A/N: This is it. The conclusion of Heartwood. Huge thanks to my beta slayhue and my pre-reader uvaack for helping me. Give them some love on Twitter! Thank you, kind readers, for coming with me on this journey. It has been an honor and a pleasure sharing this story with you.
The week following her father's death, Brittany returned to the logging camp at Santana's encouragement. There, Brittany was surrounded by her crew, her friends, a routine and a sense of normalcy. Brittany and Santana drove the truck to the office from camp every morning and back each evening, and spent weekends at the Pierce home. There, they maintained the house, and slowly, Brittany made it more her home, and less her Pop's. More of her room decorations and knick knacks made their way into the common living space. Fred the fern was watered often and looked very healthy. She moved the chairs around in front of the fireplace. They were small gestures, but ones that, over a few months, eased the pain of grief and claimed space in a new beginning.
One early afternoon in May, Brittany descended the mill stairs to meet Billy, who had just pulled up with a delivery from Seattle.
"The Germans surrendered! The Germans surrendered!" Billy shouted as he nearly fell out of the delivery truck.
Brittany stopped stunned, halfway down the mill steps. "No!" she replied.
"I swear it's true. Heard it on the radio back home. President's speakin' tonight," Billy explained, grinning and out of breath.
Brittany jogged down the rest of the steps and hugged Billy.
"This calls for a celebration," Brittany laughed.
"Seattle is gonna be one big party, that's for sure," Billy smiled.
"So is this place, if I have anything to do with it," Brittany replied.
When she returned to the office, Brittany told Santana the good news. Santana jumped up and hugged Brittany, then they bounced up and down, still hugging and laughing.
"Oh thank god!" Santana gasped. "It's been so long...I can't remember what it's like not to be at war."
"Well, it's only half over. But that means your pop'll be home soon," Brittany reminded her.
"Dad…" Santana whispered to herself. Tears flowed through her giggles. "Thank god," she sighed.
Brittany sent the millers home early, and sent Santana up to the camp to invite the crew over to her house for the evening, under the guise of a dinner party.
"Oh I wished she'd given me some warning. I have a flan recipe I've been dying to try out," Kurt complained.
"Flan?" Tina asked.
"It's like a fancy...custard," Blaine explained.
Tina stuck out her tongue in disapproval.
"Since when does Brittany throw dinner parties," Quinn asked suspiciously.
"Since she got her hands on a special delivery," Santana replied.
"Special delivery of what?" Mercedes asked.
"You'll see," Santana teased.
The crew arrived at the Pierce home, bathed and changed and ready for a fancy dinner. The radio played "My Dreams are Getting Better All the Time". Brittany greeted them with a full crate of Rainier beer and a pot of stew on the stove.
"What's so special about stew?" Mercedes asked.
The song ended and a CBS news announcer introduced President Truman. Everyone stopped talking and looked at the radio.
This is a solemn, but a glorious hour. I only wish that Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived to witness this day. General Eisenhower informs me that the forces of Germany have surrendered to the United Nations. The flags of freedom fly all over Europe. For this victory we join in offering our thanks to the providence that has guided and sustained us through the dark days of adversity. Our rejoicing is sober and subdued by a supreme consciousness of the terrible price we have paid to rid the world of Hitler and his evil band...
"Thank you Jesus," Mercedes shouted.
Everyone erupted in cheers. They laughed and hugged and toasted. Blaine pulled out a record and they all danced and sang and celebrated the victory in Europe. After dinner, the crew walked back to camp. Santana walked up alongside Mercedes.
"Have you heard from Sam?" Santana asked.
Mercedes shook her head.
"They'll win soon. It's only a matter of time now. Our boys are really making gains against the Japanese," Santana comforted.
Mercedes fought back tears, and straightened up. She took in a deep breath and nodded.
"Yeah, I know. I'm just afraid, he's made it this long. What if his luck ran out?" Mercedes asked.
"Nonsense," Santana replied. "You have to have faith. You'll see him soon," Santana replied.
By June, news of the first transport ships docking in New York City made its way to the camp. The crew spent a warm Friday night flipping through the newspapers, reading the stories and smiling over the pictures of the ship decks lined with soldiers safely home.
"Your dad'll be on one of those ships soon," Quinn commented.
"Got a letter from him today. He's due to come back next month," Santana beamed.
"Oh that's great news!" Kurt smiled and raised his beer. "To Dr. Lopez's safe return!"
"To his safe return!" everyone cheered.
As June turned into July, more and more men returned from war and replaced women in factories, farms, docks and mills all across the country. They came home to a grateful nation, eager to reward them with a return to civilian life and civilian work. Brittany started to receive telegrams and letters from loggers and mill workers she hadn't seen or heard from in over 2 years. They were coming home, and they wanted to work. Brittany leaned back in her office chair, hands clasped behind her head, and looked to the beamed ceiling. There were no easy answers written in those knotty pine boards.
Brittany drove silently with Santana back to camp, her mind heavy with the thought of releasing her crew.
"What is it?" Santana asked, seeing Brittany's brow furrowed in worry.
"The men are coming back," Brittany sighed.
Santana nodded solemnly.
"Fuck," Brittany complained.
Santana nodded again.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuuuuuck," Brittany said as she threw her hands on top of her head and through her hair.
Santana grabbed the steering wheel. Brittany returned her hands to the wheel and covered Santana's. Her thumb played over Santana's soft skin and knuckles. Santana dropped her hand to Brittany's thigh and squeezed it, in comfort. In compassion. In sympathy. Santana knew just as well as Brittany, what had to happen was not going to be easy, for any of them.
When they returned to camp, Brittany sought out Kurt and pulled him away to the stables.
"What's with the cloak and dagger stuff," Kurt asked.
"I need your advice," Brittany confessed.
"I'm listening," Kurt smiled.
"I'm serious Kurt," Brittany replied.
Kurt wiped the smile off his face. "Shoot."
"I gotta let the girls go soon. Real soon. The men are coming back. A bunch of them have already wrote about their jobs," Brittany explained. "But I don't want to just...cut 'em loose, you know?"
Kurt put his hand on Brittany's shoulder. "Tough being the boss, huh?" Kurt asked.
"You don't know the half of it," Brittany complained.
"So what do you want me to say?" Kurt asked.
"I'm gone all day. What's the gossip. What's the word on their situations? If they get let go in a week or two, do they have somewhere to go?" Brittany asked.
"Well Tina's got Mike back in Seattle. She's talking about going into business with him. Opening their own restaurant," Kurt explained.
"Oh that's nice," Brittany smiled. "She'd be good at that."
"We all promised to eat there when it opened. I think that means you too," Kurt grinned.
"You can count me in on that one," Brittany smiled.
"Rachel's dad did well with the USO shows. She's been talking about a new theatre or some kind of show biz ventures they have cooking," Kurt offered. "She, of course, will be the star of all of them," Kurt said with a dramatic flare of his hand.
Brittany rolled her eyes and nodded. "Quinn?"
"She'd go with Rachel I s'pect. Everytime Rachel talks of her father's business, she always includes Quinn in the plans."
"Really?" Brittany asked, scrunching her nose.
"Yep," Kurt nodded. "Stage managing or something. Rachel said Quinn's good at telling people what to do."
Brittany laughed. "Well yeah, I guess that's a perfect fit for her then."
"I don't know about Mercedes though. She has her cousins," Kurt thought aloud.
"I think I have a solution for Mercedes," Brittany replied. "I just have to make a call or two," she said, and started walking back to camp.
"How about Santana?" Kurt asked from behind.
Brittany stopped and looked straight ahead. "I'm working on it," she replied, and continued walking away.
For most of July, Brittany remained distant, occupied with her thoughts and work. Santana watched as she talked on the phone more in three weeks than she had seen in two years. The office door was shut, but through the glass, she saw her frustration. More often than not, Brittany would return the phone to its cradle, sit back and huff out a big puff of air and stare at the ceiling. If she wasn't on the phone, Brittany was in town sending telegrams or at the house, alone. Working. Preparing.
Santana would ask every day, if everything was alright. Brittany always replied, "It's fine."
It was the last week of July when Brittany gathered the crew after dinner and gave the news.
"I want to start by saying thank you. Thank you to each and every one of you. I've been logging and milling my entire life, and I've never, never seen a harder working crew than you. Because of you, we not only stayed in business, we thrived. Because of you, we could fill any order the war department threw at us. Because of you, our boys got what they needed," Brittany praised.
She looked at their smiling faces. She saw the pride they had in their work. She feared they were never thanked enough.
"That's why this is the hardest thing I've had to do. And believe me, I don't want to do it. Really don't want to do this. But," Brittany stopped and took a breath. "I've got at least a dozen men back home and ready to work. Here. You've done above and beyond what any of us thought possible. And I'm sorry, but I have to let you go," Brittany said, swallowing the urge to cry.
"I'm sorry," Brittany continued. "But I have to give them their jobs back, and I don't have room for you."
The crew's faces fell, then quickly recovered into tight smiles.
"We should be thanking you," Tina said, standing up.
"For what? Firing you?" Brittany scoffed.
"No, for giving us the chance in the first place. Your father,"
"Rest his soul," Mercedes interrupted
"Your father," Tina began again, "was the only one who ever gave us a chance."
"I was turned away from every job I interviewed for in Seattle," Quinn added.
"I got a lot of 'thanks but no thanks'," Rachel commented.
"I didn't even get in the door," Mercedes chimed in.
"I got the door slammed in my face," Tina explained. "But your father took a chance on us, and look how it turned out," Tina said gesturing to the crew.
"We're all stronger, tougher, richer, and better off thanks to you and your pop."
"We cuss more that's for sure," Mercedes joked.
They all nodded with smiles.
"Because of you and your father, I have friends. Friends in all of you," Rachel said with a thankful smile.
"I can't believe I'm friends with you people," Mercedes teased.
"You can't? You all are a far cry from my social circle back in the day," Quinn replied.
"Yeah, we're a lot classier," Brittany said with a gentle shove to Quinn's arm.
"I don't know about classy, but I've never known truer people. You're all true friends, and I couldn't ever say that before," Quinn complimented.
They all agreed. Brittany especially. She hadn't had friends in years. They were a gift. She chuckled at the fact that something so awful as war, would bring such joy and friendship in to her life. How strange this world was.
"How long do we have?" Santana asked quietly.
The crew looked to her, then to Brittany.
"One week. Maybe two," Brittany said to the group.
Tina wiped a tear from her eye and pulled Brittany into a tight hug. The other girls soon joined and Brittany was enveloped in a laughing, loving group hug. Burt, Kurt, Blaine and Marley all smiled through wet eyes. They had grown to love these girls, and would miss them terribly. Kurt silently handed his father a handkerchief. Burt swatted it away, then wiped his cheek with his sleeve.
The crew sat up half the night, drinking, smoking and telling stories of their two years together. Their laughter echoed through the forest. It was a joyful chorus that Brittany loved and she dreaded the day it would fall silent.
The crew spent the weekend in the mill office, making phone calls and arranging where they'd live next. Mercedes and Santana hung back and watched as Rachel and Quinn talked to Rachel's father and Tina talked with Mike. Brittany pulled Mercedes aside and slipped a piece of paper in her hand.
"What's this?" Mercedes asked, looking at the numbers.
"Your next job," Brittany smiled cryptically.
"Who am I calling?" Mercedes asked.
"Just call," Brittany said with a pat on Mercedes back.
Mercedes picked up the phone and dialed the number. "Hi yes, this is Mercedes Jones. Brittany Pierce recommended me to…"
A voice on the line cut her off. Santana watched Mercedes face smile and she shook her head and mouthed thank you to Brittany.
"Who's she talking to?" Santana whispered to Brittany.
"Hazel. She needs help. Mercedes needs a job," Brittany smiled. "She's got a spot for Sam too, when he comes home."
"Mercedes and Hazel together…" Santana mused.
"What I wouldn't give to be a fly on that wall," Brittany chuckled.
"Um, my Dad is coming in a little over a week," Santana said, feigning casual conversation.
"Can't wait to meet him," Brittany smiled.
The following weekend, the girls packed up their belongings and loaded up in Burt's truck. Gone were their logging clothes; their spiked boots and tin pants and suspenders. Back were their dresses and blouses and slacks and hats, set at just the right angle on their heads. Brittany watched them pile into the back of the truck and remembered their first day in camp. The clothes were the same, but those women weren't. The job, the woods, the war, had all changed them. Brittany liked to think it changed them for the better. She liked to think they left her business, her home, her life, just a little bit better for it. Brittany liked to think that. Burt's truck drove off, out of the clearing and down the logging trail. Back to town. Back to Seattle. The girls waved their gloved hands and bid cheerful, teary farewells until they were out of sight.
Santana stood near Brittany and felt uneasy in the sudden silence.
"Dad will be here tomorrow," Santana reminded Brittany.
Brittany nodded. "Best we get you packed up and over to the house then."
"I still have some of my things there," Santana reminded her.
"I know," Brittany replied. "Let's get everything in one place, shall we?"
Brittany helped Santana pack up her few belongings in her old suitcase. When they were finished, they stood in the doorway of the empty bunk house and took one last look. The beds were made, the footlockers open and empty. The shelves they built hung empty on the walls. The dripping faucet echoed in the empty shower room. It still smelled of cedar. It always did. But it still smelled like the crew as well. Rachel's three kinds of creams, Quinn's expensive perfume, Mercedes' hair pomade and Tina's spicy muscle pain rub. Santana smiled at the smell. At the memory. Brittany took her hand and led her out of the bunk house.
"Come on. Let's go home," Brittany said gently.
The lights were on and Marley was cooking in the kitchen when they arrived at the house.
"Smells good Marley!" Brittany called from the living room. "What's for dinner?"
"What's it smell like?" Marley asked between the scrape of a pan on the stove.
"Salmon?" Santana guessed.
"Then that's what we're having," Marley answered.
"She's full of sass today," Santana remarked.
"Must be in a good mood," Brittany smiled.
Brittany walked upstairs with Santana close behind. Brittany took off her light jacket when they entered her room and Santana placed her hat on Brittany's bureau. She looked for her small bag near the bed.
"Britt, where's my bag? I had a few changes of clothes in there," Santana asked.
"Check the closet," Brittany said, as she left the room.
Santana opened the small closet door and looked on the floor for her bag. She found it and pulled it out. It was empty.
"What the?" Santana asked herself.
She looked up at Brittany's clothes, hanging in a line. She recognized her dress. Then a blouse. Then a pair of slacks. She reached out and pulled at the hem of her dress. She ran the material through her fingers, then looked back at the closet. All her things had been neatly hung up, right next to Brittany's. Her heart did a little flip, and her stomach followed. She turned to the bureau, and opened a drawer. Her underwear, socks, and a bra were set to the right side, neatly folded. Brittany's were jammed haphazardly to the left. Santana couldn't keep the smile from her face if she tried. She heard Brittany in her father's old room. Santana snuck around the corner and peeked in. Brittany had her suitcase on the bed and pulled out a coat and a few sweaters and hung them up in the closet. Brittany paused and turned to the door. She grinned at Santana's smile and her wet eyes. Happy tears were a welcome sight.
"Britt..." Santana whispered.
Dr. Lopez arrived at the mill the next afternoon. Santana heard a horn honk and nearly tripped over herself running down the stairs to greet him. He stood outside his car, arms open wide and scooped Santana up and swung her around in a hug.
"Dad!" Santana yelled. "Dad. Dad. Dad," she said over and over, trying to will him to be real.
"Oh my sweet girl, let me look at you," he said putting her down and holding her at arms length.
"Gosh you've gotten strong," he said holding her upper arms. "And pale," he said looking at her hands.
"No California sun here Dad," Santana giggled. "Look at you though. You look good. So good. Not a scratch on you."
"None that you can see," Dr. Lopez joked.
Santana gave him a worried look.
"I'm fine. I'm fine. Promise," he assured her. "Now enough about me. This is where you've been spending all your time?" he asked, looking over the mill.
"Doing the books, placing orders, accounts payable, accounts receivable, payroll," Santana rattled off casually.
Brittany stood at the top of the stairs and watched the reunion unfold. Dr. Lopez looked up and saw the tall woman with the long blond hair.
"That must be Brittany," he said.
Santana turned, smiled and waved. Brittany smiled and waved back.
"Yep. Brittany Pierce. She's the owner," Santana said proudly.
Dr. Lopez looked surprised.
"Remember, I wrote you about her Pop passing last winter," she reminded him.
"Yes, of course. It's just, I don't think I've heard of a woman running a logging company," Dr. Lopez replied.
"Well now you have," Santana said cheerfully. "Come meet her. We have dinner planned at the house tonight," Santana said, pulling him to the mill.
"It's an honor to meet you sir," Brittany said, shaking Dr. Lopez's hand. "Come on in. We're just wrapping up. Won't be long."
Santana got a chair for her father to sit near her desk and Brittany walked into her office.
"Brittany?" Charlie said, coming in from the mill floor.
"What d'ya need Charlie?" Brittany asked with a smile.
"Belt's gone on the old gal again," Charlie complained.
Brittany rolled her eyes and followed Charlie onto the mill floor.
"What's going on?" Dr. Lopez asked Santana.
"Brittany's fixing the saw," Santana said, her head in the accounting ledger.
Dr. Lopez scratched his head and sat back in his chair.
Burt walked into the mill office and smiled at seeing Dr. Lopez.
"You must be Santana's father! An honor sir," Burt said, shaking Dr. Lopez's hand.
"Dad, this is Burt Hummel. He's our logging foreman," Santana introduced.
"Taught her everything she knows," Burt beamed.
"You wish Burt," Brittany said from behind him.
"Okay, half of what she knows," Burt said with a smirk.
"How long are you in town for?" Burt asked.
"Just tonight. Have to get back to California. It's a lot of work, starting up my practice again," Dr. Lopez explained.
Santana and Brittany walked Dr. Lopez up to the house and treated him to a steak dinner.
"So then men coming back, are they picking up where your girls left off?" Dr. Lopez asked.
Brittany shook her head. "I wouldn't do that to the guys. They can't follow up those girls. They were second to none. The new crew will head up another five miles up river, over the next ridge. We need them to start clearing the road and work the other side," Brittany explained.
"Are Kurt and Blaine going to work with that crew?" Santana asked, trying to hide her worry.
"They'll be running that crew. Burt will stay as foreman. Kurt and Blaine will be crew runners. They'll run the show," Brittany explained with a smile.
"And Marley?" Santana asked.
"I told her I'd find her a job at the mill, but she wants to stay with Burt and the boys," Brittany replied.
Santana shook her head. "Just when I think I understand that girl."
"She does what she wants. Good thing she's great at what she does," Brittany smiled.
"She was your camp girl?" Dr. Lopez asked.
"She ran camp," Santana explained. "Barely 18, and she cooked, cleaned, laundered, chopped firewood and if you needed her to, even kill a bear for you."
"Excuse me? A bear?" Dr. Lopez asked.
"She's a dead shot too," Brittany added.
"It's a helluva operation you have here Miss Pierce," Dr. Lopez complimented.
"Thanks. We've been here 80 years. Hopefully 80 more, god-willing," Brittany explained.
After dinner and drinks, Santana showed her father to his room for the night.
"Sorry I'm kicking you out of your room," he said, placing his small suitcase at the bottom of the bed.
"It's no bother," Santana smiled. "I don't mind bunking with Britt," she explained.
"Nice girl," Dr. Lopez remarked.
"The nicest. Smart too," Santana added.
"I can see that. Impressive. Very impressive," Dr. Lopez smiled.
The next morning, Dr. Lopez was packed and met Brittany and Santana in the kitchen for coffee and breakfast. After they were done, Dr. Lopez looked around.
"Where's your suitcase?"
"What suitcase?" Santana asked.
"Aren't you packed?" Dr. Lopez asked.
"For what?" Santana asked, her stomach knotting with nerves.
"To go. With me. Back to California," Dr. Lopez said, as if it were obvious.
"I'm not going to California," Santana replied, hurt at her father's assumption.
"Would you excuse us Brittany?" Dr. Lopez asked.
"No, we'll step outside," Santana suggested and led her father with his bag out the front door.
"What are you talking about?" Santana demanded.
"I'm starting up my practice again. I need you there," Dr. Lopez demanded in return.
"You have Emma...Emily?"
"Her name is Olivia. And yes, she's there. She's a nurse. I need her to be a nurse. I need you to run the office," Dr. Lopez explained.
Santana could see her father's exasperation. She was hurt, yet annoyed he would assume she'd just pick up and leave. No, she was angry. He thought nothing of her work here.
"I'm needed here. I want to be here," Santana firmly stated.
"What did you think I was coming here for? A social call?" Dr. Lopez asked.
"A visit, yes. I thought you were here to visit. I was surprised you were only staying the night. I thought you were here to see me, not to take me away." Santana explained.
Dr. Lopez looked at his daughter's crossed arms, her straight back, her raised chin and the fire in her brown eyes and his heart swelled and sank at the same time. He was proud of his strong daughter, just not with the choice she was making. He knew a lost cause when he saw one.
"I don't want to fight about this," Dr. Lopez said apologetically.
"Neither do I," Santana agreed.
"I'll send you a train ticket when you change your mind," Dr. Lopez offered hopefully.
"Send them for Christmas. I'd love to see you," Santana offered.
Dr. Lopez pulled Santana into a warm hug.
"I forgot how stubborn you are," Dr. Lopez sighed.
"I missed you too Dad," Santana replied, hugging him tighter.
Santana watched her father walk down the path to the mill, until he disappeared around the bend of trees. She recalled her long drive up the mountain more than two years ago. Scared, lost and out of luck. At the end of that road was a mill, a logging camp and strange world and a wonderfully strange woman. Santana looked up at the mountain. White puffy clouds drifted lazily by. The pine trees, the snow caps, boulders and the waterfalls. The air full of cedar and moss and damp and earth. It used to give her a chill of cold when she first arrived, but now those goosebumps came for different reasons. She turned around, opened the door and saw Brittany biting her nails in the living room.
"What happened?" Brittany asked.
"He thought he was taking me home to California," Santana replied, shaking her head and sitting down next to Brittany on the small couch.
"What did you say?" Brittany asked.
"I told him I already was home."