"Hey, this is Brittany. Leave me a message. Santana will check them for me and I'll get back to you. OKBai!"
Voicemail. Again. She wasn't surprised, but it still bothered her that she had gone from "pick up halfway through the first ring" to "get sent to voicemail after three" in a matter of weeks. Ever since sectionals, the frequency with which Brittany contacted her, or called her back, lessened. She knew it was her own fault, and really, who could blame the blonde for alienating her, after what'd she'd done?
Santana remembered the day she had helped Brittany record that voicemail message. Frustrated and confused, Britt had used her house phone and the white pages to call every Lopez in Lima until she found the number for Santana's house. The blonde was practically in tears when San had arrived, so she sat her down and took the phone from her. After putting Mean Girls in the DVD player, she spent the next two hours programming the phone herself, making it Brittany-proof and adding only four phone numbers to the speed dial: her mom, her dad, Santana, and the police. Because this was Brittany, after all, and things did tend to happen. It had taken five tries to get the message recorded, if only because Britt didn't understand who she was meant to be speaking to while the recording was going, and so she kept stopping midway through the speech Santana had written her.
The look of accomplishment when she played the message back to Brittany, though, was worth the three hours of work. It was pure, unadulterated happiness, and it meant that Brittany wouldn't cry anymore. It meant Santana had saved her once again.
The polite voice of the automated message system picked up where Britt had left off, instructing her to leave a message after the tone, or press "1" for more options. What other options could she possibly have? Leave a message, or hang up. It didn't seem that overly complicated to her, but she supposed that the explicitly detailed instructions were for people who weren't comfortable with technology. People who got confused sometimes, or maybe needed a hand with lefts and rights. People like Brittany.
The tone sounded shrilly in her ear, and she hesitated for a moment, her mouth open, empty of the words she'd rehearsed a dozen times before finally dialing Brittany's number.
"H-Hey B," she stuttered, finding that it was suddenly difficult to piece together a coherent sentence. She hadn't thought it would be quite this hard. "I… I just wanted to say Merry Christmas Eve. I hope you have fun with Artie and his family tonight. I'll miss you for caroling. I know how much you loved it last year."
She paused, taking in a breath. There was something else she needed to say. There was always something else.
"I… I love you, B."
"Can I talk to you?"
Santana draped the tips of her fingers lightly over Brittany's bare forearm, admiring the way the dress she wore floated as she turned to look at her best friend. The taller girl gave her a small, but wary smile. Santana was still out of breath, and Brittany's forehead glistened with a thin sheen of sweat. The performance of "Valerie" had been a resounding success. They were the leads, after all; of course it had been a success. It just went to show what a little blackmail and some honest begging did for her chances at solos. Not that she would ever cop to having begged Mr. Schue for a solo. She'd admit any day to having tossed in a few side comments about telling Doctor Sexy about Will's Rocky Horror-inspired romp with Ms. Pillsbury in his classroom, but begging? That never happened. How she came to be front and center at sectionals hadn't really mattered to anyone except Rachel, anyway. And besides, Schue had made it abundantly clear that Rachel wouldn't be featured this time around. Granted, everyone had expected Mercedes to be the next likely candidate, but one withering glare from Santana after Schue made the announcement, and no one questioned it.
But now, after the fact, out of breath and filled to bursting with pride for one another, the two girls regarded each other cautiously. The last time they'd spoken, things hadn't ended quite so cordially.
"Don't worry," Santana reassured her best friend, seeing the hesitation on her face. "I'm not here to pick a fight. I just want to talk. Promise."
Brittany relaxed a little, dropping her shoulders and leaning back against the soundboard behind her. "Okay, San," she said, wiping her hand across her forehead and taking in a long, luxurious drag of air. "We can talk."
Santana had thought that she'd gathered her words, but it was obvious that saying what she wanted to say was going to be harder than she'd anticipated. "B, I just…"
The blonde sat up a little straighter, her usually blank expression now a mix of concern and confusion. Santana didn't stutter. When she said something, every syllable was enunciated, so that everyone within a fifty-foot radius understood that Santana Lopez was speaking, and they ought to pay attention. This person standing before her, her hands clasped tightly in front of her and her leg bouncing with nervous energy, did not seem like the Santana she knew.
"It's okay," Brittany said with an understanding smile, reaching out and placing a reassuring hand on her elbow. "Sometimes I lose my words, too."
Santana grinned and shook her head. "I shouldn't be losing them," she replied. "I had this whole speech. I was going to explain everything. I was going to apologize."
"What would you have to be sorry for?" Brittany asked, genuinely curious.
"For what I said about Artie."
Brittany had to search back a few days to really recall what had been said. She knew that there had been an argument, and that she ought to be upset, but for the life of her she couldn't remember why. So she'd continued to ignore Santana in the hope that she might remember, or that Santana would come to her first. So, it would seem, she'd gotten both her wishes. But as they say, be careful what you wish for.
"You called him a useless cripple," Brittany began slowly, processing the newly reformed memory and the anger that accompanied it. "You said he wasn't good enough for me."
Santana didn't like hearing the words repeated any more than she had liked saying them the first time. It had been an entirely inappropriate outburst, but she'd been at the end of her rope. Seeing him treat her like a child at school and then expect her to wind up in bed with him that night was… it felt dirty. She couldn't watch them together. It hurt too much.
"I know I did, and I'm so sorry, B," she blurted, uncaring that she probably still meant what she'd said, if only because he really wasn't good enough for her. "I didn't mean to upset you. I just needed you to see what he was – is – doing. I didn't think about how you'd be hurt in the process."
Santana took a careful step forward, closing the gap between them. She put her hand on her best friend's hip, trying to block the awful, hurt look on Brittany's face from her mind. They were both in heels, but even so the blonde stood three inches taller than she did. She felt compelled to move closer, pressing her lips to Brittany's, holding her at once by her waist and wrist. There was a bitter desperation behind this, pinning Brittany to her own body so that she might feel everything Santana was feeling.
Brittany didn't fight her at first, falling into the familiar kiss and allowing Santana to sweep her tongue in and out of her mouth, even returning the favor. But she paused, and a synapse fired that reminded her that this was wrong. She pulled back sharply, leaving standing Santana with red, swollen lips and pleading eyes in front of her.
"No," she said emphatically. "You can't do this, it's not fair. I'm with Artie now. He's a nice guy, no matter what you think. I deserve that much… don't I?"
For once, there was no arguing with Brittany's logic. Santana's hands shook, her determination to sway Brittany to her side beginning to fail. As much as she wanted – no, needed – Brittany to see that she was trying to say so much more than "Leave Artie", she didn't have the strength to so thoroughly break her best friend… or herself. "You're right. I'm sorry."
Brittany straightened the front of her dress and flattened her mussed hair, visibly shaken. She hadn't seen Santana so unraveled before, and it affected her more than she wanted to admit. But she was with Artie. Santana knew that. She couldn't just go around kissing her whenever she wanted, just to get her way. She wiped her hand across her lips, trying to remove the smear of Santana's balm from them.
"I'll see you around, okay, San?"
She turned to walk away, but Santana's hand caught her wrist once more and Brittany stopped, waiting.
"What can I do?" Santana whispered, a choked sob sticking in the back of her throat. "Tell me what I have to do, and I'll do it."
Brittany faced her slowly, her eyes rising from the ground to meet Santana's, which were brimming with long-hidden tears. Her heart broke. But as confused as Brittany sometimes was, she knew, in that moment, that something had to give with Santana.
"Tell me you love me."
Santana spluttered, opening and closing her mouth. "I tell you that all the time."
"Tell me you love me…" Brittany repeated, not angry or demanding, just putting it out for both of them to hear. "And mean it. Walk out there on that stage, in front of our friends, and say it."
Santana faltered, her chin set firmly as she tried not to show her fading resolve. "You know I can't do that."
Brittany nodded sadly, slipping her wrist from Santana's grasp and allowing the hand to fall lifeless to her side. "Like I said. I'll see you around, San."
The television crackled with one of those fake fireplace movies while Santana perched in an arm chair, her bare feet tucked underneath her. It was well past eight, when she'd told Mercedes and Quinn that she would meet them to continue their caroling tradition. She just didn't feel up for it. Not without Brittany.
She'd hoped – quite vainly, she saw now – that Brittany would call her back. By that time, though, she was probably curled up with Artie at his parents' house, celebrating Christmas Eve with people who were able to appreciate her more fully than Santana ever had. She hated Artie for that. For being what she never could be, and for being the one to show her that Brittany was worth it. That all her personal bullshit about protecting her reputation and surviving high school didn't matter if Brittany wasn't there to share it with her.
Too little, too late.
She heard voices outside the front window, a familiar chorus of people. She rolled her eyes, knowing that Quinn had dragged the rest of the carolers out here to guilt her into finishing the rounds with them. She got to her feet, yanked on her coat and pulled the door open, an icy gust nearly toppling her as she did.
And there, on her stoop, was Brittany, her nose red with cold and only a thin pea coat wrapped tight around her thinner frame. Behind her, on the sidewalk, stood Quinn, Mercedes, and Kurt, bundled and looking expectantly at both of them.
"Tell me again," she demanded, in a tone harsher than either of them had expected. She softened it, and pulled the coat tighter around her and took a step closer to Santana. "Tell me again, in front of our friends, and I'll beli-"
"I love you," Santana interrupted without a single hesitation, her hands grabbing Brittany around the waist and pulling her best friend to her. "I love you, Brittany. God, I love you so much."
She buried her face in Brittany's neck, shaking. She didn't know if it was from the cold or from the feeling of Brittany's hands snaking around her back, gripping her so desperately that it made her chest ache.
"It took you long enough," Brittany murmured into her ear, kissing down her jaw to her chin before taking her face in gloved hands and bringing her lips to Santana's. For the first time Santana didn't flinch knowing that their friends were watching them. She was too busy exploring every inch of Brittany's mouth, her cheeks, her nose, her eyelids; her lips were the greatest form of sense memory.
"I'm sorry," Santana whispered, pressing her forehead to Brittany's. "I'm sorry. I'm so fucking sorry."
Brittany silenced her with her lips, shaking her head. "Don't be."
"But I am," she replied, ignoring the chattering of her teeth as she wrapped herself around the blonde to warm the equally trembling girl. "Sorry that I ever made you feel like you didn't deserve the entire fucking universe. Because you do. And I'm going to give it to you."
"As touching as all this is," Kurt called from the sidewalk. "We've done our duty, right? We don't have to lynch Santana. Can we go now? It's like, really cold and the wind is not good for my complexion."
Any other time, Santana would have hurled a string of curses, insults and expletives back at the perfectly coiffed boy, but that night, her only response was to kiss Brittany once more, further proving that she would do anything for her. Including passing up a perfect opportunity to take Kurt Hummel down a peg or two.
"Can I take that as a 'yes'?"
Santana broke the kiss and the smile that was spread across her face was brighter than the star of Bethlehem. "I love her!" she shouted to no one, and everyone.
"You were the last to know, San," Quinn shot back with a wink before nodding to the others and beginning the trudge back down the block.
Santana pulled Brittany inside, kissing her until both of them were begging for air.
"I missed you," Brittany breathed, her cold hands pressed firmly to either side of Santana's face.
Santana smiled and turned her head to kiss either of the palms cupping her cheeks. "You'll never need to miss me again."
She nodded, never so sure of anything in her life. "Promise."