(Author's Note: I've included acknowledgments in my author's note for TOTP 20. I thank you all again for your readership and support.
This is it! Bisous and farewell.)
Brittany is strapped into her seat, belt pulled and locked low and tight across her hips like the flight attendant told her to.
San tentatively strokes Brittany's sleeve between her finger and thumb.
"You okay, Britt-Britt?" she whispers. Brittany nods.
San's an old pro at this. She's flown more times than she can count on her hands: weekends tagging along with her dad to medical conferences, visits to her cousins, that kind of thing—especially before she moved from Cleveland to Lima. The only other person here who's been on a plane is Rachel, and that was just to visit some family in Denver. Santana didn't cut in once when Rachel gave them all a big speech on the long pre-dawn bus ride to the airport: how it was no big deal, how they should chew gum on the descent to keep their ears from popping when the pressure changed, how the attendants would bring them free soda or juice or whatever they wanted. In the old days, Santana might have cut Rachel down and embarrassed her; but now she just smirked, looked out the window and didn't breathe a word. Brittany was proud of her for that.
San tears the cellophane wrapper off the blue blanket from her seat. "Lean forward," she orders, and slips a pillow into the hollow of Brittany's back. Brittany settles back—it is much comfier now—and lets Santana drape the blanket over their knees. San burrows her hand under the blanket and plays with Brittany's palm. She soothes her, tells her this will be fun. Brittany's not so sure. Suitcases disappear, swallowed into the underbelly of the plane as men in reflective vests toss them onto the moving ribbon. They're all in the belly of the plane now. The doors are shut—no turning back.
"Britt, you can't be scared of planes," teases San. "Otherwise, how can you ever go to Paris and Shanghai and LA, like you talk about? Don't you want to go to Disney World someday with our—" Her voice shuts off; her fingers stop their tracing. Brittany knows not to turn around, not to embarrass her, but she knows exactly how San looks: dark with heat, mouth shut, eyes darting down and to the side. Her heart soars as she finishes Santana's sentence in her mind.
As the plane rumbles and begins to lift away from solid ground, San squeezes her hand. Our children, Brittany repeats to herself, and suddenly she's not afraid anymore.
Brittany had thought they'd land right in the middle of the city, just coast down to the top of a building like a helicopter. So when they land on a long flat empty strip and have to drive into the city, she feels a little cheated. There are honest-to-god houses. It's nothing like in the movies.
As if she could read her disappointment, San leans over to whisper in her ear.
"We're not in Manhattan yet," she reassures her. "Just wait until we cross the bridge."
Sure enough—the landscape changes. Once they hit the edge of the river, Brittany can see the scaffolding of the bridge, the thick oozing ribbons of cars. The buildings jut into the sky like uneven gray teeth.
Then they cross over and plunge in.
Everyone oohs and ahs as they make their way into the thicket of buildings. It's dark; even though it's daylight she can hardly see the sun, blocked by the massive skyscrapers. Their upper stretches are gray and silver, matte and mirrored. Some have ribs and designs and others are flat as a sheet of winter ice.
But at eye level, everything changes. There are colors: flying cloth, cries, people flying in and out of doors. Skinny women in stiletto heels and dark jeans stride along the sidewalks so fast that Brittany wonders how they don't wobble or fall. Strange spices and exhaust fumes and damp sticky foreign smells filter into the shuttle. The rows of shops so narrow and so close together that Brittany would have trouble reading the signs—that is, if they weren't moving so slowly. The traffic crawls; the horns howl, and Brittany wonders why everyone is so angry, when they really can't expect to be in a hurry. In Lima, the streetlights are far apart. Here, they're so tightly packed that she can see them stretching out in long rows, the way you see billions of selves when you step between two mirrors that face each other.
Finally, they reach the hotel. A crew of bellboys deploy to toss suitcases from the back of the shuttle onto their rolling carts. A row of taxis, constantly refreshing and departing as passengers are ushered in or out, moves along the side of the building like one of those perpetual motion toys with the row of silver balls.
They all escape for a few minutes while Mr. Schue checks them in—"Don't go more than a block away, all right?"—but too soon, they're herded into the hotel room to start on the songs. The brightness of New York disappears except for the tiny square through their window. It's kind of torture to look down at the street from behind the glass—the window doesn't even open all the way—with nothing but the honking cars and the floating fumes to tell them where they are. Brittany looks around at the bland room—same bleach-soap-detergent smell, same scratchy bedspreads and white walls, as the other two hotels she's been to—and feels like her cat when he's scratching at the inside door.
From the looks on the others' faces, she's not the only one.
It's only ten in the morning when everyone decides it's time to escape. Mr. Schue is long gone anyway, so who's to know if they skip out for a few hours?
"We should really be back by, like, one," says Finn, leaning against the outside wall of the hotel as the others gather around, "so let's decide where we want to go." He unfolds an embarrassingly huge map. "So, if we want to go to Central Park…"
"Central Park is huge," interrupts Santana. "What do you want to see there?"
Finn shrugs. "I don't know. Okay. Maybe, the Statue of Liberty?"
Santana full-out laughs at that one.
"You know that's on another island, don't you? You have to take a boat. We so do not have time for that."
"If you magically know everything," snaps Rachel, "then why don't you lead the way?"
"Fine," says Santana. "Put the map away. Where do you want to go?"
They decide on a few locations as a group—"We'll have to take the subway there," Santana notes, rolling her eyes, when a few people get excited about Washington Square Park—and, after confirming the intersections with Finn, she decides on the best order.
Her eyes dart over a few landmarks before she points to the right and directs, "Okay—this way."
"How do you know which way to go?" asks Rachel.
"So many questions, troll," she quips, though her tone is friendly. "Easy. The streets go this way"—she points forward—"and the avenues go that way." She gestures to the right.
"Oh," says Rachel, impressed in spite of herself.
Brittany joins Santana at the front, matching her quick strides.
"Leave it to them to pick stuff that far downtown," she shrugs. "I'm not looking forward to herding these beasts of burden onto the subway."
Sure enough, after a couple of unsuccessful transactions, they all hand their cash to Santana, who swipes her credit card at the automated machine and distributes charged metro cards to everyone.
"Guard these with your life," she directs them, "and follow me."
The subway platform is a dark underworld, like a dank sewer covered in tile. There are so many people everywhere—muscling and slithering among the crowd to get a good spot at the front—and a man plays a song on his saxophone that's so slow and liquid that Brittany feels a shiver of loneliness, even among this murmuring, pushing crowd.
Santana's hand warms her shoulder.
"You all right, Britt-Britt?" she asks.
"It's just so… big," she explains, even though she can't quite put her finger on what's overwhelming her about this city.
"Don't worry," says San, softly, her thumb playing with the fabric of Brittany's sleeve. "I won't lose you."
San leads them through the park, through the streets. Tina and Mercedes buy cheesy light-up statues of the Empire State Building; Artie buys a copy of the New York Times from a newsstand. Brittany points at a hot dog vendor with a stripy umbrella—"smells so good, San"—and Santana buys her one with extra mustard and relish. She slips a couple of napkins into her purse so she can dab away the globs of mustard that are sure to end up on the tip of Brittany's nose.
As they tunnel through the streets, San points out this and that building, some art deco architecture, churches, restaurants—"they have the best pizza you've ever had in your life"—and hands Brittany her purse so she can bum a cigarette off a smoking businessman. Brittany's mouth is sour from the hot dog, so she sticks her hand in to search for some gum or mints, since San always has some on her. Instead, she feels the perforations of a ripped-out sheet of notebook paper. Glancing to see that Santana is still talking to the man—she's leaning forward now while he cups the flame around her waiting lips—she unfolds a little and sees Santana's handwriting: "You and me keep on dancing…"
It's all she has time to read before Santana is striding back over, trailing smoke. Brittany slips the folded sheet of paper into her pocket.
"Want a drag, Britt?" she asks, grinning. Brittany's about to say no when San holds it to her mouth, fingers brushing against Brittany's lips, and she draws in a mouthful of smoke just to keep the nearness of Santana.
Once they're back in the hotel room, exhilarated, Brittany excuses herself to the bathroom and unfolds the piece of paper in her pocket.
"…dancing in the dark,
It's been tearing me apart not having you never knowing what we are
You and me keep on trying to play it cool
But it's time to make a move, and that's what I have to do I'm gonna do
I want to lay it all down for you"
It's definitely San's handwriting: certain and clear, especially on the parts she's corrected. Brittany can see her leaning against the foot of her bed, nested in pillows, her pen getting surer and steadier as she wrote. The last line is underlined several times in fast thin strokes, like she was caressing the thought, reassuring herself that it's what she wanted to say.
Brittany longs to believe that this is about her. It must be. But she can't believe it—she can't get her hopes up again.
Still, Santana's on to something. Even if she'll never cop to writing it.
Unless—just maybe—Brittany offers to lay it all down first.
After busying the other girls with a pillow fight, Brittany slips out with Santana and confronts her in the hallway, showing her what she found. Santana's eyes widen; she's spooked and ready to run. Maybe this was a terrible idea after all. But Brittany has to try.
"It's really good," she pushes. "You wrote this, right?"
San won't say it out loud. She looks ready to die of humiliation: overheated, bowed, eyes flicking between her feet and the corridor exit sign. Brittany takes a deep breath and ups the stakes.
"I think you should show it to everyone," she says, firmly.
"No," snaps Santana.
Brittany puts the paper away, a gesture of peace, and strokes Santana's hot face. Her muscles and throat are shivering; Brittany lets her hand fall before she pushes San to the edge of tears.
"Well, what if I said I wrote it? Would you let me show them?" Santana looks up, curious, and Brittany goes all in. "You don't have to answer. Just say something right now if that's not okay with you, and I won't do it."
Santana melts, softens, cools. Her throat shivers with a swallow. She says nothing.
Brittany's heart soars.
"They're going to love it," she promises, and pulls San back into the chaos.
After getting San's permission, the rest is easy. She copies it down in her own handwriting, so no one will know it's San's, and then she shows Tina. Tina trusts that Brittany's not dumb, since she's seen her in action during her stint on the Brainiacs. But it kind of surprises Brittany that no one gives her that doubtful "but… Brittany?" look that Mr. Schue broke her heart with, months ago. She glances at San, who's clearly pleased with the success of her lyrics, though she's trying her best to hide it. No big deal; everyone probably thinks she's just proud of Brittany, the way she always is when Brittany shines.
Mercedes makes a run next door to fetch the boys, and the group hammers out a few more verses. The next part, the music, is usually headed up by Rachel and Tina, with some help from Artie and Puck. But Rachel's suddenly gone, and Finn didn't come in with the rest of the boys.
"Don't worry about it," says Mike. "They're… fine." He winks at Puck—Mike is winking, at Puck?—and Brittany tries to catch San's eye to share a look of curiosity, but all of a sudden Santana's missing too.
Brittany pokes her head outside to look for her, but instead, she feels fingertips perch on her shoulder.
"Shh," San's breath whispers against the back of her neck. "Wait outside. I have to grab your purse, and then we're playing hooky."
Once they're both out, they practically skip down the hall, pinkies linked, giggling at their own naughtiness like the best friends they are.
While they descend alone in the elevator, so fast Brittany's belly swoops, Santana steals a kiss, pressing Brittany's back against the plush wall. Brittany melts against her.
"I think they liked… that verse," San ventures, trying not to look too pleased.
"Well, duh," says Brittany. "We wrote a whole song around it."
"And"—she glances away shyly—"you liked it too?"
Brittany kisses her nose.
"I loved it."
Once they're back on the streets, Santana snaps back into her confident, battle-ready New York alter ego.
"This way, Britt." She glances at her cell phone. "And quick. We haven't got much time before they close."
Brittany trots after her—Santana's strides are so long and quick anyone would swear she had the longer legs—until they reach the edges of Central Park. Santana pulls out a tiny slip of paper and sheepishly takes a look at a roughly scrawled map before leading her around to the right entrance.
"Central Park Zoo," she presents, pointing to the entrance. She looks super pleased with herself for just a moment, before she realizes how obvious her grin is and reels it back in. Brittany claps her hands and doesn't try to hide her smile.
They go to the ticket counter and Santana asks for two adult tickets.
"Together or separate?"
"Together," says Santana, too fast and too firm, and pushes Brittany's wallet away. She seems a little embarrassed when she hands Brittany her ticket; she refuses to meet her eye.
"Why, Santana Lopez," whispers Brittany as they walk toward the entrance, "is this a date?"
Santana turns away, grinning, and refuses to answer the question.
Brittany chooses the way, looping around the exotic mammals. There's the most beautiful snow leopard she's ever seen, with dappled luscious fur, who moves slow and liquid as honey around its enclosure. San leans against the fence, admiring the leopard as it curls lazily on a rock. Brittany inches closer—not quite touching Santana, but so close she can feel San's heat shedding from her hair and body in the sunlight.
"Gorgeous, huh?" says Brittany.
San purses her lips and glances at Brittany like she wants to say something, but her eyes return just as fast to the contented cat.
"Yeah," she says. "It is."
Brittany loves the poison frogs—they're so colorful, and so slimy they look freshly wet all the time—and San makes sure they get to the 4:15 harbor seal feeding so Brittany can watch them waddle and scarf down fish with pure animal joy. Sometimes Brittany wishes human pleasure could be so pure. She's trying her hardest to keep her eyes ahead as if she can't see San watching her. Even though she can't get a look at San's expression, she knows which it must be: that tame, tender look she just glimpses the moment her eyes open, those mornings when Santana watches her sleep.
"So," Santana asks, as they're ushered out by an employee at closing time, "did you like the zoo?"
"Of course I did!" Brittany gives her a quick, chaste squeeze around the waist. "I loved it. Thank you." San's smile is huge and unabashed.
"Good. I'm happy."
"I'm just sad we have to go back now and finish writing those stupid songs." Brittany glances back sadly as the zoo security begins to shut the gates behind them.
"Hold up," says San, turning to face Brittany. "Who said anything about going back now?" Her grin is just plain dopey now. Brittany wants so badly to kiss it.
Santana leads her a couple of blocks closer to their hotel and ushers her into a huge store with what looks like a giraffe in the window.
"FAO Schwarz," she says. "Heard of it?"
"No," says Brittany breathlessly. Sure enough—a huge stuffed giraffe and a whole zoo of other plush animals sprawls over shelves and floor space on their left. There's an island of candy and a balcony overhead with kids leaping from side to side. Wait: does she hear a piano?
"Come on," urges Santana, ushering her up the stairs to where those kids are jumping. And that's where the noise is coming from: they're leaping from key to key on a giant piano. They're playing it—with their feet!
"San, can we do that?" she asks, tugging on her sleeve.
"Yeah," laughs Santana. "I was planning on it. But we have to wait in line."
While they wait, she makes a plan: she gets a groaning San to agree to play with her. Something easy—chopsticks, which Brittany taught Santana years ago on an old upright when she tagged along on childhood visits to Brittany's grandma's house.
"So, all you have to do is start on the white key next to me, and just jump down one white key every time we change. Six jumps on every note. Just follow me."
"Britt, I know, I remember. I'm not that bad at piano."
It sucks the first time through, but then they kind of get it, and it's amazing. San laughs at how well it works when they jump toward each other, and even more when they jump in parallel rhythm down the length of the keyboard. They both lose it when they try—and fail miserably—to jump back up the octave for the second go on the B section, and surrender the piano to a trio of seven-year-old girls who jump and twirl in an amelodic mess.
They wander the floors, the girls' sections and the boys' sections and everything in between. As they pass the building blocks, San points out a set of Legos with pieces to build a medieval kingdom.
"That one's vintage," she says. "I had one of those."
"You had Legos?" It comes out before Brittany has a chance to filter out her surprise. But San just grins.
"Yeah. I wanted this set for Christmas when I was, like, six? Seven? My dad didn't want me to have it. Said Legos were for boys. But I wouldn't shut up about it, so they gave in, in the end." Her smile darkens, stiffens. "Guess that should have been a big red flag, huh?"
Brittany smiles, unsure of how to answer. But then Santana laughs a little, and Brittany laughs too, relieved.
"Legos," repeats San, as if it's some kind of code, and shakes her head. "Subtle."
They're looking at the historic teddy bears in their glass cases when Santana flicks open her phone. Her eyes widen upon seeing the time.
"We'd better move on," she says. "Can I…" she looks away again, shy. "Can I get you, like, a teddy bear?"
Brittany spies a cute little stuffed polar bear—then she sees the price tag. She shakes her head.
"Can I have a lollipop instead?" she asks, pointing to one of the big flat ones near the cash register.
"Anything you want," says San, and runs ahead to fetch it, pushing back a piece of hair to shield her silly smile.
Brittany wants to unwrap the lollipop right away, but San stays her hand.
"You have to save room," she says. "How do you feel about sushi?"
Brittany has had sushi exactly once: in Michigan, when she was nine. It tasted like salt and cold wiggly fish and she spit it right out. But San looks so excited about this that she nods her approval.
The restaurant smells clean, not at all fishy or oily or salty like the ocean. It's full of black and white: simple and smallish.
"We'd like to sit at the sushi bar," Santana directs the hostess, who leads them to a pair of adjacent bar stools.
"I thought you might like to watch them work," says Santana, shrugging, and points behind the glass in front of them.
Chefs dressed in white aprons work fast, their knives gleaming and diving, disappearing and emerging, like silver fish. The chef right in front of them slices even finger-sized rectangles from bright slabs of translucent, quivering meat.
"That one's tuna," San tells her, pointing at a cherry colored block, then at the orange-and-white striped one next to it "and that's salmon."
"Are they raw?" Brittany scrunches her nose.
"Yeah," says Santana. "But don't be scared off. It tastes good. Weird, but really good. Trust me."
"I do," says Brittany, smiling. Her attention turns to another chef, who slips a dark green leaf—perfectly square—from a stack and rests it on a tiny bamboo mat. He slathers it with rice and layers it with fillings before rolling it into a perfect, tight cylinder.
"Making rolls," notes Santana, seeing where Brittany's gaze has fallen.
Santana orders, and their waitress brings them a plate full of colors and shapes Brittany's never seen before. San scrapes a tiny hint of green paste onto the end of her chopstick and holds it to Brittany's mouth.
"See if this is too spicy," she says, and Brittany licks it off. It's weird—she shivers all over—but it makes her mouth and eyes feel bright, like a light has been switched on behind them.
"I kinda like it," she says. It's the right answer—San grins.
"Good girl," she says, and shows Brittany how to make a slurry out of the green paste and the dark rich soy sauce.
Brittany was right to trust Santana. Maybe it's because she's older, maybe it's just better in New York, but this tastes nothing like the sushi she remembers. It's cold and crunchy, soft, chewy, light. Even those weird butter pats of raw fish taste good. The grain is so fine and tender that she can crush the fish like cold Jell-o between her tongue and the roof of her mouth. The chopsticks are kind of hard to use until Santana rigs them up and teaches her how, and then she slips a few pieces between San's lips with them, loving the way San flushes every time like it's brand-new.
San snatches the check and pays without even letting Brittany see.
"What a gentleman," teases Brittany. "Paying on the first date."
Santana's eyes flash with panic for a moment as she glances around, wondering who heard. But no one did—or maybe no one cares. Her face relaxes; she raises a questioning eyebrow.
"A gentleman, huh?" she retorts, forcing a grin, as she signs the returned check and slips her credit card into her purse. "Tell me, then—why are you the one wearing pants?"
Brittany wants so badly to grab Santana's hand, now that it's dark outside and the lights are making everything so pretty and romantic—even the red tail-lights of the taxis, still crawling along slower than she and San can walk—but then she remembers Santana's reaction to her teasing in the restaurant and decides not to push her luck.
"Where are we going?" she asks.
Then, they're overlooking the square at Rockefeller Center. There's a gold statue of some unknown solid god, all lit up, and a pouring fountain that dwarfs the people milling around below. Brittany just can't get over how big everything is here. How can anyone not feel little when all of these buildings loom above, gray and unfeeling?
Suddenly, the back of Santana's hand brushes her wrist, and she forgets everything else.
She thinks it might be an accident until she loosens her hold on the balustrade and Santana's hand doesn't move away. Her heart drowns every loud, insistent sound in the whole city as Santana slowly—slowly—takes Brittany's hand in hers.
She reminds herself not to breathe too hard, not to make a move or a sound, as their fingers interlace. Santana relaxes her arm, relaxes into Brittany's touch, relaxes into this clear, unmistakable announcement to the whole enormous city: we are together; we are in love.
For a while, Brittany lets herself just enjoy it. She feels Santana's heartbeat through her palm. San's breathing too fast. Is she nervous, or excited? Should Brittany squeeze her hand? Let her know this is all right? But as she tries to decide, San's heart gradually quiets and her breathing relaxes, until it almost seems—normal, in the strangest and most wonderful way.
Finally, Brittany breaks the silence.
"Thank you for today. I had an amazing time."
They're silent again for a moment. It's all been so perfect. She wishes it could be like this always, not just in New York where nobody knows them.
So even though it might ruin everything, as good as it feels now to have San's hand in hers, Brittany can't help but push her luck one more time.
"San? Can I ask you something?"
Santana's hand stiffens. "Sure."
"What is it that you're so afraid of?"
"Britt." A warning.
Santana sighs. She thinks—really thinks—and Brittany waits. She's got time.
Finally, Santana takes a deep breath.
"Some people aren't as open as you," she begins. "They can be—cruel. They don't understand."
"People like who?"
San shrugs, not from uncertainty, but because it's obvious she doesn't want to go on. "People at school. My grandparents and aunts and uncles." A pause. "My father."
Brittany knows it wasn't easy for Santana to say that. Santana's eyes are already shining darker than they should.
"I'm sorry," says Brittany, ready to put it aside for the night. But then Santana straightens a little, squeezes her hand harder, and starts in again.
"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." She looks away. "I'm not like you, Britt. I'm… not easy to love."
Brittany's heart breaks for her. She wants to kiss those terrible words away from Santana's lips. She feels helpless.
"Oh, San. Is that really how you feel?"
"You asked me."
Brittany swallows. She feels even worse. "Yeah. I did."
She searches herself for something to say, some way to comfort San. She expects San to look away again, but she holds Brittany's gaze, working up the courage to speak again.
"Can I ask you a question now?"
She pauses. "Why did you choose him?"
That was not what Brittany expected. She takes a long breath.
"At the time, I thought I was doing the right thing," she says.
"And now?" pushes Santana.
Part of Brittany wants to tell Santana what she wants to hear: that of course it was a huge mistake, that she should have dumped Artie and gone underground with Santana, waited and pushed and pined for her to come out—if she ever came out—and in the meantime, stay her dirty little secret.
But Brittany's sick of lying and hiding. She's sick of not being honest. And while it was probably the most painful few weeks of her life, she can't lie to herself: when Santana left, Brittany grew. She grew strong enough to tame San.
Now Santana has to be strong enough to tame herself.
"I don't know," she answers—the honest response Santana deserves.
She rethinks her approach when Santana instantly breaks down. It's quick and terrible, like a hurricane. Santana won't even let Brittany near enough to wipe her tears away. Her anger rises like smoke from some broken thing inside her, the way it did at the lockers when she first told Brittany she loved her. When Brittany chose Artie.
"I mean"—Brittany can't lie, but she can do her best to explain—"I don't know if it was the right thing for any of us. I know it was never the same with him as it is with you. I just…"
It's finally time to bite the bullet and get it over with. The hardest part. What she's been too afraid to say for nearly three years.
"You broke my heart so many times, Santana. What could I do?" She softens. "I couldn't wait forever."
Santana says nothing. She goes cold. Brittany could swear she feels San shaking—that is, until Santana drops her hand.
"We should go back," says Santana. Her voice sounds hollow.
"Santana," pleads Brittany.
"Come on." Santana cuts her off. "It's late."
They walk back in silence. Santana doesn't reach for her hand again.
San goes to find pillows or something while Brittany looks for a place to sleep. Looks like they'll have to settle for the floor.
Santana kept a couple of feet of distance between them the whole way back to the hotel. Even on the elevator. They both faced toward the door as they shot up the two-dozen floors to their room.
But when she returns to the room, burdened with blankets and pillows, she whispers to Brittany:
"Grab a couple of shirts and meet me in the bathroom."
Brittany nods and, after Santana disappears into the bathroom, flips the deadbolt back open to shut the door. She pulls a sleep shirt from Santana's suitcase first. She brings the shirt to her nose and breathes in; the fabric heats to her temperature as she holds it to her chest, rummaging through her own suitcase for a sleep shirt. Just the Santana smell rising from the warm cotton makes her heart pound. For a minute, all she wants to do is fly into Santana's arms and beg for her forgiveness, to kiss her all over until they both forget that Brittany made her cry.
But that's not who they are anymore. Brittany wants more than that. And in her deepest heart, even though it's not going to be easy, she knows that Santana wants more too.
When Brittany walks into the bathroom and shuts the door behind her, Santana is busy arranging blankets and pillows in the bathtub, like a little burrow. It's not much room; to fit, they'll have to lie on their sides and spoon. Santana can't be so angry with Brittany after all, if she's willing to be this near to her.
Brittany changes San and herself into pajamas—San into her shirt, her into San's, just because it feels right—and they crawl into the tub, with Brittany sheltering Santana's body. It's warm in their burrow; they don't need to pull the blankets over them when they've got each other, especially since Santana runs hot, and their limbs are woven together, skin against skin. Brittany strokes Santana; Santana wiggles deep into the soft places of Brittany.
"I'm sorry about earlier," says Brittany. And she is: not about being honest, but about not being gentle enough. About making Santana cry, after she had given Brittany such a beautiful day. "I'm still here," she reminds her. "I'm still waiting. You know that, right?"
Santana doesn't say anything. Brittany's still nervous she's spoiled everything. But as she debates saying something else, something to make Santana feel loved, she feels Santana's heartbeat too strong and too fast as she shifts in Brittany's arms, preparing to speak.
"You won't have to wait much longer," says Santana, her voice suddenly clear and certain. "I'll… I'll do it soon."
Brittany closes her eyes, opens them again. It's dark in the room and she feels dizzy. She clings hard to Santana—she can't bring herself to believe it yet.
"Do you really mean that?" she asks.
Santana nods; her hair rubs against Brittany's cheek.
"Yes," she says, in that same clear voice. "By the end of the summer. I promise." She shifts again. "Can you wait that much longer?"
Brittany thinks about her words from earlier. I couldn't wait forever, she'd said. Next to the three years she's waited so far, one summer seems short—if Santana keeps her promise.
"Yeah. I think I can wait that long."
Brittany wakes up to find Santana's eyes on hers, her hand stroking Brittany's chest, right over her heart.
"Wake up, Britt-Britt," she says, kissing each of Brittany's fluttering eyelids in turn. "We've got to move out before we're discovered again."
San looks away. Her hand stops moving.
"Yeah. Rachel barged in earlier and saw us." She's trying to pretend it's no big deal to her—and even though Brittany would like it better if it really wasn't, it's still an improvement.
"Do you think she knew…?"
"From the way she looked at us? I'd say so."
Brittany flinches. "You didn't threaten her, did you?"
San shakes her head. "No. But I don't think she's going to tell anyone." She ruffles Brittany's hair. "Actually," she muses, "she was kind of nice about it."
See? Brittany wants to say. This won't be so hard. But this isn't the moment. Instead she follows San's careful instructions as they clean up their tracks and make their strategic escape.
They haven't even been working on the songs in the boys' room for twenty minutes before Santana's had enough.
"Meet me in our bathroom in five," she whispers, her breath tickling Brittany's ear in a way that tells her exactly what for, and Brittany can feel the hairs on the back of her neck light up like a thousand fiber optic wires.
Once she swings back over to the girls' room, Brittany is surprised to see San standing outside the bathroom. She tries the door too, but it's locked. And then San looks at her, and she looks at San. There's only one person that could be in that bathroom—and it's not Rachel Berry.
When Santana bangs on the door again and tells Quinn to come out, she does—and all at once, she and San are fighting, so fast it's like the old days, when Brittany would watch their fencing games without knowing the rules. But now they've thrown away the gloves and plucked the blunt tips off their foils. They're fighting for real now, about something real, and Brittany can't do anything but stand back and wait.
But suddenly, as she watches them scream at each other, hears the too-keen edge to their voices, Brittany realizes: she's known the rules all along. She just never wanted to play.
Then something happens that Brittany never expected. They drop the foils and stop playing. Quinn retreats, sits down, and—with a look of agreement—Santana and Brittany sit down beside her.
"I just want somebody to love me," says Quinn through her tears. Brittany strokes her, soothes her, remembering that lonely moment at the lockers when Artie and Santana had both left her behind—alone. She looks at each of the other two girls, lost for a moment in her own private heartbreak, and feels like for as long as they've known each other, this is the first time they've all been in the same room.
"I think I know how to make you feel better," ventures Santana.
"I'm flattered, Santana," says Quinn, "but I'm really not that into that."
Brittany holds her breath and begs San, silently, not to fly off the handle.
But to her surprise, San shakes it off.
"No…no, I'm not talking about that," she says. "I'm talking about a haircut." She catches Brittany's eye for approval; Brittany answers with a smile.
While San makes a lobby run to get a few supplies, Brittany fills the sink and washes Quinn's hair. She combs the suds from the roots to the ends, digs her fingers into Quinn's scalp, tests the tap to get the water nice and warm before rinsing. Quinn just closes her eyes and bows her head, gripping the counter for support.
Once Brittany has finished, she towels off Quinn's hair, rubbing close to the roots, affectionately, playfully, like she used to when she dried her little sister's hair after baths. Quinn smiles and hums.
"I don't think anyone has washed my hair for me since I was six," she confesses.
"Not even"—Brittany was about to say in the hospital, after she'd given birth, but she catches herself just in time—"not even when you were sick?"
Quinn shakes her head. "My mom mostly stayed away from me when I was sick. The only person I ever remember washing my hair was my big sister, before she moved away for college." She releases her grip on the counter. "Mom wasn't really… hands-on, that way."
Brittany nods, not wanting to interrupt.
"I wish she had been, you know? There were a lot of things I could have asked…"
She trails off, then lifts her eyes to Brittany's.
"So, you and Santana." It's not a question, just a statement—and an invitation.
"I don't think I should talk about it," says Brittany, looking around, in case San came back in while the tap was still running.
"I think… I knew already."
Brittany doesn't answer.
"Brittany? You can talk to me, you know? Just because I'm a Christian doesn't mean I think… well." She shrugs.
"I know," says Brittany, sincerely. "Thank you."
Santana is strangely tender as she prepares Quinn for her haircut. She runs her finger around the perimeter of the blanket before clipping it around Quinn's neck, to make sure it isn't too tight. She arranges towels to catch the clippings under the desk chair, just so, lifting each of Quinn's feet for her as she works. Even more incredibly, she holds Quinn, touches her, soothes her—"you'll be okay," she says, with a softness she normally reserves for Brittany—as Brittany slowly, carefully, shapes her hair.
Quinn's hair is nearly as soft as her little sister's baby-fine down, softer than Santana's when Brittany combs it out wet. It slips between the blades of her fingers and gives in easily between the blades of the scissors. As the snips whisper in what sounds like a secret, sacred language, San watches the cuttings fall. They turn paler as they dry, until the towels are covered in what looks like straw spun into gold, just like in the fairy tale.
"That ought to do it," says Brittany, pulling down the pieces on each side of Quinn's face to make sure they're even. She fetches the blowdryer to finish, and to chase off the last stray pieces of what she cut away.
Between working out some rough, simple choreography with Mike, teaching it to everyone, and trying to memorize her solos and harmonies, Brittany can't believe it's time to go already.
The lobby is already filled with choirs. It's overwhelming. The room smells like a hundred different soaps, and a few perfumes and colognes—guess they have no Rachel Berry to tell them that fragrances can cause inflammation and allergies in their delicate throats, especially hers—but most of all, like adrenaline. Everyone is ready to go. Brittany takes a few deep breaths, but the truth is, the New Directions are not ready and they're not going to be. They'll do however they do, and then they'll go home just the same.
Meanwhile, Santana is shredding a strip of the napkins from yesterday into teeny tiny pieces, which fall like snowflakes onto the carpet. Her lip is raw and looks split in at least two places. She's nervous—she admits it—and Brittany can't really help her, not when she's been performing enough years to know that their chances of winning anything with this little practice are close to zip.
Instead, she sits back and enjoys the other performances. Chats with a few members of other choirs in the lobby. Buys some merchandise—after all, they made it here, didn't they? All the way from Lima, Ohio. That's really something, when you stop to think about it.
To Brittany's surprise, the performance actually goes pretty well—that is, except for those weird several seconds of total silence after the first number.
That Jesse kid—why is he here, anyway?—clears that mystery up right away when he announces, in that know-it-all way of his, that Rachel and Finn's post-duet onstage kiss lost them the competition. So that's what happened when their backs were turned.
Brittany knows Santana is going to flip when she finds out. So she maneuvers her away from Jesse as long as possible and waits until she can tell San herself—which, as it turns out, happens naturally when San asks about it on their walk back to the hotel.
"What the everloving fuck?" fumes Santana. Brittany cringes. She hates when San gets like this, even when it comes to Rachel Berry.
"San, I know," she soothes her, buying time. "Let's just get back to the hotel, okay?"
Before Brittany has time to take Santana into another room to gentle her, the time bomb goes off—and so does Santana. Spitting and kicking and screaming in Spanish. There are only two reasons that Santana uses Spanish, outside of that weird mash-up of Spanish and English she sometimes speaks with her parents: in Mr. Schue's class, and when she wants to scare the shit out of someone. From the look on Rachel's face, it's working.
But it's not Brittany who gets to her first. It's Quinn, who rushes San to the bathroom with a tenderness Brittany's never seen anyone show toward Santana—except for her.
She's happy San is with someone, quiet behind that shut door. She wonders what they're talking about. Brittany wonders whether Santana and Quinn even realize all they have in common. Their hard fathers, their frightened mothers. That shared parching thirst that makes them search for a well that doesn't exist. Their beauty, so bright it doesn't even seem like it comes from this world. Their keen tongues and keener eyes.
It's almost enough to make Brittany jealous.
Her better angels win fast, though. If Santana is really serious about coming out in the fall, she needs to know she has other people she can turn to—not just Brittany—to love her.
Brittany unfixes her gaze from the bathroom door and turns to see Sam and Finn and Kurt and Tina hovering over Rachel.
"I'm all right," she says, brushing away their concern. "I'm fine."
"Seriously," says Puck, "that shit was scary."
"Want me to kick her ass?" asks Mercedes.
"Guys, come on," Brittany cuts in. They turn to her, but she has nothing else to say—San was definitely out of line, and everyone knows it.
"She was upset," Rachel reasons. "We all are."
Brittany remembers what Santana told her when she first woke up, about Rachel seeing the two of them spooned in the bathtub. Watching Rachel's face settle into silence after defending Santana, when she'd had the perfect opportunity to strike back, Brittany wonders just what happened between Rachel and Santana this morning.
She looks back at the bathroom door as San and Quinn emerge, puffy-eyed and sheepish, but lighter somehow, like someone had removed weights from their shoes. She wonders if San is ready to believe, now, that they're all on the same side.
Out to two Glee clubbers in the same day. Not a bad start to the summer.
Santana shuts down the whole way home—but so does everyone else. It seems like everyone except for Brittany is trapped in a bubble of private bitterness. Which, of course, traps Brittany in a different kind of loneliness. It's like no one understands. Like suddenly, after all this time, kicking ass is all this club is about.
Yeah, Brittany would have liked to win. But where do you go from winning? It's something Santana—who leans against the window of the airplane, watching carpets of empty earth roll away behind them—never quite got. The Prom Queen campaign, the Cheerios' national titles, the Show Choir Nationals: sure, winning this stuff feels great, but two weeks later, you're the same girl, with the same clothes, clinging to the same handful of people who truly love you.
You always have to come home.
The last day of classes, the day they get back to school from New York, Brittany sees Santana at her locker, holding a weird little rag doll.
"Hey," says Brittany. "You still pissed?"
San—hard, school Santana again—turns to her with a look that could peel paint.
"Do you think this voodoo doll looks enough like Rachel Berry to actually work?"
"Come on," she coaxes. "You can't be mad at Rachel for forever."
"Uh, yes, we can," she scoffs. Brittany makes a note to tell her, later, about how Rachel defended her in the hotel room while she was with Quinn.
They settle with their backs to the cold locker.
"How could you possibly be so calm?" asks San, hiding her pain and confusion under a veneer of irritation she knows will fool neither of them.
"I don't know," she begins. Now's her in—but she has to choose her words carefully. "I hated losing just as much as everyone," she assures her, "but this year wasn't about… winning for me."
"Clearly," deadpans Santana, "cause we got our asses kicked."
Brittany shoots her a look. Santana softens.
"Sorry. What was it about?"
"Acceptance," says Brittany. "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."
San's face flickers with sadness at the word.
"Yeah, well, this is a club," she counters. Her shields are back up. "This is not a family."
Brittany tries one more time, standing up to face her. If she can only reach her eyes, she can keep her tame—just long enough to listen.
"Well—family is a place where everyone loves you no matter what, and they accept you for who you are," she says, pointedly. "I know I'm going to be a bridesmaid at Mike and Tina's wedding, and I'm going to be anxiously awaiting, just like everyone else, to see if their babies are Asian too. When they find an operation to make Artie's legs work again, I'm going to be there for his first steps. I love them. I love everyone in Glee Club. And I get to spend another year with everyone I love, so… I'm good."
Santana soaks this in. She's uncertain—but the seeds have fallen into place, and Brittany's used to waiting.
"What about you and I?" asks San.
They're in the hallway. In public. Santana looks almost sorry she asked, so fragile that Brittany knows that she has to say the words Santana is needing—longing—to hear.
"I love you, Santana," she says, clear and certain. "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"—she looks around, and decides to save the rest for later—"I think anything's possible."
San clings to her like she's afraid Brittany will run away if she loosens her grip.
"You're my best friend," she says, her voice sure and unsure at the same time. She's waiting for the answer to a different question.
"Yeah," says Brittany, answering it. "Me too."
They pull away, slowly, so the contact between them can linger, can remind Santana: I'm still here. I'm still waiting.
Santana sighs, pulls herself together. She holds out her pinkie—it's all she can give Brittany at the moment, but right now, it's enough.
"When did you get so smart?" asks San, as they fall into step together.
In the daylight, there is no jasmine on the walk from Brittany's house to Santana's. Instead, in the starched early summer heat, there is the sharp smell of grass, the sweet breeze, the dry earth.
They're meeting in the park between their houses. Santana is early: she's changed, like Brittany, into shorts and sandals. In her oversized t-shirt, hair hanging loose around her shoulders, she could be eleven-year-old summer Santana, or twelve, or fourteen.
San tilts her head and smiles as Brittany takes the swing beside her. They sit in silence like that, wrapped together in the smell of earth and the heat of the sun and the sounds of trees and birds and chains and distant traffic.
They used to play here for hours: swinging, whispering, gathering, climbing trees. Everything disappeared except for them. But they're getting older now; every time a car drives by, unseen, on the opposite road, San perks up to listen as it passes.
"Britt?" she says, the first to break the silence.
"Yeah?" She looks at Santana, who looks at her feet: coated with a film of dust.
"What did you mean, 'anything's possible'?"
"I mean"—her voice straightens, clear and strong—"I think you can do this."
Santana bites her lip. She doesn't seem so sure.
"What if I can't? Will you… still love me?"
Sometimes Brittany wonders how many times her heart can break before it won't knit back together. She watches San twist, pivoting the swing from the ball of her foot as if trying to drill herself into the ground.
She grabs Santana's chain—stills her, calms her—and makes sure her eyes are locked into Santana's.
"Yes," she says, willing the words to stick—willing Santana to believe her. "Whatever happens, I will always, always love you."
The chains of San's swing shiver and rattle as Santana's body shakes. She's crying. She doesn't think she deserves this: to be loved. Santana's words above Rockefeller Center repeat painfully in Brittany's ears as she watches San weep.
I'm not like you, Britt. I'm not easy to love.
You're wrong, Santana, thinks Brittany. You're wrong.
"San," she beckons, reaching for Santana's hand. "Come on."
They walk through the dry grass that rasps and stings beneath their feet. Brittany leads her to a shady spot where the grass is still pale green and soft. They sit down together; Santana's head rests in her lap, and she strokes the last of the weeping out of her, from her cheeks and mouth, down the strands of her hair, and lets everything sink far away from them, deep beneath the cool grass.
"How long have you loved me?" asks San, her eyes unmoving. Her heartbeat flashes in her temple as Brittany smoothes the hair away.
"Loved you how?"
"Loved me"—San's eyes follow a bird from one tree to the next; she swallows—"the way I've loved you, since that summer three years ago. Before our first kiss."
Brittany never thought she would hear those words. Never thought San would admit this: that those kisses in the darkness, those touches and sighs—they had always counted. They had always meant something. From the very beginning.
Humming in bliss, she strokes San's side, feels her lengthen under Brittany's touch like a cat. Santana seemed so sure of it, the moment she fell in love with Brittany. Brittany can't put her finger on it. She reels back through their history, like riffling through old slides. The moment she chose Santana over Artie. The night she awoke to find Santana whispering to her. Those looks and touches and stolen kisses in corners. All of those nights in Santana's arms. The first time they made love in the daylight—the first time they made love.
No. It was before that. Before the summer, before that first kiss. Before the bicycles and the night jasmine and the swings.
Suddenly, she sees it. It's the easiest answer in the world.
"Since the first day I saw you."
Santana sighs. Her face is—for the moment—wiped clean of everything but peace. She takes Brittany's hand in hers and turns belly-up to face her.
"Kiss me," she whispers.
Brittany feels a painfully strong pulse in her palm, in her thighs. She's not sure whose it is—hers or Santana's—or whether that even matters.
"Here?" she asks, doubtful. "In daylight? Where anyone could see?"
"Yes," says Santana immediately. Her eyes are soft and dark beneath the shifting shade. "Kiss me now."
Brittany's heart is as fast as a hummingbird's as she leans toward Santana's lips. Her back bows; she nears and nears, and then she's the one who's afraid for one fleeting second—afraid of how big this feels—until Santana clings to her neck and, rising, closes the distance between them.
Her hair smells like gardenias and late afternoon sunlight. It's hot—almost painfully hot—between Brittany's fingers as she holds Santana up in her arms. The leaves shake, but neither of them is shaking as they kiss, unhurried, unsheltered and safe.
That's the moment Brittany knows that Santana is going to keep her promise.
Their lips part; Santana reclines, relaxing her full weight onto Brittany's supporting arms. She cups Brittany's face; her eyes are still and steady.
"Britt?" she whispers.
"I will always, always love you too."