The 404th Airborne out of Fort Dix, New Jersey is deployed the second week of June. Santana, her ACUs weighing heavy on her in the humidity of the early morning dew, stands rigidly in formation while their commanding officer gives a speech in the hanger. Just outside the massive door is an Army cargo plane, engines being spooled up and bay doors thrown wide. They're scheduled to depart at 0900, and the minutes are crawling by while the Brigadier General speaks, his words vacant of the reassurance he's attempting to convey.
You are soldiers, he says. You have trained for this. You are ready to face the challenges set before you, and make your country and your families proud. She doesn't feel ready. She feels scared and alone, standing in this crowd of men and women who probably feel the exact same way, despite the fact that no one in formation will ever express as much.
Williams, to her right, can't hide the smile that's nearly tearing his face in two. Bobby, on her left, isn't quite so thrilled. His normally dark features are ashen. He thick eyebrows knit together in worry and terror and his eyes lack their usual focus. She can see him checking his peripherals, hoping to catch a glimpse of the crowd that gathers haphazardly behind them.
Toward the back of the hanger are the families, seeing their soldiers off. The husbands and wives. Girlfriends and boyfriends. Parents, siblings, children. Santana has no one in that crowd, who are all dressed the best way they know how for sending their loved ones off into war. Sun dresses and big-rimmed hats to hide their faces and the fact that they've been crying. Only a few stand completely stoic. A baby wails from the middle of the crowd, and Santana's ears prick for moment, until she realizes that it's not The Kid. The Kid's cries are throatier than that; fewer tears and more lungs. And then she has to choke on the lump that rises from her gut to keep from crying herself.
It's not as though this was never a possibility. Part of the decision to join the Reserve had been accepting the fact that they're a Federal agency. When the core Army units are all deployed, the Reserve picks up the slack. If she'd joined the National Guard things might be different. She'd be on another tornado clean up mission, or down south putting up storm windows against the hurricane that's building in the Gulf. The Guard is a state agency. She would have been safe.
But safe wasn't what she'd been looking for when she signed up. If it had been, she would have continued down the road without stopping for that recruiter. Gone home to her one-bedroom apartment with Brittany. Kept living quietly and without purpose. Now, standing in this hanger on the precipice of war, she thinks maybe this isn't what she'd had in mind when she was looking for that purpose.
There's a rumbling cheer of "Hooah!" and she snaps up. Ranks are broken and the soldiers begin to mix with the families. She stands her ground and waits to board the plane; Williams has Jenny and his parents, Bobby has Georgia and The Kid. She'd just be in the way.
"No one to see you off, Lopez?" The Brigadier General approaches coolly, the mountain of a man standing tall in his Class A's and his hands behind his back. Across his chest are a string of medals and accolades that she couldn't hope to earn in ten lifetimes. He's intimidating, and he has the great fortune of staying behind. Someone has to run the base while the troops are off playing at war.
"No, sir," she says, still at attention, without elaborating as to why there's no one there for her.
"At ease, Lopez. You'll have your whole tour to put your shoulders back." She relaxes a little, but her hands stay firm at her sides. "I hate these big send-offs. The speeches and the crying. Sentimentality has no place on an Army base, Lopez. No need for family at these things. Say your goodbyes at home, then let us do our jobs. It's good to see another soldier who feels the same."
He addresses her as though he has some intimate knowledge of who she is, despite the fact that they've met twice on base and never exchanged words beyond, "Yes, sir, thank you, sir." But he is her commanding officer and she doesn't want to correct him when his blow strikes low. It's not that she doesn't want anyone here with her. It's that she's alienated everyone who ever cared, so now she's stuck. Alone and scared and standing in the shadow of a man who she might very well become one day. A career soldier with no family and a list of commendations as long as her arm.
She can't imagine that he's a very happy man.
"Hooah, Lopez," he says, thick and formal and out of character of the usually uplifting Army cry. "Make us proud."
He leaves her there, and she's grateful for the moment of peace to collect herself. She can't allow the rest of her unit to see her upset when they haven't even boarded the fucking plane. Keep it together. Just a bit longer.
She sees soldiers headed toward the plane, waving as their families get caught behind a fence cordoning off the runway from the hanger. She turns to follow, eyes on the ground, but a hand finds her elbow and she stops.
"Santana Lopez, don't you dare get on that plane without saying goodbye."
Georgia has been crying. Her face is puffy and red and her eyes are rimmed in black from her running mascara. The Kid sits on her hip, looking confused and chewing on her fingers. Bobby is behind them, one hand on Georgia's shoulder and the other on The Kid's dark hair. He glares at her over the top of Georgia's head, his eyes telling her he's gonna rip her a new one once they get out of earshot for even trying to get away with leaving before saying goodbye to Georgia.
"No, ma'am," Santana says, letting her face soften and a smile peek through. "I wouldn't dream of it."
Georgia uses the arm not holding The Kid to pull Santana into her chest. Santana tenses instinctively, but feels her muscles loosen when her head rests comfortably against Georgia's solid shoulder. For a minute she remembers what it's like to have a mother's embrace as Georgia kisses the side of her head and tightens the arm around Santana's body. The Kid squirms from where she's squished between them, removing the fist she's been sucking on from her mouth long enough to whine as she begins to realize that something is very wrong. Her mother is crying, and her mother never cries. Her father is in his funny clothes and when he puts those on he disappears for days. If he's gone, whose arms will be big enough to scoop her up and throw her in the air?
Santana watches that little face twist in realization and bright eyes go dark and squint, and then there's a wail. This isn't the usual Kid crying, where she battles and kicks and demands attention. This is desperate, confused, limp crying, with real tears streaming down those perfectly round cheeks. She steps out of Georgia's grasp and reaches out, taking the twenty pounds of crying Kid under the arms and lifting her.
"It's okay," she says, quiet enough that the tears subside so Ana can hear what Santana is saying. "We won't be long, Kiddo. You won't even know we're gone."
She looks over the top of The Kid's head at Georgia, who has wrapped herself in Bobby's arms. Her friend stares off at the plane, its engines whirring loud and menacing. They take no notice of her watching them, too busy enjoying their last few moments together, or mourning them. She'd never really been a big fan of goodbye, and she couldn't imagine that, in this situation, Bobby and Georgia were either.
In her arms, The Kid squirms. She snuffles her face into Santana's shoulder, leaving a wet patch of tears and snot that Santana can't really be bothered to be upset about. There are worse things, really. Like getting on that plane. Like war. Like leaving without calling anyone but her parents.
Well, not without calling. She'd tried, every day for the two weeks she'd had before deployment. She has the voicemail greeting memorized now. "You've reached Quinn Fabray. I can't answer the phone right now, but leave me your name, number and a message and I'll get back to you as soon as possible. Have a nice day."
By the time she'd made the tenth call, that last part mocked her. Have a nice day, like Quinn was smirking at her from wherever she was at and waving her fingers in disdain. Like she knew how desperate Santana was to just say goodbye, and she was making it very clear that she didn't care. But Santana has never been one to take a hint, so she kept calling.
She shuffles The Kid to the other arm and reaches into her leg pocket for her phone. It won't be much use in Syria, but she feels naked without it, so she'd decided to bring it anyway. And besides, she still has one more call to make.
It rings once before Santana remembers that it's not even six in the morning in Los Angeles. She thinks about hanging up, feeling guilty, but the damage is done, and the worst that can happen is Brittany sleeps through it and she leaves a voicemail.
Two rings, then three, and Brittany's chipper voice pierces through the whirring of the jet engines. "Hi! This is Brittany's phone. She can't answer me right now, but you should totally leave her a message and I'll save it until she gets back! Bye!"
Santana is caught between laughing at the ridiculous greeting and crying that she can't hear Brittany's real voice making a real joke to help her get on the plane with less fear squatting in her stomach. The phone beeps, and she needs to tell someone that's leaving.
"Hey, it's me. I'm, um... I'm going away for a while. The Army called me up. I'm flying to Syria today. I just wanted someone to know." She considers ending it there, but there's too much left to say and no other opportunity to say it. She might never talk to Brittany again, and if she can't say it now, she'll take it to her grave.
"I know you hated me for doing this, and I know that it wasn't the thing that ruined us, but it was the kicker. I don't want to leave without telling you that I'm sorry. For everything. For not talking to you, for shutting down, for making this decision on my own when we were supposed to be a team. I just... I needed you to know that I love you, B. You're my best friend, always."
Another pause, and more guilt because she knows she shouldn't be asking Brittany to do this, especially after everything she'd just said. But who else is there, and who else can she trust?
"Could you... could you tell Quinn goodbye for me? She's not returning my calls. I... I just want her to know I'm sorry, too, for the shit we went through. Just tell her that I'm sorry. Bye, B. I guess I'll... see you later."
She snaps the phone shut before Brittany hears her crying in the message. The last thing she wants is for Brittany to think she went into war scared and alone. She hears the Major call them into formation, and slips the phone back into her pocket. Georgia, who had been stable for this long, starts shaking in Bobby's arms. The Kid sees her mom start to tremble and then everything becomes incredibly real. She's sobbing fat hysterical tears, grabbing out at her father and kicking her strong, pudgy legs. Bobby reaches for her and for one full minute the three of them are inconsolable together, without any sense of dignity or shame in the face of the rest of the unit. They are not a soldier leaving his patriotic family to run off to war, but a father being torn away unwillingly from his wife and child. And Santana is the witness, watching them while the men and women of their unit rush into the bay doors of the cargo plane and disappear, possibly forever.
"We have to go, Bobby," she says, but her words are drowned by the deafening hum of the spooling engines and Kid tears. "Bobby, come on. We have to go."
He kisses the tops of his wife and daughter's heads in turn, pushing The Kid into Georgia's unstable arms before turning and walking away. He brushes past Santana, his head down as he wipes his eyes with the back of his sleeve. She stays just another moment, then turns back to Georgia when he's gone into the hold of the plane.
"Don't worry," she says, pulling her friend into a hug and pressing her face into Georgia's hair. "I'll take care of him, I swear."
"But who'll be taking care of you?" Georgia asks. Santana wonders the same thing as she runs to the plane, to be carried off to war.
Brittany doesn't wake up early. It's almost a physical impossibility. In high school, Santana had been the one to make sure she got to class on time, coming over at ungodly hours to shake her awake and press her uniform free from wrinkles, because she'd never really remembered to hang them after her mom pulled them from the wash. They showered together, Brittany sleepily kissing up the back of Santana's neck and listening to her whine out plaintive little protests. We're gonna be late, she'd said. We can't, it's already quarter after. Santana usually won the argument, citing the wrath of Sue Sylvester. But on the days that Brittany won, they skipped first period entirely and spent the extra hour in bed, hair wet and mussed while they giggled together, hands exploring bodies in the way that only young lovers could.
Time changed things. After a year or so in Los Angeles, Santana was more reluctant to coddle her in the mornings, especially after crawling in at five a.m. when she'd pulled a closing shift at the bar and Brittany's alarms went off in succession at six-thirty. Three of them, with varying volumes and different tones, blasted each morning until Santana acted as the fourth and gave her a shove to bring her fully into consciousness. They stopped showering together, stopped giggling in bed in the mornings. Brittany would lean over Santana's prone body while she slept on, oblivious, and kiss her forehead goodbye before heading to the studio for her day's classes.
Los Angeles was one of the most overwhelming places she'd ever been in her life. Probably even more so than New York, despite only having been there a few days for Nationals. She had to own a car and remember to fill the tank and pay attention to where she was going because the traffic was so horrible that she could get shuffled along the freeway and miss her exit if she wasn't careful. She had to audition for things and it wasn't as easy as it was back in Ohio. In Ohio she was the best. No one could dance the way she could. Out in LA, it seemed like everyone was better, stronger, smarter than she. They picked up choreography faster. They went to fancy schools. They studied dances she'd never even heard of. She'd wandered into a city thinking one job offer meant she'd be set for life. But as soon as that job was done, the next was not so easy to come by.
So she spent all of her time doing everything she could to make it without being overwhelmed. She took classes and taught classes and went to every audition she could find. She'd pretended to be a giant baby for a diaper commercial. She'd worn a moose costume. She'd stripped herself naked in the basement of a warehouse in the Valley and danced for two guys carrying a handheld camera and boom mic. Santana hadn't been particularly happy about that one, but it had paid really well and Brittany wasn't ashamed of her body, nor of anything she'd done in that room. She'd danced, and that was all. Santana just didn't understand.
Their lives intersected at specific points in time. They had lunch together every day, so Santana had reason to be awake by noon during the week. They saved Sundays for one another, for a dinner in their tiny, eat-in kitchen. Brittany went to Santana's bar every Thursday night to watch her sling beer and shake martinis for models that weren't half as beautiful as Santana in a dirty apron. They scheduled time around their jobs, just to be together. It would have been romantic if it hadn't grown monotonous over time. Routine was boring for a girl who spent the majority of her childhood living by the seat of her pants.
Then, as time went on, Brittany found herself taking jobs that meshed with Santana's schedule. She turned down offers to travel because Santana couldn't get time off work. She avoided shoots that started early and ended late, or workshops with directors that were well-known to call for rehearsals at unpredictable hours. She felt herself being held back, felt the offers beginning to fade. Agents and managers knew she wouldn't travel, so they stopped asking. She resented it. Resented that they didn't push her, resented Santana for putting her in this position in the first place. And at the end of the day, she still felt guilty. Brittany watched Santana struggle with not getting all the things she wanted, while her own star continued to shine brighter every day.
But still, she stayed. She slipped into bed each night to wait until Santana joined her hours later, smelling of booze and men and disappointment. Brittany would pull her into her chest and hold her while she mumbled about how she hated her life, how it wasn't what she expected it to be. Brittany flinched at the implication, and in silent anger. Her life isn't how she pictured it either. She never pictured feeling so trapped.
Lunches were canceled. Weekly Sunday dinners became a whenever-we-have-time affair. Brittany stopped showing up at the bar when the men there made her uncomfortable and Santana did nothing to rebuke their advances. They stopped talking.
Their last night together wasn't unusual. Brittany was already in bed when Santana got home, just after three and trailing a stench of the bar so thick behind her that it was nearly visible. Like Pigpen in the Charlie Brown comics. Brittany sat up in bed to wait for Santana to shower, leaning back against the headboard with her eyes closed. She must have fallen asleep, because she was woken by an arm curling around her waist and a warm body pulling up next to her.
"We need to talk," the body said in the dark, and the bottom of Brittany's stomach dropped out.
"About what, baby?" She kept her tone even, muted and calm despite the fear. This is it, isn't it? This is how it ends.
"I did something today. Something I don't think I can take back."
The confession sounded grave, like something interminable that could not be unsaid once spoken aloud. She had expectations; she and Santana had been unapologetic cheaters in high school, and the instinct to stray in times of struggle was always there. She expected that. She'd been waiting for it, really. Waiting for the day when it would be too hard and Santana would go home with some drunk woman from the bar after last call instead of returning to their bed. Brittany had reached over to their bedside table and flicked on the light. She needed to be able to witness the demise of her relationship, and she would not let it end in shadows.
"Britt..." Brittany still remembers the pause, how long Santana took after saying her name and how the guilt clung to the air like fog.
One one thousand.
Two one thousand.
Three one thousand.
"I joined the army."
It was the last thing she expected, but when she'd looked down at Santana with her arms wrapped vice-like around her waist, and her face a mixture of guilt and defiance, she thought she might have preferred the cheating.
She didn't shout. She didn't scream or throw a fit or call Santana all of the awful things that she wanted to. Instead, she disentangled herself from those strong, beautiful arms, pulled herself out of bed, and crossed to the window. She needed space. There wasn't enough air in the room. Things were closing in around her.
Not that any answer would have been satisfactory, but she needed to ask anyway. She listened to Santana speak, listened to her talk about how she felt unsatisfied and empty and lost. The army could give her purpose again, direction and a challenge. All the things Brittany apparently could not.
"So go to college," she said, her fingers digging into the window sill until her nails threatened to break. "Take some classes, find purpose that way."
"You know we can't afford that, Britt." It was a flimsy excuse. There were loans. And Brittany could easily have afforded the rent on their apartment on her own, with what she made.
It had been so clear that night that even the lights of Los Angeles couldn't drown out a few very determined stars, and the crescent moon that waned among them. Brittany stared up at them, praying one would fall just then, just for her, so that she might make a wish and have this be a bad dream. Maybe it was; maybe she was asleep, still seventeen and full of so much hope and promise and she and Santana were still braving the halls of high school together, hand in hand. She closed her eyes against the brightness of the night, pinched her arm and turned.
Opening them again, she found that she was still in the apartment in California, and Santana was still sitting on the edge of it, biting her lip and waiting. She felt her throat tighten and she realized there was no way this was a dream. It was a nightmare.
"I don't even get a say in this? You're just going to sign up and run off to shoot guns and kill people?"
Santana's face had clouded over then, anger and frustration overtaking her need to make Brittany understand. She was on the defensive, being preemptively called a murderer and a criminal before she'd even done anything.
"It's not like that, and you know it."
"Do I?" Brittany had asked. "Do I know that? That's the point of the army, isn't it? To train people how to use guns and go out and shoot people? And that's the purpose you're looking for, Santana. You need that in your life, more than you need me?"
Santana got up and started pacing, the softness of her body growing hard in the darkness that silhouetted her. Brittany watched her grind her teeth and turn sharply at the accusation. "I need something, Brittany! I need more. I can't be just this anymore. Just a bartender, just your girlfriend."
"You were never just that," Brittany whispered, yielding back against the sill, seeing the desperation in Santana's eyes. "You'll never be just that. You don't need the army to remind you of that. We just need to try harder, baby. You and me, okay? You don't need them. Please, just don't do this."
A breeze passed through the open window and Santana's hair blew around her shoulders, moonlight glinting in it. Her shoulders slumped and she fell back on to the bed, her elbows coming to rest on her knees as she bent over, her face in her hands.
"It's done, Brittany. I signed a contract. Four years, minimum."
Brittany's knees went weak and she slid down the wall beneath the window. This really is how it ends. "I wish you'd just cheated on me. It would have been easier to take." She drew a deep, resigned breath. "I guess you have a choice to make, then."
"Choice?" Santana lifted her head, brows knit and hands wringing together.
"Me or the army, Santana. Choose. Because you can't have both."
Santana's half of the closet was empty an hour later, and her side of the bed cold. Brittany had laid across it lengthwise and sobbed, because she'd lost Santana and couldn't even be angry with her for leaving.
A year and a handful of other someones came and went. None warmed that bed for very long, either because they didn't want to, or because she didn't let them. It was plain that the sting of Santana still lingered.
She still needed three alarms to wake-a cymbal-crashing monkey, a bad Spanish radio station, and the classic buzzing alarm-but there was no shove to push her up anymore. She learned, on her own, how to survive. She started drinking coffee, despite having never liked the stuff. She set the alarms earlier, to give her time in the morning. Nothing really helped, but she tried anyway, because what else could she do?
She took the tours overseas. Six weeks backing the latest tween sensation paid more than her teaching job did in six months, and she got to see Europe and Asia. She met new directors who loved her style and offered her more work, and soon she was busy that she couldn't remember a time when she wasn't.
Santana called her for the first time six months later, and she'd said itwas just to check in, see how Brittany doing. But it sounded like more than that, and Brittany asked as much.
"Another conversation for another time," Santana said, with a tone that sounded like it was accompanied by a sad smile.
The conversation came two months after that, when they'd talked a few more times, and Santana was opening up to her about the army. She learned about Quinn, about how they'd slept together, and it was a blow that knocked her off her feet for a moment. But she swallowed it down and reminded herself that she had no right to complain, when she was the one who pushed Santana into Quinn's arms in the first place.
It didn't matter that Brittany felt like she was tossed aside for both Quinn and the army. It didn't matter, because it was her fault to begin with. It didn't matter, but it was still a double-tap to the back of the head, execution style. But she was going to be a good friend, she told herself, so she accepted it and listened like a good friend ought. She called Quinn, bitched at her for being a jerk. Informed her when the VA hospital called Los Angeles instead of New York. Stayed out of their business, because she had a life in California, and she was living it. She had work and her friends and she had really never been happier, because even though she didn't have Santana, she didn't feel trapped anymore. She could take all the jobs she wanted without worrying about someone waiting at home for her. She could go out late to some bar that wasn't the one Santana worked at, where she'd get groped and fondled by men who didn't know that no meant no. She could feel good about herself and her decisions again, and maybe that was worth losing Santana.
She still clung to what ifs, though, as she crawled into bed alone each night. What if I'd been more understanding? What if I'd tried harder? What if I asked her to come home? But one call nearly two years after their split finally showed her that the time for what ifs had passed.
You know I still love you, Santana said. As though that's made her confession of love for Quinn easier to swallow. Her mind went through stages of grief. The agony of telling Santana what she needed to do to get another woman to love her. The depression of knowing that it was really over for them. The rage at Quinn for taking Santana from her. And finally, as they bid their goodbyes and Santana told her she loved her, acceptance. And just like that, she knew what she had to do. She cried, of course, then pulled herself up off the studio floor where she'd fallen.
So she let it go. For the first time, she stopped caring about something she had no control over. She let go and it was like the world was just waiting for her to do so, because the next thing she knew, there was a someone warming her bed again.
She'd met him at Thanksgiving dinner hosted by a friend. She'd been drawn to his easy smile, his wide, strong shoulders, and the way he laughed at his own jokes even if they weren't that funny. He'd fixed her a drink and sat with her on the couch talking about music and dance as though they meant as much to him as they did to her. It had been the first time in two years that she'd been able to forget for an hour that Santana was gone.
Now he sleeps beside her several nights a week, easily making one side of the bed his own. He's kind and sweet and he makes her laugh, even when his jokes aren't that funny. He knows about her history and never once asks her to bring another girl home. He's not jealous when Santana calls to cry to her about Quinn. He's a small time music producer, which explains why their first conversation had gone so well. He encourages her to get back into singing. She just blushes and shakes her head; she had loved singing back in high school, but Santana had always been the one with the real voice. He shows her off to his friends, and he's proud to drive her to the airport when she gets a tour. He puts Skype on her computer and they talk every night from her hotel rooms around the world, even if it means he has to wake up at three a.m. He has beautiful dark skin and a profound respect for his mother, who lives in Chicago and calls once a week to ask how they are. She sends cobblers because she thinks Brittany is too skinny, even though they've never met. His name is Alex, and she thinks she might love him.
He's there, in her bed one warm morning in June. It's the first day off she's had in two months and even though he's a perpetual early-riser, she still isn't, and he likes to sit in bed and read the paper while she sleeps next to him. From the desk her phone begins to vibrate. It's barely six, and he furrows his brow when she snuffles in her sleep. There's no way he's going to let anyone ruin her day off. She needs the rest. She's working herself to the bone, even if she never complains. He goes to the phone, sees Santana's name and sighs. She'll call back, he thinks. She always does.
He ends the call, and slips back into bed, placing a protective kiss on Brittany's temple. She smiles in her sleep, and he goes back to reading his paper.
Quinn carries Brittany's suitcase, because it's apparent that her friend can barely carry herself, let alone a fifty pound bag. She trips up the steps to the tiny, second floor apartment and Rivke opens the door against her chain to watch Quinn help an inconsolable Brittany inside. Quinn mouths an apology before shutting them both within and dropping the case in the hall.
"Britt, honey, I need you to talk to me." She sits down next to Brittany on the couch she'd shared with Santana not that long before, and is acutely aware of how awkward this could become if she doesn't tread lightly. She needs answers, not a fight.
Brittany is still crying, her fists over her eyes and her hair pulled up in a messy bun atop her head. She's in sweats, despite the heat, and she looks disheveled. She sucks in air as her chest constricts and Quinn places her hand flat on her back to soothe her some. Brittany leans into her and they sit like that until she's calmed enough to hiccup, but breathe normally.
"She's gone," Brittany says, biting the nail on her thumb. "She left two days ago. I didn't know how to reach you."
Santana hadn't contacted anyone but her parents until the day she boarded the plane, and made a last ditch effort phone call to Brittany, who had missed it because her now-ex-boyfriend had thought it better that she slept. She'd heard the message when she'd woken, but by then it was too late. The plane was half way across the Atlantic and Santana was out of reach, maybe never to be heard from again.
"I slapped him," Brittany says, and Quinn imagines that she would have done the same. "I slapped so hard, Quinn, because I didn't know what else I could do and he was there and it felt so fucking good to hit someone. My hand still hurts a little. Then I packed a bag and got in a cab for LAX. I didn't even have a ticket, I just went to the airport and went to the first counter I saw and got the next flight out. Because when I thought about it, about Santana getting on a plane and flying half way around the world with a gun in her hand... Quinn, I couldn't think of anyone else who would understand how much it hurt. No one else but you."
Quinn is silent. Brittany might take it for pensive, her trying to work through everything, but it's terror. Blinding, unresolvable terror that stops her hand moving on Brittany's back and the air from entering her lungs. She doesn't even realized she's stopped breathing until her head begins to spin and she feels faint, and Brittany puts an arm around her waist to hold her up.
"Quinn?" She must have blacked out for a second, maybe two, because suddenly she's flat on her back on the sofa and Brittany is straddling her, sitting on her pelvis and looking down at her with as much terror in her eyes as Quinn feels in her gut. "Quinn, honey, breathe."
But Quinn can't breathe. She can't see. Her eyes have gone blurry and Brittany is a yellowish streak of paint across her vision. Her arms are dead weight at her sides, her chest is contracted in knots. Her heart threatens to tear itself from her chest, pounding with the force of a jet engine against her ribs. Her lungs cower, unwilling to battle the racing muscle to take in the air her brain desperately needs. Her mouth opens and closes, throat tightening as blood roars in her ears, attempting to feed her the oxygen she has left. She gasps, fumbles around, and rolls as best she can before vomiting on the hardwood floor.
Brittany has her bent over with her head between her knees in a matter of seconds, and a trash can at her side moments after that. They're both trembling, Quinn still gasping for air and Brittany sniffling uncontrollably as tears fall from her cheeks to dampen Quinn's shoulder.
They sit like that for a while. Quinn is doubled over, taking in what air her lungs will allow until her heart has calmed and the acid in her stomach settles, while Brittany sits next to her with an arm slung over her back and her head on her shoulder. It could have been five minutes or an hour, it didn't really matter. But when Quinn righted herself, sitting back against the couch, Brittany leaned into her side and stayed there. Seven years apart and a shared lover, and they settle so easily back into an old rapport that's frighteningly comfortable. She can't remember the last time she let herself be held by someone she didn't intend on sleeping with.
Santana had felt that way, at first. When she'd arrived at the airport from LAX and Quinn had met her at baggage claim, they hadn't seen each other in almost five years. They'd talked, of course, but plane tickets were expensive and time off hard to come by. But those arms wrapped around her body were so easy to fall into, so familiar and calming. Even standing there in the cold, impersonal airport, they'd just held one another for what felt like forever. Santana was so brave, at first, greeting Quinn with a smile and that long-awaited embrace. But as Quinn's arms snaked around her torso and she felt that warmth of another human against her, the ice thawed and broke, and she broke down. Quinn still remembers the way her body shook, violent sobs threatening to knock the knees right out from under her. But Quinn was there to hold her up, and she promised herself she'd remain that way, for her best friend.
She had a really funny way of keeping her promises.
"What have I done?" she asks, realizing as she says it that she already knows the answer. "I've ruined everything, haven't I? She's gone and I'm here and I can't tell her that I-"
Quinn stops mid-sentence because she can't do that to herself. She can't say it out loud what she's thinking-been thinking for a really long time-while Santana isn't here to hear it from her. She can't say it out loud if Santana is gone, and she's left alone to deal with what saying it really means. If she's going to say it, she's going to have Santana there, so she can say it back.
"What do we do now?" she asks instead, dumbstruck and scared.
Brittany blinks for a moment, staring up at Quinn with eyes that are puzzling over the many answers Quinn knows she has in mind. She opens her mouth as if to speak, but closes it slowly and lets the air ease out of her lungs in a long, sad sigh. She shifts her weight and drapes her arm across Quinn's stomach, fingers finding purchase in the thin material of her shirt and clinging there. Her temple comes to rest on Quinn's shoulder and Quinn can feel the weight of Brittany's muscular dancer's leg as it falls across her knees. For a brief and shining moment Quinn can close her eyes and imagine that the body next to her is Santana, and none of this is happening, and he past six months had been a dream she'd had. She'd lift her lids and Santana would be there to push her hair from her forehead and ask her what was wrong, because her face was drawn tight with worry. And Quinn could ease into familiar arms and shake her head and say, "Nothing, it was only a dream."
But these arms are not Santana's, and even with her eyes closed she knows this is not a dream. Because even in her dreams, Santana was always there.
"This is what we'll do," Brittany says, so quiet that Quinn almost misses it. "We'll stay together. And we'll wait."
She keeps her head down and her finger on the trigger while the sandstorm blows outside the humvee. The truck is boiling, fifteen degrees hotter than it is outside. Considering it's a hundred and ten out there, it makes for an uncomfortable wait in the middle of this rager. Better inside than out, though. She can't see more than a foot outside the windshield and she knows the gusts pelting rocks into the doors will have left dents by the time this thing blows itself out. She can't drive them through it without killing the engine, so she'd stopped to wait it out. Now the four people with her are getting antsy.
"Major gave us orders to be at north checkpoint by fourteen-hundred, PFC Lopez," the corporal calls from the back, his rifle up on his knee while he tries to scan outside the window for hostiles. "Sandstorm or not, we have shit to do so get this fuckin' show on the road."
He's technically her commanding officer, given that he's the highest ranking soldier in the humvee. But he's a twenty-one year old red neck from Podunk, Mississippi and he doesn't like the idea of a woman driving him around. He's tall and gangly with some nasty acne scars that mottle his face and make his perpetual sneer seem more sinister than it really is. He reminds her a lot of Finn, with the way he walks like a gorilla and talks like he's the hero no one in his battalion ever asked for. It's 2020 and the world hasn't progressed much since she was in high school.
"The sand will rip the engine to pieces, Corporal," she says, not bothering to look at him. She's only known him for three hours and she can already tell he's a shit-eating bastard, so she won't give him the benefit. "We wait or we walk the next twenty miles. Up to you."
The corporal, nicknamed Digger for tendency to get caught picking his nose, sneers at her in the rear-view mirror. "Like you know fuck all about that engine. This shit's built for deserts, Lopez. Get us moving, and that's an order."
Santana glances around at the other soldiers in the car. Two PV2s from her own unit and a PFC from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Hood, Texas-the corporal's regiment-avoid her gaze. She won't find any assistance from them, despite the fact that they know she's right. The PFC to her left, in the passenger seat, was in training to be a specialist with the Army Corp of Engineers when they were called up, cutting him short by a few weeks. He would have been a mechanic, with a higher rank and better pay. Now he sits sullenly, sweating and frustrated, in the seat next to her.
"Sir, respectfully, the storm will be over in a few minutes." She's testing her luck, and will probably get a court martial if the corporal decides to report her. But she can't be the one responsible for putting five lives in danger on an open road potentially full of IEDs and enemy combatants.
The corporal flicks his eyes to the PFC next to her, finding his gaze in the rear view. He cocks his head to the side, questioning him. The almost-mechanic pauses a second, and then nods reluctantly. The corporal grunts and settles back into his seat to continue staring out the window for enemies. Santana relaxes a little, seeing the corporal ease off his weapon, and readies to wait out the storm.
The 404 is stationed at north checkpoint, about forty miles outside the capital city of Damascus, where the US Army has a stronghold within a village full of friendlies. As Sweimreh had been taken the month before by the 3rd and their support, 189th Infantry Brigade out of Fort Bragg in North Carolina. She and most of her unit had been stationed in Stuttgart, Germany for two weeks before being flown into the newly fortified village, full of hard-packed dirt streets and sandstone houses. High, electrified fences mounted with barbed wire both keep insurgents out and the population in, and Santana wonders if the locals regret their decision to house this particular military contingent, now that they've been there a month and things have become just as strict as they were under the Free Syrian Army. Except, perhaps, fewer raids that ended in rape and murder.
She'd expected a war-torn desert full of death and bullets whizzing by her head. But thus far, she'd seen little action and even less death. Her job-driving caravans of soldiers from drop points in the deserts of Jordan, immediately to the south of Syria, to the stronghold at As Sweimreh-has given her only the smallest glimpses at what is considered one of the world's largest current civil wars. She escorts soldiers, rarely picks up her gun, and spends her down time smoking and drinking at base camp. Considering that they're in the middle of nowhere, she's often surprised at the many amenities that base camp affords.
The one thing they don't have is a reliable internet connection that's not reserved for military communication, or continuous access to satellite phones. Which makes communication outside a very brief window once a week difficult. To Santana's credit, she's managed to call her parents twice in the month she's been on base, but she's yet to find the words for Brittany or Quinn.
She didn't hear from either of them, after leaving the States. Not that they knew how to get in touch with her, so she couldn't blame them. And it's not like she left either of them on a positive note. One phone call at the eleventh hour to Brittany, and missing Quinn completely before being shipped off to the most dangerous place on earth probably didn't endear her to them. But still, she tried week after week to muster up the courage to use some of her allotted twenty minutes for either of them. And, week after week without fail, she couldn't do it.
Bobby had tried to brighten her spirits by pulling her in on a call home with him. She'd listened while Georgia complained about The Kid running circles around her now, and how she's started making noises that almost sound like words. Bobby got upset, knowing he'd probably miss it, and made Georgia promise to follow Ana around the house with a video camera. She did, and Santana left them for some time alone, feeling like a third wheel.
Williams had been good comic relief during this whole situation. Nothing seemed to dampen his spirit. Neither the heat nor the boredom nor the endless hurry-up-and-wait attitude that had settled over the base. No one had orders to move on Damascus, so until they did, they all just waited. Williams somehow managed to organize a hundred-man poker tournament within a few hours of being in camp, and it amazed Santana that, a month later, he was still keeping everyone entertained.
Sitting in the 125-degree humvee with the storm raging around her and no friendly faces in sight makes her long for the comfort of her cot back on base and her two best friends' company. Most trips were like this, though. As a woman in the military, she was often brushed off or given the cold shoulder. On more than one occasion she'd been harassed, propositioned and even groped by the men in her convoy. But with little protection afforded for women in uniform, she sucked it up and remained silent. Of course she'd vent to Bobby and Williams after her shift, and it was usually a few days later that she saw her harasser with a black eye and a limp. She hated that she needed protection, but at the same time couldn't begrudge them their defense. So she didn't question it, thanked them silently, and wished she had the nerve to take care of it herself. Taking care of it herself, however, would probably only make things worse. At least this way, the guy knew better than to try something again.
Looking back at the corporal, she can tell right off that he would have been a groper had she not pissed him off early on. He had that entitled look about him. It also meant he could be violent, if she'd tried to stop him, or if she'd pushed too hard against his orders. She'd probably narrowly sidestepped a nasty confrontation.
She reaches inside her flak jacket, to the interior pocket where soldiers usually keep pictures of their families or their girlfriends. Little tokens from home to remind the soldiers what they're fighting for, and fighting to go back to. Santana doesn't have photos of the things she cares about. Most of her memories are intangible, things can't can't be captured on film. The quirk of someone's eyebrow. The high trill of a laugh. The soft tremble of a finger trailing across bare skin. Those kinds of things aren't meant for photographs. But she still had one thing worth holding on to. Something she hopes she'll still be able to make use of one day.
Santana pulls a stack of note cards from the pocket, sealed tightly inside a plastic ziploc bag. They're worn, the edges foxed and the corners dog-eared from thousands of miles of travel and a month in the desert heat, but they're readable, and almost complete. There were ten of them, in the beginning. She'd lost one somewhere along the way, but she still remembers what it said.
I know you're scared.
It was the third card, with a note in the corner to take Quinn's hand when she said it. The one after it prompts her to squeeze that hand, and say, I'm scared, too. Not that she'd ever gotten the chance. But the longer she sits out here in the desert, the more she wishes she'd pushed Quinn harder that cold day in February. Quinn had said that throwing your love at someone full force wasn't romantic; that it was passive suicide and Santana was killing herself for something-someone-she could never have. But Santana still doesn't think that's true, looking at these cards and remembering the one fact that remained unspoken. Quinn was scared. Of what, of who, it didn't matter. What mattered was that she needed to get over that fear before anything between them would happen. The same way Santana had gotten over her fear to be with Brittany.
But she didn't want to start with comparisons again. Not out here, in the middle of the desert, where she's got nothing but time to think about all the mistakes she's made with both of them. So she tucks the cards away and hugs her rifle closer.
The storm eases up half an hour later, dulling the roar of the wind to a brisk breeze that blows dust up off the road, but doesn't endanger the convoy. The corporal kicks the back of her seat and points the muzzle of his rifle out the windshield.
"Move it, Lopez."
She starts the massive humvee engine, listens to it purr, and pushes them onward, back to base.
Brittany is still in the same spot on the sofa she'd been sitting in when Quinn left that morning, staring blankly at CNN coverage of roadside bombings and troop deployments. There aren't any specifics about which unit is where, so she just assumes that every dead soldier is Santana until one of the anchors tells her otherwise.
Quinn drops her bag on the table near the door and leans over the back of the couch to assess the situation. Brittany is still in pajamas (the same shorts and tank top she's worn all week), and her hair is a three-day rat's next of tangles thrown into a messy bun on top of her head. She's been chewing her lip so much that's it's begun to chap, and her face is drawn.
"Did you eat today?" Quinn asks, and Brittany jumps, surprised to find a face so close to her own.
"I had cereal," she says, returning her eyes to the television.
Quinn sighs heavily. It's after six, and she's tired from a very long day at the firm. She'd thought that being a paralegal would be easy, given her background. She'd thought that she would be able to come home and relax, but the stress of each deposition and all the filing and faxing and coordination of a hundred different cases at once has left her brain both tired and wired. She supposes she should just be grateful to have a job at all, and someone to sit with when the sun sets and the silence feels overwhelming. But she can't settle when she comes home. Not when this is what she comes home to.
"You can't keep doing this, Britt," she says.
"You know what."
Brittany says nothing and changes the channel from CNN to MSNBC when it cuts to commercial. That's on commercial, too, so she switches to Fox News, even though she knows she doesn't like the way they talk about gay people. Quinn watches her grimace before she flips back to CNN and watches previews for Anderson Cooper's eighth season premiere in September. She throws the remote down on the couch next to her and pulls her knees up to her chin.
It's been a month, since Brittany had shown up on her stoop. It had started out fine, the two of them leaning on one another while they mourned for someone that wasn't even dead. But Brittany never pulled herself out of it, while Quinn had been forced to start living her life again when Waters, Young & Associates offered her a job three days later. Now she works 30 hours a week while Brittany sits in her apartment and watches news coverage of a civil war that she doesn't even understand. She doesn't have a job, despite the many contacts she has around the city after all her touring. And none of Quinn's encouragements to the effect will make her move from that couch.
"What if something happens while I'm out?" she asks when Quinn suggests a teaching gig in midtown, and for just a moment Quinn forgets that Brittany is twenty-six years old. They're sixteen again, and Quinn is explaining how the world works the way she might explain to a child. "What happens if she tries to call me again and I'm not there to answer?"
"She's in Syria, honey," Quinn says as evenly as she can, tempering her frustration. "The cell service isn't that great there. And CNN isn't going to tell you anything before the army informs her parents, and you know we'll be their first phone call."
The reassurances don't seem to help, because here she sits, unwashed and starving herself with worry over something neither of them know will actually happen. And Quinn doesn't want to think about it, so she grabs an apple from the fridge and sits at the small table in the open space between the couch and the kitchen. She cracks open one of her many Bar exam study guides piled there, and immerses herself in the only distraction she has from what feels like a constant and insuppressible battery of regret.
The Bar is in exactly one week and she can't afford to keep wallowing like Brittany is, even if she wants to. Worry cost her too much the last time, and she isn't prepared to deal with what might happen if she fails again. She doesn't have the resources to keep trying, to spend six more months on top of the year she's already dedicated to studying. This is it; one more shot at everything she's been preparing for for eight years. Now is not the time to fuck it up.
But the television is loud and she can hear the newscasters discussing the length of the war and troop deployments at record numbers, and it's all punctuated with sound bytes of machine gun fire and explosions. Quinn looks over at Brittany, who is watching and wincing and grinding her teeth, and she realizes that neither of them are going to be able to function properly if this keeps up. She gets to her feet and snatches the remote from the couch. The television goes blank and Brittany's head snaps to attention.
"Turn it back on!" she squeals, sounding more like a child having a tantrum than a grown woman.
"No," Quinn says, crossing her arms. "We can't live like this, Brittany. I won't live like this. There is absolutely nothing we can do for her, and what would she say if she saw you like this?"
Brittany's mouth hangs open in horror, her eyes flicking back and forth between Quinn and the television as though she could will it back to life with her mind. Quinn waits patiently, tapping her toe.
"Well?" she prompts, and Brittany seems to have forgotten the question. "What would she say, Britt? You haven't showered in days. You don't move from that couch for anything other than food and the bathroom. You quit your job and stopped dancing completely. It's been a month, Brittany. Get up. Get off the couch, and go take a shower."
Brittany sits stubbornly on the couch, her legs crossed beneath and her and her arms folded over her chest. She's gone from inconsolable to petulant so quickly that Quinn has to remind herself that Brittany is an adult, and not a child in need of a time out. She looks for a way to change the subject, to refocus Brittany on forward motion, instead of the black television screen. She spots Brittany's phone on the coffee table and snatches it up, hearing a tiny squeak of disapproval. She brings the touch screen to life and purses her lips.
"Another new voicemail from Alex. Looks like a couple texts, too. Are you ever going to call him back?"
It's enough to get Brittany up off the couch, and that's a start. She swipes the phone from Quinn's hand and glares, flipping through the history and deleting text and voicemail alike. "It's none of your business," she says, shoving past Quinn to the kitchen, busying herself by throwing three days' worth of dishes around in the sink.
"If it's going on in my apartment, it's my business." Quinn follows her and watches the violent attack of sponge on dish, fearing that she might be headed to IKEA to buy a new set soon. "You didn't even look at what he had to say."
"I know what he had to say," Brittany sneers. "'Baby, I'm so sorry. Baby, please forgive me. Baby, baby, baby.' I don't need his apologies. I need that phone call back. I need to hear her voice and to tell her it's going to be okay. I need her to be here, where it's safe. I need her to never have joined the army in the first place. I need her to have chosen me, instead of guns and war and... you."
She's crying into the sink, her hands working the sponge over the same clean plate again and again, and Quinn doesn't know what to do. She stands there, arms limp at her sides, mouth open but silent. She puts her back against the wall, thinking it might protect her somehow, but she has nothing to hold onto to keep her up, so she just leans. Brittany doesn't look up from her dish, just keeps scrubbing while the tears for tracks through the blush of her cheeks.
"I spent half my life loving her," she says, and some of the anger has gone, worked into the plate she still cleans. "I loved her so much I thought my chest would burst. But she didn't think that was enough, so she left me. And ran right to you, who treated her so horribly and made her question herself and then just when she thought maybe she had a real shot with you, you threw it in her face. I don't get it, Quinn. I don't get how you could love her so much and be so cruel."
"Don't you dare lie to me." Brittany turns on her, her eyes red-ringed and tired, spitting venom again. "You love her like I love her and you ruined it. And now you're going to tell me why, because just looking at you hurts me, but I don't have anywhere else to go. I need you to explain it, because it's driving me crazy and I deserve the truth."
There's nothing she can say. No excuse will do, and no truth will ever be enough to soothe the wound she's reopened. She knows how Brittany had tried to move on, how Santana called her and told her everything about them, rubbed salt in it and made any sort of closure impossible. That part wasn't her fault. But she'd just made things worse by being the one that Santana had leaned on, in the aftermath. By being the one Santana wanted, even for a little while. But she has to say something, because Brittany is right. She deserves the truth.
"I'm not strong," she says, and her hands start to shake. "I never have been. I put on a good show, you know that. But at the end of the day I'm just treading water, and I can't take anyone with me. We'd both drown if I tried. It was better that she let me go than go down like that. I pushed her away because I wasn't strong enough for her. Not like you."
She doesn't notice she's slipped to the ground until she realizes that Brittany is looking down at her, plate in hand, dripping water on the linoleum. She lowers herself down, legs folding beneath her to sit against the opposite wall, water and suds up to her elbows. She's not crying anymore, which is something. But she shakes her head and sighs.
"You were strong enough to carry her when I couldn't. Maybe I should thank you for that." She stops, looks at the plate she's cradling like an infant, perfectly clean and reflecting her own face back at her, then shatters it on the floor next to her.
"But I'm still pissed at you for fucking my girl."
Williams throws down a full house and chomps on the soggy end of an Israeli cigar like he's just won the jackpot at Caesar's Palace, and not twenty bucks and a carton of Marlboros off a specialist from the 3rd. The specialist reacts in kind, as if he's lost his life savings to a card counter at the tables. To be fair, twenty bucks and the carton of cigarettes are precious commodities out here, when cash and cigarettes are two different and equally valuable forms of currency. It's a little like prison in that way, but Santana wouldn't say that out loud.
Bobby immediately steals one of the packs out of Williams' carton and takes a step outside the flap of the rec tent. He puts a finger across his lips to shush her when she follows him and gives him a sidelong glance.
"Don't tell Georgia," he says, as though Santana had any way of squealing on him to his wife. "What she doesn't know won't hurt her."
She doesn't blame him for taking up the habit. She'd done it too, after four months of sweating her ass off, constantly covered in sand with nothing to do but schlep uptight officers and lead convoys of new recruits over the Jordanian border. The entire unit had been sitting on its hands since it got to this godforsaken hellhole, listening for whispers of troop movements across the country but hearing nothing the winds blowing sand and rocks to pelt the panels of their rec tents. She in turn steals a cigarette from the stolen pack and grins at him.
"You just make sure you don't take this habit home to The Kid, Bobby," she says, lighting up with a flick of Williams' Zippo and inhaling a long drag of the tobacco. "The last thing that girl needs is a gorilla for a dad and lung cancer from second-hand smoke."
He smacks at her arm and she dodges, putting up her fists and bouncing on the balls of her feet like a prizefighter. He matches stance inside the already crowded rec tent, knocking a few people out of the way in the process. A circle clears around them, thinking this playact is a real fight, and they grin at one another before Santana dives headfirst into Bobby's stomach and takes him to the ground. He falls, landing under her and screaming, "Medic! Medic! She broke me, the cow! I'm broken!"
No medic actually comes, but the crowd rolls their eyes and disperses quickly enough, not getting the excitement they were hoping for out of Santana and Bobby.
"You'd think they wouldn't be so eager to see a fight," she says, standing and pulling Bobby up behind her. Williams has already started another game, sharking a private from the 189th and the same mottle-faced corporal Santana had driven into camp a few months before. "Everyone's restless, but no one actually wants to see bloodshed, do they?"
Bobby shrugs and goes to light his cigarette, only to realize it's snapped in their playfight. He lights what's left with a metallic flick of the Zippo before tucking it into his pocket. She knows Williams will probably never see it again. "I think they'd like to see anything, if it means we get to stop sitting on our asses in a godforsaken desert in the middle of nowhere. Everyone had a lot of expectations when we shipped out, y'know? Like... adrenaline rushes and patrols and getting shot at by Syrians. Instead all we've gotten is a late-night raid and one very poor attempt at a kidnapping. Still can't believe they promoted you for that."
It wasn't like she did anything special. She'd been called out to make a late-night run to the Jordanian border to pick up some journalists and their military escort. About halfway between the international checkpoint and As Sweimreh their convoy had been attacked on both sides of the road by insurgents waiting in the in ditches. Her vehicle wasn't equipped for combat. It had bullet-proof windows and exterior panels, but the gun mounts were on the front and rear humvees, and she had civilians on board. She panicked and drove off, leaving behind the rest of her convoy in favor of saving her own life and the lives of the people in her humvee. She can still see the blood that painted her windshield after she'd run down one of the roadside shooters, and how it streaked when she tried to clear it with her wipers. She'd gotten back to base to reports of three wounded, but no one dead. The humvees had even taken two prisoners, who would be held and questioned before being transported to a prison facility in Jordan. By getting her unmanned vehicle out of the way, the rest of the convoy had been able to blockade the road and trap the insurgents. They'd given her a commendation and a promotion, but it felt like a coward's reward. She'd fled the attack. How does that earn medals?
"I didn't ask for it," she says, stubbing out her own cigarette in the sand and casting a quick glance around the camp, glowing bright red and orange in the heat of the desert sunset. She checks her watch and sighs. "We have patrol in an hour. I'm gonna catch a quick nap before hand. Wake me forty, okay?"
"Whatever you say, Specialist." Bobby lights another cigarette and slips back into the rec tent, for what she assumes is another hand of poker before they share a long night's watch around the perimeter of the base.
She gets back to the barracks-crudely constructed wooden buildings in a barren plot of land on the edge of the small town-and kicked off her boots before crawling into her cot. She doesn't really have any intention of sleeping, but it's better that Bobby think she's taking a nap than find out what she's actually doing. She pulls a notebook and pen from the small foot trunk beneath her cot, and begins to write, her back pressed against the wall and her legs stretched out in front of her.
There's another letter in the mailbox when she gets home from work, covered in enough postage to tell her that it's traveled a very long way to reach her. The envelope is dirty and torn at the edges, but unopened, as far as she can tell. Which means that Brittany hasn't been home to see it first, and she has the pleasure of reading her own mail for once. She snatches it and darts up the narrow, creaking stairs and pushes her door open in a flurry. She takes it immediately into her room, clicking the lock behind her, just in case her live-in couch-surfer gets home from the studio early. She'll want to read this as well, even though the letters are always addressed to Quinn.
She pulls the previous four from the drawer in her bedside table and stacks them chronologically. It's a ritual she's started, to prepare herself for whatever is in the newest letter. She takes a few minutes to reread each of them before opening the new one, just so she can be mentally balanced enough to handle the contents inside.
I killed a man today, the first one had said. It had arrived three months before, in September, when the leaves were just beginning to turn as autumn in New York settled over the city. At least I think I killed him. I ran him over with a humvee, got blood all over the windshield. I drive a humvee here. I'm a driver. I'm a chauffeur, Quinn. A fucking chauffeur. This is my big epiphany, my life's purpose. To cart people around the fucking desert dressed in body armor and running people over. Maybe you and Brittany were right.
It was dated at the top. August, over a month before she actually received it, and some of the sentences of Santana's curling penmanship had been covered in thick black lines, redacted by a military that still feared mail being intercepted by the enemy. It didn't matter that she didn't know what was blacked out. The stuff that wasn't was terrifying enough. The first letter rambled for a page about the way the man had died, and how Santana had been forced clean his blood from the windshield herself once she'd gotten back to base. About how they'd been attacked and she panicked. How she was always scared and that Bobby was trying really hard to make her laugh but it didn't work a lot of the time.
I was thinking about that the other day, she wrote. About how you and I didn't laugh a lot while we were together. Is that okay? To miss someone so much who rarely made you laugh? If get out of this place, I promise I'll make you laugh more. You deserve that.
Brittany had gotten to the letter before she'd arrived home from work. The envelope had been carefully cut across the opening, so as not to damage the precious words inside. But the letter, once she had it in her hands, had been crumpled and cried on and nearly torn in two in the rage Brittany had been forced to endure while reading it alone. She had it in her lap when Quinn walked in, still wrinkled from the anger but Brittany had done her best to smooth it.
"This is yours," she'd said, and avoided eye contact as she left the apartment, probably to get some air, and some space away from Quinn. "It's from Santana."
Two more letters arrived a week later, written almost consecutively in the days after the first one was sent, dated at the tops and written more elegantly, with less desperation and fear. The second is an apology for the first, taking back all the things she'd said.
I didn't mean to dump all that on you. It's not fair. I'm sorry. It's not so bad out here. Three squares and I've got a killer tan. Granted, it's a farmer's tan and the body armor makes it really hard to rock a bikini, but the parts of me that ARE tan are like... REALLY tan.
She tries to joke and brush it off, but there's tension in Santana's handwriting. Her letters are bunched together, messy and tight and not at all characteristic of Santana's usually flowing cursive. She prided herself on it. She could barely spell when they were kids. She had trouble with phonetics, thinking that whole "sound it out" thing actually meant she was spelling shit right. So even though she usually failed her spelling tests, she made damn sure she did it with style. This, though, was not the Santana she'd grown accustomed to. She made small talk in a letter, mentioning her two friends from Fort Dix and how she'd been promoted before ending the letter abruptly.
The third letter was a withdrawal of the apology in the second, the letters still tight and frustrated. Nothing had been redacted from this one. At least the army took no issue with professions of love.
No, on second thought, fuck that. I'm not sorry. I should have said it before. I should have made you listen. I should have tied you to a chair until you listened to every goddamn word I had to say because you NEVER FUCKING LISTENED TO ME, QUINN. I should have been stronger and told you all this sooner, but everything was always about you, you, you. And that's half my fault. I let it happen. But this is my life, too, Quinn. And if I want to tell you that I love you, then I'm damn well gonna say it. And you'll respect me enough to respond.
Brittany had read that one first, too. It was laid out neatly on the table for her when she'd arrived home from work, with a post-it note stuck to the corner saying she'd gone for a walk, that she'd be back late. Quinn read the letter and understood, giving her the space she needed. It didn't stop her from taking the letter to bed with her, tucked safely beneath her pillow on the left side, pretending maybe if she went to sleep she'd wake up and Santana would be there to say it herself. And then, she thought, she could finally say it back.
She had no idea what she could put in a letter that would make any difference to Santana. If she couldn't even say what she felt out loud without Santana there, how she could put it in an envelope and send it thousands of miles? She couldn't. She couldn't let Santana experience her saying it the first time through a letter, through a phone call. Nothing but face to face would be acceptable, after everything she'd done.
But after the third letter came, so close to the first two, she knew she had to send something. Something to let Santana know that she'd gotten them, that she was waiting for her. That she had a chance. More than a chance, really. So she'd gotten an Empire State postcard from the souvenir shop around the corner from Waters, Young & Associates and written, "Come back to me." Nothing else. Not even her name. Just the plea, in her practiced cursive, written with all the emotions she wanted to convey but couldn't just yet. She hoped it would be enough for Santana. She addressed it to the base in Germany that Santana had been deployed from, which would in turn find her in the field. She put a dozen stamps on it and stuck it in the mailbox, all before Brittany wandered in several hours later, smelling of booze and sweat, but smiling.
"I went to a club," she'd slurred. "I went dancing. It felt so good, Quinn. It made everything not hurt so much."
Quinn hugged her tightly, rubbing her back and hoping it was enough of an apology. She couldn't make Brittany stop hurting, but she could try.
"You're better than me," she says, kissing the side of Brittany's head. "Better for her."
"Maybe. Probably," Brittany agrees, yawning sleepily and slipping down to the couch and curling into a ball. "But I'm not who she wants."
Brittany got a job the week after, teaching contemporary dance to kids in Hell's Kitchen. Quinn watched her get ready her first morning, like a proud parent sending their child off to school. She'd been so excited that she'd forgotten about the letter, until the next one came, a month and a half after Quinn had sent the postcard.
Okay, Quinn. Okay. I'm coming home, and I expect you to be there when I do. I love you.
Quinn went out and got another postcard, wrote "Come back to me" on it, and put it in the mail.
It's nearly December now, and this fifth letter is dated from late October. She runs her fingers over the deep grooves of the handwriting, pressed in so deep on the paper that they feel like Braille.
I miss you, Santana writes. I miss the way you'd smoke when I was asleep and thought I didn't notice. I miss how you tuck your hair behind your ears. I miss you yelling at me to take the garbage out because I forgot AGAIN. I miss our apartment and our bed and most of all I miss being in with you and just laying there. It's so quiet here at night, Quinn. There's no sound for miles, and that scares me because I can't die in silence, I can't die without the sound of your voice in my ear. I can't die here, Quinn. And I'm scared that I will. I can't die without seeing you again, even just one more time.
Quinn presses her lips to Santana's signature, and pulls a blank postcard from her nightstand. She finds a pen, and writes so cleanly across the back.
Come back to me.
She walks down two flights of stairs to the mailbox and presses another kiss to the postcard before sending it on its way, to say all the things she can't.
"It's Christmas Eve," Williams says, taking a puff of his cigar. The embers glow brilliant in the pitch dark around them. "It's too fuckin' hot for it to be Christmas. It ain't right."
"Nothing about this is right," Bobby says, ducked down in the ditch beside his friend, his rifle cocked at his shoulder.
"Both of you, shut the fuck up."
Santana is on her stomach in the sand, watching through the scope on her gun as a small camp of insurgents four hundred yards off the road move their stolen cargo from military-grade trucks into a thick-walled bunker built deep into the ground. They're eighty miles east of As Sweimreh, on a reconnaissance mission. That's it. No gunfire, no engaging the enemy, nothing. Get in, get out. So why are her hands shaking?
"And put that fucking cigar out. They're going to fucking see us."
"Will not," Williams hisses, but stubs it out begrudgingly anyway. "Can't see shit in this darkness. Bet you can't even see you hand in front of your face, let alone a puny cigar from two hundred yards away."
Bobby shoves the heel of his boot into Williams' shin, which shuts him up quick enough. The three of them lay side by side on the ground, their armored humvee another two hundred yards away, back on the road behind them. On the other side of Williams, Corporal Digger picks his nose and stares straight ahead, doing what he was told to do, and nothing more.
All around the insurgent camp are rocky hills made of rough sandstone, creating a natural fortress against enemies. It also creates incredible acoustics, and Santana can hear them talking clearly enough as they unload what looks like wooden crates. They're covered in Arabic script, and she regrets never trying to learn the language. They all carry semi-automatics or Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. Three guards are posted on the opening into the valley, far enough apart that they'd have to shout to be heard. They don't see them, hunched down so low to the ground and so far away.
"I make a dozen in the compound, another three guarding the perimeter," the corporal says, a little too loud for comfort, and Williams claps a hand over his mouth.
"If they hear us I will shoot you in the knee and leave you for them," he hisses, watching the guards instead of the corporal. They don't move, and he relaxes. "Fuckin' kids. Who let you hold a gun, huh?"
The corporal sneers, the light of the brightest stars Santana has ever seen glinting off his yellow teeth. "Better a real army man than a Weekend Warrior. Fuckin' kids? Fuckin' lazy reservists. They sent me to babysit you. Now let's move out, babies. We got what we came for."
Santana wants to stay a little longer, figure out what's in the crates, but the corporal is already low-crawling up out of the ditch on his belly with his rifle in his hands. Williams grabs at his ankle, trying to get him to come back, but he's out of reach in a matter of seconds.
Things happen quickly. They're trained, on these kinds of missions where they have little cover or protection, to stay low until they reach high ground or a safety point. They're supposed to make themselves as small a target as possible. But Digger gets to his feet once he's out of the ditch, making himself a tall, lanky target with his pale-white skin reflecting the light from those stars. Williams grabs as him again, hissing, "Get down you fuckin' moron!" but it's too late. Santana watches through her scope as the shout goes up among the guards. They see movement, they point fingers, and suddenly they're running, and Santana is running, pulling Bobby by the arm behind.
"Move, move, move! Back to the humvee!"
Her heart races, blood pounding in her ears and she hears nothing but the rush of it. Not her boots pounding through the sand, or the shouts of the insurgents as they chase them, or the bullets that whiz past her. She prays they don't have storm lights, and just runs.
The truck is a hundred yards off, and she has the keys. She's fumbling for them, deep in the interior pocket of her flak jacket, the safest place for them. She feels them scrape against her chest, next to the note cards in their plastic bag and the postcards from Quinn. Her fingers wrap tight around them as the moon overhead lights their way, just fifty yards to go.
She chokes on the dust from Digger running in front of her, wishing so many evil things on him for getting them noticed. She swears that if they make it back to base she's going to have him court martialed, right after she beats the living shit out of him. His long legs carry him fast and far, about twenty yards ahead. She watches his back, following him, until suddenly his back isn't there anymore and she's flying past his limp body. She finds herself admiring the beauty of the blood spray that erupts as she passes, from the wound in his neck where the bullet tore through his spine and exited out his throat.
She's whirling and falling to her knees just ten yards from the truck. Her rifle comes up to her shoulder and she fires off a dozen rounds before she even aims at anything. A shadowy body rushing at her falls, the same blood spray that had erupted from Digger creating a red rain in the moonlight. Bobby is screaming her name, but she's firing blindly, the keys digging into the palm of her hand as the rifle kicks back into her clavicle. Another body falls, and she sees Williams fall in at her side, firing off as many rounds as he can before Bobby is on her, yanking her to her feet.
"Get the fucking truck started, Lopez!"
"He's dead! Move!"
She's at the door in seconds, yanking it open and fumbling with her shaking hands trying to get the key into the ignition. Bobby has pulled Digger's lanky body into the back and Williams is backing up slowly, still firing off round after round at the last approaching guard. The compound behind them is lit up with panic, and cargo trucks have begun to move, making way for the little jeeps with machine guns mounted on the back. They all see it, see how quickly it's moving toward them. Williams finally takes out the guard as he tries to get in close for a better shot and she guns it away while he's still half in the truck.
The road is still far enough off that the sand is thick beneath their wheels, making progress slow. Her fingers dig deep into the steering wheel and her eyes sting against the sweat that's falling from her forehead, beneath her helmet. A hundred yards feels like a hundred miles, with the machine gun jeep crawling up behind them. There's a heavy, quick pop pop pop and their rear window cracks in spiderwebs from the gunfire.
Fifty yards. They just need to get to the road.
More popping, but each round misses the truck. Williams is hanging out the window and returning fire with his rifle, aiming at the headlights of their pursuers. Santana is just aiming to get them to safety. Another pop pop pop and the window breaks and falls away. She ducks instinctively and the car swerves. Williams lets out a very unmanly shriek, and she hears Bobby begin to pray in the back seat.
"Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name..."
"Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven..."
pop pop pop
"Give us this day our daily bread..."
The tires hit the hard-packed dirt of the main road and she lets out a whoop of joy. Williams pulls himself back in the truck. Bobby still lies low in the back of the truck, Digger's head in his lap.
"And forgive us our tresspasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us..."
"They're pulling off!" he shouts with a laugh over the roar of the engine and tearing of tires against rock. "I think we're clear! Merry fuckin' Christma-"
The world lights up and they're flying. Santana puts her hand over her heart, over the postcards, as the truck explodes beneath them, and the fire licks at her heels. There's a moment, one brief moment, when she's suspended in air and the flames billow around her, and she's facing the sky, and in the stars she can see Quinn's eyes, Quinn's command.
Come back to me, she'd written. Come back to me.
And then the sky goes black.
Now, and at the hour of our death.