Steven and the grandkids to fly in and say goodbye, and it's not until they've all come and gone that she and Brittany have some time alone together. Brittany's drifting in and out, and Santana desperately fights off tears when she's awake, trying to keep up a brave front. But Brittany sees, and smiles, and asks Santana to sing something for her.
Santana tries desperately hard to think of a good song from their beginning, like the ballad she sang to Brittany when they first joined glee, or something from their performance at Nationals. But she just can't remember anything. It's like that entire period of her life is crumbling along with Brittany, the memories vanishing as she goes, a prospect that fills Santana with a grief and horror so deep she can't even begin to understand it.
It's only when she looks back at Brittany's eyes, peaceful and loving even through all this, that she calms down enough to remember some of what's gone before: "Don't Stop Believin'", "Somebody to Love," You Can't Always Get What You Want," and a handful of other songs from the glory days. Her voice is low and cracked with age, but strong enough to carry, and as the afternoon flows past she finds herself crying as she sings, unearthing old memories of when they were young and had their whole lives ahead of them.
Finally, though, she can't remember anything except one last tune - nothing they'd ever sung, something the local school choir had done for them a few years back. It's stupid and tacky and she'd give anything to have a better song to sing to her wife of thirty years on her death bed, but it's all she's left with, so she starts "I Got You Babe." Halfway through that Brittany's singing along too, her voice barely audible, but staying in time and nearly in tune. And when they finish, she sees a wide smile on Brittany's face, the same smile she's seen a thousand times throughout an entire life shared with this woman, and for a moment, it's all Santana needs.
"Encore," Brittany whispers, and closes her eyes for the last time.