A/N: Once again (I realize I have to say this every time) I'm so sorry for the delay! If you've checked my tumblr in the last few months you know I've had all kinds of family medical drama. Luckily things seem to be on the uphill swing for now, but it really cut into any extra time I had for writing. I had hoped to post this chapter and the last one together, or at least just a few days apart, but it's been so long I figured I'd better go ahead and add this one before people completely give up on the story.

A note about the end of this chapter - I realize that the timing isn't great for angst, given what's going on with Brittana in canon. But I really hope everyone trusts me enough to know how much I love this ship, and that you'll stick with me for one more chapter, because I promise it'll be worth it in the end. I'm not an angst whore at heart. If I had to pick a genre, I would say this story is Romantic Comedy. But even those have to have some drama at some point, right? These particular issues have been building up through the entire story, and in an unfortunate coincidence with canon, now is the time for them to come out.

But I will say that if anyone just can't stand not knowing where things are headed, you can PM me either here or on tumblr or Glee-Forum, and I'll be glad to give anyone spoilers, as vague or as specific as you want them. I realize some people just hate cliffhangers with a passion. ;)

I think there was more I wanted to say, but by this point I never can remember what it is. Just, again, thank you so SO much to everyone who reviews. (And I understand this may be too much to read all at once - I wish I wasn't so obsessive about keeping "episodes" together, but I am. Feel free to review in sections instead of all at once.) I think if I could choose to get paid for this in actual money but without any feedback, I would say no. It's so much more rewarding to hear from people who are reading. I'm about *this* close to giving up on expecting anything good from Glee, ever again. The quality of the show this season and the loss of the vibrant, colorful characters we fell in love with is breaking my heart. There's so much potential for such an insanely talented cast, and they just waste more and more of it with every episode. So this made-up New York world becomes more important to me all the time. I've already started sketching out ideas for a possible sequel.

Anyway, thank you again!


Chapter 12

So this was what a lesbian wedding looked like. Or at least the aftermath of one. Somehow, it wasn't quite what she'd expected. Santana looked out over the party area from her elevated vantage point on the stage, able by now to multi-task, to sing while at the same time examining the room with interest. Though, really, it wasn't all that interesting. Just a standard wedding reception - a mound of gifts in a corner, a tiered cake, tipsy people dancing, children uncomfortable in their formal-wear and secretly (or not so secretly) scratching themselves. A group of bored teenagers slouched at a table, eyes glued on their phones. A few elderly women fanned themselves and checked their watches, reminding their husbands to take their pills. In the center of it all were the two thirty-something brides, still in their dresses, oblivious to anything but each other. Santana glanced at them and found herself smiling in the middle of her Mariah Carey number. It was impossible to not be affected by their happiness. Maybe that was the most normal part of it all.

Actually, the setting itself was more notable than the party. It didn't escape her sense of irony that she was in Tribeca, the bohemian gay mecca she'd once halfheartedly dreamed of escaping to. Only there was nothing much bohemian about this new luxury high rise apartment tower. Even from where she stood on a makeshift stage set up in the back of this fiftieth floor party room, the floor to ceiling glass windows around the perimeter offered a stunning and dizzying view over the downtown area, with the entire sweep of the city visible through the north windows.

Despite the view, though, her attention kept being caught by something else, someone else, much closer to hand. When the current number was done, she forced her focus back to the crowd, giving a cursory, "Thank you," to the applause. She went on, according to the pre-arranged schedule. "Um, okay, right now we're gonna switch things up a little while I let DJ Funkmeister take over for this next song, because unfortunately it's just a little bit out of my range. But I hear it's one of Shannon and Chloe's favorites, so, without further ado..."

She turned and passed the microphone to the scrawny white guy who had materialized like a ghost at her elbow.

"DJ Funkmeister in da house!" he boomed, raising one arm to the assembled guests. "Is she great or what?" he continued as Santana stepped down from the stage. "Look at dat ass!" Then, when she spun around to give him a surprised look, he covered the microphone and added in his normal voice, "Sorry." Going back to his DJ persona, he intoned, "And speaking of ass, we's about to go old school up in here!" Before the echo had faded away, Sir Mix-a-Lot's Baby Got Back had begun to play, causing a small eruption of excitement in the room.

Santana pushed through some of the people making their way to the dance floor, searching for that telltale shimmer of seafoam green that had been drawing her attention all evening. Finally, she spotted her, lurking around the refreshment table. As if they hadn't seen each other in weeks or even months, her heart gave a funny little skip. Sometimes it still felt a bit like a dream, that she was really here, that she wasn't a mirage. She could walk right up to her, in the midst of all these people, and could claim her attention no matter who else was around. Maybe it shouldn't still have seemed so much like a tiny miracle every time it happened, but it did. She wasn't sure if she would ever quite get used to it, not completely, and she wasn't certain she wanted to.

"Hey," she said, smiling.

Brittany put down the glass of champagne she'd been drinking, leaning in for a kiss. "Hey."

"I know I already said this earlier, but you look amazing. I have to give our Teen Queen credit, he does know how to shop."

Thanks to Kurt's influence, Brittany had lately begun to get into vintage fashion, and the two of them had been scouring boutiques and thrift stores together. Tonight she was wearing a dress that could have come straight from the set of Mad Men, and would have probably looked ridiculous on anyone else. But on her, it was perfect.

"Thanks," Brittany said, pleased. She looked down at herself. "I kinda like this pointy bra. I think we could do some interesting things with it later."

Santana restrained herself from reaching out to attempt to do some interesting things with it now. She glanced back at the floor. "Oh, did you want to dance?"

Brittany considered, but said, "That's okay. I would just make everybody else look bad, because, yeah, me and this song go way back."

"I remember," Santana said with amused fondness, thinking of a particular Cheerios routine that hadn't gone over too well with the more conservative parents. "So... how am I doing?" she hinted.

Brittany reached over and smoothed a strand of Santana's hair that was attempting to escape. "You sound incredible. But after all those standards, it's sorta weird to hear you singing Pink and Jessie J songs again. Weird in a good way."

"Yeah, I know, I kinda got out of the pop habit there for a while. But it's like cocaine, you never really forget how to do it. Or so I hear," she hastened to add.

Brittany laughed a little, but she seemed a bit distracted.

"Are you having fun, Britt?" Santana asked her. "I saw you dancing with that pre-teen acne factory earlier. Was it just me or was he getting a little handsy?"

"It wasn't just you. He offered me an iPhone if I would take his virginity." Off of Santana's incredulous look, she said, "Don't worry, I turned him down. I already have an iPhone." She smiled, since history had taught her that people didn't always realize she was joking, otherwise.

A woman brushed past them, attempting to get to the cake, and they moved out of the way a little.

"Are you sure it's okay that I'm here?" Brittany asked, glancing around and then giving her a pointed look. "I mean, I know Rachel's the one who got the gig and everything, so technically if you were gonna bring a date, it probably should have been her. Don't you think?"

"What?" Santana pushed this idea aside, shaking her head. "No, it's fine, I checked. Look how much fun they're having." She gestured over toward the brides, who were laughing and out of breath, doing dorky nineties hip-hop dance moves and playfully smacking each other's asses. "At this point they wouldn't care if Rush Limbaugh crashed the party," she added. "Besides, you know what they said when I asked if I could bring my girlfriend? They said the more lesbian couples, the better."

Brittany watched them dance, a little wistful. "They do look really happy, don't they?"

And then, staring at the two women in wedding dresses, they both seemed to experience a simultaneous moment of awkward shyness. They glanced at each other, then away, then at each other again. Santana felt her cheeks heat up, and she had the not-entirely-unpleasant sensation that she was thirteen again.

"Come here and check out this view," she said, grateful to think of a distraction. She took Brittany's arm and led her over toward the windows, to a spot on the north end of the reception space. It was darker and quieter there, more secluded. "Can you believe people actually live in this building? Apparently the blonde bride's dad invented one of those famous old-lady perfumes."

"Oh my God, really?" Brittany said. "I should talk to him about my idea for a crayon-scented perfume. I mean, who doesn't love that smell when you open the lid of a brand new box?"

"I know, it's total genius," Santana agreed. Then she sighed with longing, looking out at the dramatic nighttime vista. "You know what, call me shallow, but just being honest? I would so be down with a Rosemary's Baby scenario if it meant I could afford an apartment in this building."

Brittany considered these words, then said, "This is one of those times when I actually wish I didn't understand what you were talking about."

They stared out over the illuminated city, at the thousands of individual windows piercing the darkness, at the black ribbon of the Hudson snaking along over to the west, while far, far below, traffic lights inched along the grid of streets. Taking it all in, Santana's face showed a mixture of awe and something like hunger. Brittany reached out and touched the cold glass of the window, as if to steady herself against sudden vertigo. Her features reflected awe too, but of a more intimidated sort.

"You're gonna live in a place like this someday when you're rich and famous, Santana," she said after a minute, sounding a bit sad. "I know you are. Even without having Satan's baby."

Santana didn't turn her head, but she experienced a sudden twinge of foreboding. What did that mean... you're going to live in a place like this? Why you and not we? Was it just a clumsy word choice? All week long, there had been these occasional off-key moments with Brittany, these tiny, subtle hints that something was wrong. They just kept adding up, and they were starting to scare her. She'd thought, or maybe just hoped, that helping Britt figure out that she wanted to pursue filmmaking would sweep some of that residual disquiet away, give her something to focus on that would help combat the homesickness. But even though Brittany had been out with her camera every day, getting footage and working on her portfolio, these unnerving moments kept cropping up between them.

There was no point in saying anything about it here, though, since they were out of time, and this wasn't the place anyway. "Song's almost over, I better go," she said, turning away from the window. "Hey, you should try the caviar. It's free."

"Oh, I already did." Brittany made a disgusted face. "It tasted like fish toothpaste. I spit it out in the potted plant, I hope nobody noticed."

She smiled at her. "I'm sure no one did." She started toward the stage, but then turned back, on impulse, and pressed herself against Brittany for a deeper kiss. Surprised, Brittany brought her hands up to cup Santana's face, and then held her there for a few more seconds, drawing it out, going back in for one more gentle tug on her top lip. They both stilled and let their eyes close, oblivious to the rest of the room for the length of the kiss. When she pulled back, Santana stared at her, trying to convey something without words, though she wasn't sure exactly what it was that she wanted to convey. But whatever it was, Brittany seemed to be trying to understand, trying to take it in. She looked back at Santana with more focus, less distance than she had lately. It was a conversation without words.

Realizing the song had ended, Santana finally tore her attention away and hurried back to the stage to resume her duties as mistress of ceremonies.

"Sorry about that," she said as she grabbed the microphone after the delay. "Okay, before this next song, we have a special treat for everyone. I've been told that Chloe would like to say a few words about her new wife, now that she's had a few drinks to prepare her. So why don't I go ahead and hand this off to her. Chloe?" She prompted the bride, who now tentatively ascended the stage, lifting her dress to avoid tangling her feet in it.

The woman took the microphone, looking nervous, and Santana stepped back to wait. Over on the emptier side of the room, Brittany was staring out the window again, only halfway paying attention to the goings-on at this wedding reception of complete strangers.

Chloe, the dark-haired bride, already seemed uncomfortable being on the stage. She was what one would delicately call curvy, and she kept smoothing her dress over her ample hips with her free hand, as if trying to make herself as slim as possible. She cleared her throat. "Hi." There was a bit of microphone feedback, making her even more nervous. Santana stepped forward to adjust it for her, then retreated again.

"Um," she went on, hesitant. "Most of you know I'm really bad at this public speaking stuff, so I'll try to keep it short. I just wanted to thank everyone for coming and tell you all how much it means to us both that you're here. Because the fact is, even just a few months ago, I didn't think this day would ever come, and I'm sure most of you didn't either."

Now Brittany looked away from the window, intrigued. She crossed her arms in front of her to listen to the rest of the speech.

The woman went on. "At that time, as I'm sure you remember, Shannon was already engaged to someone else. It was no secret. And to those of you who had already bought gifts for that wedding, let me take this opportunity to apologize, again." There was scattered laughter from the assembled guests. Looking a bit less awkward now, the bride went on. "But I couldn't just stand back and let that wedding happen. I couldn't lose her to someone else. Everyone told me to. They told me we'd had our chance, and that not every relationship was meant to last forever. They told me I was crazy, and that it was time to let it go. Some people even tried to warn me that I could get slapped with a restraining order." She laughed a little. "And I know you meant well. But the thing is, I couldn't just give up like that. I couldn't. Because I knew, deep down, that we were meant to be together."

Brittany had gradually moved further away from the windows, still listening. There was a thoughtful expression on her face.

"I knew it more than I've ever known anything else in my life," Chloe continued. "So I had two choices. I could give in and let her go, and accept that sometimes life isn't fair. Or... I could fight for her. I could say to hell with the consequences, and do everything in my power to make sure we had every chance to make it. Because that's what you do when you love someone as much as I love Shannon." Now she was forced to stop, because there were tears in her eyes. She swallowed hard, looking straight at her bride, who stood in front of the other guests with her hand on her heart and tears in her own eyes. In an emotional voice, she concluded, "So I decided to fight. And maybe it was crazy. Maybe I went off the deep end there for a little bit. I don't think her former fiancée will ever feel safe being in the same room with me again. But you know what? Even though I made a fool out of myself in a hundred different ways... something tells me I'll never regret it." To her new wife, she mouthed the words I love you.

Now Shannon, the other bride, came up to the stage and helped her down, and everyone applauded as the two of them kissed, some guests dabbing at their eyes. Brittany watched the entire thing closely, with keen attention. A tentative idea seemed to be forming in her mind, inspired by what she'd just heard.

Santana had returned to the microphone, and she readjusted it and spoke. "If I could have your attention, now we'd like to ask everyone to stand back just a little, so that the brides can have their first dance together as a couple. And after that speech, I can understand why they chose this for their song." At her nod to the band, the music began. It was Shania Twain's You're Still the One. A spotlight appeared on the dance floor, the rest of the room subsiding into shadow.

Brittany remained where she was, now turning her attention from the wedding couple and back to the stage, where Santana was beginning the song. As if by reflex, while she sang the first verse her eyes scanned the crowd, searching for Brittany. Brittany stepped forward just a bit, out of the dimness, to let her see where she was. Their eyes met just as she transitioned into the chorus, and Santana gave her a secret wink. Brittany smiled a little in return, because it was obvious that this song wasn't only meant for the bridal pair, even if nobody else in the room was aware of it.

Santana continued on through the second verse, now turning her attention back to the women on the dance floor.

Ain't nothin' better,

We beat the odds together.

I'm glad we didn't listen,

Look at what we would be missin'.

Brittany didn't look away from the stage, though. It was as though she'd already forgotten that the brides existed, or even that she was at a wedding reception. Her gaze was focused on one thing and one thing only, and as she watched Santana sing, she took a deep, fortifying breath. It was clear that in that moment she was coming to a decision, that she was filled with a new sense of resolve, of firm purpose. The lurking melancholy had been pushed aside. She looked ready to fight.

When the song reached its end, Santana once again sought out her eyes for the very last line.

I'm so glad we made it,

Look how far we've come my baby.

Brittany stared straight back at her, exuding a new sense of confidence, and smiled.


The next morning dawned bright and beautiful, a perfect spring day, the kind of day that called for new plans and fresh starts to be put into practice. Midway down the block from their building, Brittany moved purposefully along the sidewalk, carrying a bulky laundry bag over her shoulder. She was wearing dark blue, her power color, and clogs that made her even taller than she already was. In addition, her hair was in a no-nonsense bun and she wore earrings that looked like tiny daggers. It appeared as though she'd dressed for maximum intimidation.

Slowing as she approached the door to the laundromat, she paused outside of it, her hand on the glass door's handle, preparing herself. Then she took a deep breath, held her head high, and went in.

She was in luck. There was only one person here, and it was the exact person she was looking for. But of course, she already knew that, since she'd been stalking her all morning.

Toward the back, Rachel was just in the process of turning the knob to start the water for what looked to be her second load. One washer already thunked away, and behind her was another full basket, not yet sorted. She looked up as the door opened, her face brightening when she saw it was someone familiar. "Brittany, hey!"

"Hey," she replied, sounding wary, caught off guard by the enthusiasm. She took the bag from her shoulder and rested it on the row of dryers, trying to re-gather her determination.

"I'm glad you came in," Rachel said, approaching. "I was meaning to ask you, what are you doing today?"

"Um... today? I'm doing laundry," she said, nodding toward the bag as if this should be self-evident. "And then probably Santana later. But first, laundry."

"Okay, well... in between those two things," Rachel said, brushing aside the indelicacy, "I was thinking maybe we could do something together, since Kurt and Santana already have plans."

Uncomprehending, Brittany stared at her. "We, meaning...?"

"Meaning, you and me. I was just looking at some of the community theater listings in the paper, and this one sounds like something you might like." She picked up a newspaper she'd laid aside. "It's called Jeanette." As Rachel said this title, she made a sweeping gesture with her hand, as if revealing the name in lights. Brittany squinted at the space in the air, but didn't seem to see anything.

Rachel continued, reading from the paper. "The reviews say it's a dynamic one-woman show that offers a compelling look at the life and times of the first female ever elected to national office by American voters."

Brittany considered this. "Kelly Clarkson?"

"Um, no," Rachel said, checking the paper again. "No, her name is Jeanette Rankin. She was a... a congresswoman?"

Making a face, Brittany said, "She sounds boring."

"Oh. Okay. Well... what about something else, then? Maybe the Natural History museum? There are all those dinosaurs, I'm sure you'd like that."

"Yeah, but they're all dead. It's depressing. I prefer my dinosaurs alive. And if possible, wearing giant saddles."

Rachel briefly contemplated this, but then shook it off. "Well, then... maybe you can think of something you'd like to do? I'm open to suggestions."

Brittany looked trapped, as though all her carefully laid plans were in danger. "Why do you want to do something with me?"

"I don't know." Laying the paper aside, she came a bit closer. "It's just... I sort of get the feeling lately that I'm always rubbing you the wrong way." Then she paused, shaking her head a little and saying irritably, "I can hear the wanky in my head now even when she's not here." She brought her focus back to Brittany, sighing. "Anyway. Look, I realize now that the movie project probably wasn't the best bonding tool for the two of us. In fact, I think it made things worse. And you know what, I understand that I can be something of an acquired taste. But it's not as if we don't have history... right?" When Brittany didn't respond, she went on, persistent. "I just think that if we spent more time together, and got to know each other more, it might help. I would really like it if we could be closer. And I'm very proud of the fact that I have a ninety percent friendship success rating." She added, "I can get you that spreadsheet, if you'd like."

During this speech Brittany had been growing more and more uncomfortable. Now she stared down at the floor, looking guilty. "Why do you have to make this harder than it already is?"

"What?" Rachel asked, confused. "What am I making hard?" Then she closed her eyes, muttering, "There it is again."

Brittany began in a hesitant manner. "Rachel, don't take this the wrong way. But... okay, you know those delicious cream-filled Cadbury eggs that come out every year around Easter?"

Looking a bit thrown by this change in topic, Rachel nevertheless said, "Of course."

"Okay, so... you know how you eat the first one, and you think, oh my God, I've missed these, it's been way too long. And so then you eat another one, and it's still good, but it's a little overwhelming and it's starting to make your teeth hurt. So then you eat a few more, until eventually, you feel like you're gonna throw up, and you're just like, I never want to eat another one of these for the rest of my life? And I definitely don't want my girlfriend to eat any either, because I think she's starting to like them too much. You know what I mean?"

Now Rachel was even more bewildered. "I guess so," she said. "Except for that last part."

Brittany waited, as if hoping she would come to the conclusion on her own, but no such luck. "Well... you're the Cadbury egg," she finally said.

After giving this a few seconds of thought, Rachel asked hopefully, "Because my personality reminds you of bunnies and springtime?"

A heavy, frustrated sigh was Brittany's only response to this. Obviously metaphors weren't the way to go. But before she could attempt a more direct explanation, her attention was caught by something poking out of the edge of Rachel's laundry basket, on the dryers behind her. Immediately she pushed past her, grabbing it. It was a purple bra.

"Where did you get this?" she demanded. "This is Santana's. So are these," she said noticing a pair of leopard-patterned underwear below them. "And these." She dug through the basket, unearthing more familiar items.

"Yeah, I know," Rachel said, circling around her, concerned at the pilfering. "I'm... I'm doing her laundry." In explanation, she offered, "We have an arrangement."

"Oh, of course, you have an arrangement," Brittany said, her tone sarcastic. "I should have known. You know what, I'll do these, don't even worry about it." She stuffed the rescued items into her own bag.

"It's really not a big deal, I don't mind-"

"I got it," she cut her off, giving her a dirty look.

Looking a bit daunted, Rachel didn't argue further. She watched as Brittany yanked open a washing machine and began shoving everything in together, including all the clothes she'd brought with her.

Rachel started to comment, bit her lip, but then couldn't help herself. "Brittany, aren't you going to separate the whites and the colors?"

She ignored her and kept adding clothes. "You can be a laundry racist if you want to, but that's not how I roll. And I would appreciate it if you would stop watching me."

"Okay." She held up her hands in a backing-off gesture. "Fine. But if you turn Santana's things pink, I will not be held responsible. And before you leave, I'd like to get that in writing." She retreated back to her own corner and snatched up her abandoned newspaper.

After she'd finished loading the machine and added detergent, slammed the door closed, and started the cycle, Brittany stared in at the laundry, watching the water pour in, her expression tense and frustrated. Then gradually she let her eyes focus on her own reflection in the glass of the washing machine's door. Taking a deep breath, she seemed to gather her resolve again, remembering what she'd come here to do.

"Rachel." She turned toward her. "I thought of what I want."

She looked up from the paper, eager. "You thought of what you want to do today? Oh, good. What?"

"No. I mean... I thought of what I want. From you. Remember a few weeks ago when you said you would do anything if I agreed to dance in your NYADA musical, but I said I didn't know what I wanted yet?"

It took her a few seconds to call up the memory of that chaotic night that had ended in universal vomiting, but she finally did. "Oh. Of course. I almost forgot all about that. What is it?" Before Brittany could answer, she hastily added, "If it's the pony, I have to warn you, I'm not sure that I'm financially ready for- "

"It's not the pony," Brittany interrupted. She paused, hesitant, and a flicker of uncertainty touched her features. But she pushed on, looking up and forcing herself to meet Rachel's eyes. "I want you to stop talking. Effective immediately."

Rachel waited, as if expecting a punch line. "I'm sorry? You... you want me to stop talking?"

"Not to everybody, obviously," she clarified. "Just to Santana." She considered, then threw in, "And me, too."

Baffled, Rachel tried to make sense of this bizarre and unexpected request. "I don't understand. For how long?"

Brittany shrugged, refusing to be nailed down to a time limit. "I don't know yet. But at least for a few weeks."

"But... why?"

Somehow Brittany managed to act casual, though it was obvious she felt bad. "You don't have to know why, that wasn't part of the deal. You said you would do anything."

Rachel was trying to work out the exact details of what she was being asked to do, still perplexed. "So, you want us to just keep on living together, like normal, only... we don't talk to each other? Ever?"

"Mm-hm." Brittany nodded. "Yeah, pretty much."

"But that's impossible, Brittany. It would never work," she protested.

"You'd be surprised," Brittany insisted. "My aunt Lorna stopped talking to my Uncle Chester in 1988, and they say it saved their marriage. So, it can totally be done. And I believe in you."

Taking in the meaning of this request, the implications of it, Rachel transitioned first from surprise to hurt, and then finally, as she processed the motives behind it, to something like bitterness. "I see."

Brittany waited, watching her with caution. Obviously there was more to come.

Carefully folding up her newspaper, Rachel now smiled a little, but there was no joy in it. "No, I get it. You've never liked me, and you don't like sharing, and you want me out of your way. That's it, isn't it?" But without waiting for an answer, she continued. "You know, it's funny, but I knew something like this would happen. When I heard you were coming here to stay, I just knew it. But I told myself, Don't be silly. High school's over, they're not like that anymore... you're worrying for nothing."

Brittany stared at a scratch on the top of one of the dryers, rubbing at it with her finger. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "But it's what I want, and you promised. I mean, if you're gonna go back on your word, then..." she trailed off.

"No, you're right." Taking a shaky breath, Rachel tried to regain her dignity, to not show any emotion. "We made an agreement, and that's that." She paused. "I don't like it, but I'll abide by it. From now on, consider me the silent roommate. Maybe I can use this experience as preparation for my Miracle Worker audition. I'm thinking of trying out for the role of Helen Keller." But the enthusiasm sounded faked.

"So, see?" Brittany said, as if she was trying to make herself feel better. "It'll work out best for everybody."

"Yeah, maybe so," Rachel nodded a little, but with no conviction. She retreated back to her own laundry basket. Despite her earlier warning to Brittany about the perils of not sorting, she now opened up a third machine and dumped the rest of her things in all together. When she'd turned the water on, she stood back and watched, her gaze unfocused and gloomy.

Brittany hopped up onto a dryer and pretended to watch her own machine, looking as though she wished she'd brought something to do. They were still the only two people in the place, and the silence was heavy and awkward. She was on the verge of taking out her phone, when suddenly Rachel shook her head. "No," she said under her breath. She turned and came back toward her again, saying louder this time, "No, I have one more thing I have to say, and then, after that, I promise I'm done. But before I stop talking, I want to give you a little piece of advice, Brittany."

She looked around, but there was no escape. "Well, do I have a veto, because what if I don't want to hear it?" she asked. "People are always trying to give me advice, and I'm sick of it. My mom, my dentist, my rabbi, those old people who pass out the shopping carts at Wal-Mart..."

"What, what rabbi?" Rachel demanded, momentarily distracted. "You're not Jewish."

Brittany stared at her. "That is so rude. I would never tell you that you're not Jewish."

Tilting her head back in exasperation, Rachel forced her attention back on topic. "All right, well, I'm sorry, but whether you want to hear my advice or not, I'm just gonna come right out and say it, because I might not get another chance." She paused, giving Brittany a hard look. "Why are you here?"

"What?" She was genuinely puzzled. "That's not advice, that's a question. You really suck at this."

Rachel pressed on. "I'm only asking because I'm getting the feeling more and more often lately that you don't truly want to be here."

"Well, nobody wants to be in a laundromat, Rachel, but sometimes you have to wash your clothes. Unless you're rich, because then you could just buy new clothes. Or you could stop wearing clothes completely, and paint a symbol on your stomach like a Care Bear, which I think is something we should all consider."

Increasingly frustrated, Rachel said, "Stop doing that, stop playing dumb and trying to distract me! You know exactly what I'm talking about! I'm talking about New York."

Now Brittany fell silent, rolling her eyes a little. She crossed her arms protectively across her chest and gave the dryer a soft, swinging kick with her heel, but otherwise didn't respond.

After waiting a second, Rachel continued. "Are you here just because of Santana? Or are you here because you love this place and you don't want to live anywhere else in the world?"

"What difference does it make?" she asked, the harshness of the words seeming to surprise even herself. "I'm here, aren't I?"

"It makes all the difference." Rachel spoke with passion, trying, without much success, to get Brittany to meet her eyes. "I see you looking so lost sometimes. It's like you're drowning but you won't ask anyone to throw you a rope." Off of Brittany's skepticism, she added, "Yes, believe it or not, I occasionally do notice other people's feelings. And I admit, maybe we haven't made as much effort as we could have to make you feel at home here. I know I'm probably the one most responsible for that." She paused, then more quietly admitted, "Maybe deep down I was hoping you wouldn't stay." She looked back up, earnest. "But Santana needs you to stay. It would break her heart if you left."

At this admission, Brittany shot her a searching, suspicious look, a look that implicitly asked And why do you care so much about that?

But Rachel didn't seem to notice it as she went on. "And if you are going to stay... if you're going to make this your home, then... you have to find the magic in this city. You have to find a reason to love this city, or it'll swallow you up and spit you back out."

For a minute it seemed that Brittany couldn't choose from a number of possible responses to this unsought suggestion. But eventually, a sincere yearning to know the answer won out. "How?" she asked in a soft voice. "How do you find it?"

"I don't know." Rachel shrugged helplessly. "I wish I could tell you that, but I can't. For me it was the first time I stood in Times Square, and I just knew. I knew I was finally where I belonged, and that I never wanted to leave. I don't what it is about New York that'll make you feel the same way. But the Brittany I used to know would be able to find the magic anywhere. You just have to open yourself up to it."

Brittany was quiet, contemplating these words.

"Okay." Rachel patted Brittany's knee and took a few steps backward in resignation. "No more talking from me. The silence commences now." Then, immediately contradicting this, she said, "I'm gonna go down to the diner and get a coffee. Please don't let any homeless people steal my clothes." She headed for the door, and Brittany turned to watch her go.

"Rachel."

Her fingers already gripping the handle, she turned; questioning, hopeful.

But whatever Brittany had been about to say, she decided against it, as if needing to be firm with herself.

"Never mind."

Disappointed but not surprised, Rachel continued on out the door, past the windows and down the sidewalk.

Still seated on top of the dryer, Brittany turned back around. Swinging her legs a bit, she stared pensively at her own reflection in the washing machine door in front of her, while behind the image, Santana's clothes and her own swooshed around in one sudsy mass together.


"Go back up," Santana said.

Kurt scrolled up the page.

"Wait. Go back down."

He scrolled down.

"Okay, how the hell am I supposed to see anything when you go that fast? Do you have lube on your fingers or something?"

Now he thrust the laptop at her, fed up. "You know what, Santana, why don't you just do it yourself?"

She took the computer and leaned back against the elaborate designer comforter on his bed, closely studying the camera options on the screen.

Kurt watched her, trying to keep his patience. "You know, when you said you wanted to go shopping this morning, this really isn't what I had in mind. I'll have you know I cancelled a hair appointment for this."

She looked up and narrowed her eyes at him. "You did not."

"All right, well, I moved it to this afternoon," he admitted. "That's almost like cancelling. It's a very important salon. Did you know Kyan Douglas has his hair done there?"

"Not only do I not know who that is, but also, I don't care. Look, I'm sorry, but I want to do some research; it pisses me off when salespeople know more than me and act all condescending. I don't want a repeat of last year, when I got thrown out of a Best Buy for threatening the life of one of their Geek Squad." She put her hand on her heart in an earnest way. "I'm trying to grow."

Kurt shook his head a little, not commenting on this. "Well, we've looked at just about every single camera that's in our price range. Wouldn't it be easier to just ask Brittany which one she wants?"

Santana considered and then shrugged, a bit sheepish. "I want it to be a surprise. Her last birthday was right before Nationals and graduation, and everyone was so busy... I feel like it kind of got overlooked. I want to do it right this time."

He sighed. "Then we'll just have to use our best judgment."

He leaned against the pillows next to her, and they continued looking for a few minutes. "I really like this one," Santana suggested. "It shoots in HD, it's got all these optional lenses, and look... it's got CinemaTone."

"What's that?" Kurt asked.

"I don't know. But it sounds fancy, right?"

"$1800, though," he said. "Are you sure about this?"

"I know, I know." She sat up. "But I'm gonna pay for most of it. If you guys could kick in a few hundred, that's all I'm asking. I'm also taking donations from all former and current members of New Directions. So that should help make up the difference."

He gave her a suspicious look. "Santana, it's not a donation if you scare them into it."

"Whatever." She rolled her eyes. "Everybody loves Brittany. If it takes a little blackmail or long-distance intimidation to remind them of that, then it's the least I can do."

"Well, then..." he pulled himself up and stood beside the bed, stretching a little. "If we're done here, then it seems I have time to do some real shopping before my appointment. I want to get her something that's just from me." Looking excited, he told her in a confidential voice, "I saw this obscenely chic little cocktail dress from the twenties at a vintage boutique the other day. Very Zelda Fitzgerald. Hopefully it's still there."

"Okay, the sixties are one thing, but the twenties?" She looked skeptical. "I may have to draw the line. What if it smells funny? And you know what, people could have died in those dresses, Kurt."

"I don't care if people were buried in them... they look amazing on Brittany, that's all that matters."

"She's not your personal Barbie."

"I know that," he said defensively, pulling on a sweater. "Besides, she doesn't wear anything she doesn't want to. She's incredibly stubborn. Last week she passed up a beautiful antique jade brooch in favor of a pair of cheap turquoise earrings in the shape of turtles. Turtles," he repeated.

She smirked at him. "Yeah, I saw the turtles, and they look adorable on her, so your argument is invalid. As usual."

Refusing to continue the debate, he turned to go, but then remembered. "Oh, I almost forgot. Here's my credit card."

She reached out and took it from him. "Are you sure it's okay if I do this? I'd use my own, but my dad closed all my accounts when I said no to Bryn Mawr."

"Just as long as you swear you'll pay it off. Technically it was supposed to be for emergencies. I'm not sure Brittany's birthday qualifies."

"Yeah, of course," she promised. "I may be a bitch, but I'm a trustworthy one."

Looking amused, he finally left. She settled back against his bed to continue perusing the website. Even though she'd basically settled on what she wanted, it was hard to make that final decision when there was so much money at stake. She let the cursor hover over the purchase button, still not entirely sure. Should she go out to some real stores, look around in person? While she was trying to decide, she heard the front door open. Thinking it might be Brittany back early from doing laundry, she closed the lid of the laptop and laid it aside before she went to check.

But it was just Rachel. She was carrying two full baskets of clothes and had what appeared to be the day's mail clamped between her teeth. Santana took the top basket from her and set it down on the floor of the hallway. Rachel put the other basket down beside it and took the mail from her mouth, but instead of saying thanks, she brushed past Santana into the living room.

Santana followed, saying, "I think we found the right camera. It's kinda pricey, but she'll be able to use it for years. If you want, I'll just take the money out of your commission, since I guess you're sort of like my manager now." Then she muttered to herself, "God, I hate saying that."

Rachel was sorting through the mail, her back to Santana, and her only reply to this was a brief rounded "okay" sign with her fingers.

Giving her a strange look, Santana went on. "Oh, and while we were online, we took a little mosey over to Finn's Facebook page. Interesting pictures he's got up."

Now Rachel froze, listening. There was something brittle about her posture as she waited to hear the explanation.

"Finn has man jugs," the parrot contributed.

Accustomed to ignoring Monty by now, Santana went on. "Seriously, doesn't he have any friends his own age down there? Because it looks like he's been hanging out with the custodial staff. I mean, I can understand how they may have gotten close, considering the school probably budgeted for a janitor whose sole job is to follow him around with a bucket, mopping up the sweat puddles so the other students don't slip in them. But still... after Mr. Schue, I'm starting to think he has a problem with inappropriately-aged friends."

Relieved, but somehow sad as well, Rachel slowly finished sorting through the envelopes, separating the bills from the junk mail.

Staring at her, Santana waited for a reply. But there was nothing. "Why are you being so quiet?

The only response was a shrug, but Rachel didn't turn around.

"You're not getting laryngitis, are you?" Santana sounded worried. "Because if you are, your ass is gonna have to be quarantined. I mean it, Rachel, I am not getting sick when I've got that big Jewish wedding coming up. I needs the dough. Brittany's birthday's about to wipe out my bank account." Nonchalantly, she added, "It won't kill you to live on the roof for a few days, it's not that cold at night anymore."

Apparently to get across the notion that she wasn't sick, Rachel turned and clutched her throat for a second, then made a violent, irritated thumbs-up gesture before heading into the kitchen.

But Santana followed her, now too intrigued to resist. "So, what then... are you taking one of those mime classes again? Do I need to remind you that you got kicked out of the last one for being too loud?"

There was no response. She might as well have been talking to herself. Rachel ignored her, opening the refrigerator.

"Okay, fine," she said in a casual voice. "Don't talk to me. You know what, I was just gonna chill and watch a Barbra movie, but I guess you wouldn't be interested." She pretended to consider the options. "What about Beaches... that's one of her good ones, right?"

It was the breaking point. Rachel turned around, outrage in her features. She started to say something, pressed her lips together, and then grabbed a notepad from the kitchen table. Uncapping a pen, she furiously scrawled, "That's not Barbra, that's Bette Midler, and you know it!" The last three words were underlined for added emphasis.

"All right, what the hell is going on with you?" Santana demanded. "Why aren't you saying anything?"

Rachel considered, but then pulled the notepad to her again. "I'm not allowed to talk to you. Ask Brittany." Again she underlined the last part. Then she handed Santana the notepad with injured dignity and stalked out of the room.

Turning the pad around, Santana read the words with a confused expression. She tried to make sense out of them, but couldn't. It was like a riddle with a key ingredient missing. And since obviously no one here was going to be much help, and she was too curious to wait, she took out her phone.

"Hey," she said when Brittany answered.

"Hey, what's up?"

She leaned against the kitchen counter, trying to think of how to begin without sounding too abrupt. "Um... is there anything I should know about?"

"Oh." Brittany's tone was careful. "Did you see Rachel?"

"Yeah. Emphasis on saw. It was like one of those annoying silent movies with old-timey piano music where everything's in fast motion."

"Well, then," Brittany said, "I guess now is the time to say... Happy Birthday!"

Instead of understanding what was going on, now Santana was even more mystified. "What? Britt, you're the one with the birthday coming up. Mine's in November. You sent me that entire case of Breadstix, remember?"

"Yeah, I know. But I thought I should get you another present now, because you know how on Alice in Wonderland they celebrate people's un-birthdays, which is, like, every day of the year that's not your birthday? I was just thinking, we haven't celebrated your un-birthday in so long. And since I have my real birthday coming up, we should just, you know, combine the two and celebrate both at the same time."

"Oh." She considered this. "I thought maybe it was because we weren't together for my birthday this year."

Brittany was quiet for a minute. "Yeah, that would have made much more sense."

"Okay, I think I get it." Now she had an explanation, which seemed reasonable enough, by Brittany's usual standards. There was still one mystery left, though. "So, my un-birthday present is... what, exactly?"

"A nice long break from the sound of Rachel Berry's voice," she told her, like it should be obvious by now. "Duh."

"Oh." Santana thought about this, still puzzled. "And how long is this break?"

"I don't know, it's flexible. But I think I could get us up to five years, maximum."

Santana laughed a little. "Brittany. I'm not really sure what to say."

"You don't like your present?" she asked softly.

"No," she protested. "It's not that. I'm guess I'm just a little concerned about how it's gonna work." On the other end of the line, there was a glum silence, and she immediately felt bad. "But we'll figure it out," she hastily added. "And you know, with finals coming up next week, this is actually really good timing. I could use the peace and quiet."

"Yeah," Brittany said, her voice brightening. "That's totally what I was thinking. That it would help you out with finals."

There was the sound of crockery clattering in the background, and Brittany muttered thank you to someone. "Santana?" she said. "I've got to go, my food just got here."

"Oh, right, I forgot you were meeting Allison. Okay, well... I love you. And thank you for my present."

"Love you too," Brittany said. "I'll tell Allison you said hi. Even though you didn't."

She smiled. "See you at home."

"Bye."

In a trendy coffee shop in Harlem, Brittany hung up and put her phone down beside her plate of pie. Looking a bit guilty, she stared across the table at the girl looking back at her.

"Who's Allison?" Millie asked.

"She's a friend. But nobody really likes her because she's super snobby." The thought just occurring to her, Brittany said, "I should introduce you two, I think there's like a thirty percent chance she might be gay."

"Cool," Millie said. Then she glanced down at Brittany's phone, raising her eyebrows. "So... she's freakin' out, isn't she?"

"No." Her answer was hesitant, guarded. "Not really. She was just curious about what was going on, so I told her."

"You just wait," Millie said, pointing her fork at her, before she took a bite from her pastry. "She won't be able to stand it. It'll drive her crazy. Like bein' cut off from a drug."

Brittany stared into her cappucino, none too thrilled about this possibility. "We'll see, I guess." She looked back up, asking, "Do you think it's a dumb idea? My, you know, plan to fight for her?"

"No, not at all," Millie gushed, putting one hand on her heart. "I only wish I could have thought of somethin' just as brilliant when I had my chance. I'm sure there's no way at all this could backfire and make them even closer."

Brittany waited a second before answering. "Good," she said, now looking even more worried.

They ate in silence for a minute. But obviously there was something on Brittany's mind. "Millie, can I ask you a question?"

"Of course you can, hon."

She wiped her mouth with a napkin and laid her fork aside, as if to prepare herself. "When you and Santana were, you know..."

Millie waited, then suggested, "Fucking?"

"Oh." Brittany raised her eyebrows a bit at this terminology. "Okay. Um, yeah. When you were doing that, did she ever... talk about me?"

Biting the inside of her lip, Millie considered the question. Sounding apologetic, she finally said, "No, not that I can remember."

"Oh," Brittany said again, in a small voice. "I was just curious."

"Wait a second," Millie said, narrowing her eyes in thought. "She did tell me one time about her first girlfriend. Made it sound sorta like a puppy-love thing, you know? Nothin' serious. It was another cheerleader." She paused and gave Brittany a sharp glance. "Would that have been you, by any chance?"

For a long time Brittany stared at the table, absorbing these words. "Yeah. I guess that was me."

Now Millie gave her a nod of commiseration. "When I heard she needed me to fill in at work because her girlfriend was comin' into town, I figured it mighta been. Was it sort of an on-again, off-again thing?"

"I guess you could say that." Her voice was dull, numbed by disappointment.

Setting down her coffee cup, Millie asked, "So, I gotta ask, you noticed anything suspicious lately? Between her and the Broadway freak?"

Brittany shrugged, non-committal. "Just little things, I guess. Like, is it normal to wash your friend's underwear for them? Maybe in New York it is. I don't know. I do know that I hurt Rachel's feelings really bad, and now she thinks I never liked her. Which is sort of true, but sort of not. I mean, yeah, she's annoying, but she's still my friend." She closed her eyes for a second, frustrated. "I hate this, I just hate this whole thing. I wish I'd never tried to get them all to live together."

Off of Millie's questioning look, she clarified, "Yeah, it was my idea. Genius, right? It's like that Alanis Morrissette song."

Pondering this, Millie guessed, "Isn't it Ironic?"

Brittany pursed her lips, thoughtful. "No, but that one works even better. Yeah, because it's like, I've got ten thousand spoons and all I need is a knife. A knife to stab Rachel with," she added. But then she looked disappointed in herself. "You see? I never used to think things like that. I don't like this version of me." She waited a second, and then asked, as though she were afraid to hear the answer, "Millie, are you sure that something happened between them?"

"As sure as I've ever been about anything," she said with conviction.

"But how do you know?" Brittany persisted. "Did you see something?"

Before she could answer, somebody loomed up at the side of their table. It was a woman, dressed in eccentric layers of what looked like other people's cast-off clothing, including mismatched men's boots, a purple-flowered Hawaiian shirt, and a safari hat. It also appeared as though she hadn't showered in weeks, maybe months.

"Any spare change?" she demanded.

"Get lost," Millie muttered, moving to the far side of the booth.

"Hi," Brittany said. "I like your shirt. Um, I don't have any cash with me, but I've got a bank card. Do you take Visa?"

The woman squinted at her, suspicious.

"You can have my pie crust if you want," she added. "And there's some Tic Tacs in my purse, but they might have lint, because they fell out of the box. They're still good, though."

Unable to make sense of this unusual offer, the woman finally said, "Go fuck yourself."

Brittany raised her eyebrows a little in surprise, but otherwise didn't respond. Finally, a manager realized what was going on and came to their rescue. "You! Outta here! What'd I tell ya, huh? How many times we gotta go through this?" he asked, pulling the woman toward the door. "Out!"

Brittany slowly turned her attention back to Millie, resigned. "New Yorkers really like to say that, don't they?"

Millie gave her a sympathetic wince. "Yeah, they really do." She watched Brittany for a few more seconds, seeming genuinely concerned. "You're homesick, huh?"

Brittany nodded a glum confirmation. "Everyone keeps telling me it'll get better. But it just keeps getting worse. And all this confusing stuff with Santana isn't helping." She sighed. "I wish Pete was still alive."

Millie seemed to halfway recognize this name, but it took her a few seconds to remember why it was familiar. "Wait, was he that old guy in the chair? He was crazier than a shithouse rat."

"He was my friend," Brittany said defensively. She seemed to be making an effort to put into words thoughts that she'd never spoken before. "And ever since he died, it's just like... I don't know. I feel more alone than I did before. The city feels bigger, somehow. I know that doesn't make any sense. But I try not to let Santana notice, because I know it scares her when I'm not happy. And why should we both be scared at the same time?"

In a detached tone that tried and failed to mask bitterness, Millie suggested, "Maybe she deserves to be scared."

At this, Brittany gave her a keen look, a bit disturbed. But then she said, with an air of relinquishment, "Let's not talk about this anymore. It's depressing." She pushed her plate away and folded her arms on the table. "Tell me something about you."

Millie's surprise appeared to be honest. "About me?"

"Yeah. Like, where you're from, and what your life was like before you came here. Are you related to Honey Boo Boo's family? Because that would be awesome."

"Um, no." She seemed to restrain herself from saying more. "Not that I'm aware of. Actually, I'm from Tennessee. My daddy's a Baptist preacher. He's one of those fire and brimstone types, you know? I mean, not to me," she hastened to add. "He loves me. It's just..." she trailed off, staring at her chewed fingernails. Suddenly she closed her eyes, looking ill.

"Are you okay?" Brittany peered at her, concerned. "You don't look so great. I think you're even skinnier than when I saw you last week. You want my pie crust?"

"I'm fine," she said softly and not very convincingly. "It's almost time for my vitamins, is all." Before she could be asked for details about what exactly these vitamins were, she looked around, as if checking for eavesdroppers, and then leaned across the table a bit, saying just above a whisper, "Okay, truth be told, all that stuff I just said about where I'm from? It's a lie. You wanna know a big secret?"

Brittany's interest was immediately caught. "Totally. I love secrets."

"But you gotta swear you won't tell anyone else, ever."

"I swear."

Lowering her voice even more, Millie said, "This accent? It's fake. I'm not even from the South. I'm from..." she let the tension build up. "North Korea."

Puzzled by this unexpected announcement, Brittany said, "Seriously?"

Millie nodded, silent and grave. "I'm a spy. And that's not all. Guess where I grew up? On a dragon ranch."

"A dragon ranch?"

"I know, right?" Millie whispered. "I'm not supposed to talk about it with anyone, because it's a big ol' government secret. They train these dragons, way up in the mountains, and my whole family was in charge of teachin' 'em to fly. And the family who lived next door to us? Their job was teachin' 'em to talk." Warming up to her story, Millie continued, clearly enjoying herself. "And I'm tellin' you, these dragons? They are just about the most adorable damn things you've ever seen. They come in all different colors, including rainbow and glitter. Now obviously, they can be used for super secret war stuff, like torchin' buildings and whatnot. But you know what the best thing is? They poop marshmallows."

"You're kidding me. Marshmallows?" Brittany repeated.

Millie nodded, her eyes big. "That's how they fund the training program. All the young'uns go out and gather up the marshmallows in little baskets, and then they sell 'em to people back here in the States. I bet you didn't even know the last time you had a Moon Pie, you were eatin' dragon poop all the way from North Korea, did you? But now you know the truth."

Brittany stared at her, her expression unreadable. "Wow."

"I know, it's pretty amazing, right?" She sat back, pleased with herself.

Running her finger around the rim of her nearly-empty coffee mug, Brittany seemed to be contemplating her next words with care. Finally, in a slow, thoughtful voice, she spoke. "Actually, what I was thinking was more like..." She looked up, meeting Millie's eyes. "How stupid do you think I am?"

She blinked in surprise. "I'm sorry?"

"Yeah, cuz... that was probably the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard in my life. And I've heard a lot of ridiculous things. I was the one saying most of them," she added in an aside. "And if we're judging crazy levels the same way we judge tornadoes, for instance, then I'm thinking that was like an F5 of crazy."

"What do you mean?" Millie attempted to look hurt. "You don't believe me?"

"Okay, well, let's start with the beginning of your story. First of all, you're definitely not from North Korea, because one, you have red hair. And two, North Korea is a secretive Communist dictatorship run by an authoritarian family, and no one is allowed in or out."

Startled, Millie only stared at her. "How do you even know that?"

"Let's just say that I have a year and a half of high school political experience under my belt, and I thought it would be wise to familiarize myself with my fellow world leaders. And I guess it's a good thing I did, because I'm confident Kim Jong-un would agree with me that your lies are colorful but creepy, and also that you would make a terrible spy."

Millie started to speak, but Brittany kept going, not giving her a chance.

"Not to mention, I'm pretty sure that dragons have been extinct at least since the Middle Ages. And if they ever did exist, they couldn't talk, because hello, can you imagine what breathing fire does to your vocal cords? Also, glitter isn't a color. And as for the thing about the marshmallow poops," she went on, "Well... that's just embarrassing. I'm embarrassed for you." She gave her a searching look. "Did you really think I would fall for that? I mean, yes, it's true, I may have a whimsical outlook on the world at times, because reality can be super depressing. But... I'm not four years old. And it really pisses me off when people treat me like I am."

"Of course you're not," Millie said in a patronizing way. "I would never think that."

But Brittany didn't seem to be listening. As if she was talking to herself, she said, "Maybe Santana was right. Maybe I do trust people too easily."

Reaching across the table, Millie put her hand on top of Brittany's. "Don't you believe that for a second. That's just her tryin' to make you doubt yourself."

Brittany stared down at their hands, growing increasingly unnerved. She pulled her own hand back toward her. "I don't think she would ever do that. And the thing is, now... I'm kind of wondering if I can believe any of the stuff you've told me."

Worried by this unexpected turn of events, Millie hastily protested, "Okay, look, maybe I exaggerated a wee little bit about the dragon stuff. Where I come from we call it yarn spinnin', isn't that quaint?" When Brittany didn't seem to find it quaint, she went on. "I thought you would enjoy it. But I didn't make up anything else. Everything I said about that coldhearted bitch is true."

Though she waited a few seconds before responding, it was evident that Brittany's mind was already made up. "I'm sorry," she told Millie. "But... I don't think you're a very nice person, and I don't think I can hang out with you anymore." She stood up, grabbed her bag, and without another word headed toward the exit.

She made it through the door, the bell jingling behind her. But on the sidewalk just outside the coffee shop, Millie caught up with her, jumping in front to block her path. "Wait," she pleaded. "Wait. Just hear me out, okay?"

With reluctance, Brittany stopped, listening.

"So, yeah, maybe I am kind of a bitch. I won't deny that. But you know what, cupcake, sometimes it takes someone outside a relationship to see it clearly, because the people in it are like two water snakes coiled around each other so tight they can't tell where one ends and the other one starts."

Though she didn't quite seem to comprehend this unusual metaphor, Brittany didn't comment.

"And I'll tell you what I see," Millie continued. "I see two puzzle pieces that ain't ever gonna fit together, and I see a gal who's gonna get her heart broke, just like I did. Deep down, you know it's true." She stared at her so intently that Brittany shifted her weight, uncomfortable. But she refused to make eye contact.

"Ask yourself this," Millie said, lowering her voice and stepping even closer. "Do you really think it's gonna last? All that quirky stuff about you she thinks is adorable right now... in twenty years, do you think she'll still find it so cute?" Her expression turned pitying. "Will anybody?"

Though she flinched a bit, and though Millie's satisfied smirk proved she knew she'd scored a direct hit, Brittany kept her tone calm and even. "You don't know anything about Santana. I thought you did, but you don't."

"Maybe not." She shrugged. "But then again, maybe you don't, either." She waited, but when there was no reply, she turned up her palms in a gesture of giving up. "Okay, fine. I can see there's no gettin' through to you, ladybug. What do I care, it's your heartache. Just keep your eyes open, that's all I'm sayin'. If there's somethin' funny going on between them, if the signs are there? You'll see 'em. And if you're smart, you'll leave 'em to it and never look back."

"Millie?" Brittany now looked straight at her, her patience wearing thin. "Please get out of my way, before I have to make you move."

Finally, Millie stepped aside, her face a strange mixture of triumph and sadness.

Leaving her behind, Brittany walked away, fast at first, head held high. But then, when she'd turned the corner, she let her pace slow, pulling her jacket closer around her body. Her eyes were glittering with either anger or unshed tears, or maybe a combination of both. As she headed back toward the subway stop, she ignored the people passing by her and instead stared down at the cracks in the sidewalk under her feet, contemplating them as though if she studied them hard enough, if she could somehow break their code, they would help her make sense of everything that had happened in these last few confusing weeks and months since arriving in New York.


Santana stared at the textbook propped open in front of her on the kitchen table, trying for the third or fourth time to focus on a paragraph about the structural differences between RNA and DNA molecules, and how they affected genetic traits. Had they even covered this in class? She couldn't remember a bit of it. Was that the day Brittany had come with her? Thinking about that distracting experiment, remembering the feel of a hand sliding secretively up her inner thigh, and then what had followed it in the supply closet, made her feel flushed. She looked across from her, where Brittany had a laptop open and was sucking on her lower lip in concentration as she watched something on the screen. Part of her wanted to try to recreate the fun, maybe reach out with a bare foot underneath the table and let her toes creep up Brittany's leg, but at the same time, she didn't want to disturb her while she was working on her film school application reel.

It probably wasn't the best time anyway, since there was another distraction present, in the form of Rachel and her cell phone, out on the fire escape balcony, having an obnoxiously loud conversation with... someone.

So Santana did the mature thing and went back to her biology text. But the over the top laughter drifting in through the window kept breaking her concentration. Was it her imagination, or did it just keep getting louder? She stared out at Rachel's back, irritated.

"Who the hell do you think she's talking to, anyway?" she asked Brittany. "Must be very entertaining, whoever it is."

Brittany looked up at her, waiting just a beat before replying. "I don't know."

They both attempted to go back to their respective tasks, but now Brittany seemed distracted too. It had been almost a week since she'd struck her deal in the laundromat with Rachel. That had been a Sunday, and today was Friday. For almost five whole days, the arrangement of silence had been in place. And so far, it seemed to be working out okay. To everyone's surprise, Rachel had stuck to the agreement with almost obsessive vigilance. It was as though she'd become a ghost; or rather, as though they had become ghosts, like they'd been erased from her world. She seemed to make every effort to look through them rather than at them when they were in the same room. Even when Santana most expected her to cave, she didn't.

For instance, summoning up willpower from who knows what inner reserves, she'd managed not to correct Brittany when she'd described Godspell as a musical about a spelling bee "where God loses, because everybody knows Satan is a better speller." Crammed together in front of the bathroom mirror in the mornings, she suffered through the twin assaults of Santana's spritzed perfume on one side and Kurt's hairspray on the other with no comment (other than melodramatic choking sounds.) She didn't even speak up when Kurt's new boyfriend Eli inquired (after hearing the parrot insult him) who Finn was, and was informed by Santana that he was a mythical creature with a burrito where his heart should be.

When it was absolutely necessary to convey some kind of message or question to them, she did it through Kurt, like on the morning after the deal had been struck, when she'd said to him in a deliberately haughty voice, "Kurt, could you please ask Santana and Brittany if they have any idea where my non-dairy whipped cream is?"

Wryly, he'd turned toward them, since they were all in the living room. "Rachel would like to know if you stole her whipped cream."

They'd exchanged guilty glances. "I didn't know it was hers," Brittany said, with what may or may not have been sincerity. "But that would explain why it made Santana's boobs taste like chalk dust."

Rachel and Kurt both continued to stare at them.

"We'll replace it," Santana said, growing uncomfortable.

Kurt turned back to Rachel. "They said they'll replace it."

Rachel had held her pose of horrified dismay for a few more seconds, then shook her head at their horridness and flounced out of the room.

But that had been when things were still new and unfamiliar, and by now they'd worked out the kinks in the arrangement so that it was running fairly smoothly. In general, Rachel seemed to be trying to avoid them as much as possible, and the result was that the apartment had been eerily quiet. There were no loud arguments about whose turn it was to take out the trash, no impromptu group singing, no chaotic dinners crowded around the tiny kitchen table. The solemnity was a little like it had been after Pete died, only now, instead of seeking out each other's company for comfort, they all avoided each other.

Despite the somber atmosphere around the place, though, Santana had found that thanks to Brittany's strange gift of peace and quiet, she actually had gotten a ton of studying done. She felt even more prepared for finals than last semester, and she had no doubt that even if this was her last attempt at normal college courses, she would at least go out with a good record. So she'd given up trying to make sense of Brittany's motives in imposing this unusual silence.

But even with the obvious benefit to her academic life, she was aware that underneath the apartment's quiet lurked a tension that was building by slow degrees. She became more aware of it with each day that passed, and she knew for damn sure that she wasn't the only one who noticed it. This whole thing wasn't going to end in harmonious reunion between the four of them, with hugs and raised toasts. That much was apparent. There was more than likely some kind of explosion coming; she could feel its approach in the tension that weighted down the hushed rooms. She was dreading it, but in a weird way she was also subconsciously anticipating it, like a thunderstorm that would finally clear the oppressive pressure in the air.

When it came to Brittany, it didn't seem that her plan was giving her the peace of mind she'd hoped it would. There was an initial sense of relief; she seemed to breathe easier knowing that she didn't have to be on her guard at all times. But that hadn't lasted long. Soon, the slowly building tension between the four of them was too much for her to ignore, even though ignoring it appeared to be exactly what she was determined to do. Especially with Santana, she made every effort to behave as if things were just the way they should be, at long last. As if things in New York had finally been restored to the way she'd hoped to find them to begin with.

Every once in a while, though, a brief flash of impatience could be seen in her features. Like now, when Santana looked up from her textbook again to remark, "I mean, since when does she laugh that much on the phone? I know it can't be Finn," she said in a deliberately loud voice, "because FINN ISN'T FUNNY."

In response to this, but without interrupting her conversation, Rachel turned around and firmly closed the window to the fire escape. Santana narrowed her eyes in resentment, leaning back in her chair and crossing her arms as she stared out at her.

Brittany went back to her editing program, drawing in her breath and then letting it out slowly.

Santana continued to stare outside in contemplation, not bothering to go back to her book this time. After a few seconds she suggested, "Maybe it's Mercedes. She's funny. Not as funny as me, but..."

"Hey," Brittany said suddenly, snapping her laptop closed. "Why don't we go in the living room?"

"Okay," Santana agreed, but not without casting one more suspicious glare out the window before she left the kitchen.

Kurt was in the arm chair, working on what looked like his musical script while trying at the same time to pay attention to the TV. He glanced up when they came in, not very welcomingly. In solidarity with Rachel, perhaps, he hadn't been speaking to them much this week either.

"I'm watching Toddlers and Tiaras," he told them in a warning voice. "I'd prefer not to be disturbed."

"Yeah, because that doesn't sound creepy at all," Santana said.

Brittany continued toward the couch. "We're just gonna sit in here, we won't bother you," she promised.

Santana started to lower herself onto the opposite end of the sofa, but Brittany grabbed her arm, a spark of meaning in her eyes. With a slight smile, she pulled her over toward the other end and tugged her down, turning sideways and backing herself up against the arm rest. Getting the idea, Santana situated herself in between Brittany's legs and leaned back against her, extending her legs out in front of her down the length of the couch.

Kurt's gaze flicked over to their seating positions. "Really?"

"Just shut up and watch your pageant," Santana told him.

Brittany reached around Santana's body and positioned the laptop so that they could both see it. Resting her chin on Santana's shoulder, she whispered, "You want to see some of the stuff I shot this week?"

"Of course," she said. So far, Brittany hadn't shared much of what she'd been filming. It was almost like she was uncertain about whether it was even worth sharing or not.

Hesitantly, she now scrolled through some of it for Santana, describing a few selected clips. "This is that old lady who told me about the laser rats. She also said that last week, while she was sleeping? Someone stole both her kidneys for an underground transplant ring." The screen showed an older Korean woman sitting on a park bench, her wild, unruly hair framing a bright, haunting, oddly compelling gaze. "And oh, look at this," Brittany continued, clicking to another segment. "This was the day they closed the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center. I thought it would be all depressing, but then, look... they added all these cute little tables and made it a restaurant for spring and summer." The footage jumped in a sudden yet evocative way from an image of the sad, abandoned slush to a lone man fixing a floral umbrella canopy to a café table, then standing back to appraise his work.

She went through more clips, some of them from familiar locations, places the two of them had been together, and some of them featuring people and places Brittany had discovered all on her own. Santana stared at the laptop in growing wonder. It wasn't quite what she'd been expecting - though she didn't know what, in particular, she had been expecting. But it was mesmerizing to watch, and she didn't think that this was solely because she was head over heels in love with the person who'd filmed it. She couldn't take her eyes from the screen. The footage managed to capture something of an insider's and an outsider's perspective of the city at the same time, and every minute of it was suffused with Brittany's unique, unconventional point of view.

"Britt, this stuff is amazing," she said in a tone of awed wonder. She wanted to add that it would look even more visually stunning when she had a better camera, which she would be getting on her birthday next week, but she stopped herself. "Those film school snobs are gonna be blown away," she added.

"I don't know about that," she said. There was a hint of doubt in her tone. "Do you really think it's ready?"

"Are you nervous about that thing tomorrow?" Santana asked, referring to the campus tour Brittany had scheduled at Tisch for the next morning. "Because it's not a big deal, you know. It's not like an official interview or anything. It's just a chance to look around and chat with the professors."

"I know," Brittany said, but she didn't sound convinced. "But will you promise me something? If I start to say anything too stupid, or too weird, or too, you know... me. Could you pinch me or give me some kind of signal? Or maybe we could have a secret word, like... nipples. And when you say it, I'll know to shut up."

"Brittany." She put her hand over the Brittany's wrist where it rested against her stomach. Why did this request make her heart hurt? "You're not gonna need any help, because they're gonna love you." She paused. "But if it really makes you feel less anxious, I'll do it. Even though there's no doubt in my mind that your talent will make them willing to sell their own organs to get you into that school."

Behind her, Brittany dropped a pleased yet somehow bashful kiss onto the top of her shoulder, murmuring a thanks so soft it was almost inaudible.

Over in his cage, the parrot noticed the gesture and imitated it with an exaggerated kissing sound. They laughed at him.

Still absorbed in his reality show, Kurt suddenly spoke up, almost as though he was talking to himself. "You know what, I don't care what anyone says about how twisted these things are. When I have kids, they're going to take the pageant world by storm. And you know why? Because they will have what none of these other trainwrecks have - a sophisticated knowledge of correct spray tan technique."

Santana was clearly in favor of ignoring him, but Brittany looked up from the laptop screen, intrigued. "So, you think you're definitely gonna have kids, Kurt? With Eli, or... you know, someone else?"

Surprised by the direction she'd gone with his offhand remark, he took a few seconds to consider. "Well... I suppose so. I mean, I haven't thought about it in a lot of detail, but... someday, I hope."

"Cool," she said, like this was what she'd been hoping to hear. "Because I was thinking the other day that we should do, like, an exchange program."

He gave her a confused look. "What do you mean?" Santana, as well, waited for an explanation. She leaned forward, taking her weight off of Brittany so that she could turn her body a bit and look back at her, a question in her features.

"Yeah," Brittany continued, enthusiastic, "because me and Santana are gonna have all these extra eggs, and you and your guy will have way too much of, you know... the other stuff." Her tone indicated the answer was simple and self-evident. "So, we should just switch. What do you think?"

Now it was Santana's turn to squint in puzzlement. "Hold up, by the other stuff are you talking about what I think you're talking about?"

"I'm talking about semen," Brittany confirmed.

Santana nodded, looking just a bit grossed out. "Yep, that's the other stuff."

"Well, think about it," Brittany said. "It would work out perfectly, because we can just do a straight-across trade. And then we can keep all the gay embryos, and get rid of the other ones, because I mean, come on, the gay ones will be much cooler people." She ticked off the list on her fingers. "They'll throw better parties, they won't resent us when they grow up for making them wear rainbow clothes, and let's face it, they'll probably be thinner and better looking."

"Brittany," Santana said, laughing. "That's horrible, you can't sort kids that way. Even I know that."

"Okay, okay," she relented with a smile. "If it means that much to you, we can keep the straight ones too." Another idea occurred to her. She lowered her voice, tactfully. "Or we could donate 'em to Finn and Rachel, because you know he's probably gonna be shooting blanks."

Santana laughed again, throwing her head back against the couch cushions in delight.

"Brittany," Kurt said in a delicate way. "It's a very considerate offer, and it's... definitely something to keep in mind for the future. The distant future. But I'm not sure if- "

Sobering up, Santana cut him off. "It's not happening. There's no way in hell I'm raising Kurt Hummel's baby."

"Why not?" Brittany asked, pouting.

"Because. It's too weird. What if it inherited those creepy watery eyes of his that always look like they're about to cry even when they're not? As a mother, I would find that disturbing. Besides," she went on with a shrug, uncomfortable. "I guess I always figured we would... I don't know, get that stuff from a stranger. That way he wouldn't always be poking his nose in, trying to be part of the kid's life or whatever."

"But that's the best part," Brittany said. "It'd be like one big family. One big, gay family." She didn't seem at all serious, though. "C'mon," she said, elbowing Santana. "You're telling me you wouldn't want to see how adorable a Hummel-Pierce baby would be?"

Santana put her head in her hands, groaning in amusement, "Oh my God, that's horrifying. Why would you even say that?"

Unable to hide how much she was enjoying this, Brittany suggested, "What about a Hummel-Lopez baby?"

"Stop it," Santana pleaded, still laughing. Then a silence fell, and she finally glanced up at Brittany again to find that she was biting her lip and giving her a knowing look, eyebrows raised as if to make some kind of point. "What?"

"Nothing." She shrugged, coy and secretive.

"What?" Santana repeated, giving her leg a playful nudge.

Barely able to suppress her grin, Brittany said in a low, teasing voice. "You were talking about babies."

Realizing that this was true, Santana felt her face heat up a bit. "I was not."

"Yes, you were," Brittany nodded, still smiling, not letting her off the hook. "You totally were, Kurt heard it too. You can't deny it. Santana Lopez was talking about baaaybies."

"You tricked me!" Santana protested.

"Santana wants so many babies," she said, still in that teasing voice. "She wants the gay ones, and the straight ones. She wants all the babies."

Santana shoved her, still laughing, still embarrassed, but at the same time feeling a sense of giddy uplift, because Brittany just looked so happy right now, and it was so long since they'd been silly like this, and the implications of what they'd just been joking about were so dizzying she couldn't even wrap her mind around them. Brittany pushed her back, then reached out to grasp the ticklish part of her knee, the part that always made her squeal and go into defensive mode. They playfully tussled on the couch, emitting random yelps and shrieks. When Brittany had relented with the tickling she pulled Santana in for a kiss, which in turn got the bird worked up and jealous, flapping against the bars of his cage, squawking commercial jingles at them to make them look away from each other. But they didn't.

Kurt attempted to ignore all of this, turning the volume on the TV up with an air of weary patience. But it was just at that moment that Rachel came into the room. Instead of discreetly moving away, as Santana expected she would, Brittany only pulled her closer, pressing her lips to the curve where her neck met her shoulder. Rachel glanced at them, rolled her eyes, and then continued on her path toward Kurt.

"Kurt, I have the most incredible news." She gestured toward the TV. "Can you turn that down?"

Sighing, he obliged. "Can't a man just watch a toddler beauty pageant in peace?"

Rachel was too excited to listen to him. "I just found out from a top secret source that the rumors are true," she told him. "Joanna Gleason is definitely going to be on campus next semester. She's teaching a course on stage acting, with an optional evening seminar on the art of television guest-starring. Now, obviously, the upperclassmen will get first dibs, but since we found out so early, if we register now, I think we have a really good shot at getting in."

A quick oh no look flickered across his face, and his anxiety was like a chain reaction. Realizing where this was headed, Santana tensed up a bit and pulled away. Brittany stiffened too, staring at Rachel with resentment, which went unnoticed.

Now Kurt raised his eyebrows and tried to smile, managing a strained, "Really? Joanna Gleason? That's... great news."

"Yeah, I know," Rachel said, her hands still clasped together in excitement. "So... what are we waiting for, let's go and sign up online right now."

"Oh." He made an attempt at casualness. "You know what, that's okay, I'll just do mine later."

"Kurt, did you not hear a word I just said? We can't wait, those spots are gonna go fast. This is like the black market of course registration."

"Racist," Brittany muttered under her breath.

Not even turning her head, Rachel said to Kurt, "You know what, why don't I just register for both of us. It's no problem."

There was a brief flicker of panic in his eyes. "Um.. the thing is, you'll have to have my social security number for that."

But Rachel was undaunted. "That's okay, I memorized it years ago, in case of emergency. Along with everyone else's in glee club."

"What?" Santana demanded. "What the hell kind of emergency would that be?"

Barred from responding, Rachel ignored her. She stared at Kurt, waiting for his permission.

Now he seemed to be out of options. Miserable, he turned the TV all the way off and then slowly stood up, choosing his words with delicate tact. "Rachel, first off, let me just say that I'm so sorry. I really didn't want to do it this way. I wanted to take you out for a nice meal, maybe see a show, hopefully get you a little drunk..."

"Gross," Brittany commented.

Rachel was staring at him like he was crazy. "What are you talking about, do what this way? Are you breaking up with me?"

"The thing is..." He took a deep breath, closing his eyes for a second, and then took the plunge. "I'm not going back to NYADA next year."

"What?" The volume of her voice caused Monty to ruffle his feathers self-protectively. "Yes, you are."

Though Kurt was clearly regretting the timing of his admission, he remained firm. "No, I'm not. I've already made the decision. Rachel, you know I love performing, but I love being behind the scenes even more. When I'm working with fashion, or wardrobe... or doing something creative, that's where I'm at home. And deep down, you already know that's true. You know me better than anybody in the world." He glanced down at his laptop, then said in an attempt at placating her, "I'm almost finished with my musical about Pete's life. I wasn't going to say anything until I find out for sure, but there's a chance I may even be able to get it produced. The theater in question has been condemned due to asbestos and lead paint and the fact that it may be haunted, but... we can cross that bridge when we come to it." He tried to make eye contact, but she resisted him. "And you have to play Greta, it could be a career-defining role," he coaxed her. "Just think how much it'll benefit you to have a friend on the production side."

But she wasn't going to be swayed by flattery or enticements, not this time. "Kurt, I don't understand. We worked so hard for this." She stepped closer to him and made an attempt to lower her voice, even though privacy was not even a remote option with Brittany and Santana only a few feet away on the couch. "You promised me you wouldn't decide anything for sure until we'd had a chance to talk about it."

"I know. I know I did," he repeated. "And I'm sorry. But I did talk about it with someone." He winced a little. "Just... not with you."

"Who?" she demanded.

In response, he glanced toward Brittany, looking guilty. Rachel followed his line of sight.

"Oh," she said, livid. "Oh, of course, I should have known!" She stepped toward Brittany, saying, "You know what, I have tried to be the bigger person, I have tried to be your friend, but ever since you got here, it's just been one thing after another."

Brittany looked down at her lap, guiltily, but Santana's defensiveness flared up, and she stood, stepping in between them. "Whoa, excuse me? You'd best stop right there, Pippi, before you say something you'll really regret. Even if I have to make you regret it."

Rachel started to reply, but then turned back toward Kurt, as if it wasn't worth it. "How could you do this to me?"

"Rachel, please," he begged. "Stop being so overdramatic. It's not that big of a deal. I'll still be living here, we just won't be going to class together. But there's a good chance Santana will get admitted. So it isn't as if you'll be completely alone there."

"Oh, that's even better," she said with heavy sarcasm. "I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to sitting silently next to her on the train every day!"

"Would you please calm down?"

"I am calm!" she shouted. In a lower voice, she went on, looking around at all of them. "You know, it's funny, I was just thinking to myself last week how lucky I am to live with such amazing friends. But now... I'm not allowed to speak to two of them, and the other one is a sneaky, backstabbing traitor!" With an air of finality, she headed toward the front hallway, yanking a purse onto her shoulder as she continued to lecture them. "Well, luckily for me, it just so happens that you aren't the only people in this city I can hang out with." She blindly grabbed a jacket from the tiny coat closet, which happened to be Santana's, but nobody said anything.

"Rachel." Kurt took a few steps toward her, looking like he felt terrible. "Where are you going?"

"Out!" It was obvious how upset she was by the fact that she didn't elaborate on this with any unnecessary words. They heard the front door slam behind her, hard enough to rattle the pictures on the walls in the living room.

There was a brief silence, then Monty announced, "The Tony Award goes to Miss Rachel Berry."

They all turned toward the bird.

"I'm starting to wish we'd never taught him that," Brittany said softly.

"Well!" Santana said, looking at Kurt. "That little scene was both entertaining and awkward. I'm so glad Britts and I got to have cameo roles in it."

Suddenly his guilt turned to indignation. "Thanks a lot for the support, guys. I really appreciate it."

"Oh, don't you dare try to turn the tables, this has nothing to do with us. What did you want us to do, put on our Cheerios uniforms and stand behind you chanting Go Kurt?"

"I'm just saying a little backup would have been nice."

She gave him a withering look. "God, I hate it when you play the martyr, it is such a bad look on you. And for the record, I'm kind of on her side anyway. You shouldn't have waited so long to say something. And so now, what, if I do get admitted to the Institute of Queerer Learning, it's just gonna be me and her? I did not sign up for that."

"That's right, Santana, everything is about you!" he said. "Nobody else's problems matter. After all, I'm sure Rachel storming out with her feelings hurt has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that after six months of being her friend, you've suddenly forbidden her to speak to you."

She stepped toward him, pointing her finger confrontationally. "No, uh-uh, don't even try it, St. Hummel. You may have the rosy cheeks and the forever innocent voice of a castrated choirboy, but your guilt trip won't work on me. This whole thing started because of your little announcement. You're just trying to find someone else to blame for your shitty timing."

"Fine. That's just fine. Go ahead and lay the whole burden on me." He gazed down at her as if from lofty heights of moral superiority. "But I'm not the only one who should feel guilty here, and you know it. Both of you." He turned and swept out of the room, head held high. Somehow he managed to make the emphatic closing of his bedroom door sound like a judgment on both of them.

Shaking her head in disdain, Santana turned back toward Brittany, who had sat back down again. Throughout the entire heated exchange she'd been staring at the floor, uncomfortable.

Santana's expression softened as she looked at her. "Just ignore him, Britt."

Glancing up, Brittany couldn't seem to help suggesting, "Maybe he kind of has a point, though."

"Yeah, it's eighteen inches above his forehead, and it's made of hair gel."

This earned her only the tiniest of grudging smiles, then Brittany relapsed into guilt. "I kinda feel like this whole thing is my fault."

Santana sank down next to her on the couch again. "No, honey, this is just what they're like," she tried to convince her. "If they don't have any real drama, they'll manufacture some... it's like living in a bad play. Come on, you know that by now."

"I know, but it's just... it seems like I keep making everything worse." She gave Santana a careful look. "Don't you ever wish things would go back to the way they used to be, before I got here?"

"No." She sounded bewildered. "The way things used to be sucked." Because I spent every single minute missing you, she added in her head, but stopped herself from saying out loud.

"I guess. Sometimes I just feel like a fourth wheel or something."

Santana considered this. "Well, four wheels are good, right? I mean, you have to have four wheels. Otherwise the car won't go."

Brittany seemed puzzled. "Then... I don't think I'm using that expression right."

Lapsing into silence, Santana continued to watch her for a few more seconds, thoughtful. Deep down, the mature part of her knew that this would maybe be a good opportunity to press her, to get everything out in the open. She had the sense that she was finally starting to get closer to the root of the homesickness problem. But she liked the current feeling of solidarity they shared against Rachel and Kurt, and she didn't want to ruin it with any potential discord between the two of them. So once again she decided to wait. There would be a better time.

Abruptly, an idea occurred to her. "I've got it. I know just what we need." She took Brittany's hands in hers, continuing. "It's a perfect springtime Friday in the greatest city in the world, and I'll be damned if we're staying in this shoebox all night." She leaned in toward Brittany, saying enticingly, "What do you say we slut ourselves up, go to some clubs, and get our dance on? I just happen to have in my possession the credit card of one Mr. Kurt Hummel."

Now Brittany returned her devilish smirk, tempted, but with a twinge of conscience at this news. "Santana, why do you have that?" she chided her.

Since telling her the truth would ruin the birthday surprise, she only said mysteriously, "That's not important. What's important is that it's supposed to be used for emergencies, and I'm pulling rank and calling this an emergency. A clubbing emergency."

Amused, Brittany said, "I thought only the Lohans had those." But she was close to giving in, Santana could see it. She was staring down at their linked hands, debating with herself.

"Come on," Santana coaxed her, squeezing her fingers. "Don't let them ruin your mood, Britt. They're not worth it. We were having so much fun before."

"Okay," she finally agreed. "Let's go out. But when you say slutty, you mean, like, really slutty, right?" She bit her lip, hopeful.

Santana pulled her up from the sofa, then began walking backwards, luring her out of the room. "I'll let you dress me in whatever you want. Anything goes."

"Anything?" Brittany's interest was now fully caught.

Santana reconsidered. "Anything from this century."

With a mischievous look in her eyes, Brittany allowed herself to be tugged down the hall and into their bedroom.


It was past midnight when they got off the subway, back home in Brooklyn again. Or at least she thought it was past midnight. Santana made an effort to check her watch, which was really intended more for decoration than actual time-keeping, but taking her eyes off the sidewalk caused her to stumble a bit, knocking into Brittany. Brittany caught her and kept her from falling, but then giggled when they both nearly tripped off the edge of the curb. It was possible that they'd had just a little too much to drink.

Santana gave up on checking the time. It didn't matter, anyway. All that mattered was that they'd had an amazing evening, that they'd danced until they could barely stand up, and that she was walking down the sidewalk on a cool spring night with the only person in the world she wanted to be next to. It was almost as though, on the dance floor, they'd left behind some of the tension that had been creeping up on them for the last few weeks. Now they were exhausted, limp, sweaty, but with a strange sense of euphoria. Even though they were headed home, Santana was in no hurry for the night to end.

And Brittany didn't seem to be either. Instead of taking a cab, the way they usually would have at this hour on a Friday night, she'd asked if Santana would mind walking the remaining blocks back to their building. And even though they were having the occasional difficulty balancing and staying upright, thanks to impractical shoes and too much alcohol, she was glad she'd agreed. She glanced over at Brittany, for the fourth or fifth time since getting off the train, unable to help sneaking looks at her glowing profile.

"Did you have fun?" she asked.

"I had so much fun. How come we don't do this every weekend?"

"I don't know," Santana said after a second. That was a good question. "Maybe because we don't usually have Kurt's credit card?"

Brittany grinned, all her guilt left behind at least three drinks ago. In the philosophical tone of the tipsy, she said, "Hey, speaking of Kurt, you know that thing you said about his hair earlier? I totally think you're right, I think it's getting taller. Like, every day, it's a little bit taller. I'm starting to think he's storing stuff in there, like a camel."

Santana grabbed her again for balance, wrinkling her forehead as she pondered this. "You think he's got a camel in there?"

Glancing over at her with amused affection, Brittany said, "Aww." She stroked her arm. "I love it when I feel smarter than you."

Still confused, Santana let this pass. Teasingly, she suggested, "Okay, maybe the real reason we don't go clubbing every weekend is because I'd get too jealous. I'm pretty sure that woman with the mohawk wanted to take you home with her, Britt."

Brittany smiled in agreement, not arguing the point. "Yeah, I know. She kept telling me all this dirty stuff that she wanted to do to me? But... I'm not even sure what half of it meant." She paused, contemplative. "Is there, like, some kind of lesbian dictionary we can get? The kind with pictures?"

Santana threw back her head and laughed. "I'll look into it," she promised. They crossed another street, and a breeze gusted around the corner of a building, causing her to wrap her arms around herself. The motion didn't go unnoticed by Brittany.

"Are you cold?"

"It's a little chilly," she admitted. "I'm okay."

But Brittany took off her jacket, some kind of shiny green material, and wrapped it around Santana's shoulders.

"You don't have to do that," she protested.

"Yeah I do," Brittany said.

Something about the gesture, the way Brittany lifted her hair out of the way, pulling it free from the jacket, the way she gently adjusted it around her shoulders... it made her feel so taken care of, so cherished. A glow like embers flared up in her, spreading throughout her body. The warmth didn't come from the jacket, or the alcohol, that much was clear. It came from some primitive, feminine part of her that no one else in the world had ever reached.

Brittany wrapped her arm around her as they started walking again. Santana leaned into her. After a brief spell of silence, she sighed. "I missed that feeling so much when you weren't here."

"What feeling?" Brittany asked.

"Just... being your girlfriend." That wasn't quite what she wanted to say, but she couldn't think of how else to phrase it.

Brittany seemed to understand, though. She pulled her even closer. "I know what you mean."

They continued on down the moderately busy street, Santana keeping an eye out for any kind of trouble. She'd learned by now that if they maintained a quick pace, stayed in lighted areas, and didn't make eye contact with anyone, getting home from the subway on foot wasn't particularly scary. But it never hurt to stay vigilant. And some things you just had to learn to ignore, like the hooker lounging around the entrance to the liquor store they passed now, who must have either been having a slow night, or was simply not very picky when it came to customers. Because as they walked by her, she lazily seemed to size up their relationship to each other, calling out, "Want to make it three, girls?"

Santana kept her eyes forward, as if she hadn't heard a thing. But when they'd gotten a few paces away, Brittany glanced back over her shoulder, curious.

"Britt," Santana said, nudging her.

"I'm just looking," she muttered, reluctantly turning back around. Then she had another idea. "Hey, do you think she would let me interview her for my film?"

"No," Santana said firmly, pulling her along.

After another few blocks, Brittany slowed at an intersection, checking the street number. Santana started to cross, since the way was clear, but then noticed Brittany's unwillingness.

"What is it?"

With a look that was excited but secretive at the same time, she grasped both of Santana's hands and pulled her back onto the sidewalk again. "So, okay. There's a reason I wanted to walk home. I have a surprise for you."

"What?" She smiled a little, but nervously. "What kind of surprise?"

"I can't tell you. But... it's just a little ways down this street."

"This one?" She looked past Brittany, searchingly, taking in the block in question. It was hard to see much; half of the street lights seemed to be out, whether deliberately or just through neglect. From what she could make out, there were a few buildings with lights on, but also a good number of abandoned ones, boarded up and derelict. There weren't many people around that she could see, which could be taken as a good sign... or wait, was that a bad sign? She should know this by now. But the drinks she'd had at the club were still slowing down her thoughts, and the fact that she had Brittany's jacket wrapped around her, her scent enveloping her, wasn't helping either.

"Britt, I don't know about this," she said hesitantly. "I'm not really familiar with this neighborhood. This street looks a little sketchy to me."

The disappointment on Brittany's face was immediate, but she tried to hide it, to be mature. "Oh. I was here during the day, so... I didn't think about that."

"Can you show me tomorrow?" she offered. "When it's light out?"

She considered, but said, "Not really. It's kind of a night thing." She stared down at her feet, then shrugged. "It's okay, we don't have to stop. It's not that big of a deal."

But the very fact that she tried so hard to not let her disappointment show made Santana want even more to give in. And she couldn't deny the fact that her curiosity was killing her. She glanced down the street one more time, her doubt wavering, then made up her mind. "You know what, it should be fine," she said. "We'll just hurry."

"You sure?" Brittany studied her face, trying to tell if she really meant it.

"Yeah. Come on." She took her hand and started down the sidewalk, trying to project an aura of calm assurance.

As they continued along, however, that aura was more and more difficult to keep up. This place was not exactly where anyone would hope to find themselves in the middle of the night, especially if they didn't live here. Maybe not even if they lived here. In one of the buildings they passed, there came the sound of someone pounding on something, probably a door, and a woman's response of muffled, hysterical shouting in Spanish. Somewhere up ahead a car stereo was blasting rap, and even from here she could feel the reverberations of the bass in her chest. A pit bull lunged at them from behind a chain link fence, causing even Brittany to jump. Santana gripped her hand tighter, hoping they hadn't made a mistake. The street seemed even darker as they continued on toward a vacant lot, stepping over a used condom in the middle of the sidewalk.

"How much further?" she asked, trying to sound casual.

"We're here," Brittany said. "Close your eyes for a second."

She looked around, confused. "It's already dark."

"Come on," Brittany urged her, with a cute face that was impossible to resist. "I promise I won't let you fall."

Smiling a little, she gave in. "Okay." With her eyes shut, she felt even more strongly the remnants of the alcohol in her system, a slight sense of vertigo, like she was plunging into a tunnel. Luckily she still had Brittany's hand, or she actually might have fallen. Now Brittany took her entire arm and gently guided her forward a few steps. She walked in blindness, trusting that the path was clear. Then she felt herself being turned to the left, and instead of broken pavement under her shoes, she now sensed gravel and weeds. Were they in the vacant lot? Where the hell was Brittany taking her?

After a few more steps, valiantly resisting the urge to peek, she felt herself turned around, then Brittany was standing behind her, her arms wrapped comfortingly around her.

"Okay," she said. "Now."

A little nervous about what she might discover, Santana slowly opened her eyes. Then, leaning back against Brittany, she looked up and gasped.

It was the last thing she would have ever expected to find here. Seeming to float suspended in the air above her were bright, glowing, colorful cascades of rainbows and hearts and... butterflies? In all different shades of blue, green, yellow, pink, and purple, they blazed out into the dark night; a dazzling, almost hallucinatory display, like something from Fantasia. She traced the pattern inward, following with her eyes the flight of the butterflies and the paths of the rainbows to the centerpiece - one giant heart in the middle of all the rest with the ornate, calligraphy-style initials B and S linked together inside of it.

For a few seconds Santana couldn't figure out exactly what it was that she was seeing; it was like an optical illusion. How could such brightness and beauty be hanging over a dark alley in a run-down section of Sunset Park? Then her eyes adjusted a bit more, and she realized that what she was seeing was actually graffiti - or more accurately, graffiti done with what looked like expensive, glow-in-the-dark spray paint. It was so dark here that at first she hadn't even noticed the side of the building the display was painted on. But how the hell was it so high up? Three stories, at least.

"Britt," she breathed in wonder. "It's beautiful. I've never seen anything like this, anywhere in the city. Did you do this?"

"Not really," she said against Santana's hair, sounding pleased. "I mean, I bought the paint, but then I paid some guys who were hanging out on the street to do it, a few days ago. And when they were done they taught me this cool handshake and said that if anyone ever messed with me they'd have my back." She paused, musing on this. "I think I may have accidentally joined a gang. But it was worth it."

Santana laughed a little. "It was definitely worth it." She continued gazing at the building. "I can't believe you made them do butterflies."

"Yeah, they charged extra for that." She examined the side of the building, proud yet critical of the work. Sounding a bit embarrassed, she said, "But I just now realized that BS also stands for something else, doesn't it?"

"It doesn't matter," Santana assured her, putting her hands over the top of Brittany's arms where they rested against her middle. "We know what it really stands for."

Brittany nuzzled into her neck in appreciation.

"So... is this part of my un-birthday present too?" Santana asked, curious about what exactly had prompted such a big romantic gesture.

Brittany considered the question, but then said, "Nope. It's just... because."

In reply to this, Santana turned around so that she was facing her. She could just barely make out her features in the dim light, but the glow from the colors on the side of the building seemed to catch and highlight the blue of her eyes, refracting their light like ice crystals. They both leaned in to the kiss at the same time, drawn together like magnets. Santana let her eyes fall closed a second time, the warm, centering pressure of Brittany's lips on hers the only thing that kept her anchored against the dizziness. She could fall into this, let herself go and keep plummeting until there was nothing in the world but Brittany's mouth, her skin, her scent. But then with regret, she gently put her hands on Brittany's shoulders and opened her eyes, forcing herself to pull away before it could get out of their control. It wasn't the time or the place for a quickie, even a romantic one.

"Britt, this is so amazing," Santana whispered, sincere. "I can't believe anyone would do something like this for me. But we should probably get out of here now."

"I know," she agreed. "But I just want to get a few seconds of footage of it, for my reel. Do you mind?"

"Okay," she said. "But hurry."

Brittany pulled her camera out, which explained why she'd insisted on bringing a full-size purse to the club, even tipping the bartender to keep it safe and stashed away for her. Santana had assumed she was storing makeup or something, but she wasn't surprised to discover it was the camera she'd wanted to keep with her. Lately she'd been taking it with her everywhere, just in case.

Turning it on and quickly finding the right setting, Brittany passed the purse to Santana to hold, then lifted the camera to her eye.

On impulse, Santana now stepped closer and held onto her from behind, their positions reversed from a moment ago. Standing on her tiptoes, she breathed lightly against the edge of Brittany's ear. In response, she felt her shiver just a little.

"It's kinda hard to hold the camera steady when you're doing that," she warned her, but smiling in spite of herself.

"I know," Santana whispered, now giving a seductive nip to her earlobe, her fingers at the same time trailing from Brittany's hips around to her lower abdomen, meeting in the center. "Later when we watch it and see the picture shaking, we'll have fun remembering why."

Brittany giggled and made a concerted effort to focus on what she was doing, continuing to film. Santana, as well, continued her attempts at distraction, brushing her hair off her shoulder and applying gentle suction at the base of her neck.

"You should see the colors through here," Brittany said in a soft voice, sounding awed. "It's like they're just floating in the air. The building disappears." She shivered again, maybe from the vision she was seeing through the lens, or maybe from the hot pressure of Santana's lips now creeping steadily up her neck, but more likely a combination of the two. After a minute or so she lowered the camera, an expression of gradually dawning realization mixed with reverence on her face. "I think maybe I found it," she said softly. "I didn't think I would, I thought she was crazy. But I think I found it."

With reluctance, Santana raised her head up enough to murmur, "Found what?"

"The magic."

Puzzled, Santana started to ask what she was talking about. But something, she wasn't even quite sure what, made her turn her head to the side. Farther down the alley, about a block away, someone was walking in their direction. Fast. She lowered herself down from her tiptoes, alert now, and suddenly, completely sober.

"Britt, we really need to go now."

"Okay," Brittany said dreamily. But it took a few seconds for her to lower her gaze from the wall, to turn the camera off.

Santana watched, while trying not to look like she was watching, as the figure in the distance came nearer. It was a guy, she could tell by now, not just from the bulky hooded jacket, but from the way he moved, chest forward, aggressive. And all of a sudden, as he raised his head and caught her eye, she realized that he wasn't just aware of them, but that he was in fact heading toward them, deliberately.

With brilliant clarity, the stupidity of the situation they were in right now struck her. The fact that they were in this unfamiliar neighborhood, on this street, in this fucking empty lot. The fact that it was after midnight, that they'd been drinking. The fact that they were dressed up, wearing sexy clubbing clothes, wearing jewelry. The fact that they were idly standing here, in a place they didn't belong, like tourists, with a camera out, filming the side of a fucking building. She experienced a surge of absolute mortification at her own idiocy, at what that idiocy could mean for the two of them. And all the while the guy continued toward them, not slowing his pace.

"Britt," she choked out, reaching out to grasp at her, clutching her arm. Finally, Brittany looked up, maybe alarmed at the tone of fear in her voice. And now she saw him too, and Santana felt her stiffen. "Don't make eye contact," she managed to whisper, ducking her own head. She gave Brittany's wrist a tight squeeze, because she was still looking down the alley. "Brittany!" she hissed again. Now she looked down, at the gravel beneath their feet. But it was too late to make any difference - not that it probably would have made a difference anyway. Why wasn't anyone else around? she wondered frantically. In a city of eight million people, she had never felt more alone in her entire life.

Time was distorted, and the guy's approach seemed to take forever, but at the same time to be happening with lightning speed. Santana heard him before she saw him, because it was hard to see anything when you were staring at the ground. His steps slowed, then stopped, a few feet behind them. They still faced the building, as though they could somehow make the whole thing go away by simply pretending they were still absorbed in what they'd been doing, that they didn't notice.

But now he was coming around in front of them, and there was no use keeping up the ruse anymore. Her mouth dry, her knees already feeling like they could buckle, Santana glanced up, hoping that maybe somehow she'd gotten it wrong. Maybe he was the tourist, maybe he wanted directions. But even before the thought had made it all the way through her mind, she could see that it was wrong. He was no tourist. He was, in fact, just a kid - seemingly no older than fifteen or sixteen, and most likely Hispanic. And he looked scared as hell, like it was the first time he'd ever done this. But mixed in with the fear was determination.

For a second he only stared at them as if expecting them to make the first move. Maybe he didn't know English? Should she try to speak to him in Spanish? Santana wondered. Would that make her seem more relatable, less like the privileged middle class kid from Ohio who had no business hanging around the dark alleys of this neighborhood? She opened her mouth, but there were no words there. She couldn't think of a single Spanish word, not one. It was as if she'd never known the language at all.

But she realized now that he wasn't looking at her, anyway. He was looking at Brittany. He made a gesture with his head, at the same time reaching into his bulky pocket, as if preparing to draw something out. Oh God. Oh my fucking God.

Even though it felt like she couldn't move, she found that she was moving, instinctively stepping forward, attempting to put herself in between the guy and Brittany. But she was too late, because Brittany was already stepping in front of her, blocking her, even holding one arm out slightly as a kind of barrier, as if she would physically keep Santana from moving forward.

Her mind raced ahead, like she was seeing the future. He's gonna tell her to give him the camera. He's gonna tell her to give him the camera, and she's going to ask if she can take the memory stick out first. Because she needs it. Because she's applying to film school. She's going to try to reason with him, and she's going to get us killed.

But almost before this scene had played out at warp speed in her terrified thoughts, Brittany was already in the process of doing exactly the opposite. She was stepping forward, slowly, calmly, and she was holding the camera out to him. Offering it to him, in fact, before he'd even said a word to demand it, before he'd had the chance to pull out a gun or a knife or whatever it was he was threatening to take from his deep pockets.

"Here," she said softly, the words almost inaudible to Santana over the rushing of blood in her ears.

Surprised, maybe a bit caught off guard, the kid nevertheless reached out and snatched the camera out of her hand. Then he licked his lips, nervous, and glanced behind him.

Emboldened by his first easy success, he turned to Santana, now speaking his first words in this whole nightmarish exchange. "Your purse," he mumbled, his voice cracking like he'd only recently gone through puberty.

At first she thought she was going to have to argue with him, was going to have to endanger them even further, because she hadn't brought a purse tonight; she hadn't wanted to worry about it getting lost or stolen at the club. But how could she explain this when she now couldn't seem to remember any English, either? Then it occurred to her, like something in a dream, that she was holding Brittany's purse. Slowly, she took it off her shoulder, trying not to make any sudden movements. She held it out, but she was too far away, and he wasn't stepping closer.

The three of them stood there frozen in an uncertain tableau, nobody wanting to make the next move. It might have been funny, or at least absurd, if it hadn't been so terrifying. Santana could tell that Brittany was contemplating taking the purse to pass it to him, and to stop her from doing this, to stop her from going near him again, she started to move forward herself.

But before she could convince her feet to obey her mind, suddenly, out of nowhere, a blinding white light swept around the side of the building and washed over the kid's face. He squinted in surprise, then raised his arm to his eyes and took a few hasty steps back.

Bewildered, Santana turned to see where the light was coming from. There was a car - a taxi, of all things - pulling into the vacant lot where they stood.

She turned back to the guy, regretting taking her eyes off of him for a second. But he wasn't there. He'd spun around, thrown off his game by the sudden intrusion, and was already dashing off with the camera clutched to his stomach, back down the alley he'd come from. She could hear the panicked echo of his sneakers slapping the broken pavement.

The bright light now reversed its path, sliding back along the wall and then slipping out of the lot entirely, and with a jolt, Santana realized the car was backing up, turning around, preparing to leave.

She grabbed Brittany's arm. "Come on." At first it felt like she was moving through wet sand. Her legs didn't want to work. But after a few steps it became easier, and she pulled Brittany along with her.

The cab had now backed all the way out into the street again, and was facing the same direction it had just come from. It was starting to move away. But they reached it just before it picked up speed, Santana smacking one hand against the side of the back window enough to startle the driver into stepping on the brakes again.

Without hesitating another second, she pulled the door open and ushered Brittany inside, then slid in after her, slamming the door shut and leaning back against the seat, her heart pounding so hard it felt like it might explode.

"Off duty," the driver said in a Middle Eastern accent. He looked at them through the rearview mirror, waiting for them to get back out.

"We only live about ten blocks away," she told him. Her mouth was so dry that her tongue felt like sandpaper. "We're not getting out."

"Off duty," he repeated stubbornly, probably already irritated that he was in Brooklyn so late.

Santana's indignation flared up, mixed with a sense of desperation. Language had failed her moments ago, but now her words, and her attitude, blessedly came back to her. "Really, Abdul? That's interesting," she told him. "Because I wonder what Homeland Security would think about you lurking around off-the-grid alleys in the middle of the night. Since I didn't see any customers around, and since I'm pretty sure you'd have to go up to Flatbush to buy your rancid yogurt and your creepy goat kebabs, I can only assume something fishy was going on. Of course, it was dark, I couldn't tell for sure, but did I maybe see some bomb-making equipment back there?"

He studied her in the mirror, trying to gauge whether the threat was worth taking seriously. Apparently deciding not to mess with her, he grudgingly demanded their address. She gave it to him, feeling like a shitty person, but not regretting it. She'd already failed Brittany once tonight. At this point, she didn't care what it took, she would do anything to keep her safe. And she wasn't going to allow either of them to set foot outside of this vehicle until they were as close to their own building as they could possibly get without driving through the front door.

Finally, the driver eased out into the street and headed south. Now they were back in familiar territory, and there were other people around. Letting out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding, Santana leaned back a bit into the seat. For a few seconds she stared only at the seat back in front of her. Eventually, she turned her head to look at Brittany, for some reason dreading what she would find.

Brittany was facing forward too, but she seemed to be staring through the seat, rather than at it. Her gaze was distant; stunned.

Santana reached across to her, trying to take her hand, but Brittany's hands were clamped between her knees. "Hey," she said softly.

With what seemed to be a great effort, Brittany tried to focus, dragging her gaze back

"Do you want to call the police?" she muttered, hopefully too low for the driver to hear.

Brittany only considered for a few seconds before she shook her head, saying softly, "No. They'd never find him. Besides... he didn't even technically steal it. I gave it to him."

"That's true," Santana said, as though somehow it made things less scary, which it really didn't. Improvising, she added, "You know, I don't even think he had a weapon, he was just bluffing. The kid was more scared than we were."

Brittany watched her, doubtful. "Then why are you shaking so bad?"

She didn't have an answer for that. Instead, she tentatively reached across the short distance of the seat that separated them, trying again. This time, Brittany gave her her own hand, and they threaded their fingers together and squeezed hard. For the rest of the short ride home they didn't let go, even when the cab driver cast a quick disapproving look into his rearview mirror.

They didn't let go when they got out, either - not on the sidewalk, not on the stairs to the fourth floor, not even while Santana unlocked their apartment door, which she managed to do with one hand while Brittany clasped her other hand in both of her own. Only once they were inside the apartment, the door firmly locked behind them, did Brittany drop her hand and draw her arms around herself, as if withdrawing into a shell. But Santana maintained contact by putting her hand on the small of her back, guiding her for the second time that day toward their bedroom. On their way there she noticed with relief that Rachel's door was closed and that there was a dim glow of light coming from the crack underneath it, so it appeared she'd made it home safe from wherever she'd stormed off to. After what had just happened to her and Brittany, the entire city seemed more dangerous than ever before, even though she knew that wasn't actually true.

Once inside their own room, she closed the door behind them and flicked the light switch on. But Brittany immediately reached over and flicked it back off.

Santana stood, waiting in the dark, trying to make sense of this gesture. Brittany was still standing beside her, just barely revealed by the faint illumination that leaked around the corners of their heavy violet curtains from the streetlamps and neon signs outside. Santana could hear her slow, measured breathing - the kind of breathing someone only used when they were trying not to give in to panic.

"I'm so stupid," she whispered, leaning back against the closed door, the words so soft they were almost indecipherable. "I'm so stupid."

"Brittany," Santana said, reaching out to touch her. "No." She shook her head, adamant, even though it was probably too dark for Brittany to see it. "Don't say that, please. I don't ever want to hear you say those words," she begged. "Do you have any idea how proud of you I was? You did exactly the right thing. I was the one who froze up like an idiot."

"It was all my fault," Brittany went on, as though she hadn't even heard Santana and was talking to herself. "It was my idea to paint that building, and it was my idea to take you there at night. All of it was my fault."

"It wasn't your fault, it was mine," she insisted. "I should have known better."

There was a brief silence, then the whispered question, "Why should you have known better, and not me?"

Carefully, realizing how that had sounded, Santana tried to backtrack. "Because I've lived here longer. And..." she trailed off, unsure how to finish.

"And what?"

"That's all," she said firmly. "Because I've lived here longer. I knew we shouldn't have been on that street so late. But we'll never make the same mistake again, and we're fine," she insisted, a tinge of desperation in her tone. "It's okay." She repeated it, trying to convince herself as much as Brittany. "Everything's okay."

"No, it's not. It's not okay. I could have gotten us killed. Or... or hurt really bad." Brittany's voice was strained, and she seemed to avoid raising it only with an effort. In the dark her words had an unusual force and clarity. "I don't know what I'm doing here. I don't even know who I am anymore. I tried to find the magic, and look what happened. I tried to fight for you..."

"To fight for me?" Santana interrupted, confused. "Why would you need to fight for me? I'm right here."

When Brittany didn't answer, and it began to seem like she wasn't going to, Santana kissed her, knocking her head back against the door, cutting off the possibility of more words that would probably only be as heartbreaking or as incomprehensible as the ones that had come before. She kissed her hard enough to cut off the words and almost hard enough to cut off her breath, both Brittany's and her own. At first there was nothing; no response, no reaction. It was like she was kissing someone under hypnosis. But then, thank God, she felt her giving in to it, reluctantly at first, but then with more pressure. She felt Brittany's hands come up to settle on her hips, then her waist, then steadily creeping higher. She grasped her waist in return, and after a few seconds tugged her away from the door and toward the bed.

Backing up, Brittany's legs hit the edge of the mattress, and she lowered herself slowly, in a trance-like motion, pulling Santana down after her without breaking their ongoing chain of kisses. She settled back against the pillows, and Santana moved with her, balancing with her knees just between Brittany's legs and her body against hers. Finally she broke away and raised up to hover inches above her in the dark. Something clenched in her heart, because she realized Brittany was crying; silently, but she knew it all the same. Was there anything in the world, anything, that could more easily tear into her very soul like the fact of Brittany crying?

Desperate to make it stop, she kissed all over her face, through the sticky tracks of her tears, following them back to the damp edges of her hair, her ears, her throat. Then she gradually, almost tentatively, moved back to her mouth for another, deeper kiss that was half an apology, half an entreaty, a prayer. The tears were still coming, she could feel the fresh warmth of them sliding down Brittany's cheeks, she could taste the salt on her lips.

"Tell me what to do," she whispered against her mouth, pleading. "Tell me what you want." Do you want anything? was the unspoken question. Please, please want something. Her fear was that there was nothing she could do, nothing at all. That whatever had just happened out there in that dark alley had broken something between them, had cast them into separate tunnels, and that they would have to struggle to find their way back to each other.

Brittany lay unmoving. She lay without responding, eyes closed, for so long that Santana began to think she had no answer at all, or that maybe, unbelievably, she was already asleep. But then she drew in a deep, shaky breath, and her hands came up off the mattress, where they'd been resting lifeless at her sides. She gently pushed Santana's hair back behind her ears, then ran her thumbs lovingly over her cheeks. It was only then that Santana realized there were tears on her own face, as well. Brittany pulled her down, drawing her in for another kiss that was delicate and strangely chaste in its softness. Then Santana felt an almost imperceptible pressure on her shoulders, guiding her, pointing the way. She took the suggestion right away, relieved.

In the dark she shifted her weight and kissed downward along Brittany's neck, lingering at the hollow of her throat, feeling the pulse, the steady but oddly slow beat of it, letting the miracle of it wash over her. Was it safe to love someone this much? Probably not. She stilled and closed her eyes and wished she could stay there forever, feeling the warm throbbing heartbeat against her lips. Then with a sense of regret, she withdrew and leaned back, gently tugging Brittany's shirt over her head. Returning to just below the spot she'd left off, she continued in a meandering path down along her collarbone, over the swell of her chest. Her fingers whisper-traced the edge of her bra and around to the clasps underneath, but before she removed it she let her tongue follow the path her fingers had taken along the scalloped cups, delaying the moment. Finally she unhooked the bra and pulled it from her. For a brief second she lowered her head and let it pillow there, feeling the slow rise and fall of Brittany's breath underneath her. By this point her breathing would usually be picking up pace, her pulse quickening. But tonight she still seemed distant, detached.

Without breaking the contact of their skin Santana rolled her head around, resuming her pattern of kisses, circling the perimeter of one breast as she moved toward the center, kneading the other at the same time and then sweeping her fingertips in a smooth, practiced, light-as-air stroke down her abdomen. Only now did her nipples suddenly harden under the insistent suction of Santana's mouth and the brief but firm pressure she applied from her teeth. She felt rather than heard Brittany gasp during one particularly sharp tug, but still, still she hardly moved underneath her. Was she denying herself? It was almost as though she felt like she didn't deserve any of this.

Before continuing her slow progress south, Santana took a second to straighten her back and tug off first her borrowed jacket, and then the dress she'd worn tonight, a tight, almost obscenely short red one that Brittany had picked out before they left. Did it fall into the guidelines she'd set for non-vintage items? Of course it didn't. She'd known even when she made the rule that she'd wear whatever Brittany wanted her to wear, and she hadn't argued when she'd been handed what looked like an artifact from one of Tina Turner's early shows. Kicking off her shoes as she tossed the dress aside, she lowered herself again and started with her own chest against Brittany's, making an undulating, whole-torso caress downward. Only now did she feel the first flicker of heat in herself. But she barely registered it, because this wasn't about her, not at all. This was about saying with her body what she was so pathetically incapable of saying with her words.

Brittany still lay almost motionless beneath her, her legs against the bedspread, her ankles limp and not hooked together behind Santana's thighs the way they usually were at this point. This lack of movement made Santana move even faster, more urgently, kissing down the middle of her abdomen, darting her tongue around her navel. She felt Brittany's stomach muscles ripple, just the slightest bit, like a tremor before an earthquake that was so subtle it could almost go unnoticed. Then all was quiet again. She unfastened the tight black jeans Britt had worn tonight, tugging them down, accidentally-but-not-really scratching her thighs with her fingernails as she did. With this prodding, Brittany stirred herself to raise her hips a few inches from the mattress, and Santana yanked the pants, along with her underwear, the rest of the way off in a fluid motion. Usually that would be a two-part process, but she had the sense that she was running out of time and needed to prove something before she lost her chance.

She picked up where she'd left off, dragging her tongue down past her lower abdomen, then along the trimmed wispy trail between her legs. Nudging Brittany's thighs apart, since she wasn't doing it on her own, she transferred her attentions over to her inner thigh, pulling the soft skin into her mouth in suckling kisses that on any other night would have had Britt's muscles quivering in anticipation, would have had her squirming on the bed and making more noise than she technically should have been in this tiny apartment. Trying to coax that reaction now, Santana moved by slow degrees higher and higher, but the room remained heavy with the weight of silence. When she at last reached her center she slowed even further, teasing her with just a few more light, dainty kisses before she began what felt, tonight, like an act of devotion. Of worship, even, as unholy as that might sound.

She breathed Brittany in, lavishing on her the practiced and familiar techniques, the particular rhythms and loving strokes she liked to think she'd become an expert at. This act, this tender intimate passionate act, was the closest connection to another person she could imagine possible. So, why, then, at this precise moment, was she suddenly overcome with the visceral memory of what it had felt like to be without this, all those months in the fall? That absence loomed up like it had just happened, like it had been only days ago. The ache was fresh again, which made no sense, because Brittany had been here for months. She was here. She was right here against her lips, against her tongue, the scent and the taste of her overpowering and intoxicating and more precious than anything else on this earth, and she wasn't going anywhere. Was she?

She closed her eyes tight against the piercing sadness, wondering if it was somehow being transmitted from her to Brittany, or maybe the other way around. And still Brittany remained so quiet beneath her, so limp and nearly lifeless, so unlike the thrumming live wire she usually became at this point in their lovemaking. Santana wondered if she was still crying. Baby, she thought but didn't say out loud, please. She didn't know exactly what she was begging for.

Always at these moments, always, they felt so close, almost as if they were sharing one body. But not only did it not feel like that right now, Santana was beginning to feel like she was the only one in the room. And the loss of that connection was somehow even scarier than what had happened in the alley earlier. What should she do? Give up, and just hold her? Making one last effort, without warning she inserted two fingers and hooked them upwards, savagely. Brittany responded with a startled-sounding moan, and her muscles tightened against Santana's hand, jolted as if by an electric shock. For a split second she worried that she'd hurt her. But then, at last, Santana felt a tickling pressure at her temple, and suddenly Brittany's fingers were winding into her hair, grasping a handful of it, tugging on it almost painfully. Instead of giving in to it, she pulled against the pressure, doubling her efforts with her tongue.

Now there was all the movement that had been lacking before, as Brittany writhed against her, her body coming back to life, her pulse picking up speed. After a minute her thighs rotated outward, as far outward as they could go, and her hips arched off the bed, her torso going rigid. Santana moved with her, that part of the rhythm, at least, familiar and comforting. Then her legs swiveled back and her thighs clamped down, holding Santana in place, and it felt like the sweetest reward possible. Brittany's ragged breathing was muffled by the warm pressure against her ears, but not completely drowned out. Santana pressed upward harder with her hand, feeling Brittany's shuddering body reverberate against her mouth.

The spasms gradually lessened in force, dying out into aftershocks. Santana stayed with her, coaxing her down gently. This was always her favorite part, but even more so tonight, because she felt like she'd narrowly averted some kind of disaster, like she'd brought Brittany back from some dark place she'd been in danger of slipping into. But had she really? Was that expecting too much from sex? She kissed back up her body, retracing her earlier path, and then settled her head next to Brittany's on the pillow. With a lingering sense of unease, she tried to make out her profile in the almost-black room, letting one hand lazily stroke her bare stomach, gliding through the beads of sweat that had gathered there. She didn't want to risk breaking their touch. She waited, tense.

When her breathing slowed, Brittany rolled her head around on the pillow and inched closer, their foreheads now touching. She bumped her nose against Santana's, then hesitantly sought out her lips. The kiss deepened, and Santana felt Brittany's body press into her, while one hand began what seemed like somewhat of an obligatory slide down to her ass, then around to her hip, the fingers hooking under the edge of her thong.

But Santana reached down and pulled the hand back up between them, grasping it with her own and pressing a kiss against the knuckles, whispering, "It's okay." There was relief mixed with gratitude in her tone.

"Santana- "

"No, shh, let's just go to sleep." She pulled the comforter up and around their shoulders, as if to settle the matter. "You've got a big day tomorrow. We're both exhausted."

Brittany didn't protest. She kissed her again; a slow, lingering goodnight. Then she took one more deep, hitching gulp of air, her body relaxing as she let it out. She let Santana stroke her hair back from her temple, her eyes falling shut and her breathing deepening.

After a few minutes, assuming she was already asleep, Santana stilled her hand and then drew it back toward her, carefully turning onto her side, fitting herself into the warmth of Brittany's curved body. With a deep sigh, she closed her own eyes. But before she drifted off, she heard Brittany speak again into the darkness, the words soft against her ear.

"I love you."

Santana clenched her teeth together, her throat muscles suddenly tight. It took a few seconds before she knew her voice wouldn't betray too much emotion.

"I love you too," she whispered.

Brittany pressed even closer against her, draping an arm over her, and Santana clasped it to her chest. Within moments, they were both asleep.


It was early, she knew even before she opened her eyes. Much earlier than she would usually wake up on a weekend, and especially on a morning after she'd been out late. She wondered if something had pulled her up out of sleep, some unusual noise or movement. But when she stirred and checked the spot in bed next to her, she found that Brittany still slept soundly.

Santana held herself as still as possible, watching her in the faint early light that seeped around the edges of the curtain. She was reminded, just a little, of how she'd watched her sleep on the very first morning Brittany had been here, after their middle of the night reunion back in January. Of course, they'd been across the hall, in the smaller bedroom then. But, she realized now, they'd taken the same sides of the bed in this slightly larger room, as if by instinct. Without even thinking about why, she assumed they would probably always take those same sides, in every bed they slept in for the rest of their lives. And she hoped there would be many.

The lines of Brittany's face were smoothed, evened out by the peacefulness of deep sleep. She lay on her side, her face nuzzling into the pillow a little, her hair loose and tangled over her shoulder. Santana watched as the blanket rose and fell in a slow, almost indiscernible rhythm with her breathing. Last night's emotion and the chilling few minutes that had triggered it seemed a distant memory. Santana's mind wanted to take her back there, to play out what had happened, to contrast it with this, with the miracle of Brittany's perfect, peaceful form across from her in bed. But she refused to allow it. She wasn't going back into that darkness, even in her thoughts. Because as she watched Brittany sleep, she was coming to a decision. Or maybe it was more like a resolution.

And what she resolved was simple, really. Maybe even cliché. She resolved that everything was going to be different, starting today. Starting today, she was going to do everything right. She was going to be the model of the perfect girlfriend. She was going to make sure Brittany never felt unsafe, or insecure, or God forbid that word she'd come to hate so much, stupid... ever again. She was going to stop obsessing over the finer details of love versus in-love, stop questioning how her relationship compared to other people's. She was going to accept what she had and quit worrying about whether it was enough. She was going to make sure Brittany knew that it was enough.

What had happened had been awful, and terrifying, no doubt about it. But she was going to look at it as an opportunity for a fresh start, a forced reminder of what really mattered. And to kick off this fresh start, she decided as she lay there, she was going to begin by making her girlfriend breakfast. Brittany had her film school campus tour this morning, and what better way to give her a little extra boost of confidence than by a romantic breakfast in bed? She'd noticed offhandedly that Rachel had brought home fresh strawberries yesterday from a farmer's market, some of the earliest of the season. She would borrow (okay, steal) those; the symbolism would be a nice touch.

But what else? Strawberries didn't really go with eggs. Then it came to her. In the kitchen was a practically new waffle iron that they'd bought from a home shopping channel on impulse in the messy aftermath of Kurt's breakup with Blaine, and had so far only used twice. This morning, she vowed to make it three. What could be more romantic than waffles with fresh berries? And if she couldn't quite figure out how to use the damn thing, she would just haul Kurt out of bed and make him help her. She was still a little pissed at him for his sermonizing yesterday, anyway.

But when she'd pulled herself from the bed, careful not to wake Brittany, switched her dried-out contact lenses for her backup glasses, and cracked the door open, she thought at first that she wouldn't have to bother with waking Kurt up. Because here he was already, for some reason coming out of Rachel's room at the crack of dawn.

But wait.

The hallway light was dim, and as her eyes adjusted a bit more, she saw that this wasn't Kurt. This guy was too tall, and too broad, and too naked. This guy was... Jesse St. James.

Not noticing her, he continued on into the living room, totally nude, carrying his clothes with him. For a second she remained where she was, open-mouthed with shock, then eased the door closed behind her and followed him. What the hell is this? Had she actually just stumbled upon the aftermath of a Rachel Berry booty call? Could such a thing even exist?

Morbid curiosity getting the better of her, she put her breakfast plans on hold and followed him into the living room, expecting a little moment of embarrassment when he realized he was being observed. But in the brighter light coming from the front windows, when he finally became aware of her presence, he didn't express much surprise or worry. In his typical laidback manner, he simply looked up and greeted her with, "Oh, Santana. I didn't expect to see you up this early." Then, without bothering to turn aside, he pulled on his boxers, in no rush at all.

She crossed her arms in front of her, matching his ability to ignore what should have been an uncomfortable situation. "Yeah, I guess you just never know who you're gonna run into on your walk of shame." Raising her eyebrows, she pointed out, "Although for a walk of shame you seem pretty damn proud of yourself."

"Shame?" he repeated, sounding distracted. "I'm not ashamed of anything. Rachel and I had a lovely evening, capped off by an impromptu romantic duet on the subway. People threw money, and condoms. It was flattering."

"How nice for you. Of course, generally romance doesn't involve so much sneaking out at the crack of dawn. At least not in my experience."

He gave her a half-listening smile as he tugged his pants on, then slipped into his shoes. "Is there coffee, by any chance? I prefer French press, but standard brew will do in a pinch."

She continued to watch him dress like he was some sort of insect she couldn't quite classify, waiting a second before answering. "No."

"Ah. No worries, I'll stop at the corner." He pulled his shirt over his head, careful not to do too much damage to his hair. Then, smoothing his clothes down, he inspected himself. Happy with what he saw, he looked at Santana, as if to ask what she thought of his appearance. It was only then that he seemed to really notice her for the first time. "You know, the glasses look good on you," he told her with an appraising squint. "You should wear them more often. It's what one might call the Latina Tina Fey look." Amused by himself, he amended this to, "Latina Fey, if you will."

She gave him a smirk that wasn't fooling anybody. "Well, now that you've said so, Jesse, I will make sure to never ever do that."

He returned her fake smile. Finally catching a bit of the awkwardness, he checked his watch and said, "I should be going."

He headed toward the front door and she remained where she was standing. But after a few seconds of deliberation, she hurried after him, pushing the door closed just as he opened it and leaning against it in a faux-casual manner to block his exit.

"Hey, Jesse?" she said, looking up at him. "Before you go, let me ask you one little question. How much do you like your balls?"

He blinked at her, seeming to think he must have heard wrong. "I'm sorry? My...?"

"Your danglers, your cojones," she elaborated, making a fondling gesture with her fingers. "See, the reason I'm focusing on Pebbles and not Bam Bam is because I got a little lookie-loo back there, and... you know what, it's okay, no judgment, I'm just gonna assume that you're a grower, not a show-er. We all have our shortcomings. But to get back to the point, on a scale of one to ten, how much would you say you appreciate your marbles?"

He opened his mouth to say something, obviously baffled, but she continued on.

"Because I'm guessing that it must be an eight, maybe even a nine. The amount of product in your hair makes me think it can't possibly be a ten. But it's a high number, we can agree on that."

"Santana, I really have no idea what- "

"Then let me be clear here," she interrupted in a low voice, now stepping closer to him. "If you fuck with her head again? If at any point in this little fling there are raw eggs involved, or any other food-related missiles, or emotional manipulation of any kind happening on my watch? If I have to see her cry and sing into a hairbrush when she thinks no one's looking? I will have no choice but to end you." She gave him a sweet smile that couldn't possibly have fooled anyone, and then a meaningful glance downward. "And I'll let you guess which parts will be the very first to go."

At last, success. He looked worried, she could see it in his eyes. And maybe it was her imagination, but she thought she could detect a bit of grudging respect there, as well.

But he quickly recovered his veneer of casual charm. "Good to see you again," he told her. "It's... always an experience to remember."

Confident that her message had gotten through, she gave him another smile and stepped out of the way, letting him through the door. "You have a nice day," she said, waggling her fingers after him. "Good luck with that coffee!"

She closed the door and then locked it for good measure. Well, that had been an unexpected little interruption. She brushed her hands together at a job well done, pleased with her success. Apparently it was a perfect morning for more than one kind of fresh start. Then, in a good mood, she headed toward the kitchen, ready to attack that waffle mix, but no... before she got started, there was one more detour she had to make. It might not have been the noblest impulse, or even the wisest impulse, but to hell with it. It was too tempting. She might never get another chance.

Swinging wide the door of Rachel's bedroom, she entered without knocking, catching her just as she tugged a t-shirt over her head.

Rachel turned around, alarmed and then immediately annoyed when she saw who it was.

Santana gave her a broad, delighted grin. "Rise and shine, Miss Cheater McCheatyPants. I so love the smell of dirty sheets and hypocrisy in the morning, don't you?"

"Santana! Close the door!" Rachel whispered. "What are you even doing up at six o'clock in the morning?"

"Oh, just call it divine providence," she said, without bothering to close the door. "Someone upstairs was looking out for me and making sure I got to see this. Kinda makes me want to start going to church more often."

"Would you keep your voice down?" Rachel hissed. "As you may recall, I'm not even supposed to be talking to you right now." She looked past Santana into the hallway, as if afraid she would be caught.

"Oh, please, if you think I'm gonna let that keep me from getting my gloat on, then you're insane. You know how long I've been waiting for you to fall off your prissy little pedestal?"

"What pedestal? Since when am I on a pedestal?" She was still whispering, but furiously, tugging on a pair of yoga pants. "I'm only human."

"So, how was he? Not that you have much to compare it to, but I want details." Santana picked up a stuffed floral pillow from the floor and tossed it back onto the ravaged bed. Then she righted the framed photo of Olive and Greta, which was face-down as though the poor old broads couldn't bear to witness what had taken place here. Still not lowering her voice, she added, "I'm a little surprised I didn't hear anything, actually. Somehow I always pegged you for a screamer."

But before she'd straightened the photo or even finished the sentence, Rachel had grabbed her by the arm and yanked her through the doorway with surprising strength. She was then pulled down the hall, past the kitchen, to the front entryway, then through the front door that she'd only just locked. "Where are we going?" Santana asked, bewildered. She vaguely entertained the idea that she was about to be thrown out of the building.

But in the hallway outside the apartment, Rachel opened the door to the roof and went up, looking back once as if to say Are you coming or not?

Amused by this necessity for secrecy, Santana followed her up, emerging into the soft, cool early morning air. The sky was pearly gray, the sun not quite up yet, and the day promised to be beautiful. A cluster of pigeons exploded upward into flight upon their arrival, softly burbling their indignation at being disturbed. It was hard to believe that last night, just a few blocks away from here, she'd been terrified for her life, and Brittany's. In the fresh morning light it seemed hazy, unreal, like something she'd only imagined or dreamed.

Rachel crossed over to the ledge at the front of the building, standing there with her arms folded and her back to Santana, as if she didn't even care enough to check and see whether she'd followed or not.

"Look, I get it," Santana said, approaching. "That feeling you're having right now? It's called guilt. That's what happens when you cheat." She shrugged, blasé. "You'll get used to it."

"You don't understand." She still didn't turn.

"Sure I do. And I'm not gonna judge, if that's what you're worried about."

But no, there was no fun in that. She'd been cut off from mocking Rachel for almost an entire week - that was a lot of time for words to build up. "Okay, maybe just a little judging," she admitted. "I mean, God knows, I won't be signing up for the presidency of the Finn Hudson fan club anytime soon, but still... this is sort of shitty, you have to admit. He's down there in the middle of nowhere hanging with his lame janitor friends, probably flogging it to free porn because he's too broke to buy the good stuff, and meanwhile you're up here seducing his cartoon villain arch-nemesis through subway duets with what I can only assume was some kind of cheesy eighties power ballad. It's actually sort of poetic." Then a realization struck her. "Oh my God. Jesse's the used car salesman Amelia saw you with a few weeks ago. I thought she was crazy. So, how long have you been stepping out?"

"It's not what you think, okay? I didn't cheat." But the look on her face as she stared down at the street wasn't exactly innocent.

"Oh, I see, so it was one of those platonic naked sleepovers. Those are great, aren't they? I remember me and Britts used to have those all the time." Then she pretended to think, raising one finger to her chin and wrinkling her forehead. "No.. no wait, we didn't... because we were too busy having sex."

Finally, Rachel spun around. "Santana, I realize it goes against all your instincts, but would you please for once in your life just shut up and listen to what I'm trying to tell you!"

Taken aback by the violence of these words and by the expression on Rachel's face, she did momentarily shut up. When a few seconds had gone by and still there was nothing, she urged her in a more serious voice, "I'm listening."

But now that she had the chance to speak, Rachel didn't seem to know how to choose her words. After a long pause, she forced herself to try. "I didn't cheat, because..." She tried again, even quieter. "Because Finn and I aren't together. We broke up."

Santana continued to stare at her, shocked into silence. "What?" she finally sputtered. "When the hell did this happen?"

"That's not really important..."

"Rachel," she interrupted her. "When?"

Refusing to meet her eyes, Rachel was even more reluctant now. Hardly above a murmur, she said, "Over winter break."

If Santana had been shocked before, now she was even more astounded. At first she thought it must be a lie, or even a joke, but Rachel's face was too somber for that. "Are you fucking kidding me? That was four months ago!" She knew there was really no excuse for the anger in her tone, but she couldn't keep it out. "You're telling me you've been keeping this quiet for four months? How is that even possible? You have your menstrual cycle posted on the refrigerator, but this, you manage to keep private?" She waited, then demanded in dismay, "Why didn't you say anything?"

Rachel closed her eyes for a second. "I don't know. At first, I planned to... and then, you were just so excited about Brittany coming. There was never a good time." This had the air of a rehearsed excuse, and looking up, she could see that Santana wasn't really buying it. "And, okay, if you want the truth, maybe I just didn't want to deal with the jokes and the mockery."

Now the anger died out of Santana's voice, to be replaced by something closer to startled hurt. "You think I would have made fun of you? After something like that?"

The answer was quiet, almost tentative. "Can you honestly say that you wouldn't have?"

She considered, not entirely sure whether she knew the answer to that question. She thought the answer was no, but the fact that someone else was so certain it wasn't made her doubt herself.

Rachel went on, as if trying to mitigate the accusation. "Look, I know you can't help yourself, it's just who you are. Most of the time it doesn't bother me anymore. I even enjoy our occasional witty repartee. But I just didn't think I could take it. Not then, not when it still hurt so bad."

Santana stared at her own bare feet, uncomfortable, not knowing what to say.

"I don't need you to feel sorry for me," Rachel added quickly. "I'm perfectly capable of doing that on my own. Besides, the worst is over now. I'm fine."

"Jesus," Santana muttered, still in disbelief. "Just when I thought you couldn't get crazier." She paused. "But you told Kurt, right?"

"Actually, no." She looked off toward the buildings across the street, sheepish. "I think he may suspect, but... he hasn't been too pushy about it."

For some reason, this answer made Santana feel better, even though it probably shouldn't have. But at least she hadn't been the only one kept in the dark. "So let me get this straight. You, the biggest drama queen on the planet, decided for some unfathomable reason to go through a huge, painful breakup completely on your own?"

Rachel seemed to consider which answer to give, but then opted for the truth. "Not completely. Quinn knows."

"Quinn!" An unexpected and annoying stab of jealousy hit Santana. And even though she knew it was lame and beside the point, the only thing she could thing of to say was, "She doesn't even live here."

"I'm aware," Rachel said, with a slight smile at the absurdity of this remark. "That's what made it easier, actually. I could compartmentalize it. I could talk about it on the phone, but then put it in a box and get on with life." She shrugged, adding, "Anyway, I didn't have much choice. She was in Lima for Christmas when it happened, and I couldn't hide it from her. I was a wreck."

Santana tried and failed to suppress her bitterness. "Yeah well, you seemed to do okay hiding it from me."

Rachel considered, then suggested hopefully, "Maybe my acting skills are improving."

Or maybe I just wasn't paying any attention, because I'm a self-centered bitch, Santana thought. Because it probably should have been obvious. In hindsight, a lot of things made more sense. Rachel's desperation to get the lead in the NYADA revue, and her devastation at being passed over. Her desire for a fresh look. Her constant need to be around other people. "God, is this why you've been so clingy for the last few months?" she asked.

Rachel looked awkward. "I prefer the term affectionate. But yes, I suppose so. It's easier not to think about it when I'm with you guys. But of course, now that I'm technically not supposed to speak to you..." she let the words trail off, the implication obvious.

"Yeah, about that," Santana said, apologetic. "Telling Brittany no is something I haven't really figured out how to do yet. I'll get there eventually. But you might have to be patient a few more days." Sheepish, she added, "Or weeks."

"It's okay, I understand," Rachel said. She couldn't help adding, "But I do miss talking to you."

Uncomfortable, Santana chose to ignore this. But Rachel was quiet for so long, and stared down at the street with such a wistful expression, that she was finally forced to ask, "Are we doing a musical number in your head right now?"

Rachel rolled her eyes a little. "No." But the denial wasn't entirely convincing. She took a deep breath and turned away from the ledge, gathering her resolve around her. "All right, here's the thing. I can't say I'm devastated that you found out about this. Maybe it was time. But I do have a favor to ask." She stepped closer, earnest. "Can you please not tell anybody else? Not even Kurt or Brittany? At least not yet. Neither one of them is good at keeping secrets, and I don't want this getting back to our families."

"What? Why?" Santana looked at her like she was crazy. "What difference does it make?"

She took a few seconds to consider how to answer, choosing her words with care. "There's only a few weeks left until summer vacation, and we... Finn and I... we may end up working things out. We're um... we're thinking about a trip to Niagara Falls. It's supposed to be one of the most romantic places in the world, right?" There was something sad about the hopefulness she forced into her tone. "So really, you know, what would be the point of announcing a breakup now, when we may be so close to getting back together? It would just cause a lot of unnecessary drama... which normally, I would be in favor of," she admitted. "But not this time."

She stared at her, baffled. "Rachel... that's pathetic." Knowing the words were probably too harsh, she continued anyway. "I know you don't want to hear it? But you deserve better. Maybe it's time to get your head out of your ass and accept that this is a good thing."

She looked away, defeated. "I know you don't like him..."

"That's not why I'm saying it," Santana interrupted. But deep down, she didn't know if that was true or not. When it came to Finn, she couldn't exactly claim to be unbiased.

"I have to give it one more chance before I move on for good," she argued.

"And how's that worked out for you in the past, that one more chance thing?"

"This is different. This is the last one." And there was something about the way she said it that made it clear that this time, she really meant it. But still Santana wavered. Rachel met her eyes again, pleading. "What if it was Brittany?"

She started to say that it wasn't the same, that Rachel had no idea what she was talking about, that this kind of thing could never happen to her and Brittany. But she stopped herself. Under the circumstances, it would probably sound too much like gloating. And despite the fact that she couldn't begin to fathom what Rachel saw in him, it was impossible to deny that the depth of her love for Finn was real. Incomprehensible and gross, maybe, but real. If you loved someone that much, you couldn't just stop trying.

Grudgingly, she was forced to give in. "Okay, whatever, I get it," she said, but without enthusiasm. "I won't tell anyone, if that's what you want."

"Is that a promise?"

She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I promise."

"Thank you." Rachel let out a deep breath in relief. She started to say something else, but then seemed to change her mind, maybe deciding not to press her luck. Turning away, she was on the verge of heading back to the door, but Santana felt like there was still something more she needed to say, something nagging at her. Just in time, she realized what it was.

Abruptly, speaking to Rachel's back, she blurted it out. "I never would have said any of that stuff if I'd realized. Just so you know."

Rachel paused and turned back toward her, confused. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, all the shit I say about him every day. The fat jokes, the stuff with the parrot, my brilliantly witty insults... all of it. If I would have known what was going on..." she stopped, frustrated. "Do you think I don't care about you at all?"

Rachel came back a few steps. "Honestly?" She spoke in a delicate manner, but the words hurt nonetheless. "Sometimes it's hard to tell."

"Yeah, well, I'm sorry. This stuff isn't easy for me. I don't wear my heart pinned to the sleeve of my hideous sweaters the way you do. But it doesn't mean- " she cut herself off. She swallowed hard, then went on in a voice that would have sounded angry to someone who didn't know better. "It doesn't mean I don't feel anything."

Rachel seemed touched, but also just the slightest bit guilty. "I know that," she assured her. "I didn't mean to- " She tried again. "Of course I know that."

"And you can believe what you want, but just for the record, I wouldn't have made fun of you. At least not about that." She started to speak, bit back the words, and then allowed them out in a quiet rush before she could retrieve them again. "Other than Brittany, you and Kurt mean more to me than anyone in the world."

It was obvious how much these words meant to Rachel, how surprised, how moved she was by them. She looked down quickly, as though trying to hide it. She nodded, then said softly, "I believe you."

Horrified at herself, Santana blinked against tears that seemed to spring of nowhere. Only now realizing she was still wearing her glasses, she reached under them and tried to brush the tears away covertly. "Damn it," she muttered, embarrassed. "Now who's pathetic."

"Don't... don't do that." Rachel shook her head warningly, her face crumpling. "Santana, you know crying is like yawning for me, it's contagious." Already cracked with emotion, her voice continued to rise to a squeak that possibly only dogs could hear. "If you do it, I have to do it too."

"All right, you know what, let's just get this shit over with," she said, gesturing her forward impatiently. By now, it was inevitable anyway. To hell with it.

Rachel wasted no time coming forward and throwing her arms around her before the offer could be revoked. Santana hesitated, then awkwardly raised her own arms and settled them around her back. She couldn't remember if they'd ever done this while sober before. After what she considered a reasonable interval, she tried to pull away, but nope, Rachel was apparently making up for lost time, and she wasn't letting go yet. With a weary sigh, Santana put her arms back in place and gave into it.

And okay, it wasn't that bad. Sort of nice, actually. Not that she would ever admit it to anyone. Closing her eyes, she leaned her cheek against the side of Rachel's head, realizing suddenly that this weird mixture of protectiveness and frustration, of love and annoyance... this must be what it felt like to have a sister. Not that she'd ever particularly wanted one of those. But she couldn't claim that she'd wanted to be gay, either, and she wouldn't trade her relationship with Brittany for anybody else's easy straight existence. Sometimes life just had a way of throwing crap at you that turned out to be exactly what you'd never known you needed.

Still, though, it was terrifying, this whole business of letting other people into your heart. The more crowded it got in there, the more you opened yourself up to other people's hurts, the more vulnerable you were. It was so much easier, only looking out for yourself. And on that note, did this breakup news mean the thing with Jesse might turn into something more than just an illicit booty call? If so, did that mean she would have to apologize for threatening his balls? No, she decided. Serious relationship or not, the warning still stood. It would keep him on his best behavior.

Trying to lighten the mood a bit during this apparently interminable hug, she said over Rachel's shoulder, "I can't believe you passed up the chance for all those epic emo post-breakup duets we could have had."

Rachel sniffled next to her ear. "Believe me, that was the hardest part."

Santana laughed a little, and Rachel finally pulled back, returning her smile. But before they'd completely separated, Santana felt her stiffen, saw the smile freeze and then fade from her face as she stared at something behind them. "Oh no," Rachel said in a small voice.

Alarmed, Santana turned to see what it was.

In the doorway to the stairwell, still barefoot and in a fuzzy bathrobe, Brittany stood watching them.

Immediately, Rachel dropped her arms, detaching herself completely. She stepped away from Santana, in a way that only made things look more suspicious. "Brittany!" she said in a loud, falsely cheerful voice. "I know what this looks like, but I- I wasn't breaking the rules, because I wasn't really talking. It's just that, um... we were rehearsing a scene for my movie, and we were in character." She glanced at Santana nervously, as if to see whether she would play along with this absurd story. "So that doesn't really count, does it?"

For a long time Brittany only stared at them, not answering. It was difficult to read the expression on her face. "In character as who?" she finally asked.

"Well... as ourselves," Rachel explained. "But, the earlier versions of ourselves." Thinking fast, she had a flash of inspiration. "At graduation! Remember, backstage after the ceremony, how emotional everyone was?"

"Rachel," Santana said, giving her a quick shake of her head. What the hell are you doing? she wanted to ask. She would do her best not to break the promise she'd just made, but she wasn't going to watch Brittany be treated like an idiot, either.

Brittany seemed to make a note Santana's reaction as she continued to watch them, arms crossed. In a strangely flat tone, she said, "Actually I don't remember that graduation stuff, because I wasn't there."

Too late, Rachel realized her mistake. "Right," she said. "Sorry." She looked at Santana again, who was offering no help at all. She started to say something else, then seemed to realize she was only making things worse. "I'm sorry," she repeated. "I have to get ready for class." Quickly, she brushed past Brittany, making her exit.

Brittany turned to watch her leave, then slowly brought her gaze back to Santana. Rays of sun were just appearing over the tops of the buildings to the east, touching her hair with a buttery glow.

"Do you think someone should bother to tell the spaz that it's Saturday?" Santana asked, in what she knew was a poor imitation of her normal style.

Ignoring the question, Brittany posed one of her own. "What's going on?"

She came toward her, shrugging. "Nothing, really. Just, you know... her usual sky-is-falling drama. It has nothing to do with me."

Brittany stared at her in disbelief. "You were crying."

Realizing that this was true, and that the evidence was still apparent, she pulled her glasses off and brushed her palm over her face. But she couldn't think of what to say without giving away the idiotic secret that didn't even need to be a secret. "Maybe just a little. Everything's okay, though," she assured Brittany. But when she still waited for more, Santana added, "It's complicated."

"Yeah." All at once she seemed to give up, looking away from Santana as if it didn't matter anymore. "It seems like everything here is complicated."

Santana was unnerved by the distance in her voice. Why did she look so defeated? All of a sudden her plans for starting over fresh seemed to be in danger of crumbling at her feet before they'd even had a chance to be put into action. Was moving on too fast from what had happened in that vacant lot a bad idea? Maybe it would be best not to avoid it. "Brittany," she said gently. "I know last night was really scary, and..."

She cut her off. "I don't want to talk about last night. It happened, and we're fine, and there's nothing else to say."

"Okay. We don't have to." Confused, she tried to figure out if she was misinterpreting the cause of Brittany's current mood. Did the rule about Rachel not talking to them really mean that much to her? How long had she honestly expected it to last, when they all lived piled on top of each other?

"Good," Brittany said, but without sounding particularly relieved. "Because I don't want to," she repeated. Then she turned and headed back down the dim, shadowy stairwell and into the even darker hallway.

Santana followed after her. "Britt," she said, reaching out a tentative hand to touch her arm before she could reach the apartment door, trying to make her stop and turn around. "I didn't think you'd be up so early. But I was gonna make you this big, fancy breakfast, for a surprise. I just got a little sidetracked."

"Yeah, I noticed," Brittany said wryly, pulling her wrist back in toward her body and crossing her arms. "Don't worry about it, I don't really have any appetite." She considered, nodding to herself as she said, "Actually I think I'll just go ahead and get dressed and go. I can look around campus a little before the tour."

"What, you mean by yourself? I thought you wanted me to come with you. We were gonna do this together."

Brittany spoke as if her mind was already made up. "I don't know, I don't think it's a good idea. I have to get used to doing stuff on my own, you know. You can't just hold my hand through everything. Because one day you're not gonna be there, and then what am I gonna do?"

Santana felt suddenly queasy. She still held her glasses in her hand, rendering the hallway and Brittany as well in indistinct outlines, a bit blurry around the edges. "What do you mean I'm not gonna be there?" When Brittany didn't meet her eyes, she stepped closer, both to see her better and to get her attention. "Hey. What's going on?"

Finally she looked up at her. "You tell me, Santana."

But before she could reply, or ask for more details that would hopefully shed light on whatever weird and ominous thing was taking place between them right now, Mr. Nguyen came out of his adjacent apartment in his bathrobe. He headed toward the stairs, on his way down to the lobby to wait for his foreign-language newspaper delivery, which he did every morning to make sure his paper wasn't stolen, even though no one else in the building spoke Vietnamese. He gave them a polite nod as he passed between them, but in the awkward silence their focus was broken, and to Santana's frustration, Brittany used the opportunity to turn and let herself back into the apartment.

She remained where she was for a moment in the quiet hallway, the only sound the retreating shuffle of Mr. Nguyen's slippers as he made his slow progress down the stairwell. Though she didn't quite understand where they were coming from, Brittany's last words made her feel hollow. She had the sense that she'd done something terribly wrong, and that whatever it was, even if it was escaping her comprehension at the moment, it was something that she wasn't going to be able to fix. All the stuff that had been building up for weeks, all the stuff she'd been trying to ignore, or had even succeeded in ignoring... was this the punishment for it? Had the reckoning finally arrived?

Because if she was the kind of person who for months couldn't even be bothered to notice that one of her closest friends was going through a miserable, painful breakup, what else had she not noticed? In her desperation to pretend everything was okay, which part of Brittany's heart had she broken, without even realizing it? For a split second she wondered if she'd forgotten her birthday, if she'd been reading the calendar wrong. What if it wasn't next week, what if she'd already missed it? But no, that was stupid. She knew when her birthday was; she kept better track of it than she did of her own. It was something else.

She quickly cast her mind back over the scene that had just played out, and then farther back to last night, to what she'd said, what she'd done, weighing vague possibilities against each other. Then she started to go even farther back, but no. This was pointless, and a waste of time. She would just ask her, for fuck's sake. She would make her say it out loud, which is what she should have done long ago. Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, Santana let herself back into the apartment.

But now that the decision had been made, there was the problem of timing. Because it clearly wasn't going to happen this morning. Brittany was busy getting ready to leave, and with Kurt and Rachel likewise bustling around in their usual obnoxiously peppy morning routine, she couldn't seem to get a minute alone with her. And maybe it was her imagination, but Brittany seemed to be doing her best to avoid just this possibility. She even got dressed in the bathroom instead of their bedroom, despite the fact that this delayed Kurt's gel-application process by a precious five minutes, a countdown he first politely and then with increasing panic announced to her from the other side of the door.

Santana hovered near the front entry, planning to grab a word with her before she left, but through canny maneuvering Brittany managed to be ready at the exact same time Kurt and Rachel left for their rehearsals for NYADA's version of year-end finals. The two of them glanced at Santana standing in the living room doorway, still in the pajamas she'd thrown on this morning before her ill-timed rendezvous with Jesse. Rachel's eyes flitted nervously from her to Brittany, trying to work out what had happened after she'd left the roof, but Kurt only seemed puzzled.

"See you this afternoon," Brittany said casually as she adjusted the strap of her shoulder bag, without quite looking at her.

Santana waited a second too long for the reply to sound natural. "Yeah," she said. "Good luck."

Kurt started to say something, but after a meaningful look from Rachel decided against it. In an awkward silence, the three of them left together.

So... that was that. Refusing to spend any more time racking her brains and making herself crazy over trying to figure it out, Santana made a massive effort to put it all on the back burner, to be dealt with later. She distracted herself by getting ready for school. It was Saturday, but she had a final scheduled for early this afternoon. She'd planned to go straight from Brittany's campus tour to her own campus, only a few blocks away. But now, with hours to kill, she might as well show up early and try to cram in some extra studying. Hopefully it would be easier to focus in the college library than in this empty, silent apartment.

But it wasn't, she soon found. Because even when she was there, in that particular muffled, intense quiet of an academic setting, it seemed to only get harder and harder to concentrate with each minute that passed. By the time she arrived in the designated classroom and sat down for the test itself, she'd forgotten almost everything she'd spent the entire week studiously memorizing. She stared down at the exam booklet, the strange terms of biology rendered meaningless to her. She forced herself to focus on one question at a time, trying to convince herself that this stuff mattered. But she couldn't quite seem to remember why it mattered. And with every minute that passed, she felt more and more anxious, like she needed to be somewhere else, right away.

About midway through the exam, already knowing she'd blown every question she'd attempted to answer, she gave up. Fuck this. Her relationship was more important than the difference between a species and a genus. Not even bothering to take the test to the front, she stood, and amid surprised looks from the other students, gathered her things and walked out of the room, leaving the exam booklet abandoned on the desk. The anxious feeling was only getting worse. And if she left now, she reasoned, maybe she could get a chance to talk to Brittany privately before Kurt and Rachel got home from their rehearsal.

Back in Brooklyn, she let herself into the quiet apartment. She started toward the bedrooms on the left, but something made her turn back and glance into the living room. Surprised, she saw that Brittany was here already. She was on the couch, with the TV switched off, and in her hands was the Rubik's cube she'd stolen from backstage at NYADA. In the silence she sat idly turning the panels, and for some reason she couldn't pinpoint, the sight of the damn thing made Santana wary. It looked like Brittany was killing time, like she was sitting in a doctor's waiting room. But what was she waiting for?

Slowly Santana came to stand in the doorway. Brittany looked up, and a brief sign of worry flickered across her face. Then she glanced down at the toy again. "You're home early."

"Yeah, the test was cancelled," Santana lied. "Automatic As for everyone." She came further into the room. When Brittany didn't look up again, or say anything else, she asked, "How was your tour? Did you talk to the admissions people?"

With obvious reluctance, Brittany finally said, "I didn't go."

"What? Why not?" Then she made an effort to sound supportive, not judgmental. "I mean, it's not really a big deal. You can reschedule it."

Brittany shrugged, still without looking up. "I don't even have a camera anymore, so... Seems kind of pointless to think about film school."

The defeated tone in Brittany's voice made her all the more determined to sound positive. "Well, as luck would have it, we just got you a new one, for your birthday. What are the chances, right?" She sat down on the edge of the coffee table, in front of Brittany. "It was supposed to be a surprise, but whatever. It should be here next week. And it's so much better than that ghetto one you've been using. It cost a fortune," she couldn't help bragging.

"Who's we?" Brittany asked.

"What?"

"You said we got you a camera."

"The three of us," she said, like it should be obvious. "Me and Kurt and Rachel."

"Oh." Brittany seemed to be speaking to the Rubik's cube. "Of course."

Santana gave her a strange look. "What's that supposed to mean?" Growing impatient when there was no answer, she said, "Would you put that stupid thing away and look at me, please?"

Grudgingly, she stopped messing with the toy and raised her eyes to meet Santana's.

But she almost wished she hadn't insisted, because the look on Brittany's face alarmed her. There were so many different emotions mixed up there, too many to decipher all at once. Hurt, and confusion, and anger, but also a kind of pleading. For what, though? And was it just Santana's imagination, or were her eyes red around the edges, like she'd been crying?

This was it, then. This was really fucking it. There was no putting it off or ignoring it or edging around it any longer. Santana took a deep breath, at long last forcing out the terrifying words that she'd been avoiding for so long.

"We need to talk."

"Yeah," Brittany agreed with a tiny nod. "I think we do."

But then, instead of immediately beginning, she stood up and moved away from the couch, over toward the bird cage. Santana remained where she was, watching her. Even though it was an odd moment to be thinking of such a thing, she was struck by how beautiful Brittany looked right now. It seemed wrong, somehow, that a person should look so beautiful even when she was unhappy... but there was no denying that in this case it was true. Her sorrow threw off a kind of radiance, and her silhouette against the light from the front window had a timeless quality. It was Brittany, but at the same time it was someone older, unfamiliar. It was like getting a glimpse of what she might look like in the future, if life turned out to be less than what she'd expected. Disturbed, Santana dropped her gaze.

She waited for Brittany to begin, but now she had her back turned, refilling the food tray in Monty's cage. So she decided to take the plunge herself.

"What was that about this morning?" she asked her softly. "Why did you shut me out like that?"

Taking her time, Brittany finished what she was doing before she turned back around. Crossing her arms, she considered her answer carefully, but then replied with another question. "Is there something going on with you and Rachel?"

For a minute Santana was too stunned to respond. She stared at her, uncomprehending. "What?"

"Because Millie says there is. She says she knows for sure that something happened. And she thinks it'll happen again," Brittany went on, relentless, like someone determined to get an unpleasant job over and done with. "At first I thought she had to be wrong, but now, after that stuff on the roof, I don't know what to think anymore. And I know you weren't rehearsing a scene, because Rachel's a really bad liar."

Santana stood up, her mind reeling with too much new information at once. "Wait... you've been hanging out with Amelia? I thought we talked about that, Britt. I told you she's insane!"

"I know you did. But I never promised I wouldn't see her."

She thought back to their conversation in the park, trying to remember if that was true. "So you just decided to do it behind my back?"

"I'm sorry," she said, but without sounding particularly sorry. "I shouldn't have lied. I just didn't want to have the same argument again about who I'm allowed to be friends with. And... you still haven't answered the question," she pointed out.

But Santana had only just begun to process everything she'd heard in the last few minutes. "God, this explains so much," she said to herself, shaking her head a little. "How could I not have seen it before?" Now she gave Brittany a pitying look. "Sweetie, she brainwashed you."

But almost immediately she realized it was the wrong thing to say, because Brittany flared up, indignant. "Nobody brainwashed me, Santana. She just told me what she thought was going on." Looking around, she added, "And it's not just her. I've been getting weird vibes about you two ever since I got here. Pete must have noticed something, too, or else why would he think you were a couple? Even Monty thinks something's up."

"Monty," Santana repeated, for a split second unable to remember who that was. "Monty the parrot? Brittany, he's a bird. You know he doesn't actually understand any of that stuff he says, right?"

Brittany looked away, muttering, "That's human supremacist, and I find it offensive."

Santana sighed, then attempted to get things back on track. "Okay, you know what? I admit, I thought this whole thing with you hating Rachel was kind of cute and flattering at first, not to mention hilarious as hell. But maybe I should have taken it more seriously." She paused, a new angle occurring to her. "Is this why you made her stop talking to me?"

"Pretty much," Brittany admitted. "And we see how well that worked out, so..."

"Yeah, well, I'm sorry for ruining your present, but there was..." she stopped, unsure how to explain it without breaking her promise. "I needed to talk to her about something, and it ended up getting a little emotional. I can understand why you thought it looked bad. But there is nothing weird going on. I mean, seriously, Brittany? Think about what you're saying."

Brittany was quiet, considering this.

She waited, but couldn't help feeling impatient. "You believe me, don't you?"

"I want to believe you. But maybe you're right, maybe I trust people too easily."

Santana stared at her in shock. "I didn't mean me."

For the moment, Brittany seemed to have run out of things to say. She looked tired. She turned and moved toward the kitchen, muttering something about grabbing a water. But Santana followed after her, because there was something she wanted to know and she was afraid if she didn't say it right this second, she would lose her nerve.

"Can I ask you something? Why doesn't Amelia bother you? It's been driving me crazy ever since I introduced you. She's the one I dated, the one I actually slept with. I mean, she told me she loved me, for God's sake... and you're out getting bagels, or whatever the hell it is you've been doing with her. Why doesn't that freak you out? I don't understand how you can be so okay with her."

Brittany shrugged as she closed the refrigerator, as if the answer to this was simple and obvious. "Because she doesn't mean anything to you."

"How do you know that?"

"I just do," she said stubbornly. "I know you, Santana. Sometimes I think I know you better than you know yourself. If she meant something to you, I would be able to tell." She paused, uncapping the bottle. "Rachel means something."

"Okay, yeah, you're right. She does. And you know what? So does Kurt. But I'm not about to go down on him anytime soon," she said with irony, adding in an aside, "Unless God forbid I break my leg and get hooked on Vicodin, and then all bets are off, apparently."

Brittany took a sip of her water, then stared at her for a few seconds, expressionless. "Gross." Without another word, she moved off toward their bedroom, and once again Santana found herself following her.

"Oh, come on, Britt, that was a joke." Her imploring voice echoed off the walls of the narrow hallway. "I've never seen this jealous side of you before. I would think it was kind of hot if it wasn't freaking me the hell out."

Brittany continued into their room and moved over to the far side of the bed, near the window, as if wanting to put some kind of barrier in between the two of them. "Well, I'm sorry. I'm sorry that it turns out I'm not perfect." Then she admitted in a small voice, "To be honest, it kind of came as a surprise to me too."

"You know, the funny thing is?" Santana asked, still standing in the doorway. "I thought you would be happy for me. Happy that I have other people in my life now, that I'm not shutting everyone out or chasing them away because I'm so miserable. Is that what you want me to go back to?"

"No. Of course not," Brittany insisted, and in a way that made it clear she was being genuine. She considered, then said quietly, "I guess I just miss the way things used to be. When it was just us. When no one else could get in our bubble and I didn't have to share you with anyone."

Even though Santana knew she should resist the argument, she couldn't help the fact that those words did something to her, struck something deep inside of her that was almost enough to bring tears to her eyes. "I get that," she said in a soft, sincere voice. "I miss it too sometimes. But high school's over, and things are different now, Brittany. We can't go back in time."

"I know that." Brittany looked away, and Santana thought she heard her say under her breath, "At least not yet."

Hesitantly, Santana came further into the room, but remained on the other side of the bed, feeling like she should keep her distance. "I don't know what else to say. I told you there's nothing going on, but you still seem upset. I just don't understand why she bothers you so much."

"I don't know either. It's just... It's weird seeing you be so close to another girl." She considered, adding, "I'm sorry, but it just is. Before I got here, I didn't think it would be so weird."

"Why is it weird?" Santana persisted. "I mean, do you think I can't be close friends with another girl without falling in love with her?"

She'd meant this halfway as a joke, but Brittany was serious as she stared down at the unmade bed, contemplating the words. Slowly dawning realization mixed with sheepishness was evident in her features.

"Oh my God," Santana said, bringing her hand to her heart in sudden understanding. "Is that what you think?"

Without looking up, she admitted, "It does sound kind of crazy when you put it into words like that."

"Yeah, because it is crazy! What happened between you and me was a once in a lifetime thing. It's not gonna be repeated every time I'm friends with someone who has two X chromosomes."

When Brittany didn't immediately reply, she went on, in an effort to set the record completely straight. "Okay, yeah, if we're being totally honest here, then maybe there was like the slightest danger of me getting a little too... I guess the word would be intrigued... during this one crazy week in the fall. But it was only because I missed you so much that I was losing my mind, and I thought she was trying to get into my pants..." At the look on Brittany's face, she interrupted herself. "That part's not important. What I'm saying is, things got a little awkward for a while. But you know what, Kurt gave me some great advice about my..." she paused, searching for the right word. "Tendencies. And so I went out and screwed a stranger who turned out to be a drug addict, and everything with Rachel was fine after that. So, you see, it was nothing. I know how to handle my issues."

Brittany was staring at her with a mixture of bafflement and dismay. "I don't even know how to respond to that."

Wondering if she'd taken the wrong approach, Santana offered helplessly, "Maybe I'm not explaining it right."

"So you admit it, then. Stuff did happen."

"No, there was no stuff. Did you not hear what I just said? I never even touched her! Except for her ankles, but only because she was doing this weird thing to me with her feet." Off of Brittany's look, she hastily raised her hand and corrected, "No-no-no-no, it wasn't like a fetish thing." Then in a more uncertain tone, "At least I don't think it was."

"Okay, I don't want to hear anymore. Please just stop talking about it before I throw up."

"Brittany," she entreated her. "We are talking about the same Rachel Berry here, aren't we? I just want to be clear on that."

"Well, yeah... I mean, I hope so. Because if there's more than one, then this whole thing is even more messed up than I thought it was."

"What I'm saying is... Think what you're accusing me of. We're talking about a girl who alphabetizes her Playbills, all right? A girl who describes dairy farmers as cow molesters."

"Yeah, and in high school?" Brittany shot back. "All that stuff used to bug you, a lot... but the funny thing is, it doesn't seem to anymore."

She considered saying that of course it still bugged her, but she'd learned how to deal, because that's what happens when you grow up. Or that the things that bugged you in a high school glee club seemed a little less important in a city of eight million strangers. But she suddenly felt fed up with offering justifications. "You know what, screw this, why am I even getting all defensive here, when I didn't do anything wrong. This whole thing is ridiculous, I have nothing to feel bad about."

"Then why do you look so guilty?"

Crossing her arms, she fell silent, not immediately able to answer. Because it was true, she did feel guilty. Not for anything she'd done, necessarily, but more so for what she hadn't done - for what she hadn't noticed, and for what she'd been too scared to talk about when she finally had noticed it. If she hadn't been so afraid of hearing the truth, if she hadn't been running away from all of this for so long, then Brittany's suspicions wouldn't have had a chance to grow to such a dangerous size.

She started to attempt to explain this, to apologize, but there was something about the obstinacy in Brittany's posture that stopped her, something that now, at the worst of all possible moments, made her pride flare up, made her determined to prove herself right. The mixture of self-righteousness and anger wasn't a new feeling by any means, but when it came to Brittany, she didn't think she'd ever experienced it. Had they ever even had a fight before? This was all so new and strange. She wanted to make everything right, but she could feel the force of Brittany's stubbornness directed against her, her refusal to be reasoned with.

Then suddenly, with what she felt to be a flash of insight, everything presented itself to her from a new angle.

"Hold up, I know what this is," Santana said slowly. She nodded, confident. "Mm-hm, I know exactly what's going on here. You want to leave." She said it like she couldn't believe she hadn't realized it before. "You don't want to be in New York anymore, especially after what happened last night, and so you're just looking for a reason to go. An excuse to go. That's what all this jealousy bullshit is really about."

This accusation seemed to get under her skin, which made Santana even more convinced she'd guessed right.

"That's not true. I do want to be here!" Brittany protested. "You have no idea how much I wanted everything to be perfect."

"Perfect? I can't give you perfect, Brittany! I mean, what did you think it was gonna be like?"

She chewed on the inside of her cheek, mulling over the answer, taking it as a real question and not a rhetorical one. "Honestly? Like an episode of Friends. Not, like, a Very Special episode. Just a normal one. I thought we would live in this giant bright apartment, and we would all be best friends, and instead of drinking coffee at Central Perk, we would sing and dance all the time. And New York would be clean and safe and people would only use language appropriate for prime time sitcoms." She paused, adding, "I think I was also picturing a live studio audience to laugh at all my jokes... but, I don't know, that part was sort of fuzzy in my head." She added, "But the most important part? You and me would still be us. Just us, no one else."

She contemplated her next words, thoughtful. "But it's not like that. It's not like that at all. I mean, yes, we do sing and dance a lot. But this place looks nothing like Monica's, and Pete was like our crazy Chandler but now he's dead, and Brooklyn is scarier than I thought it would be, and if one more person tells me to go F myself? I'm gonna snap and do something crazy. Oh, and also, our Rachel is super annoying and looks nothing like Jennifer Aniston. But yet you still have more in common with her and with Kurt than you do with me. Because you're all fierce and driven and talented, and you're gonna be big stars someday. And you all belong here." Her voice became quieter, but at the same time more insistent. "You're New Yorkers. And I'm not."

"You are, though." Santana stared at her beseechingly, trying to convince her with her own conviction. "I know you are. I knew it the minute you got here. You just don't trust yourself enough to believe it." She gave her a searching look. "Brittany, you've got to find your confidence again."

"Yeah, well... I think I'm done looking for things, because I was told recently by a person who shall remain nameless that I had to find the magic in this city. And the funny thing is? I did. I really think I did. But then, five seconds after I found it? We got mugged. So maybe that's some kind of sign, I don't know. I just know that I'm so confused right now, and I think..." She closed her eyes briefly, not wanting to continue, but forcing herself to. "I think I need to just get away from it all for a while, and clear my head. I think I need to go back to Lima. By myself."

So, there it was. The very thing she'd been worrying about for weeks, the very thing, Santana now realized, that she'd been subconsciously expecting Brittany to say ever since she'd found her sitting in the living room earlier.

She took a slow, deep breath, and then let it out, trying not to give any hints of distress. Afraid she would betray too much emotion if she attempted more than word, she simply asked, "When?"

Brittany hesitated, not wanting to say. "Mr. Bloom is leaving this afternoon. He said the offer for a ride is still good."

"What, today? Are you kidding me?" Now Santana looked around, bewildered, as if afraid he might already be lurking here, waiting to whisk Brittany away. "So that's it then. We have one bad week and you're just gonna pack up and bail?" She moved closer to her, but resisted the impulse to reach out and take her hand, fearing it would seem too desperate. "Britt, this is real life, we're adults now. I know that for a long time things were so easy for us, maybe too easy. It can't go on like that forever. But... this is what couples do, you know? They have misunderstandings, they fight... and then they get over it and move on."

"Well, I don't like fighting." She sounded firm, determined. "I especially don't like fighting with you. It hurts too much. If that's what it means to be a couple, then..."

The words trailed off, but too late to halt the needles of icy fear that worked their way through Santana's veins. She held extremely still for a second before asking, just above a whisper, "Then what?"

Brittany waited just a second too long. Then, "Nothing," she said, already regretful. "I didn't mean it that way. You know I didn't."

But Santana didn't appear to be listening. Now that she was closer to the other side of the bed, she became aware of something, something that had been in plain view the entire time, but which somehow in the intensity of their conversation had escaped her notice. There were two pieces of packed luggage sitting on the floor next to Brittany's bedside table. She stared down at them, thinking at first that she must be imagining things.

"You already told him you would go, didn't you?" she said, looking away from the bags and back at Brittany, in disbelief. "Were you just gonna leave without saying goodbye?"

Miserable, Brittany stared at the bags as she replied. "I hadn't decided yet. But I thought maybe it would be easier that way."

She gave a tiny, mirthless laugh. "Yeah, I guess it probably would have been, for you."

"Santana..."

"No," she interrupted her, unable to keep the condescension out of her tone. "You know what, I think you're right. I think you should go back for a while. We probably moved way too fast. After all, we were gonna take things slow, right? Maybe you just got in over your head."

She started toward the door, but then turned back around, adding before she could think better of it, "Oh, and also, just for the record? You don't have to worry about me having sexy times with Rachel while you're gone. Because believe me, the last thing I would ever do is let myself fall in love with someone else who can't- " With a short gasp, she bit back the words she'd been about to say. But she'd already gone too far for the self-censoring to make any difference.

"Someone else who can't what?" Brittany asked after waiting for Santana to continue. "Someone who can't fall in love with you back?" At first only puzzlement registered in her features, but then, as Santana watched, realization dawned. Brittany looked into the past, remembering. "Are you still thinking about what I said that night on the bleachers? It was almost a year ago."

"Yeah, well, it doesn't feel that long ago to me." In a rush, she added, "And if you want to know the truth, yes, I think about it. I think about it every day." There, it was out. She hadn't planned to say it, she'd decided just this morning that she would never say it. But now there was no taking it back.

Brittany was staring at her in a baffled, almost pitying way, trying to comprehend. "I don't understand why words matter so much to you, Santana. I hate words. They're slippery, and confusing, and they don't mean anything, not really. They're just... words."

"Sometimes they do, Britt. I'm sorry, but sometimes they mean something."

"Okay, well... if words mean that much, then do you remember what you said to me the very first time I told you I loved you?"

Thrown for a loop by this sudden, unexpected change of subject, for a minute she had no idea how to respond. She made an effort to recall what Brittany was talking about, but at the moment it was too difficult to shift her thoughts in that direction. "I don't know." She shrugged, helplessly. "Probably... I love you too?"

"No." Brittany managed to sound both patient and exasperated at the same time, like someone talking to a small child. The tone of her voice indicated Nice try. She waited, giving her another chance, but when Santana still didn't say anything, she went on. "When I told you I loved you, you said, 'Don't pretend this is something it's not.'"

Santana lowered her head, closing her eyes for a second in shame. Shit. Because now she did remember, and she wished she didn't. That thrilling and yet terrifying day when suddenly sex hadn't been just sex anymore... was it sophomore year? She knew it had been far from one of her proudest moments. Maybe that was why she'd temporarily blocked it from her memory.

Unable to think of any real justification, she gave Brittany the simple truth. "I was scared."

"Yeah. I know." She nodded a little, understanding. "And you may find this hard to believe, but... sometimes I get scared too."

"Brittany," she whispered. She wanted to tell her that she knew that, of course she knew that. But had she? Had she really known it, or ever stopped to consider that beneath Brittany's seeming self-assurance and ease with their relationship, with everything, really, there could be lurking doubts that she'd never even bothered to notice?

Brittany was looking down, refusing to meet her eyes again. Santana drew in her breath, a little shakily, unsure of what to do. More than she'd ever wanted anything in the world, she wanted to hold her. This was all so horrible and stupid and ridiculous. If they could just touch each other, if they could just fold into each other's arms and breathe one another in, then this entire last fifteen minutes would seem so small and pointless in comparison, she knew it would. She was on the verge of reaching out for her.

But something was wrong, and her mind wasn't obeying her heart. Because for the first time in her life, she didn't know what would happen when she touched her. What if Brittany resisted? What if she stood there, rigid, unyielding? What if, God forbid, she backed away? If that happened, Santana knew, there would be no going back from it. It would change everything between them, forever. And this conviction paralyzed her, kept her feet rooted firmly to the floorboards, less than a room's distance away from Brittany but as though some kind of invisible wall stood between them.

They were still standing there, the room heavy with silence, when a few seconds later a series of rhythmic, emphatic knocks echoed through the apartment from the front door. Then came Mr. Bloom's muffled yet still audible voice. "Hark, maiden!" he boomed. "Your chariot awaits!" And then, as if unable to help himself, he followed this up with an echoing, "Two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference! Robert Frost!"

Brittany glanced up, meeting Santana's gaze again, and now that the moment was really here, there was something in her expression that seemed to indicate maybe they could still fix this. Maybe it wasn't too late. Tell me not to go, her eyes pleaded.

But Santana looked away, because she wasn't going to do that again, she wasn't going to beg. Things had gone too far this time. And it wasn't her decision to make, anyway. Brittany had to decide for herself. If she didn't, if Santana talked her out of it again, then they would just keep going around in circles with this.

"I'll get the door," she said quietly. "You've got stuff to carry." Then, before she could change her mind, she left the room.

At the front door she paused with her hand on the knob for just a brief second to compose herself, then opened it to a rosy-cheeked and jubilant Mr. Bloom. He rushed in, filling up the small entry, and Santana was forced to step back. She felt rather than saw Brittany appear behind her, and she had a split second of hoping she'd left the bags in the bedroom, that she'd made the decision on her own. But already Mr. Bloom was reaching out to take them, and the hope evaporated almost before it had formed.

"Our journey commences!" he announced, hefting one of the bags to his shoulder. "I can't tell you how glad I am to have a traveling companion, young lady. You can keep me awake. And sober! We'll be like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Like the Friar and the Wife of Bath!" When Brittany didn't seem to appreciate, or even comprehend, these eager examples, he tried a more practical angle. "Shall I take these down to the car, m'lady?" he asked, indicating her bags.

"Oh, um, I guess so," Brittany said, handing over her second piece of luggage with what looked like reluctance. "You don't have to, though."

"Ah, but a gentleman must insist," he said. Then he stepped back, beaming at them. He was dressed in his standard shabby-professorial style, wearing rumpled khakis and a sweater-vest that had seen better days, but in addition to this he had an old-fashioned heavy flash camera strung around his neck, and on his head was a safari hat. It looked as though he and Brittany were going on vacation together. Santana tried to keep her resentment under control, since most of the time she really did like the eccentric old dork.

But she must not have been entirely successful, and since it was obvious that Brittany's spirits were no match for his own, either, his smile faded a bit as he studied their gloom. "Did I arrive too early?"

"No, not at all," Brittany assured him. "You're pretty much right on time." She avoided looking at Santana while she said this.

"Then I have but one request to make, my lass." He gave her a dramatically serious look and stood with his back straight, like he was a knight addressing his royal patron. "It has just come to my attention that I have in my keep rare research materials that must be returned to the public library, the glorious main branch, before I depart this jewel on the Hudson. Do you mind a bit of a detour on our journey into the west?"

Brittany took a few seconds to translate these words into everyday English before answering. "No, that's fine, I love the library. Those stone lions watch me wherever I go. It makes me feel like they could come to life at any minute." Her enthusiasm came only with an effort, though. She sounded like someone doing an impression of Brittany, rather than like herself. But if Mr. Bloom noticed, he tactfully didn't mention it.

"Splendid!" he exclaimed. "Then I'll just take these down to the car while you say your goodbyes. Take your time, ladies." But before he turned, he gave Santana a keen look, assessing her sadness. He hesitated, then quoted at her, "O mistress mine! where are you roaming? O! stay and hear; your true love's coming, That can sing both high and low. Trip no further, pretty sweeting; Journeys end in lovers meeting, Every wise man's son doth know." He took a second to catch his breath, then announced, "William Shakespeare!"

In response, Santana wrinkled her brow at him in irritable confusion, with absolutely no clue what the appropriate response to this was, or even what it meant. "Thanks?" she offered, wanting him to go away.

He gave her an affectionate pat on the cheek, finally leaving the two of them alone. Brittany watched him go, then turned back.

They stood facing each other, awkward, miserable, not knowing how to begin. This all seemed to be happening so fast that Santana couldn't quite process it. Had it been only yesterday that they were joking about babies? Only yesterday? How had they gotten from there to here in just twenty-four hours?

"So..." Brittany said, shifting her weight, looking at her feet. "I don't really know what to say right now. Except for, I'm sorry."

Santana avoided her eyes. She didn't know what to say either, or how to respond to that. Sorry for what, exactly? Looking into the living room, she noticed the abandoned Rubik's cube on the coffee table, where Brittany had laid it aside earlier. Since any distraction was better than none, she stepped into the room and got it, bringing it back.

"Don't forget this." She turned it in her hand, examining it. "Looks like you're getting close. It's gonna blow everyone's mind when you finish it." Her voice sounded numb, even to her own ears.

Brittany reached out and took the toy, but said with sad certainty, "I'll never finish it."

It hurt, as always, to hear Brittany talk about herself like that. But rather than try to convince her otherwise, Santana said, "You'd better get down there before he gets a parking ticket."

"Okay." She sighed, but still couldn't seem to move.

There was a knot in Santana's throat, but her eyes were achingly, almost unbearably dry. This wasn't like this morning on the roof, at all, when the emotion had taken her unawares. This was like something happening in nightmarish slow motion but all too fast at the same time, and it hurt too much for tears. She'd thought their last parting, that June day on the football field, had been hard. It was nothing, nothing compared to this.

She finally forced herself to look at Brittany. What she was thinking was, I'm afraid if you walk out that door you'll never come back. I'm afraid I'll miss you every day for the rest of my life. I'm afraid there's no one else in the entire world who could ever know me and still love me the way you do.

What she said was, "You call me the second you get there."

Brittany looked back at her, pressing her lips together in contemplation. Then she moved in hesitantly for what looked like the beginning of a hug.

But as if by instinct, Santana stepped back, shaking her head. "No," she whispered. "I can't." What she meant was that she was afraid if she felt Brittany's arms around her she would crumble, that she would cling to her, desperate, refusing to let go. She didn't trust herself.

Brittany seemed to understand. Maybe she felt the same way. But she didn't seem to know how else to say goodbye. She crossed her arms in front of her and stared down at the floor again, delaying.

"Wear your seatbelt," Santana said. "And I swear to God, Britt, if you let him touch one drop of alcohol..."

"I won't," Brittany said quickly. "I promise." Another few seconds of stalling, then she said, "All right, I'm gonna go. I'll see you soon."

"Yeah. See you soon." But she didn't ask when. She was too afraid of what the answer might be.

Brittany turned halfway toward the door, but then on impulse turned back, and, before Santana could evade her, darted forward for a replay of that same chaste peck they'd attempted on the night of Brittany's arrival back in the winter. Caught off guard, Santana closed her eyes as she felt Brittany's cheek brush against her own. This time, unlike on that cold January night, there was no spark of static electricity. Only softness and warmth and the familiar scent of her skin.

It lasted just a brief instant, and by the time Santana opened her eyes again Brittany was already moving toward the door, her head ducked as if she wanted to hide her face. She went out, not looking back again as she pulled the door shut behind her.

Santana stood there by herself for a minute, listening to the overpowering stillness of the empty apartment, hearing the faint receding echo of Brittany's feet on the stairwell. She looked into the living room, and, knowing she shouldn't do it, but unable to resist the urge, she slowly moved over to the front windows, the ones that looked down into the street.

She stared down at Mr. Bloom trying to close his over-packed car trunk, wishing she could do this whole day over again. Or even the last half hour. If she could only rewind the scene just a little bit, just go back to when she'd walked through the door and seen Brittany on the couch, that was all she would ask. She would do it all right this time. She would say the right things, reassure her of her love, not get defensive, not say anything hurtful, not go into any unnecessary detail about things like Rachel's ankles. Oh God, she thought to herself in horror, did I mention her fucking ankles? What is wrong with me?

But maybe she'd have to go further back in time to really fix things. How had she not noticed the doubts and insecurities that had been building up in Brittany's mind these last few months? Were other people as terrible as she apparently was at balancing friendships and romance? She was suddenly confronted with the terrifying fact that you could never really know what another person was thinking. Not even the person you loved more than anyone else. She'd made the mistake of thinking they were different, that, unlike the rest of the couples on the planet, they were immune to all the usual problems. Like they had some kind of special soulmate mind-reading ability that would always protect them from days like this one. But they didn't.

They were two separate people, after all. Two very different people, in fact. What if being best friends wasn't enough to get them through this? And what if she'd fucked things up so badly that she'd lost not just her girlfriend, but her best friend, forever? The irony, of course, was that when something hurt this bad there was only one person she wanted to share it with, one person who could make it all better. And that was the person who was stepping down onto the sidewalk now, preparing to get into the car of a man she hardly knew, preparing to leave her, maybe for good.

Mr. Bloom had successfully closed the trunk, and now he'd circled around and was holding the front passenger-side door open, still making a game of his chivalry. Before she got in Brittany glanced up, shading her eyes against the afternoon sun, scanning the upper floor of the building. She seemed to be searching for something. Santana stepped forward, her heart giving a lurch of hope. She pressed her hand to the glass, whispering, "I'm here." But the angle of light must have been wrong; maybe there was a glare. It didn't seem that Brittany could see anything, because after a few seconds she dropped her hand in a discouraged way and turned back to the car.

As Santana watched, she climbed into the front seat. Mr. Bloom gave the door a gentlemanly slam, then lumbered around to the driver's side, a spring in his step despite his considerable bulk. He got in, and though she couldn't hear the motor with the window closed, Santana saw the brake lights flash on. Then, all too soon, he was easing out of the parking space, angling into the street. Even though it made no sense, Santana found that she was holding her breath, waiting for the car to stop, waiting for this absurdity to end and for Brittany to get out and come back upstairs. But the car didn't stop. It rolled down the street, picking up speed. Then it paused at the corner, left blinker flashing. It turned, and just before it disappeared from view, she realized something, with an almost physical pang of regret and dismay. We didn't say I love you.

But it didn't matter how many things she realized now; it was too late. The car was gone. It wasn't coming back.

She leaned her forehead against the cool glass. Now, finally, the tears came.