(Author's Note: We've arrived at the finale. I owe a debt of gratitude to many people who have helped me through this story as well as its companion, Pas de Deux.
First and foremost: to my faithful beta, terriblemuriel—who, since she joined the team around Chapter 15 of this fic, has helped me out of more than a few tight spots; who grants me my fierce, lionesque writerly independence while still pushing me to be braver, and to not avoid the hard scenes just because they're harder to make pretty. It's in large part thanks to her that the later chapters of both fics are significantly longer.
To JJ at themostrandomfandom, whose insight blows me away, and whose encouragement never failed to drive me forward.
To Tess at venuscomb, who inspires me, and who had the kindness to look over a few fresh scenes to make sure I was on the right track.
To Roch at gleerant, whose brilliance is inspiring and informing, and who graciously loaned me her New-York-savvy eyes for these chapters to ensure that the NYC portions felt real.
To my other Brittana U colleagues, who have influenced this in ways they can't possibly imagine.
And of course, to my wonderful readers, reviewers and friends in the Brittana community. Without your encouragement, right from the beginning, I might not have gotten past chapter 5 of TOTP.
I love you all. Enjoy.)
Nobody knows this—well, except Brittany—but you've been to New York before. Twice. The second time, the summer you were thirteen, you and Britt were already best friends. That was the year your father broke down and gave you a cell phone; you called Brittany every night, shivering on the fire escape of your aunt and uncle's apartment, and wasted half your trip being homesick for her.
Two nights before you're supposed to leave, your mother comes into your room while you're packing and shuts the door.
Santana, where are you going every night?
Your heart jumps. You didn't think she even noticed you were gone.
Britt's, you tell her. No point in lying. You tuck a freshly folded dress into the corner of your suitcase.
She sits down at the edge of your bed and you try to make yourself look busy.
So, that nice boy, Dave?
Your face burns. You shake out a folded shirt and collapse it along the same creases.
We're not seeing each other.
Oh. That's too bad. I liked him.
You don't respond. Your mother shifts; you sense her movement the way a rabbit senses a fox.
Mija, she says, after a minute, you're starting to make it hard for me to keep this from your father.
Your stomach clenches. That'd be one sure way to get his attention.
When you were nine and living in Cleveland, you overheard your parents having a fight downstairs and watched them froth at one another from between the bars of the stair railings. Your father's cousin and his friend—your mother stressed the word friend as if she meant something very different—had invited you to spend a couple of weeks with them in their house in Florida.
I don't get what your problem is, your mother argued. Santana would have a good time. She'll love the beach.
No. I don't want her around—that kind of thing.
Don't be like that. They're nice men. Just because you—
Elena, do you want our daughter to think that's—normal? That it's okay?
Your mother backed down eventually—she always does—and instead of going to Florida, your parents shipped you off to stay with your father's older sister, who has two daughters around your age.
That was the first time you went to New York.
Your mother clears her throat, and you realize you've stopped packing.
Do you need anything? she asks, awkwardly, rising from your bed and smoothing down the sheets. For your trip, I mean?
No. I'm good. You rummage around in your suitcase as if you're looking for something, even though you both know there's nothing to look for.
Okay. Let me know. She walks out, swinging the door shut behind her, but stops a few inches short and peeks back in. And—Santana? Not so many sleepovers at Brittany's, all right? She sighs. Don't make this any harder than it has to be.
You've been to New York twice. But this time will be different. This time, you'll be in New York—in love.
And you've made a promise to yourself, a promise that makes you nervous just to think about it. Something you decided the morning after you and Brittany made love.
The two of you lay in her bed, drenched in fresh sunlight, when she'd asked you a question you weren't ready for.
Do you think maybe we could—she hesitated, and her heartbeat drummed against your bare skin—you know, try out—us—in New York?
Your heartbeat sped to match hers as your courage failed you, and—again—you failed her. You begged her to let the night before be enough. You begged her, again, for more time. Her face collapsed with the same old heartbreak, and after she tucked herself, hiding, back into you, you kissed the crown of her head. I'm sorry, you whispered into her hair. I'm sorry.
Then you ran to the shower to wash away your shame. Over the sound of the rushing water, you heard the bathroom door open and close. Brittany stepped into the shower with you and shunted the curtain shut. Without a word, she squeezed a pool of shampoo into her palm, rubbed her hands together, and worked the foam deep into your hair, down to the roots. Rinsed you clean. Cupped your face.
Before you could stop yourself, you broke. You couldn't tell the difference between your tears and the hot water from the tap as both ran down your cheeks, but Brittany brushed away a few drops with her thumbs with certainty, as though she could tell them apart.
San, it's okay, she said. Shh. It's okay. I understand. I forgive you. She kissed your cheek and pressed her thumb to the spot, as if to keep the kiss from washing away.
Tell her you love her, you thought. Tell her, damn it.
Instead, you kissed her softly, turned her underneath the spray so her hair bronzed with water, filled your palm with shampoo, and began to wash her.
And as she seized your hands, the moment you'd lowered them from her hair, you made yourself a promise.
Once, in New York—in public—you are going to hold Brittany's hand.
It's Brittany's first flight, and you reassure her, your thumb tracing spirals into her palm under the airplane blanket. She stares out her window onto the tarmac, watching the ground crew toss suitcases onto the conveyor belt.
I'm not scared, she says, just a little nervous.
It's okay, Britt-Britt, you tell her. It's fun. You'll like it. You can see everything from above, like a bird. Even the clouds.
Yeah, she says, her eyes drifting back to the tarmac.
When the plane begins to taxi, she grabs your hand; as you speed up in preparation for takeoff, she squeezes it hard.
This is the hardest part, you whisper. After this? Super easy.
She nods and closes her eyes as the wheels leave the ground.
Watch, you urge her. Watch everything shrink. You're leaving Ohio.
She opens one eye and glances out the window.
Wow, she says. Those cars look like toys. Her grip on your hand slackens, though she keeps hers folded into yours.
You tell her to look again once you've lifted above and beyond the city, where daylight is just beginning to filter into the sky: at the blocks of farmland like little quilt squares. Then again when you pierce the clouds.
Ooh, she says. It's like a fairyland of ice. Like angel pillows.
Mhm. That's right.
It doesn't take long before you reach altitude and can break out your iPod. You slip one earbud into your own ear and the other into Britt's. Then you crank up the playlist you made for this flight, lean back, and smile at her.
We're going to New York, you remind her. In a few hours, we're going to be in New York City.
As you cross the bridge from the airport in your shuttle bus, packed like rows of crayons, and slip between the rows of skyscrapers, those small-town bumpkins look like their eyes are going to pop out of their heads.
You can't even see the top of the buildings, marvels Finn.
You're rolling your eyes until you see that Brittany's nose is pressed to the window. Her breath clouds the glass.
San, look, she says, tugging your sleeve.
Look at what?
Everything. Her voice is silvered with awe.
Suddenly it doesn't seem so naïve to be amazed by New York.
Yeah, pretty cool, you concede.
Soon enough, you're all settled in and writing songs, which you think is ridiculous—you should have started writing them a long time ago instead of sitting in this stupid cramped hotel room while Mr. Schue is off doing god knows what.
You may have brought in your purse a little scrap of lyrics, just a verse, that you wrote the night before you left, but you're sure as hell not going to pull it out now. No freaking way.
It's too bad your cousins are out of town. You could have called them up and played hooky with Britt for an hour or two, just long enough that no one would notice. But it's not long until everyone gets cabin fever and creates enough nervous energy to blow out the walls.
Once you're on the street, it's clear that none of these hicks has a shit clue how to read a map. While you're not going to give yourself away and play tour guide—that's just not you—you do lead a little, pointing them in the right direction and loading your helpless caravan onto the subway, and suggest a few spots to explore.
Much as you hate to admit it, you actually have a decent amount of fun. Maybe because Brittany is casting little grins at you the whole time. She likes it when you act like a leader.
To be honest? You kind of like it too.
After hours of fruitless songwriting, you're all getting pretty punchy from fatigue and frustration. So when Britt starts a pillow fight, all the girls except for Berry—rapt in concentration—leap in. You bat the holy hell out of everyone, down flying from the seams, until Britt grabs you by the wrist, swipes a card key from the bedside table and leads you into the hallway.
Had to distract them somehow, she says, shrugging.
You bite your lip and glance around, wondering if you can steal a quick kiss, when Brittany pulls a familiar sheet of folded notebook paper from her pocket. Your whole body flushes in embarrassment.
Where did you get that? you demand, trying to flatten the shiver out of your voice.
Your purse. I was looking for gum.
You try to snatch it back from her, but she holds it back.
I read it. It's really good. You wrote this, right?
You're hot all over. You refuse to meet her eyes. That verse is about her, and you don't even know what you would do if the others found out.
I think you should show it to everyone, she says.
She sighs, pockets the paper again, and traces her finger under your jaw, against that strip of skin that unravels you. Not fair.
Well, what if I said I wrote it? Would you let me show them?
You stay still. You're tempted. She sees the chink and grins.
You don't have to answer. Just say something right now if that's not okay with you, and I won't do it.
You scrape your bottom lip between your teeth and don't crack the silence. Your heart is thudding hard; you tell yourself there's nothing to be afraid of.
Brittany leans forward and kisses your brow.
They're going to love it, she assures you.
You sneak back in. Feathers are flying everywhere and the bashing is still going strong. Rachel's still scratching furiously, surrounded by her own scraps of paper. No one had noticed you two were gone.
That's a good sign.
Britt's right. Everyone does love the song. You try not to be pleased—but you are. Even if no one will ever know it was you.
I think we can build something around this, says Tina. Nice job, Brittany.
Thanks, she says. It just kind of… came to me. Like I found it somewhere. She shoots you a quick knowing glance, and you can't help but smile.
In the afternoon, as the others chip away at the setting—well, except for Finn and Rachel, who've gone MIA—you sneak into the bathroom with your notebook to review the handful of addresses and the little map you scribbled down before you left. Then you beckon to Britt, and she follows you down the hallway and the back stairs and into the cool sunlight.
Once you're out of the hotel, Britt trots after you and slips her pinkie into yours. Together you weave your path to your first destination. She can't stop looking at things and pointing them out—street vendors, weird shops, shiny buildings. Sleek ads and architecture. Theaters.
This is seriously so cool, San, she says. Everything is so close together. I bet you could fit everybody in Lima into, like, two of these buildings. She points to a couple of adjacent skyscrapers with mirrored windows.
You smile. Cities are nothing new to you. But maybe you're the one who's wrong here, you reflect, watching the joy on Britt's face. Brittany understands a lot of things you don't. The world is brighter and sweeter to her. You'd envy her that, if you didn't love it so much on her—like that sweater of yours that you gave her last year because it looked so pretty with her eyes. You'd do anything to protect that sweetness deep inside her; you'd cup it in your hands and shield it like a robin's egg.
First you take her to the Central Park Zoo. You pay for both tickets—Brittany blushes when you put your hand on hers and insist that she put away her wallet—and together you consult the map. She chooses the wildest animals, the ones you don't have at your zoo back home, and you weave your way among the exhibits, hardly seeing the animals thanks to your pathetic inability to turn your eyes away from Brittany's joy. How the hell did this happen? You, Santana Badass Lopez, are grosser than all of the gooiest couples in the history of Glee put together. You're a rag doll tucked under that girl's arm. Soft as an over-boiled potato.
Next stop is FAO. Schwarz. You haven't been since you were nine—before you got too proud and called it a place for babies—but you know Brittany is going to go nuts over it, especially that ridiculous giant piano on the second floor
Oh my god, she squeals, clapping, after you lead her to the platform. This is amazing. Can we play chopsticks? I'll take the top part—there are bigger jumps.
After wandering through the cases of block towers and elaborately dressed dolls, the menagerie of stuffed animals that Britt strokes in curiosity—wow, they look so real, San, she marvels—you buy her one of those big flat lollipops in the large candy section, the kind that has a million colors swirled into a perfect spiral.
Lima isn't exactly the capital of sushi, so you're a little nervous about taking her to that place your cousins took you to last time you visited. But you remember how alive you felt, tasting something so new and fresh and raw on your tongue—the rolls were cold and textured and subtle; the sashimi melted like butter in your mouth—and you want Brittany to share it. You snag two chairs at the sushi bar so she can watch the chefs at work with their quick knife-work and colorful palette. She's entranced, and—after some initial trepidation—trusts you to order. You do what your cousins did and order the chef's recommendation platter: it's a little of everything, and you sample it all together, slurping up the fancy rolls and scrunching up your noses at the raw octopus. Once Brittany masters the tricky chopstick technique—you rubber band them together the way your cousin Marta taught you over Chinese food when you were a kid—she can't help but click them at you, walk them like little legs, and proudly feed you pieces of rolls. You can't even bring yourself to be embarrassed—she's that freaking cute.
Once you've paid the bill and returned to the street, you steal a few licks of her lollipop as the two of you walk to Rockefeller Plaza. The sunlight and warmth has faded away by now, and you know you should probably return soon. Your heart is thudding so hard you have to swallow it back; it shakes in your ears like a subwoofer, loud as the blare of the taxi horns forming a constant, fractured, desperate rhythm in the waxing darkness.
Now or never.
Leaning over a balcony overlooking the fountain in Rockefeller Center, the two of you observe the bowl of swirling pedestrians below. Brittany's eyes drink it in, from the gold statue to the carefully manicured flora to the lines of the surrounding buildings, from the marquee of Radio City Music Hall to the distant top floors.
You brush the back of your hand against her wrist, and she loosens it from the balustrade hesitantly; she keeps her eyes ahead. Bolder, you slide your fingertips over the heel of her hand, into the creases of her palm—and then you take it firmly in yours, weaving your fingers together. She relaxes into you with a deep, satisfied sigh, though she doesn't look at you, and your joined hands fall and swing at your sides.
For a little while—maybe an hour, maybe a minute; it's impossible to tell—you just stand like that, her hand in yours. And then Brittany clears her throat.
Thank you for today, she says. I had an amazing time.
You smile. Me too.
Brittany falls silent for a moment, riddling her lip with her teeth. Then, she turns to you and tilts her head. You meet her eyes.
San? Can I ask you something?
What is it that you're so afraid of?
Britt. Your hand slackens in hers, but she holds on tighter, her fingers fitting into the hollows between your bones.
Please, she begs, her voice tight.
You sigh. Your mind roils with a tempest of scenery and noise and sensation. The slap and sting of the slushie that stained your white sweater. Kurt's humiliation at the prom. Stares in the hallway. Whispers in the locker room. Knees bruising your back at the base of the Cheerios pyramid. The unimaginable pain of Brittany ripping your heart to shreds, choosing a boy over you. Your father spitting those words—that kind of thing—as though loving someone the way you love Brittany were something unspeakable.
Brittany is still looking. Waiting.
Your throat is tight as you try to speak. No sound comes out. You swallow and try again.
Some people aren't as open as you. They can be—cruel. They don't understand.
People like who?
People at school. My grandparents and aunts and uncles. You take a deep breath. My father.
Brittany considers this, sighs, squeezes your hand again.
I'm sorry, she says.
I just want people to respect me, you know? I mean, I'll settle for fear. But that, I can't lose. That's all I have. You pause for a moment. I'm not like you, Britt. I'm… not easy to love.
She looks so sad when you say that. Her eyes and mouth soften. With the hand not woven into yours, she strokes your cheek. You fight the urge to look around, to see who's watching. You keep your eyes locked to hers.
Oh, San, she whispers. Is that really how you feel?
You don't answer. Your gaze falls to your feet; you fight not to let your surging tears overtake you.
You asked me.
Yeah. I did.
Your hands cling together, warm and clammy, and your heart is still racing. But not a single passerby is giving you a second look.
With Brittany's eyes still searching yours, your thoughts churn and boil to surface that heart-ripping pain of Brittany's rejection.
Can I ask you a question now?
Why did you choose him?
She sighs and looks away for the first time.
At the time, I thought I was doing the right thing.
I don't know.
She doesn't know? Even after making love to you—after holding you, watching you, as you surrendered your whole self to her—she doesn't know whether she should have broken you into a million pieces? Your heart shatters all over again. Tears break over your cheeks. Britt reaches out to wipe them clean, but you push her hand away.
I mean, I don't know if it was the right thing for any of us, she amends. I know it was never the same with him as it is with you. I just—you broke my heart so many times, Santana. What could I do? She pauses, drawing in a deep breath, before she continues. I couldn't wait forever.
You're aching so hard all over that you begin to shake feverishly.
We should go back, you whisper.
Santana. Her voice is plaintive, broken.
Come on. It's late.
When you get back to the room, you let her go in first. The other girls, exhausted, are already draped all over every soft surface, sound asleep.
Prop the door open, you whisper. I'll be right back.
You pick the lock to the maid's closet with a bobby pin and ransack it for an armful of blankets and a couple of pillows.
Brittany's flipped the deadlock so you can come back in. You push the door open with your foot. She's scoping out the room for a bare patch, rubbing her neck: the other girls have taken up all of the sleeping space.
Part of you wants to tell her, too bad—sleep on the floor. But then she looks at you, her eyes heavy, her bottom lip soft like a child's, and you just can't.
Grab a couple of shirts and meet me in the bathroom, you whisper. She nods and turns to your suitcases.
This bathtub is actually pretty roomy, you note, lining the cold bowl with a nest of blankets. As you fluff the pillows at the end opposite the faucet, Brittany comes in, closes the door carefully, and strokes the small of your back.
You're so smart, San, she breathes into the back of your neck. Here, turn around.
You succumb, heavy and slow, and she begins to undress you. She slides off your cardigan, hangs it on a hook beside the door, and shimmies off your dress. After unhooking and hanging your bra, she pulls a soft shirt over your head. Her shirt.
You sit on the edge of the tub and watch as she undresses herself, down to her cotton panties, unhurried and casual. You're surprised to see that the shirt she pulls on is one of yours. She sees you looking and offers you a little shrug.
It's my favorite, she explains. I wanted… something of yours. Is that okay?
How can she do this so easily to you? Make you feel like your heart is made of warm butter, dripping and clinging inside you?
She kisses your cheek. Let's get into bed, she suggests, and crawls in first. She scoots her back against the far end and pats the empty space in front of her. Come here.
You fold yourself in—it's a tight fit, even for two thin girls—and let Britt pull you into her. You're hundreds of miles from your hometown, but here, cleaving to her body like an oyster to its shell, you're always home.
Brittany kisses the nape of your neck and rubs your belly.
I'm sorry about earlier, she says. I'm still here. I'm still waiting. You know that, right?
You close your eyes and let her nuzzle into your hair. Your heart throbs as she strokes the curl on your temple. There's something about New York—maybe just the way no one spared you a second glance, a second thought, when you held hands—that gives you an epiphany. So you make yourself one more promise.
You won't have to wait much longer, you tell her. I—I'll do it soon.
You feel her heartbeat swell and thump in unison with yours.
Do you really mean that?
Yes. By the end of the summer. I promise. You tilt your head, though not enough to meet her eyes. Can you wait that much longer?
Yeah, she sighs. I think I can wait that long.
Her lips drift—easy, leisurely, warm—over your ear, your neck, your hair. You feel electric and terrified and thrilled.
When you awaken to the sound of water hitting ceramic in the sink, you realize with a start that you forgot to close the shower curtain.
Brittany stirs, hums, squeezes you tighter with the arm draped just below your breasts. Eyes still shut, you consider your options. Leap out of the tub? Too obvious—and would only cause a bigger stir. Try to pull the curtain shut around you, hoping the intruder will have the decency not to pull it back and take a look? Oh, who are you kidding—you'd totally open the curtain if it were you in her place. The only option left: stay still, keep your eyes shut, and wait.
The tap shuts off.
Fuck. It's Berry.
Brittany groans into your hair. She's a sound sleeper—still submerged in ignorant slumbering bliss. You, though, have no choice but to open your eyes. Rachel is leaning against the bathroom counter, trying not to stare at you; she glances at her feet as soon as your eyes meet her level.
Sorry, she whispers.
Sorry for what, Berry? you hiss, daring her to say another word.
An unreadable flicker crosses her brow.
I—nothing, she says.
You peel Brittany's arm from your ribs. She moans from the missing contact. An awkward, thick silence blooms.
We were—I just—there was nowhere else to go, you blurt, suddenly, struggling for an explanation for spooning another girl in a bathtub that doesn't involve the two of you being in love. It's like you can't shut up, even though you're only making this worse.
It's nothing, you insist, lamely. We were only…
Your voice trails off. Rachel clears her throat.
No. Of course, she says, softly and reassuringly. I'll just—go.
Rachel turns away and reaches for the door handle, but she stops just as her hand reaches the metal. She glances back toward you.
Everyone's still asleep, she says. You have some time. She bites her lip. And—Santana? Don't worry. I'm not going to tell anyone.
You almost snap, tell anyone what? You almost threaten her at pain of death to keep her mouth shut. You want to be angry, or annoyed. That's easy. But instead, you feel—dare you say it—grateful.
Thank you, you whisper.
And as she cracks open the door, as Brittany's arm slides back over your waist, you could swear you see Rachel Berry smile at you.
You wake Brittany a few minutes later—you can't help watching her sleep a little while; even two nights apart from her were excruciating—and the two of you sneak out of the bathroom to lie down on opposite sides of the bed Rachel left vacant before the others wake up.
After everyone showers and dresses, you all congregate in the boys' room to finish arranging and rehearsing the songs you wrote yesterday.
Then Finn's blathering on about how they should do the arrangement so that he and Rachel sing the entire opening song as a duet, because they're the gods of creation—and you realize from the deafening absence of voluminous shrill agreement that Rachel is nowhere to be seen. Neither is Kurt. Or Quinn.
You and Britt don't need to be here either. Not if all you're going to do is listen to Finn toot his own fucking horn all day about what a talented leader and performer he is, or watch the crossfire between him and Mercedes and Puck and whoever else over who should sing what. You wouldn't mind a little nap on a real bed—your back is a little sore from that cramped bathtub—or, for that matter, a little makeout session to relax.
One drifting mote of Brittany's fresh-shampooed smell, and your decision is made for you.
Meet me in our bathroom in five, you whisper into Brittany's hair, and mumble your excuses as you step over Mike's and Tina's knees.
You slip back into the empty room and jiggle the handle of the bathroom. Locked. No sound from the other side.
Brittany sweeps in to join you—a little early, no matter—and tries the door. Same result.
Suddenly, you both know who's in there.
Quinn, you yell, knocking again, quit hogging the bathroom. I needs to re-pencil my eyebrows on.
Then she streaks by you, a flash of blonde, and all of a sudden this becomes a confrontation. She wants to tell Mr. Schue that Rachel keeps sneaking off. You and Brittany exchange a glance—you two haven't exactly been sticking to curfew either. Shit. What's her angle?
You can't do that, says Brittany, echoing your panic. He'll have to suspend them.
Oh, and there go our chances at Nationals, says Quinn, oddly venomous. Darn.
Oh. So that's what this is about? Hell fucking no.
You know what? you volley, dry and merciless. We get it. You're pissed about Finn dumping your sweet ass. Get over it.
She flips a shit and charges at you.
I don't want to get over it, okay?
Brittany recoils; you step back up. You know how to handle this bitch. You've been handling her for three years.
The only person you're sabotaging here is yourself, you tell her bluntly.
I don't care about some stupid show choir competition, she shouts, frothing, so loud that Brittany literally steps back.
Well, you should, you rebut. This is the one chance that we have to actually feel good about ourselves.
Your heart sinks at your own words then. You didn't realize until they were out of your mouth how much you actually mean them.
At your accidental show of vulnerability, Quinn softens—melts. Surrenders.
Aren't we supposed to be the popular girls? she protests. She lists the other girls in Glee, the girls who have love, and looks to the two of you as if you're her allies. Her fellow sufferers. Alone, like her.
But you and Brittany catch eyes again—and all at once, Quinn sees it. She sees the two of you, in full light, unmistakably in love. You see it in the way she reels—certain, now, that she really is alone.
You're not even afraid of the fact that she knows about you and Britt—right now, it doesn't matter. Her face holds no trace of judgment—not even surprise. Just certainty, and the deepest, saddest loneliness you've ever seen.
It's then that you remember what Quinn has lost. That she's had her heart broken in a way you can't imagine. And your last tenacious little scrap of liking and friendship—of love, really—floats to the top of your heart. You and Brittany fall into a united front. Flanking Quinn, you sit together on the bed, the three of you, to share one instant of understanding what it is to have a broken heart.
I just want somebody to love me, she says, her voice cracked and smaller than you've ever heard. In that moment, you love Quinn Fabray more than you've ever loved her before.
It's you who suggests a haircut. Your aunt's advice to fix a broken heart. Brittany looks at you the same way she did yesterday, as the group launched a real song from your scrap of lyrics: with that admiration and pride that makes you feel—nearly—invincible.
Won't the others come looking for us? Quinn asks.
You huff derisively.
They've all got their heads so far up their asses they can't see who's there and who's not, you assure her. Seems like you're the only one who's been paying attention. You wink—you actually fucking wink—which coaxes a little smile from Quinn.
Okay, she says, taking a deep breath, let's do this.
Brittany does the honors, since she's cut her little sister's hair before. She washes Quinn's hair while you run downstairs to get a pair of scissors from the front desk. The two of you sit Quinn down in the desk chair, wrap one of the extra blankets around her to keep the cuttings from falling into her clothes, and make a little nest for the falling hair out of the wet towels from this morning's round of showers. Housekeeping is not going to be happy with you, that's for damned sure.
The trick, Brittany says, is to cut one line, neat and straight, all the way across, and then cut in layers at an angle.
As the first wet, dark gold curl falls to the floor, a tear rolls down Quinn's cheek. Brittany cuts in a line, slow and careful, revealing Quinn's neck. Pieces rain down, darkening the clouds of towel below, and you watch as the girl you've hated and loved so deeply and so long—the girl who is you, but weaker, and stronger; who has milder and crueler demons; who has known so much less loneliness and heartbreak, and so much more—watches one more part of herself fall away.
It's okay, you tell her, holding her cheek, holding her hand, holding her gaze, as Brittany combs out a silky row at an angle and makes a long, definitive snip. You'll be okay. We're going to be okay.
Between all of your anxiety and excitement about being in New York with Brittany, you completely forgot to be nervous about the competition. But the moment you walk into that vast, vaulted hall and plunge into the anthill of competitors, you remember—fast. Why are there so many kids in show choirs anyway? It's like everybody in New Directions stepped into a hall of funhouse mirrors.
There's no way we're going to win this thing, you whisper to Britt. Like, look at all of these people.
You don't know that, she says, mildly. She doesn't look nervous at all. Her eyes drink in the crowd, the merch tables, the clusters of girls, the costumes. Sometimes you wish you could be like Britt: worrying about the things that matter; letting the petty, secondary stuff go. You wish you could—but you can't.
The performances you watch are really good. Big leagues good. Ugh. Damn it—you're nervous. They gave you the first solo in the group number—the verse you wrote; it's almost like they sensed it—and even though it's little, it feels nothing like Valerie, which you and Mike and Britt rehearsed over and over until it was seamless. You just finished these songs this morning. Brittany and Mike choreographed it in under an hour, and you've only run through each of them twice. Under-rehearsed doesn't even begin to describe how badly prepared you are. Mr. Schue can say whatever he wants about being there for you now, but he sure as hell wasn't there when you needed him. You've got a knot in your throat the size of Texas.
A hand sweeps back your hair. Brittany's.
You okay, San?
Don't worry. Whatever happens onstage—we're going to be fine.
You look at her, hard—at her beatific, unflappable smile—and you remind yourself over and over again to trust her.
Before you learned what actually happened on that stage, you had two awful hints.
The second hint was the thick, shocked silence after your first number, as all of you stood with your backs to the audience. You were frozen, imprisoned by choreography, and couldn't look. Instead, you just got a sick feeling in the pit of your belly as you thought of the thousands of eyes raking you over—of the vast hall of people who weren't cheering for you.
But the way Rachel and Finn were looking at each other just behind the curtain? That look of attraction so electric and so high-voltage that practically glows in the dark, that you can smell burning through their flesh? That was your first hint.
You're a performer. You nail your solo—and Brittany nails hers—because that's what you do. By then, the crowd is on your side, and some small part of you believes that you can still pull this off.
Then comes the whispering, the rumors about what made the crowd go quiet—and finally, the equally heavy silence that falls over all of you when Mr. Schue tells you that you didn't make the top ten.
What the hell do you think happened up there? you ask Britt as you all plod, defeated, back to the hotel.
You don't know yet? asks Britt. Jesse St. James wouldn't shut up about it back at the theater.
Wouldn't shut up about what?
Brittany opens her mouth, shuts it, and wets her lip.
Finn kissed Rachel onstage. It was—well, it got a little too intense.
You stop. Reel. Try to flush the blood out of your vision.
What the everloving fuck?
San. I know. Let's just get back to the hotel, okay?
You fall silent. Brittany rests a hand on your shoulder, but lets it drop after you don't lean into her touch. Finn is an idiot. You expect this shit from him. But Rachel? You thought she cared about this competition—about her talent—more than anything. You thought that it was one thing you could count on from her: that she wouldn't give up on what was most important to her. Rachel Fucking Berry—the last person you'd imagine—managed to fuck this up for everyone.
Hard to believe that just this morning, you were thanking her for keeping your secret. For keeping your love a secret—while she parades hers onstage, in front of a national audience.
Not fucking fair.
Soon you're back to the hotel, packing up your things and getting ready to say goodbye to the city that made you forget your fear of jumping off that cold high cliff next fall—the city that made you remember why you're jumping in the first place.
Five minutes in—max—all your frustration and shock and mourning finally boil over. The next thing you know your things are all scattered again and six hands are holding you back as you charge, screaming, at Rachel: the physical symbol of everything in the world that you hate at this very moment.
It's Quinn who finally calms you down. Quinn, who this morning was so ready to ruin everything over hating Rachel and Finn, hating them for having what she can't.
Santana, she snaps. We get it. Everyone's upset. But you have to calm down now.
You're already tired of straining against their grip, and you slacken in their arms until Quinn and Mike and Sam are supporting instead of restraining you.
Come on, Quinn whispers, draping her arm over your shoulder. Let's get you some water.
She shuts the two of you in the bathroom and fills up a glass from the tap. After drying off the base with a hand towel, she hands it to you.
Drink, she urges, and you take a little sip. Your cheeks are too hot, and you don't feel like drinking, so you just let it hang like an ornament from your hand as you lean back against the counter. Quinn joins you. The two of you stare straight ahead: at the tiles lining the back of the shower.
So now that's two of us who want to punch Rachel Berry, you joke. Quinn smiles politely but doesn't laugh.
Is this really just about Nationals? she asks.
You hesitate—and then shake your head.
Is this really just about Finn? you ask.
Quinn looks to the floor and shakes her head.
You know—you set down the glass, slide it back on the counter—I never thought Berry would whore out those dreams she's always yammering on about for some stupid… white picket fence.
I told her she didn't belong in Lima, says Quinn. I mean, she just… doesn't.
Quinn bites her lip. She turns her face away from you.
You tuck a piece of her newly cut hair behind her ear. It escapes, falling back over her wet cheek.
I don't think so, you tell her. You deserve a lot more than you think you do.
And you deserve the white picket fence, she says. You can still have that, Santana, if you want to.
That hits you—deep—in a place you didn't expect. You imagine, for just a moment, some distant morning, scooting a stack of pancakes from a griddle onto Brittany's plate—turning then, maybe, to a third plate, or a fourth. But no. You don't really want that—do you?
Your own cheeks are wet now. So—maybe you do.
Quinn sniffs, turns to you with a wet chuckle.
Why haven't we ever—really—been friends?
Silence. You mull over the question.
Maybe we were thinking about it the wrong way, you guess. Like, when one of us won, that meant the other lost. Your eyes meet. We thought we wanted the same thing.
She slides her hand across the cold counter and over yours.
Now we know better.
Now that you've freshly returned from New York City, Lima feels even more cramped and empty, and—well—smaller than before.
You think Brittany may still be mad at you for what you did to Rachel. You cocooned yourself in self-pity the whole way home, which left no room for her, and then went home and crashed, sleeping until your alarm blasted you out of the void.
Your anger at Rachel doesn't burn out. It smolders, licks at something deep and painful in you. Why? Two years ago, she was nothing to you. A splattered bug on the windshield of your social success. You wouldn't have changed places with her any faster than you would have changed for an alley cat. Or a dental hygienist.
So why, now, are you longing for what she has? Why does her kindness to you in the hotel bathroom that morning rankle so painfully?
You're thinking about this at your locker, jabbing at a little voodoo doll you swiped from some creepy goth kid's open backpack on your last day of pre-calculus.
Hey, calls Brittany, coming toward you. You still pissed?
Do you think this voodoo doll looks enough like Rachel Berry to actually work?
Come on, she wheedles. You can't be mad at Rachel for forever.
Uh, yes, we can. You lean against your lockers in unison. How could you possibly be so calm? you ask her, your own voice shot through with frustration.
I don't know, she says. I hated losing just as much as everyone, but this year wasn't about winning for me.
Clearly, cause we got our asses kicked. She gives you that Brittany look that makes your meanness wither. Sorry, you tell her. What was it about?
Acceptance. I know that all the kids in the Glee Club—they fight and they steal each other's boyfriends and girlfriends, and they threaten to quit, like, every other week, but—weird stuff like that happens in families.
Yeah, well, you snort, your stomach turning at the word family—your mother's warning about your father, the night she watched you packing, pricks at you again as you think of the promise you made in New York. This is a club, you remind Brittany. This is not a family.
Well. Brittany stands up, pivots to you, holds you against the locker with her eyes. Family is a place where everyone loves you no matter what, she says, pointedly, and they accept you for who you are.
As she lists the members of Glee Club, imagines their future lives together, you wonder what it would be like to have a family like that. To have faith that other people will help you up, over and over again, even when you do and say all the wrong things.
I love them, she finishes. I love everyone in Glee Club. And I get to spend another year with everyone I love—her eyes flicker over your face—so… I'm good.
What about you and I? You add—silently—are we family? Are you my family? Will you stay, will you still care, even if I fuck up again?
Brittany looks at you—a long, deep look.
I love you, Santana. I love you more than I've ever loved anyone else in this world. All I know about you and I is that because of that, I think anything's possible.
It's the first time since you declared your love for Brittany—right here at these lockers—that she's said it to you. Not back to you—just, to you. Your throat aches. You pull her tight against you, her body that seems to belong against yours.
You're my best friend, you remind her.
Yeah, me too.
But this is still the hallway. And the summer isn't over yet.
So you pull yourself free—pull yourself together—and offer her your pinkie.
When did you get so smart? you ask her, as you walk together to history.
In the brief space between your house and Brittany's is a shaded little park with a swingset. When you two were younger, before the summer when it all started—when you were suddenly too old for parks and swings, and left them behind for swimming and tanning—you would sometimes linger here for whole afternoons, swallowed up by the rustle of trees and the creaking of the swings and gathering pebbles. By the time you moved here, you were too old for your mother to take you to the park, the way she did when you lived in Cleveland. Brittany was your only company some days; on those afternoons, your house key lay heavy and cold at the bottom of your backpack as you forgot yourself with her.
Brittany drills a hollow in the soft earth below with the tip of her shoe. You watch from your adjacent swing, twisting back and forth so the old chains groan as their joints slide together. Your heart pounds, even though there's nothing to be nervous about. It's just you and Britt—it's always just been you and Britt. Nearly seven years. Even before the summer feeling, before everything that followed, you could never imagine your life without her—with anyone but her, forever.
What did you mean, anything's possible?
I mean—I think you can do this.
You feel the dread growing in your belly. Gestating. Summer is here—summer will end.
What if I can't? Will you—still love me?
Your swing stills. You look over—she's holding your chain in place.
Yes, she says. Whatever happens. I will always, always love you.
Then you begin to cry—it's too much; it's too big a gift and you don't know where to put it.
San, she whispers, and her voice is thick too. San, come on.
Britt takes your hand and leads you to a patch of grass shaded by two trees. You settle down together; she pulls your head into her lap, wipes away your tears, and strokes your hair.
How long have you loved me? you ask.
Loved you how?
Loved me—the way I've loved you, since that summer three years ago. Before our first kiss.
You've laid your cards down. Her hand stills in your hair; you panic for a moment until her hand moves to your ribs, down over your waist. You close your eyes.
Since the first day I saw you, she whispers.
Your heart soars. Flutters. Then settles—pounds, merciless as a metronome. You turn face up, fold the hand that strokes you between your own hands.
Kiss me, you tell her.
Here? she asks. In daylight? Where anyone could see?
Yes. Kiss me now.
As Brittany dips her mouth to yours, hovering, like a supplicant bee, you cup her head and rise to meet her. You're not afraid. And suddenly everything disappears: the breeze, the birds, the trees looming overhead, the still-creaking swings you abandoned a little ways down the hill. She—your Brittany, your family, your love—is the only thing that matters.
This, you think—smiling into her lips—this is the beginning of forever.