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Thunder, Clap Us Open

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Santana jolts herself awake at some empty point in the night to find the sheets pulled back in the other bed and her mother nowhere to be found.

Desi seems to be pretty solidly asleep next to her, face pressed into the pillow and his curls sweetly askew, so she doesn’t bother trying to carefully extract herself and just wiggles out from under the thin blanket he has pinned tight across the both of them.

It’s been a while since they’ve slept in the same room, and if she forgets why they’re holed up at a cheap motel she can almost appreciate the chance to see him so unguarded like this.

She watches him from the end of the bed for a moment, just to take it all in – those long, dark eyelashes; his soft baby cheeks; the gentle snoring. She’d forgotten how young he looks when he sleeps. It’s like he’s the same tiny bundle her parents brought home from the hospital. Only this time she isn’t a petulant child and doesn’t have the urge to put him out with the trash.

He’s probably the best thing to come from this summer. After their mother left them in the room to go hit up a drive-thru, Desi sat with Santana on the bed and narrated the infomercials they had on mute just so she wouldn’t stop to think about anything.

“You should’ve given them fake identities, when you checked in,” he told Mami when she came back with McDonalds. She laughed and he explained, “So we could be spies, like on a secret mission or something. I mean how often do you get to go on the run? This was a golden opportunity!”

They’re probably the exact opposite of on the run right now, more like holding out, waiting for everything to blow over so they can go home, but no one wanted to be the one to mention that. Instead they picked at cold fries and tried to get invested in a TV movie and turned out the lights long before anyone was really tired enough to sleep. Only Desi actually managed to pass out within the hour, but Santana suspects he just tired himself out with all his forced excitement.

She’s not sure her mother even went to sleep at all – especially not now with both the bed and the bathroom empty, and Santana slips on the crappy sandals she brought with her to check outside.

She finds her mother sitting quietly on the curb outside their room, bathed in fluorescent blue light from the giant vacancy sign like she somehow managed to slip into the sky.

“What time is it?” her mother asks when she sits down beside her. The concrete is unexpectedly cold.

Santana turns back to check through the open door, but the angle’s too off for her to see anything other than the edge of the TV’s digital box. “Late,” she says. “I don’t know. What are you doing out here?”

“Nothing really,” her mother says with a small laugh. “Just sitting. I suppose if I was a smoker it would at least give me a reason to be out here, hm? You didn’t bring anything with you, did you?”

“I don’t- Mami, I don’t smoke,” Santana sputters, fingers curling around the edge of the curb.

Her mother snorts. “Oh come off it, I’ve seen the butts in the backyard. And you know if you want to get cancer and die there’s nothing I can truly do to stop you.”

“Really?”

“Well I’m just grateful it’s not pot,” her mother says, and Santana feels the blood drain from her face.

She sits there in silence for a minute just flashing back to how many times she’s smoked in the house when her mother wasn’t around and very quickly promises God she’ll never do it again if He can keep her mother from finding out. A car zooms past at that exact moment and she takes it as a sign that she was heard.

“You know, Papi’s brother…” she starts, only now really registering what her mother said about the cigarettes.

“I know,” her mother says. “I didn’t think he’d tell you, but I guess he’s-”

Trying. They both sit in the implications of that word.

“He’s a good man,” her mother tells her, as if maybe she’d forgotten with everything he said.

It was probably the only thing Santana was thinking about the entire conversation. Even when he- even when he said she’s rotting, just festering in her sickness like some infected boil. Maybe the worst part about all of this is that he loves her so much.

“How do you think Sienna’s handling things?” she says, because she can’t stand thinking about it anymore. It even managed to seep into her dreams – the conversation distorting itself like silly putty and the Sunday comics, just warped in every awful direction.

Her mother tilts her head back, looking up at the starless sky. The blue light hits the length of her neck like an oil painting and Santana momentarily finds herself wishing she could be that beautiful even in tragedy.

“She’s losing her father,” her mother says. “It’s the worst pain imaginable.”

I might be too, Santana thinks, and then feels incredibly selfish for it. At least her father’s still breathing. At least she could look him in the eye and tell him she loves him, even if he’ll most likely only ever see her as an untreated disease after this.

She stretches her legs out in front of and resists the urge to fold over completely. “I don’t know anything about her anymore. She used to be like my big sister.”

“She has a little boy now,” her mother says. “I think he’s two? Maybe two-and-a-half. Dante. He looks just like her.”

“How could Papi just cut him off like that? If Desi… I mean how could he just pretend his own brother didn’t even exist?” Santana lifts her shoulders in disbelief.

Even if Desi went on a murder spree she’s not sure she could disown him. He’s her brother; even if they hate each other they’re still ride or die. That’s basically the meaning of family. (And yet her father’s at home, probably packing his bags…)

“You have to understand the kind of childhood he had,” her mother says softly. “Unfortunately these things shape you for life. And he- He’s done the best with what he had. He’s doing his best.”

Santana pulls her lip through her teeth. “He doesn’t talk about it.”

Her mother nods and the night feels so expansive. “It’s difficult. He didn’t open up to me for years. Obviously by then I was in love with him, so it didn’t change anything either way, but.”

“You’re gonna lose him because of me,” Santana says with a sick realization.

“Oh baby, no,” her mother says, reaching out to stroke her hair. “Believe me, it was already ending. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but I was concerned he’d try to stop me from seeing you kids.”

“But you love him,” Santana mumbles.

Her mother sighs, staring out at the empty highway. “Things don’t always work like that, ultimately. It isn’t always enough.”

It hits the Brittany nerve in a dull, nearly-healed bruise sort of way, and Santana wonders if maybe this whole summer has just been a lesson on letting go. The last time it seemed like Brittany was giving up on her she was standing in a crowded hallway and it felt like someone had fired a bazooka through her chest but somehow she’s sitting in a motel parking lot in the middle of the night and she feels closer to okay. Not entirely there, but on her way.

She doesn’t want to think about her mother being the same. Children think their parents are an untouchable force of love and nothing will ever tear them apart and now she’s standing on the edge of a canyon and they’re just staring at each other from either side.

“How long?” Santana asks.

“Hmm?” Her mother glances over at her, roused from wherever she’d let her thoughts wander.

“You said you’d been thinking about it for a while. Leaving him. I just want to know – months? Years?” Santana pulls her legs in and hugs her knees, just needing to hold something.

Her mother scoots a little closer, leaning over so she can rub the small of Santana’s back. “Long enough to save up,” she says. “I don’t know, maybe a little less than a year. I wanted enough to be able to get out of here, if it came to that. And then I… You’d do so well in a big city, Santana. I saw what these small attitudes did to my sister and I just needed to stop the same thing from happening to you.”

“Did you know?” Santana asks quietly. “About me being…”

“I don’t know, I had my suspicions. Not so much until this year,” her mother reflects. “But I think you mostly seemed to turn in on yourself. I’ve been concerned.”

There were so many moments where Santana could’ve told her. So many times where she wanted to, desperately, but she was just so scared… She doesn’t even want to think about how much easier it would’ve been had her mother known. Or how much sooner her father would’ve left her.

“You’ve been very depressed,” her mother murmurs, pulling her into her side.

Another car slips by on the highway and Santana watches its headlights disappear into darkness.

“A lot happened that I wish I could’ve told you about,” she says, turning into her mother’s shoulder.

“You can tell me now,” her mother proposes.

Somehow through everything that’s happened tonight her mother still smells like her soft perfume and faintly of freshly-showered skin and Santana breathes it in, so thankful she doesn’t have to watch her mother walk away too.

“It’s a lot, Mami,” she says.

Her mother chuckles. “Well we seem to have a lot of time on our hands, hm? I don’t think either of us are much for sleeping tonight.”

No, neither of them were able to make an adventure of what essentially feels like the end of the world. She’s sure they’d be the only two awake if the world really did end, just sitting somewhere together watching the rubble settle, somehow too exhausted to actually sleep.

Her mother holds her and doesn’t mind the silence Santana lets creep in, like she’d wait forever for Santana to be ready to start. And Santana breathes in her mother’s scent one last time and tries to find the beginning.

 


 

The way everyone’s just sitting on the ends of their beds, putting off leaving, makes Desi think of the vacations they used to take when he was a little kid. Most of them happened when he was too young to really take anything in but in between the foggy memories of falling asleep in familiar arms he has sharp bursts of hotel rooms; strange beds and the lint taste of the carpet and everybody taking forever to put their shoes on. It always felt like they were trying to squeeze out every last dollop of vacation.

It’s only similar now in that nobody wants to go home, determined to put off reality a little longer, and Santana’s filled her duffel bag with all the cheap toiletries from the bathroom.

“Two kinds of shampoo but no deodorant,” she’d said, scowling as she tossed the tiny bottles into her bag.

He’s totally happy to put off puberty for a few years if it means he doesn’t have to stick soap in his armpits and start shaving his face. He’d probably want to shave his legs, too, because the idea of being hairy all over makes his skin crawl. But he’s watched Santana shave too many times to ever want to touch a razor.

Santana’s currently frowning at nothing and kicking the edge of the bed, her sandals making a dull thump every time they hit the mattress. He can tell she didn’t sleep because her eyes are kind of puffed up just like Mami’s and as much as he hates knowing they stayed up without him, it’s also kind of relieving to know there’s someone else in his sister’s court. He loves her, but he’s been the only one to willingly stick around all summer and it’s nice to think it doesn’t all come down to him anymore.

Mami could definitely help if Santana asked. Mami would probably know exactly what to do with that song and how to make things right with Quinn and Brittany. She’s the one they should’ve been asking all this time.

She has her car keys in her hand and keeps jingling them every few seconds, like she’s trying to remind herself they’re supposed to be heading to the car to go home. But he knows. He knows the absence no one wants to come home to.

He realizes while staring at one of the dumb flower paintings on the wall that they’re definitely going to be missing church today, and even though every Sunday he’d much rather stay in bed and not hear about all the ways he’s supposed to be a better person the idea of not going, especially because of this, feels like a sinking weight in his gut.

If his sister needs anything right now it’s to hear that Jesus loves her. All of her, no matter what Papi said.

(It sounded awful. He thought his father was supposed to be smart and suddenly he’s talking about Santana being sick, and even though Abuela kept trying to drag him away from the basement door he needed to keep listening because it felt like the only thing he could do besides punch his dad in the face and he wasn’t entirely sure Papi wouldn’t hit back.)

(There just doesn’t seem to be a right way to have handled that. And still, he’s mad at himself for doing it wrong.)

Santana stares down at her phone again like she’s sure there was something she’s supposed to be doing, and Desi wonders if it’s about church or her kinda nonexistent friends.

She should text them. Should she? Yeah, because this is the sort of thing friends actually want to know about, but what if they start talking and Santana never ends up apologizing? Or no one ever talks about what happened before and they just all pretend it’s fine?

It’s times like these he really wishes he had a phone of his own so he could let Quinn know that things really aren’t great and Santana needs her support but also to stay a bit mad at Santana so she doesn’t lose it. Because he knows how easy it is to start feeling sad for her and forget and then she does it all over again.

(If he had Quinn’s phone number he’d probably text her cute kitten photos every day. Or puppies. Or just something to make her smile.)

“We can grab breakfast somewhere on our way home if you’d like,” Mami says, startling Santana and Desi.

Santana blinks herself back into consciousness and Desi wonders where they’d go, when their usual pancake house is tainted with their father and their after-church ritual. Could any of them even manage to eat?

“We can just go home,” Santana says. “It’s okay.”

Mami nods and stands up, and it’s like this pulled some invisible trigger because then they’re all on their feet and getting their stuff together. Twenty minutes of just sitting there and now they’re finally on their way. Desi almost wishes they’d take off and find another motel somewhere just so they wouldn’t have to find out.

Santana gives him a nudge towards the door, eyeing the dingy room one last time for anything else she meant to do. The only thing left to take is the bible on the side table but Desi won’t mention it.

He wants to say something to his sister. But then she’s stepping out into the parking lot, and everything he could think of just doesn’t seem important.

Either their father will be there or he won’t.

And nothing anyone could say will make it any easier.

 


 

The front porch seems completely normal and Santana doesn’t know what she was expecting. Some sort of note on the door? A disturbance to signal he packed his bags and left?

The only thing that catches her eye is a piece of mail that must have fallen before it could slip through the mail slot, because it’s half wedged under the dirt-caked welcome mat like it’s been sitting there a while.

Desi and her mother seem to be waiting for her to leave the driveway first, because as soon as she starts towards the porch to rescue that piece of mail they fall into step behind her, flanking her on either side like a split shadow. No one says a word. They crowd the porch like solicitors who don’t really want to sell anything and Santana crouches down to grab the mail.

“What’s that?” Desi asks, in a quiet voice like he’s afraid to disturb the air.

Santana turns it over in her hands, a slow chill creeping over her body. “It’s from Quinn,” she says. “Just some postcard.”

Just something stupid from the gas station right outside of Lima, featuring a sad cornfield and a blue sky that doesn’t seem real. Greetings From Lima! The kind of postcard no one would ever want to receive, because there isn’t a soul who comes to Lima willingly. It’s like a postcard from jail.

Desi peers over her shoulder, trying to read. “What does it say? When did she go on vacation? Remember the postcard Brittany gave you?”

Their mother shifts her weight behind them, trying to nudge them along in an unobtrusive way, and Santana stands up with her eyes still on the back of the postcard.

“I remember,” Santana says distractedly, stepping aside so her mother can unlock the door. “It’s- it doesn’t really say anything, it’s just stupid. Don’t worry about it.”

The key clicks in the lock and her mother pushes the door open, the dark chill of the front hall greeting them.

Santana glances down at the postcard again. I think you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Even if I’m not the best thing to have happened to you. –Quinn.

Even the handwriting feels sad.

“Do you think he’d still be asleep?” Desi asks no one in particular, as he steps into the house and glances around.

Everything has this tinge of emptiness to it and Santana doesn’t know where exactly she should be focusing her anxiety. Her first instinct is to turn around and head straight to Quinn’s house but she knows she’d just stand at the edge of the lawn for hours and then chicken out, and she isn’t even sure if this urge is just to get away from the absolute stillness of her own house.

“Mama?” her mother calls out. “Isaiah?”

None of the lights are on, and all the floors have that weird sheen to them that they get when hit with the shards of natural light that manage to slip through the windows. Santana stares all the way through to the back door where the sun seems to beat through with no remorse.

There’s a sound from upstairs, and then Abuela appears at the top of the stairs in a nightgown with a sad look on her face.

“Mi pequeña, I don’t think he’ll be answering you any time soon,” she says, slowly making her way down to them.

“What do you mean?” Mami asks.

Desi drifts over towards Santana, subconsciously pressing into her side. She grips the postcard so hard she can feel it cutting into her palm.

“He packed a bag,” Abuela says. “I’m so sorry.”

Her mother just nods and presses her lips together.

Abuela shakes her head. “Sometimes men just…”

Santana can hear her heart pounding in her ears. Desi puts his arms around her middle, giving her a wordless hug.

“Well it certainly seems like we could all use a good breakfast,” her mother says, bringing her hands together. “Who’s hungry?”

“I’ll eat,” Desi says just as Abuela makes it to the bottom of the stairs.

“I think I’m just going to sleep for a bit,” Santana says quietly. Her mother nods.

Abuela takes her mother’s arm, leading her into the kitchen. “We’ll cook up a good meal,” Abuela’s saying. “A big Sunday breakfast, just like we did when you kids were little. See what’s in the fridge…”

Desi stares up at Santana as soon as they’re alone, silently asking if she’s okay. He still has an arm loosely wrapped around her back and she feels like crying.

“I knew he’d leave,” she murmurs, unable to look at him, “But I guess I didn’t really think he’d leave.”

“I know,” Desi says.

“It just doesn’t feel real.” Santana pries her eyes off the rug and finally takes in the emptiness of the house; the tangible absence that clings to every reaching shadow.

“We’re missing church right now,” Desi whispers, as if saying it out loud might remind someone and they’ll all get dragged there, and Santana wonders why everything huge always seems to happen on a Sunday.

 


 

The only upside to the A/C being on so high is it gives Santana an excuse to burrow deep under her covers, submerging herself in complete darkness. It takes her a while of slow breathing to fall asleep but when she does, she dreams of Papi: of taking his big hand and chasing him through tall grass and laughing, blinded by the sun, as he throws her in the air. She dreams of being the child he wouldn’t leave behind.

It hurts, even in the dream. She’s a little girl with loose curls but even as she laughs there’s a heaviness in her chest and she wants to beg him to stay.

She drifts in and out of sleep, and each time she slips back into the same endless dream; the yellow-green fields, and the cloudless sky, and that smile of his she keeps fearing will disappear if she dare look away.

When she finally wakes for good her mouth tastes like blood and she realizes she must have bit her tongue. Maybe to stop herself from calling out to him.

Her room’s swallowed whole by the brightness of the early afternoon sun, and she’s somehow managed to twist her sheets up in one giant knot under the duvet, pinning her legs in place. It’s still chilly but she finds her hair stuck to her forehead in a cold sweat; exactly how she used to wake up from nightmares as a kid, chest pounding, but this time her mother isn’t running in at the sound of her crying.

She takes a deep breath, and carefully extracts her legs from the tangle of sheets. This wasn’t even a nightmare. She shouldn’t be panicking.

But then she spots the postcard on her desk, Quinn’s handwriting glowing in a patch of direct sunlight.

Of all the bombs for Quinn to drop, and for Santana to try to ignore, this one at the diner may be causing the most destruction. Because of course Santana had to know, given the way Quinn’s just clung to her, with the kisses neither would talk about, despite no one willing to put it into words. She had to have known; she’s not a complete idiot.

But maybe she knew in the way that she always sort of knew about her feelings for Brittany – it obviously wasn’t normal, but it wasn’t something she could let herself think about. And god, she and Quinn are like the queens of repression. They could’ve gone years without this ever coming up.

(No they couldn’t. Brittany’s right; Quinn’s needed something from Santana that she couldn’t ask for, but it was bound to come out eventually.)

It’d be easy to explain this away with Quinn’s codependent response to trauma – with everything with her mom this summer, and both Puck and Finn occupied with other people, it’s only natural that she’d seek someone out who she knew couldn’t resist taking care of her. She’s always been good at getting her needs met.

Obviously Santana was a good candidate with how quickly she dropped everything to fix things in New York. And Quinn knew Brittany was away, so she was an easy target.

If she thinks about it like this it doesn’t hurt so much.

She can just be the pathetic warm body, and Quinn the leech, and no one could really fault her for playing along.

But she isn’t just another stupid boy for Quinn. Maybe she could’ve kept telling herself that if all she ever went on was what took place at the diner, but now the postcard’s staring straight at her and she can’t look away.

Quinn knows.

Quinn must’ve played this over in her head a thousand times.

She’s been Santana’s replacement Brittany who wouldn’t ask her to change and Santana spent all summer convincing herself it meant nothing. Because if she had to think about it, she’d have to admit it wasn’t one-sided. And she doesn’t know how to do that when she’s been in love with Brittany since they were kids.

She explained a bit of it to her mother last night, but it mostly amounted to things got a little complicated with Quinn which her mother took to be about Judy and how Quinn never seemed to want to go home.

“She’s in a difficult part of her life right now,” her mother had said. “And this is when she needs her friends more than ever.”

Which probably mad everything even worse, because now all Santana can do is reach for her phone and try not to look at the postcard and wish she’d known enough in July not to trust herself around the most beautiful girl in school.

Did Santana start it? She can barely remember that day they got high together, but she definitely remembers how her whole body felt like it was on fire and praying Quinn wouldn’t freak out if she touched her. She was lonely; it doesn’t feel as awful if she keeps telling herself that.

And the first kiss – was it Santana who leaned in? All she remembers is seeing her brother turn away, and she hates herself for involving him.

God, he’s going to have a lot to write about when he goes back to school.

Santana couldn’t have made Quinn do anything she didn’t want to. She knows that, but she still feels like some predatory lesbian, taking advantage of one of her best friends after slightly crushing on her for years. She can't help it that Quinn’s beautiful. But she should’ve been able to walk away.

Maybe she’s only fixated on this to distract herself from her father, and trying to convince herself there’s at least one aspect of her life that isn’t all fucked up because of her is the only thing that’ll keep her sane.

But it clearly isn’t working, because she can’t stop herself from bringing up Quinn’s picture in her contacts, frowning at it like the girl in the Cheerios uniform might be able to explain this all away.

Don’t worry Santana, I don’t really have feelings for you and you don’t really have feelings for me. Soon we’ll even be laughing about it.

She has to talk to her. She has to at least apologize, for even one of the thousand dumb things she’s done. She should’ve figured it out sooner or been able to see the consequences of just letting it play out without anyone naming it or at the very least asked herself why Quinn kept showing up.

Brittany has been right about this; Santana took advantage, whether or not Quinn let her. And maybe that makes it even worse.

She pulls up their text messages, finger hovering over the keyboard. Does she start with the postcard? Or an apology? Or an acknowledgement that Quinn was totally in the right, running out at the diner like that?

Fuck both of them for never being direct people. They could’ve saved themselves so much trouble.

My father left last night, she ends up sending.

A minute later, her phone rings.

 


 

Sundays used to be Quinn’s favorite day of the week. She and her sister would put on their frilly dresses, and their parents would take them to church in her father’s nice car, everyone so jovial she could almost pretend it was real.

She found a little of that warmth again when living with Mercedes and her family, joining them for Sunday services with her stomach the size of a watermelon.

Everything stopped when her mom took her back.

Half her family was gone and no one talked about everything.

She was sort of halfheartedly praying when her phone buzzed, it being another empty Sunday, on her knees next to her bed like one attempt could make up for over a year of abandonment. Santana’s name was the last thing she expected to see glowing across her screen and somehow the only one that made sense, and then something in her stomach twisted as she read the message.

“What the fuck happened?” is the only thing she can think to ask when Santana picks up.

There’s a pause like maybe Santana was expecting something harsher, and then Quinn remembers exactly how they last left things. Somehow anger just doesn’t seem like the right response anymore.

“He um, well I finally came out, I guess,” Santana mutters, and Quinn actually gasps. “Okay, hey, it was bound to happen eventually. No need to sound so shocked.”

“I’m not,” Quinn lies, hauling herself off her knees so maybe God will stop listening. “He just left? Like you told him and he walked out?”

She perches on the edge of her bed, trying to regain her composure, and then just rubs her face. Obviously Santana was going to tell her parents eventually, but she didn’t think it’d happen until like, college or something. Some time when Santana had a clear getaway should anything go wrong.

Santana exhales on the other line, like there’s some huge story to go with it. “He wanted to send me to one of those Christian conversion centers in fucking Utah, to make me un-gay. And then my mom kinda, took us and left, like to a motel, and told him if he was there in the morning it better be because he changed his mind and was gonna accept me.”

“Go Mama Lopez,” Quinn says, impressed, distantly wishing her mother could be the same.

“Yeah,” Santana says. “But now he’s gone and my family’s basically broken.”

Quinn eases herself onto her back and finds her gaze fixed on the water-stained ceiling. “Okay, well from an actual broken home, let me just say you’re lucky to have most of your family still standing. And um, I’m proud of you.”

It shouldn’t tweak something in her chest, getting to say the words, but there’s an almost breathless sensation nonetheless.

“Thanks, Q,” Santana says, and Quinn smiles involuntarily. “You know, I still can’t tell if I feel better or worse for having said anything. It’s like… now there’s nothing to hide, but things are just… damaged. I can’t tell if it was worth it.”

“Well Brittany has to be happy, I mean it’s what she wanted, right?” Quinn asks, sucking in her cheeks.

That was the whole point of the summer; Brittany wanted Santana to be good enough for her. And now she is, so it’s just-

“I haven’t told her yet, actually,” Santana admits.

Quinn feels like she missed the last step on a staircase. “Oh,” she says. “But I thought, since you told me…”

Santana breathes out and it sounds like an apology. “Well that’s, um… I got your postcard.”

Oh,” Quinn repeats.

She’d kind of hoped it got lost in the mail, or something, since Santana didn’t seem to know anything about it at the diner. Actually the moment she dropped it in the mailbox she’d wanted to take it back, but there just didn’t seem to be a way to get her arm through the slot and there was a surprising amount of people on the street that day who definitely wouldn’t have approved.

It was such a stupid idea. And now it’s in Santana’s house, right after probably the worst moment of Santana’s life. Quinn wants to die.

“You can just throw it out,” she says, rolling over so maybe she can smother herself with a pillow.

Everything smells like that cheap lavender laundry detergent her mom’s taken a liking to and she wants to vomit.

“Quinn…”

“Believe me, I didn’t mean it,” she says, hoping Santana can’t hear the way her throat aches and hating herself for how she always ends up crying in these ridiculous situations.

“Yeah, you did,” Santana says. “I just wanted to talk about it.”

Quinn squeezes her eyes shut and drapes an arm over her face, wanting to hurl her phone out the window. “Well I don’t.”

“You don’t want to talk about anything. But I think we really need to. This whole summer…” Santana trails off, and Quinn hears the hesitation in her voice. Of course she doesn’t want to be the one to say it.

No one ever wants to be the one to tell Quinn things won’t work out for her again.

Even when they think they’re being kind, even when they’re Rachel standing there after just being slapped, telling Quinn she’s so pretty… That’s all she ever is. And it’s why everything good leaves her.

“Quinn, what did you mean at the diner?” Santana asks in a quiet voice.

“Well you clearly know what I meant, so I don’t know why you’re asking,” Quinn snaps, but she wants to cry, and her room is so disgustingly bright it hurts.

Santana falls silent and Quinn wishes she wasn’t such an awful person.

There’s only one person who doesn’t see her that way, and she can’t bring herself to continue their dance lessons no matter how many times he promises to go easy on her. She just wanted to do better for their whole team after New York and Mike’s like some horrible reminder that even when she tries she isn’t enough.

Jesus.

“We never talked about it,” Santana finally whispers, and Quinn wants to apologize for everything.

Of course they didn’t, because then Quinn might actually have to think about what she was doing, and what those feelings meant in terms of her sexuality and her relationship with her best friend who clearly didn’t reciprocate.

But then it seemed like she did, and Quinn was too afraid to shatter it, like the moment she mentioned Brittany Santana would just go right back to her.

It was never supposed to be about Santana choosing. Quinn knew she’d lose every time. And yet when it came down to it she still found herself praying she stood a chance.

“I just wanted you,” Quinn murmurs, tilting her head so the tears won’t spill over.

Santana inhales sharply.

“I know you want Brittany,” Quinn continues, pressing a finger under her eye to stop the wetness. “But I feel like… maybe there’s a little bit of you that wants me too… and if you just listened to it for a second…”

“What, we could be girlfriends and everything would be great? Or did you just think we could keep doing whatever this is in secret because obviously I’ll never be an out and proud lesbian and could just keep being your easy emotional screw forever?”

Santana sounds close to tears herself, which is the only reason Quinn doesn’t want to reach through the phone and slap her.

“I didn’t really…” Quinn tries. “I didn’t think…”

“You’re not gay,” Santana says. “You’re not in love with me. You’ve been using me to make yourself feel better about this entire crappy summer which I willingly went along with, because you’re beautiful and I’d be lying if I tried to say I didn’t think about you like that.” Santana pauses, and Quinn wishes she was brave enough to interject. “And maybe I used you a little bit too, because you didn’t need me to be anything else. But that’s all this was, Quinn. We’ll go back to school next week and you’ll forget it even happened.”

Quinn breathes in, bringing her knees up to her chest like some empty comma on the bedspread. “Are you asking me that or telling me?”

She can hear Santana thinking, replaying her own words, the inflection. If it was Quinn she’d already be halfway through a denial but Santana’s always been too honest for her own good, even when she thought she was keeping it hidden.

“I mean,” Santana finally says, her breath hitching, “you never really wanted this to go anywhere. Right? You just wanted me to want you.”

“Do you?” Quinn asks, and immediately hates herself for it.

This isn’t some boy she decided to seduce at a party, just to know she could. It won’t end in a halfhearted handjob and a weird lack of satisfaction she’ll chalk up to Jesus. If all she wanted was for Santana to want her… god, there were a thousand ways she would have gone about it. None of them would have involved her own feelings.

“Quinn,” Santana whispers.

Quinn holds her breath and Santana adds a tiny “yeah.” And, “how could I not?” And Quinn’s lungs ache.

“It doesn’t make a difference,” Quinn pretends to ask. Santana makes a breathy sound on the other end. “I’m not gay. I’ll forget about all of it as soon as we go back to school. Finn will leave Rachel, and we’ll… win Prom Queen and King…”

“You don’t want that,” Santana says in a soft voice.

Quinn doesn’t want to want anything. She wants to feel sure again and just go for something and have it all actually work out for once, whether or not it makes her feel good. For her life to fit neatly into boxes and there to be no blurred lines and no one to look at her with that awful kind of pity they seem to all save just for her.

She wants to go back to July and forget about her pathetic idea to try and build a real friendship with Santana. She should have known. God, she should have known.

“I can’t forget about it,” she says as a few tears spill over, cutting straight down the side of her face. “About you.”

It feels so hollow, saying this to her crappy cell phone. She wants to have her hand on Santana’s cheek and feel the warmth of her skin and at least know that they’re having this conversation. (She wants to kiss her. She wants it to mean something. She wants so much more than she can put into words.)

“I’ve been awful to you,” Santana says and she sounds so far away.

“I don’t care,” Quinn replies.

“Yeah, but you should,” Santana says almost hoarsely. “I’m so sorry. If the circumstances had been different…”

Quinn lets out a wet laugh. “What, you would’ve loved me back? Or would you just not have been weak enough to let me kiss you in the first place? You know I don’t care that you were using me, right? I don’t care that I was your sad, backup Brittany. At least I got a piece of you.”

“That’s not true,” Santana says. It sounds like a plea. “You know that’s not true.”

“It doesn’t make a difference,” Quinn says, shutting her eyes so maybe they’ll stop leaking.

It doesn’t even feel like crying. Just a slow, constant draining. And who knows, maybe that’s what she needs right now. Maybe this is how she’ll get clean.

Santana doesn’t say anything for a while and Quinn listens to her jagged breathing and tries to find the point in the conversation where everything started spiraling downward. Like if she can find the exact word she can go back and erase it and maybe keep a hold on the upper hand.

It’s the postcard; it all keeps coming back to that stupid confession. The one she had to drink half a bottle of vodka to get out.

“I want to see you,” she murmurs, cradling her phone to her ear. “I don’t want it to end on the fucking phone.”

Santana sounds like she’s been crying herself, the way her breathing pulls. “Is this it ending then?”

Quinn wipes her cheek with the back of her hand and lets it rest across her eyes, not ever wanting to see daylight again. If it isn’t ending then she has no idea what it’s doing. Is this not some sort of finality?

“Can I see you?”

It’s the last thing she wants. And all she wants.

“I’ll be there in like, twenty minutes,” Santana says.

Quinn feels sick to her stomach.

 


 

Desi asks to come with her. Santana supposes it could be sort of full circle, if Quinn kissed her again and he tried not to watch, but as much as she wants someone there reminding her why she’s standing her ground she knows he has to stay behind.

“I just want to make sure you don’t break her heart,” Desi says as she lingers in front of the hall mirror, trying to finger-comb her hair into something less disastrous.

“Des, it’s definitely too late for that.” She isn’t even wearing makeup and maybe it’s best she looks so tragic for this kind of confrontation. “I’m just trying to make things closer to right, before she freezes up and pretends the whole thing never happened.”

Desi holds out her purse, reluctantly letting go as she grabs it.

“Are you gonna sing her a song?” he asks, blocking her path to her shoes.

She steps around him and tugs on a pair of sandals. “The song was for-”

“Brittany,” he says. “I know. But Brittany doesn’t really seem like she needs it. And Quinn…”

She’s regretting telling him anything about the phone call, even though he’d been lingering outside her door for half the conversation and probably pieced it together before she even called him in.

It wasn’t an empty fling for Quinn, she’d told him.

Yeah, no duh. You’re gonna kiss her now, right?

He’s basically standing completely in front of the door, hands on his hips to take up more space, frowning at her like he’s been doing for probably ninety percent of the summer.

She sighs. “Okay, Desi, she doesn’t want me to go over there and sweep her off her feet. It’s over. She wants me to officially end it, or whatever.”

He shrinks into the wall and she’d forgotten he’s still just a kid. Just a boy who wanted to believe maybe one thing in his big sister’s life could work out right for once, only hours after their father walked out on them. This is about Quinn, but there are a dozen other things at play here as well. And she wishes she could right each one of them.

“You’ll understand when you’re older,” she says. It’s the last thing she wanted to say to him.

He nods and slinks away from the door, giving her permission to leave.

“You’ll make much better choices than me,” she tells him as she steps onto the porch, reeling in the heavy heat. “You have the biggest heart.”

There’s just silence as she shuts the door behind her, but she pictures him standing small in the hallway, staring at the door until he can’t hear her footsteps on the porch anymore. He won’t run after her, but she isn’t sure that’s a good thing.

She sounded so certain when she was talking to him. But now that she’s alone, squinting in the sun, she has no idea what she’s doing.

Any other Sunday they’d have gotten back from the pancake house only recently, still in their fancy clothes as they drifted off to separate corners of the house. Her mother would be thinking about what to cook for dinner and her father would head down to his office and Santana would want to shower, hating the way her sins clung to her even tighter after mass.

Has there even been a normal Sunday this summer? Quinn’s interrupted most of them, at the very least in Santana’s head. This is the second Sunday they’ve skipped mass altogether. She isn’t sure it feels any better.

When she reaches Quinn’s house her tongue already feels like sandpaper in her mouth, scraping against her teeth in a vain attempt to remember how to form words.

The house seems even bigger than before, towering over the street with curtained windows, not even a car in the driveway. Anyone passing by might assume no one’s home. Santana can somehow feel Quinn’s presence even from here on the sidewalk.

“I thought you’d chicken out,” Quinn says after Santana rings the doorbell, not even fully opening the door as if she’s afraid of Santana fleeing.

Santana’s mouth is still dry and she just shrugs, carefully following Quinn inside. They must not be too concerned about energy bills here as the A/C seems to be on full blast; the house feeling eerily arctic with all the lights off.

“We can go to the kitchen,” Quinn says hesitantly, reaching out as if she wants to take Santana’s hand but thinking better of it. “Want something to drink? Water? Vodka?”

It’d be so easy to do a few shots and lose track of herself, but Santana knows exactly where that would lead. And the last thing she needs right now is to sleep with the girl from whom she’s trying to extract herself.

“Water,” she gets out.

Quinn pours her a glass as Santana takes a seat at the table, and Quinn spends an inordinate amount of time trying to decide if she should add ice or not. She ends up adding one cube before placing it on the table and Santana wonders if this is a halfhearted attempt to freeze her out.

She takes a sip anyway.

“So you came,” Quinn says, sinking into the seat next to Santana.

The table feels more like a prop in a movie than an actual piece of furniture in someone’s home but Santana still feels bad for the ring of condensation her glass leaves on the wood.

“You asked me to,” she replies, rubbing at the ring with her fingers.

Quinn watches the gesture and lets out a tiny smile. “Don’t worry about it, no one even really comes in here. It just seemed like the kind of place to have this conversation.”

It sends something sinking in Santana’s stomach, that there’s a kitchen that isn’t the heart of the home; the center of all activity. It seems like such a pointless waste of space. And somehow exactly the kind of place they should be having this conversation.

“I don’t know how to start,” Santana says, staring at her glass.

Quinn’s gaze travels from Santana’s hands up to her face, and she holds it there. “You look beautiful.”

“Quinn…”

“I mean it,” she says. “And I probably won’t get to say it again. So I just wanted to say it at least once.”

Santana shifts her glass on the table, smudging the water into a comet-like tail. “We’re supposed to be ending it, right? I mean isn’t that what you said?”

The air’s so frigid she half expects to see her breath, just a small puff lingering between the two of them. Even with the warmth of Quinn’s body just feet away Santana can’t help but shiver. Cutoffs were not the best decision for this situation.

“Do you want it to end?” Quinn asks. She doesn’t move, but she feels closer.

Santana could lean forward and kiss her in a second and be right back where she started. (But she’d be kissing her. And at least she’d know what it’s like to actually understand what’s going on while kissing Quinn.)

She takes another tiny sip of water, her throat still sore.

“It isn’t fair to either of us,” she says mostly to the table. “You have to know that.”

Quinn nods, but her eyes are glassy. “You know, you’re the first person I didn’t feel I had to be someone else around to impress. I mean, until this summer, yeah, but once you read me your diary…”

“That feels like forever ago,” Santana says.

“I know, God. It… it was the first time I thought maybe we didn’t have to be enemies anymore. You know? You saw me.” Quinn chances a shy smile, burying it behind her hand.

And that’s why Quinn told her the reason behind the slap mark on her face, Santana realizes. Why she joined them at church. Why she stuck around. Santana was a mess, but Quinn wasn’t there to take advantage of that. She just wanted a friend.

“You wanted to help me make things right with Brittany,” Santana says, shifting back in her chair.

Quinn looks so calm, even with tear-stained cheeks. Like nothing matters now that everything’s coming out.

“You’ve been in love with her since before I knew you,” Quinn says with a small shrug. “And what you guys did for me in New York… I just wanted to help.”

“Even after you kissed me,” Santana pushes.

Quinn shuts her eyes for a second, angling her face into a shadow. “Once I commit…”

Except she’d pulled away – after the whole thing at Puck’s, even more when Brittany came back. There was so much Santana chose not to see. But why would she even think it possible, when Quinn had only given up the baby the summer before.

Quinn was still broken. They all just wanted to help her.

And the voicemail…

“Quinn, why’d you leave the song in my messages?”

Santana tries not to whisper it, but it comes out quiet all the same. That breath of air lingering between them. Quinn watches it dissipate and shrugs and gives her a sad smile, looking out into the dining room.

“Well you needed it, didn’t you? No one had ever sung you a song.”

Santana wraps her arms around her stomach. “It was more than that.”

“Yeah, but you never said anything about it,” Quinn says, fixing her gaze on a vase of dead flowers on a table.

“You told me not to think about it,” Santana tries to justify, but even that sounds useless to her own ears. When has that ever stopped her before? She was so willing to let it drop.

Quinn gets up abruptly and heads to the sink, letting the water run. She’s inches from the cabinet where she got Santana’s glass but it’s clear she isn’t standing there to get a drink. Not with the way she pushes her hips into the edge of the counter, like she wants to make it hurt.

Santana finds herself on her feet as well, frozen to the spot beside the table.

“You didn’t tell me,” she says softly.

Quinn doesn’t turn around but she adjusts the tap so it isn’t running full-force. “You’ve always loved Brittany. And I kissed you, and you… you were so willing to let it go when I asked you not to mention it… like it didn’t even matter…”

Santana’s heart sinks, leaving in its place a sickening tremor.

“I was afraid of what it meant,” she mumbles.

Of what it would force her to recognize. Of what would have to change. If she acknowledged it then it couldn’t stay the same, and she so desperately needed Quinn’s staticity to cling to with absolutely everything else around her demanding growth.

Quinn’s hands are bracing her weight against the counter now, leaving her hips less likely to bruise. Santana wants to pull her away completely and sit her somewhere she can’t hurt herself, however unintentional or intentional it may be, but Quinn still isn’t looking at her, still watching the water run, and the more Santana thinks about it the more she feels like the last person who should be here right now.

Even her- even her father would probably handle this conversation better than she’s doing. Her stomach aches.

“If I’d-” Quinn starts, shifting so she isn’t quite facing Santana, but also isn’t quite facing the sink anymore. “If I’d told you outright, would it have made a difference?”

Santana stares at her jawline, flexing as she swallows. Even like this, even with all her cards yanked from her hands, Quinn somehow still manages to look like some old Hollywood starlet, her skin a chilly porcelain. There isn’t anywhere to look that will rid Santana of the twisting coil in her chest. It’s like some awful black and white movie that ends in silhouettes.

“Were you ever going to tell me?” she asks.

They aren’t these kinds of people. They don’t know how to name their problems, let alone face them. Quinn finally looks at her.

“I really did think about it,” she says. Her eyes are the cold color of a hurling ocean. “I really thought… Maybe it only seemed like it would change everything because I knew I wouldn’t do it. I don’t know.”

She frowns at the floor, and behind her the water’s still running, almost white noise with how intently Santana finds herself watching Quinn.

The tear tracks still staining the side of her face, curved like she was lying down. The tiny smudge of mascara under her glassy eyes. The way she steels her jaw and looks up at Santana, so shockingly open, like she’s finally conceded to this being the dying breaths of something they were both too afraid to name. Santana swallows and rolls back slightly on her feet.

“It would have,” she says. “Changed everything.”

Quinn quirks an eyebrow. “You told Brittany and look what happened with that.”

She’s right; Santana hasn’t been the girl at the locker in a month now, maybe longer, but one mention and she can still feel her heart flopping desperately at her feet as Brittany kicks some dirt over it. She’d like to think she’d react differently had Quinn come to her, but her head would probably be buried in the sand quicker than Quinn could think to slap her.

“It still changed though,” she says.

“Oh yeah, it literally destroyed you,” Quinn says with a sad laugh. “No one could even look at you. God, no thanks.”

Santana rolls her eyes just to alleviate the sting of remembering yet again that everyone knew despite how hard she tried to hide it. If it hadn’t been so pathetic she probably would have been the school joke.

Quinn seems to regret her choice of words, because she gives Santana’s arm a soft touch. “It wasn’t… it probably wasn’t that obvious. Maybe just to people who knew what to look for.”

It’s bullshit, but Santana appreciates it. Especially now with Quinn closer to the same position Santana was in for so long, and she shouldn’t but she almost wishes this had happened at the same time so at least she would have had someone to commiserate with. Someone to cut through all that loneliness.

She looks down at where Quinn touched her arm, the skin still tingling. She can’t remember when Quinn became such a fire around her but everything always seems to be burning.

“You really are beautiful,” Quinn murmurs, and Santana can feel her eyes grazing her skin.

“Don’t,” Santana whispers.

Not now. Not when they’re trying so hard to let it die.

She rubs at her arm and Quinn watches, lips parted, face unreadable. Santana wishes she was the kind of person who knew how to sneak into Quinn’s mind for even a second, for just a glimpse of what’s going on, but she’s growing less and less sure that such a person exists. Not when Quinn knows so well how to execute the perfect wall; the perfect stone facade to keep everyone out. Even when it’s come to this.

“You know how when people know they’re dying,” Quinn says, tracing her way up to Santana’s face, “they start confessing everything, because they know they have nothing left to lose?”

Santana flinches when Quinn’s eyes meet hers, like they’re a swinging fist. “Is there even anything left?” she asks.

Quinn lets out a breathy laugh, taking a step closer. Her skin is marbled from the cold of the A/C and her veins look like rivers on a map; Santana wants to look away, but everything in her pins her in place, an empty building awaiting the wrecking ball.

“I didn’t want it to end on the phone,” Quinn says, very carefully reaching up to brush a strand of hair out of Santana’s face. “Because I… I wanted to do this.”

Her hand cups Santana’s cheek and then she’s kissing her, softly, purposely, as if trying to commit it to memory. She tastes of toothpaste and salt like her tears never fully washed off and Santana pulls her closer, chest aching, not wanting it to end.

I am so sorry, Quinn seems to be saying, her fingers finding their way into Santana’s hair.

Her cheeks are wet as she finally pulls away and Santana reluctantly lets go of her dress, letting her step backwards, not wanting to think she was crying while they kissed, not wanting to have to bury this.

“That’s it,” Quinn half whispers, wiping her cheeks with her fingers.

Santana touches her lips and hopes it stains.

Quinn isn’t really crying, but seeing her eyes with tears in them and that soft flush to her face has Santana wanting to dig in her heels and hold them here and let it live on forever, because she knows as soon as it’s over no one will bring it up again and it will rot in the both of them like a carcass in the sun. The last thing she wants is for Quinn to pretend it never happened. For them to step around it until they truly do forget it was ever there.

Quinn shuts off the water and closes the cupboard door she left open and for a second it seems like this truly was it, until she turns on her heel and is kissing Santana again before she fully knows what’s happening.

It’s more forceful this time, pleading, so afraid of the end of it that it starts to hurt, and Santana doesn’t know if she’s holding Quinn’s face to keep her there or to push her away.

“Quinn,” she finally says when Quinn steps back.

“I’m really sorry,” Quinn says softly, looking at her the same sad way she did in New York.

It’s like she can’t help expecting castigation, a strike against her skin, the way she cradles her hands to her chest and stands there with her eyes shining. Santana wants to cry.

“What do you want?” she asks.

Quinn slowly shakes her head and a bitter laugh trips out. “To be different people. A different person. Someone you could…”

Love.

Santana swallows over the lump in her throat, wishing she wasn’t so terrible, wishing for a world in which it was possible, wishing she could stand here and be what Quinn needs.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

Quinn lifts her shoulders. Bites her lip. “It is what it is, I guess.”

As soon as Santana leaves she knows Quinn will wash the blood of this from her skin before the door’s even fully shut, trying to bleach herself clean. They’ll pass each other in the halls at school next week and nod and neither will acknowledge anything the summer brought as if it was all one long dream they chose not to write down.

Quinn will move on as if nothing happened and Santana will do her best to do the same, because when it comes down to it there isn’t anything to hold on to.

She’s probably still the same person who cut Quinn’s hair in New York.

“I’m sorry about your dad,” Quinn says, as if she too has been trying to put everything into perspective.

She’d forgotten, for a second, that he left. But remembering isn’t as much a strike as she was expecting and she finds herself staring blankly at Quinn with her hands at her sides.

“And um, I’m sorry about kissing you,” Quinn adds, like this is what Santana was waiting for. “Especially with your dad and everything.”

“It’s fine,” Santana says.

“Is it supposed to be?” Quinn asks. “Are we-”

“It’s ending, it’s an ending.” Santana wonders if she’s saying it to make it true, or if she’s saying it because it’s true. It sits on her tongue like lead.

Quinn wraps her arms around her middle and just looks at Santana.

“Who are we going to be after this?” she asks in a small voice.

Santana wants to take her hands and find the words that would make it seem okay, an indication that it’s possible to survive this, but Quinn keeps holding herself and Santana’s lips sting and everything still tastes too much like salt for anything to feel tangible.

“I don’t know,” she says. She grips the edge of the counter and then gives up and shoves her hands in her pockets. “It’s kind of different every day with us.”

Quinn laughs a little. “Because we’re both pretty volatile, but apparently in a way that meshes. Otherwise we would’ve killed each other a long time ago.”

Santana laughs too, softly, and then finds herself really watching Quinn, her throat aching.

“You’re really important to me,” she tells her, because she needs to know. If this disappears into something they never speak of again she at least wants to know she said it, just once, and that Quinn heard her and maybe even understood.

There’s no way in hell Santana would’ve survived this summer without her.

Quinn steps forward and hugs her, cheek pressed tightly to her ear, and Santana can feel her swallowing hard against her skin. She frees her hands from her pockets and pulls Quinn closer, just to savor the moment; just to take in the coolness of her skin and the flowery scent of her shampoo and the stickiness of this entire conversation staining her cheeks.

“I love you,” Quinn offers quietly, and Santana takes that in too.

She shivers as the warmth of Quinn’s breath hits her neck and Quinn strokes her hair in response.

“You don’t- I don’t need you to say anything,” Quinn adds, a murmur at Santana’s ear. “Whether you do or don’t in return. I’ll get over it and it’ll be behind us. But I wanted to tell you so I… know it’s real. And can, you know, really let myself feel it. Just once.”

The need to allow the feeling to take over, if only for a brief moment. Santana knows. Standing at her locker, Britt’s face falling-- she knows exactly what Quinn wants. Even if what follows brings the literal end of the world she still needs to have let herself fully feel it, because the aftermath will swallow her regardless and it will stay with her whether she acknowledges it or not.

Quinn lets go first and Santana drops her gaze. It’s now cold where they were touching.

“I don’t want to lose your friendship,” Santana admits, eyes on the tiled floor. “We only just… It’d suck to just have to walk away from that. Again.”

Is this at all like selling her out to Coach for head cheerleader? She isn’t even sure this is betrayal, but she doesn’t have another word, and Quinn somehow seems even more suddenly adrift than when the whole school found out about her pregnancy because of Santana’s stupid insecure need to eliminate any potential threats.

She hates that she ever saw Quinn as a threat. The only threat has ever been herself.

“You won’t,” Quinn says.

“Can you promise me that?”

Santana tries to stare her down, but it only makes her eyes water. Quinn presses her lips together and her shoulders rise.

“I don’t know,” she says. “Like you said, it’s different every day. But… I value you, so I think… I mean, you’re a priority. Having to pretend this summer never happened-”

She stops short and her hand lands on the counter, bracing herself like there’s some hard truth she doesn’t want to stumble over. The kitchen stills with her; air stagnant and ice cold. If she wanted to make a point this would be it but she just stands there and watches Santana with a faint frown.

“I knew what I was doing,” she finally finishes. “With you. I knew it’d end like this. I thought I wouldn’t care.”

Santana finds herself thinking of that damp afternoon at Puck’s, of all things, and Quinn curled up so small on his bed, such a fracture it hurt to look at her. How she had to peel Quinn’s wet nylons off her and everything felt so futile. Maybe that was Quinn knowing; maybe the storm came because there was no other way to voice it.

All Santana had wanted was to save her but she watched her sleep in the candlelight and there was nothing she could have done.

“I don’t regret it,” she tells Quinn.

When it comes down to it, there really isn’t much to regret. Timing, sure. If they were even five years older, she can imagine it all playing out differently: Quinn would come to her from a place of confidence and Santana would easily admit to her long-burning crush; there would be no careful tugging of landmines from each other’s words; when they kissed it wouldn’t feel like a grease fire in a windowless room. Maybe they could even take it somewhere pure.

“I don’t want to think about regrets,” Quinn says. “Too much of my life... I don’t need to add you.”

Santana nods in understanding, and then, “It feels stupid to be moving on when I didn’t even know it was a thing for like, half of it. Or, not stupid, but-”

“I know.” Quinn runs a hand through her hair, defeatedly pulling out the tangles at the ends. “But it’s not like we could just cast aside our lives to give it more time – it’s been dead in the water from the start and neither of us should delude ourselves into thinking there’s anything there worth getting into.”

There’s a pause as Santana tries to find something to counter that, anything, just to make the statement seem a little less grim, and then Quinn smiles and shakes her head and says, “Besides, I’ll never be Brittany. We both know that.”

“I don’t need you to be,” Santana argues, but Quinn’s sad smile stretches further.

“No, but you need her,” she says. “This whole summer has been for her. And it’s fine, you love her. I want it to work out.”

Santana’s stomach twists. “Do you?” she asks.

“It’s a goddamn inevitability,” Quinn says. She isn’t smiling anymore.

“She wants us to be friends,” Santana says, softly, thinking about popsicles dripping over the tiles. “You know, focus on being separate people.”

Quinn takes it in. “She’s good for you.”

And silently, in ways I can’t be.

Santana winces and wants to tell her otherwise but there’s been one person this summer pushing her to let go of her comfortable, stagnant cowardice and she can’t change what they both know. Brittany wasn’t even doing it so Santana would be good enough for her; she just wanted Santana to be free of her own bullshit.

She should have called Brittany last night, as soon as they got to the motel. She should have gone to see her today to tell her how upside-down everything feels right now and that she doesn’t think her father’s coming back.

The last thing she should have done was kiss Quinn. And she can’t bring herself to regret it.

“This whole summer has been some sick cosmic joke,” she says, leaning into the counter, facing the table where her water sits in a shadow.

Quinn laughs, surprising herself.

“Hasn’t it though. And I actually thought it’d be uneventful,” she says, and then pauses. “If you could go back...”

Santana turns her head slightly, eyes on Quinn’s dress where it hits her thighs. “I would stay, at the gallery. I wouldn’t run. I’d stay.”

“Do you think you could’ve?” Quinn asks. She palms her hipbone.

“I-” Santana falters. “I’m not a good person.”

Quinn shrugs. “Look what you did for my mom. I mean, you care. About people. That’s got to count for something.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Santana says.

She wants to ask about Judy, if any of it seemed to work at all, but the second the conversation moves on she’s not sure they’ll be able to get any of it back and she isn’t finished. Apologizing, and ending, and yet also something close to mourning.

If anyone had told her in June she’d be losing Quinn she would have asked what kind of apocalypse led to Quinn being hers to lose in the first place. The facts in her head feel ridiculous. The facts on a reel seem intangible and she doesn’t know how to put them in an order that leads to this.

“If we were different people,” she asks, “do you think we’d even end up here?”

Quinn pauses and takes a step back and seems to frown right through Santana, as if she too is tallying.

“I think, in any kind of alternate universe, I’d still want you. And it would probably lead to someplace similarly awful every time.” Her lips pull into something just off a smile. “Speaking of cosmic jokes.”

Santana has goosebumps. “We still have years ahead of us…”

“Those are Brittany’s,” Quinn replies.

“They could be yours too,” Santana says quietly. “If you wanted them.”

Quinn nods, a thank-you in her eyes.

“So what happens now?” she asks.

She needs to move past it. Santana understands.

“I’ll,” she starts, eyeing her glass on the table, “uh, finish my water, and you can tell me how your mom’s doing, and then I guess I’ll go home. To remind myself my dad left.”

“You could stay a little longer than that, if you wanted,” Quinn says as they move back to the table. “I have Netflix. And ice cream, I think.”

She rises like she’s about to go check but Santana waves her back into her seat.

“Well it’s not like I have anywhere to be,” she says. “Until dinner, I guess, which’ll be… something. I wouldn’t mind staying as long as you’re cool with it.”

She takes a sip of her water and Quinn’s smile is warm.

“Considering we’ve already well hashed out my worst case scenario, I’m more than fine with something easy,” she says.

Santana snorts and wonders if they could’ve just skipped over to the easy part all this time, like Quinn probably did with Mike. Maybe it’s just a character flaw that they always go straight for the hardest road every time. Maybe it’s even just the two of them together; they’ve never been good at letting go of any of it. She’d really like to start.

“So, tell me about Judy,” she says, and Quinn looks beautiful as she leans back into a swatch of sunlight.

 


 

The sky is a peachy orange as Santana walks home, and it’s too early to be a sunset but she doesn’t want to admit to the impending storm. There’s a current to the air that holds everything in some humid limbo and despite the stickiness she still feels lighter.

She and Quinn might be emerging from the wreckage with something still intact.

It was only a few episodes of Star Trek, and some vaguely freezer-burnt strawberry ice cream, but it didn’t ache the way Santana was expecting. She could laugh and it didn’t feel like hands around her throat.

There’s still a chance it’ll fizzle out into nothing and they’ll be back to the sad husk of a friendship they’ve been in for the past year, maybe a little longer, but it isn’t yet a casualty. Quinn even said she’d think about rejoining Cheerios, if Sue isn’t still out for their blood. She called it borderline Stockholm Syndrome, but she still misses it the way Santana does; it’s like an amputated limb they can’t convince themselves is fully gone.

“We could even be co-captains,” Quinn said, stretched out across the couch, “if Sue happened to get a lobotomy this summer.”

They’d probably have to kill her first for that to happen but Santana likes to think they’d work well together. Constantly at each other’s throats, but in the way that always seems to propel them forward.

She’s missed her. Just hanging out with her. It isn’t by any means absolved, but it feels close to something attainable.

The rain starts as a whisper and she finds herself not minding as it hits her skin, drops so light they feel like ghosts. A few kids in a yard across the street start shrieking and laughing as they try to gather their toys, and on the porch their parents are calling out to them, smiling, while the sky changes to a deeper orange.

Santana quickens her pace under the drizzle and leaves the kids behind her but she can still hear their screaming laughter. Even a block away; even when she’s sure it isn’t them anymore.

The air is even warmer than it was before the rain, reminding her, with a hot gust of wind, that she still has a small window of time before summer officially ends. That she doesn’t have to let it go so coldly, and might even be able to make up for all her floundering.

She spies Desi on their porch the moment she turns the corner; eyes shut, face in the sun that lingers despite the rain. He seems so fully bathed in the moment that she hates to disturb him as she cuts across the driveway, but the second he opens his eyes he grins at her and asks if she feels it.

“Feel what?” she asks, ducking under the porch roof, although she thinks she knows.

“It’s like some kind of magic,” he says, eyes shining.

She smiles at him and ruffles his hair, and just stands next to him for a moment to feel it with him. “It is,” she says.

There’s an unearthly orange glow to everything now as the rain comes harder, hitting the pavement with such force it bounces back. And yet the sun still manages to push through the wet haze, shimmering over everything, warming her face as she leans into it.

“Mami has the good China dishes out,” Desi tells her, reaching for her hand.

“What if Papi never comes back?” she asks.

Desi’s hand is sticky in hers, but she doesn’t mind. The wind’s blowing a rainy mist into them anyway and she appreciates the mix of feelings.

“Then we get a cat,” he says. “And we deal with it.”

“You think we can?” she asks.

Her glances at her, and she looks over to him. “I think we will, either way,” he says.

She’d like to live in his world all the time, where people do things because they need to be done. There’s such tangible faith that never seems to leave him, even when it should, even when she’s destroyed any good image he could’ve had of her, but he refuses to let go of his belief that things will right themselves.

He has to get it from their mother. She can’t see any part of the world that would have inspired it in him. He’s been like this since birth anyway, an optimistic pain in her ass. She wishes she’d learned to appreciate it sooner.

“How’d it go with Quinn?” he asks, only when he’s certain she isn’t upset.

The rain seems to be hurling itself into the ground now, and they have to raise their voices to be heard over it. Still, she finds it comforting. Such an unstoppable force.

“We’re moving on,” she tells him. “It’s- it might actually work out.”

He nods, looking back out at the rain. “Did you kiss her?”

Part of her feels like smacking him for asking, and another part feels like telling him what Quinn said and why she did it and how it’s going to take a while to heal. But she knows she’s dumped way too much on him, especially for his age, just because he was the only one around to talk to, and she doesn’t want to make him a witness to this anymore. It was never his to worry about and that seems to be all he’s done.

“We’re moving on,” she repeats, and his face breaks into a grin.

“You totally did,” he says, relishing her glare. “And you totally liked it.”

“We’re not talking about it,” she tells him as he slowly shakes his head in enjoyment.

“I know it’s a mess and not good for both of you and everything, but once you figure your stuff out you guys should get together,” he says.

He’s practically shouting it over the rain, and she’s sure the couple other people who are watching the storm from their porches probably heard, but she just laughs.

“What, no love for Brittany?” she asks.

He falters for a moment and glances around but then comes up with, “Weren’t there guys in the bible who had a lot of wives? Is that still a thing that-”

“Des, I can’t even have one wife,” she reminds him.

“Oh,” he says. “Right.”

She chuckles, wondering how she ever saw him as a nuisance. “Wanna go inside and see what we’re having for dinner?”

“It’s probably gonna be sad,” he says, making a face.

“Yeah,” she says, nudging him towards the door, “but we’re getting through it, right?”

He rolls his eyes the exact same way she used to do at his age and lets her lead him inside just as a flash of lightning steals the sky.

 


 

She calls Brittany in the middle of the night when the storm is at its worst.

It might be the sleep deprivation or a side effect of the thunder shaking the house but she knows, without knowing how, that Brittany will be awake and willing to answer. Three rings in and she gets her confirmation, Brittany sounding not at all like she’s been doing much sleeping herself.

“Are you watching this storm?” Brittany asks, like they’re nine years old again and still acting like thunder doesn’t scare the shit out of them.

“Kinda,” Santana says.

She’s been sitting under her blankets, half facing the window, curtains open enough to frame each flash of lightning, mostly trying to figure out how the person she’s been this summer is going to merge with the person she has to be at school. The majority of that thought process has been glee club and its completely not welcoming atmosphere but the sudden bouts of thunder have really been complementary.

“I had my window open for a bit just to smell it but LT tried to climb out and everything got wet,” Brittany says, and Santana smiles. “He’s been a real menace this summer. I think it’s menopause.”

“Send my condolences,” Santana says.

Britt thanks her and Santana listens to the rain through the phone, a slight echo to the barrage on her roof like Britt’s somehow living half a second in the past. If it was any farther behind she might be able to warn her of impending doom but as it is she’s stuck listening to the same shit play out in Brittany’s universe without being able to do anything.

“So,” she starts, and she can hear Brittany straightening up, ready to listen.

She’s always loved this about her, that she just knows when Santana needs her to come back down to earth.

“So I told my parents,” she goes on. Her voice is soft but she knows Britt can hear it. “My mom’s still here.”

“I’m so sorry,” Brittany says. “That he left. I’m really sorry.”

Santana’s throat feels suddenly raw, like this is the first time she’s heard of it and all her emotions want to flood her at once. Somehow compartmentalizing everything earlier didn’t exactly work.

“Well it’s his loss, right?” she says, but she knows Brittany can hear the way her voice pulls.

“Oh, Santana,” she murmurs.

“I’m fine,” Santana swears. “Obviously I’m worried about my family, because it’s not like they did anything, and he left them too, but…”

She finds herself crying as the rain eases up a little to match her tempo, and Brittany pacifies her from the other end. Quiet love. That’s the one thing she realizes she’ll always associate with Brittany.

“I just feel like such an idiot for getting my hopes up that he’d stay,” she says, her voice thick with tears.

“I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t have done the same in that position,” Brittany tells her. “You always want the people you love to know how to love you back.”

“Am I supposed to hate him?” Santana asks. “I don’t, but I feel like I should.”

“There’s no wrong way to feel, Santana,” Brittany says.

Santana takes in a blubbery breath and asks, “But does that go for him too? Because I-”

“No,” Brittany firmly assures her. “Parents love their kids and do right by their kids no matter what. They don’t get to just drop out when it isn’t what they expected.”

Telling her the whole story might make a difference, but Santana feels it’ll only anger her further if she hears about the center in Utah. The thing is, she knows he’s coming from a place of love. He wasn’t trying to write her off or condemn her; he wanted to help her. And maybe a few years ago she would’ve even taken him up on his offer, when this still all felt like some awful disease she couldn’t beat on her own.

The thought scares her, that this could have easily gone the other way. She so desperately wanted to be someone who didn’t have to live in shame; God-fueled promises of a cure would have destroyed her when she realized it wasn’t working. She doesn’t want to think about what kind of ending that would bring.

“Did I push you too hard?” Brittany asks, sounding suddenly very small.

Santana wipes a gathering of tears from the tip of her nose. “No, I think it was just the right amount of pushing. Don’t worry.”

“I didn’t think he’d leave you,” Brittany says.

Thunder rattles the window and booms through the phone half a second later.

“I did. Didn’t make it that much easier,” Santana says, “But Desi says we’ll get through it. And now he’s all excited to get a cat.”

Brittany laughs and Santana smiles at the thought of her smiling. “It’ll totally be best friends with LT after he confirms it isn’t part of a Russian sleeper cell,” Britt says.

“I’d forgotten about that beef,” Santana says. “But my dad literally left this morning; I don’t think the cat will happen for at least a little while.”

“Well, that gives me time to make some friendship bracelets for the two of them,” Brittany says. “So that’s good.”

Santana lets out a wet laugh. “What, no friendship bracelets for us?”

She’s sure she already has about a dozen somewhere in her closet, varying levels of horrific color combinations, from all the summers they decided their lives needed to look more like TV movies. Brittany was always the better bracelet maker anyway; Santana’s always turned out inexplicably lumpy. Still, maybe it wouldn’t be too bad to have something awful to commemorate this summer.

“I can totally make some for us,” Brittany says. “What colors are you feeling?”

Whatever she chooses will somehow turn out incredibly gaudy no matter what, so it’s no use trying to find something she won’t regret knotting around her wrist. She pulls the blankets tighter around her as another clap of thunder shakes the house, trying to put the summer in colors, trying to find a way to translate it all.

“I think peach,” she says, thinking of the sky. “And like maybe a cherry red. And a dark, stormy blue.”

She can’t think of the color of apologies but maybe it’s in the weaving.

Brittany murmurs an acceptance of each choice and then is quiet a second before asking, softly, “should I make one for Quinn too?”

Because of course she’d want to know if Santana’s done anything to fix it. Santana’s track record for these types of things isn’t exactly stellar so she can’t blame Brittany for pushing it.

“Yeah,” she says, “but put some yellow in it. She could use some sun.”

Brittany agrees and lets the rain take over the conversation for a bit, the half-second lag doubling the sound.

“We dealt with it today,” Santana says after a couple minutes. She picks at the seam of her duvet, eyeing a loose thread.

“You talked to her?” Brittany asked.

The thread pulls out easily but brings her attention to another one, sticking out just a few inches down. The whole damn thing seems to be falling apart. She half considers unraveling all of it.

“She wanted to end it in person,” she says. “She said she knew it would end like this, but she still… She knew what she was doing.”

Brittany exhales. “So did you.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry I kissed her.”

Lightning chooses this moment to take over the sky, filling every corner of her room. It looks naked without the shadows.

“Why did you do it?” she asks, even though she thinks she knows.

“Does it matter?” Brittany asks quietly. “It’s over.”

Santana nods in the darkness and yawns and distantly wonders how she’s going to go back to getting up at six every morning when she’s spent half her summer up all night. Cheer camp was at least good for regulating her sleep schedule, along with keeping her in shape. She probably gained like ten pounds this summer with all her laziness.

“I don’t know, maybe it’ll be good for us to just be friends for a while,” she says.

“I don’t think we’ve had that since like, freshman year,” Brittany says, and Santana agrees.

“Can you imagine going back in time and having to explain all this to your ninth grade self?” Santana asks with a chuckle.

She’d probably slap herself. Or run.

“I’ve actually been working on my time machine,” Brittany says. “To go back to like last year, maybe fix things before they get bad. I’m not sure. I still have to locate a few parts.”

Santana leans back against her pillows, adjusting the blankets to maintain her cocoon. “Where would you start? To fix things.”

The rain isn’t quite as loud now, the lightning strikes growing farther apart.

“I don’t know, maybe I’d just tell my past self not to put all my chickens in your basket,” Britt says. “Because you won’t know what to do with eggs.”

Santana sighs into her blanket. “We should’ve done that duet together, Britt. If I’d just…”

“Maybe next time, then. And you can even pick the song,” Brittany says.

“I’d like that.” She’s suddenly exhausted, but she doesn’t want to hang up just yet. Talking to Brittany in the middle of the night has always been her favorite pastime.

“I’m not waiting anymore, Santana. You know that, right?” Brittany asks. “It just isn’t fair.”

It pricks, but it isn’t the sharp stab Santana was expecting.

“You shouldn’t wait either,” Brittany adds, gentle.

“I won’t,” she tells her.

“And Quinn…”

“She’s not waiting,” Santana murmurs. “She’s… she’s thinking of seeing someone actually; like a therapist or something.”

“Really,” Brittany breathes out. She sounds just as tired as Santana.

“She said she doesn’t want to feel smothered anymore.”

It was over the Star Trek credits, the two of them under a blanket because Quinn didn’t feel like adjusting the A/C. Santana wasn’t even sure she heard her at first it was so quiet but then she said it’s really helped her mom and Santana had no reason for the lump in her throat.

I think that’d be good, she’d said.

Quinn just about whispered maybe I’ll tell them about Beth.

“I’ve been really scared of losing her,” Brittany admits.

“I know,” Santana says. “Me too. But I think she’s… starting to want to stay, maybe. At the very least not wanting to go so badly.”

“And what about you?” Brittany asks, muffling a yawn.

Santana fights the urge to yawn as well, hating her body’s mimicry. “I’m sticking around. Don’t worry.”

Brittany reminds her she’s always going to worry and then asks if she wants to come over tomorrow, to try and squeeze something fun into their last few days of summer. “Ash really wants to paint a mural on the back fence, if you’re interested,” she says.

“We could invite Quinn,” Santana suggests. “She’s pretty artsy.”

She wishes she’d thought to check Quinn’s fridge for the crayon drawings, but she almost doesn’t want to know if they’re still there. Better just to keep thinking of the light in Quinn’s eyes when she made them and how easy it all felt in comparison.

Brittany agrees. “I’ll call her in the morning. Are you falling asleep?”

She’s pretty sure ninety percent of her body is already asleep, but her eyes definitely keep closing. “Yeah, the rain’s been surprisingly soothing.”

“It has,” Brittany says with a little laugh. “Sweet dreams, then. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Love you,” Santana says.

“Love you too.”

The echo of the storm disappears as Brittany hangs up, but Santana keeps her phone pressed to her ear for a while after anyway, not ready to fully let go. She isn’t waiting around. But she’d like to stay close all the same.

 


 

It’s still drizzling when Santana wakes up, early enough to justify rolling over and sleeping for a few more hours, and yet something has her unreasonably alert for someone who’s catching the tail-end of a foggy sunrise.

The house is cold; a clammy chill that finds her even under her blankets, even when she slips her feet into a pair of slippers to head downstairs. None of the lights are on. She hears her mother in the kitchen anyway.

“Mami,” she murmurs, hanging in the doorway.

Her mother is fresh out of the shower, dripping like the window pane, standing with a hand over her mouth as the coffee brews. It isn’t to stifle a yawn but Santana chooses to remember it as that once she looks away; to acknowledge the unfocused dismay in her mother’s eyes is too difficult for a Monday morning.

“Are you going to work today?” she asks instead, shuffling over to the table to take a seat.

Her mother pulls a second mug out of the cupboard and shakes her head. “No. I don’t know. Maybe. I called Diane; she said she’d take my shifts if I needed it, but I’m not sure.”

The coffeemaker sputters out the tail-end of a full pot, giving way to a quiet beep and her mother pouring two cups in a contemplative silence. Santana isn’t really sure what to say other than an entirely unhelpful you should stay home and sit on the couch with me but it isn’t like her mother’s waiting for a response anyway.

“You still avoiding cream, or is it okay to enjoy your coffee now?” her mother asks, heading over to the fridge, and Santana flushes.

“Cream’s fine,” she says.

It wasn’t long ago she was avoiding anything that looked even remotely denser than water, convinced Coach would smell it on her and force her to run past the point of vomiting, relying on sheer willpower to sustain her. Quitting Cheerios has come with its upsides. Her joints don’t constantly feel like rust-swallowed hinges, for one.

The table shifts a little as her mother sets the mugs down, joining Santana in a well-worn chair. With the lights off and the rain outside everything feels bathed in a bluish-grey; the ceramic mugs fitting in nicely with their haphazard glaze of the same color. Santana carefully tugs hers closer.

“Your Abuela had a talk with me last night,” her mother says once Santana’s had a sip. “I don’t know what we’re… there are some things to work out for our, uh, long-term plan, still. But I think she knows things are a little up in the air right now.”

Santana curls her palms around the steaming mug and takes in the heat. “What’d she say?”

It’s strange, watching her mother’s face hollow out like this; a ship quickly losing itself to the water. She feels like she’s seen her mother fall apart more times in the past few days than in the rest of her life and maybe this goes with it as well but it also hits like a sad, long-coming acceptance.

“She doesn’t want to stay here,” her mother says quietly. “She wants- she wants to move to a home, where she won’t feel like a burden.”

“She isn’t,” Santana insists. “She’s-”

“I know. But I think she-” Her mother stops, the hand coming back to her mouth for an awful second. “She knows about the Alzheimer’s. She knows it’s not good.”

Santana pushes her feet into the rung of the chair, hard, her slippers dangling, and suppresses the urge to badmouth her Abuela. “I don’t want her to rot in some cabbagey hell!” she says instead, anger giving way to fear.

“I don’t either,” her mother says as she tries to hold her mug like this isn’t causing her hands to shake.

“Did Papi-” She hesitates on the word, unsure if she’s even supposed to say it, but no one seems to flinch. “-talk her into this?”

“No,” her mother says. “It’s what she wants. To not feel like a visitor all the time. To have something of her own.”

To be safe, Santana realizes. And not fear what her own mind’s doing to her.

She takes another tiny sip of coffee, careful not to burn her tongue, and stares blankly at the rain bathing the kitchen window. Everything outside is smudged like an oil painting of someone else’s morning.

“Mami… Does she know about me?”

It hurts to ask, suddenly so aware of yet another person who might rip themselves away from her as soon as she shows them her insides. It hurts more realizing she hadn’t yet considered the possibility of losing Abuela in any of these senses.

Her mother pulls in her lip, not quite a frown. “I didn’t tell her. But, well you know. She hears a lot more than we’d like her to.”

Santana nods slowly.

“I don’t know what she’d make of it,” her mother continues, soft. “I’d like to believe it wouldn’t phase her in the least, or at least that any ill feelings could be blamed on the Alzheimer’s, but I can’t say that for sure. I don’t know.”

“Everything with Maci this summer…” Santana starts, then stares at her coffee.

“Guilt is an interesting thing,” her mother considers. “She’s had a long time to dwell on her mistakes. And to see it manifest like this, you know, we can make what we want of it.”

“I like to think she wouldn’t care,” Santana says quietly.

Her mother reaches out to run a soft knuckle over the back of Santana’s hand. “Me too, mija. And your father…”

“He left you too,” Santana says. “I’m really sorry.”

Her mother’s shoulders lift up, slowly, as what could almost be a smile stretches her lips, and she just shakes her head.

“No need, my darling. If this is where my life diverges, then I will gladly embrace it. No need for apologies.”

It hits Santana squarely in her chest, this little dart of hope, like maybe wanting to believe might make it so. She brings her mug to her lips and holds it there in consideration as her mother looks across her to the big, rain-soaked window in the dining room.

“Desi wants a cat,” Santana says after a pause, making her mother smile.

“I know, he’s made sure to mention it more than a handful of times,” she says. “It’s a nice thought.”

Santana takes a mouthful of coffee. “And?”

“Have we ever been pet people?” her mother says with a laugh.

It signifies the end of something, the way her mother always seems to do. The morning still exists as a grey smudge and they’re still drinking coffee but it’s shifted into something to wear comfortably.

“You should stay home today,” Santana murmurs after a considerable silence, rousing her mother from her thoughts. “Sit on the couch with me or something.”

A slow bloom of a smile colors her mother’s lips. “I think that sounds like just what I need.”

 


 

Santana finds herself at Brittany’s once the rain stops, Quinn showing up not long after, the sun shining down so fiercely it’s as if the storm never happened at all. She’d watched most of it with her mother from the couch like the window was one long stretch of TV and it had been nice: the two of them leaning into each other, not really saying anything at all.

¿Qué viene después? she’d asked at one point, head still on her mother’s shoulder. What comes after?

It felt strange; like it had all been some drawn-out story they stopped reading before the ending, other people who had to deal with the disruption of everything they’d ever known. She didn’t really expect her mother to answer. It just seemed like something that needed to be said.

I don’t know, her mother replied after a fair amount of time. I suppose we’ll figure it out as it comes.

It was all either of them really said about it and then Brittany called and her mother encouraged her to go, saying it would do her well to have something normal right now. Santana fought the urge to tell her there isn’t anything normal left. Better to let her believe she’s coping.

And she is – just, well, precariously. Like the paint cans Brittany’s sister has balanced on the edge of a garden bench, dripping rainbows onto the laid brick path.

Santana bumps into Quinn as they take it in, coming out to the backyard, Brittany skipping down the steps in front of them. There’s the beginnings of something blindingly colorful taking shape on the fence that Ash, barefoot, seems incredibly proud of, dancing in between puddles of rain and spilled paint as she waves a brush.

“I didn’t think you’d all come!” she says with a wide smile, and at Santana’s side Quinn smiles back like this is exactly where she wants to be.

She joins Ash and Brittany in one of the patches of grass and doesn’t even flinch at the hug Ash gives her and Santana lingers on the steps, weirdly realizing that someday Beth will be as tall as Ash and probably have the same kind eyes and will look at Quinn with the same adoration.

Of course the kid will love Quinn. Santana really hopes that Quinn ends up in a place where she can love Beth as well, open and undaunted like she deserves.

“Santana,” Brittany says, hand shielding her eyes as she looks up.

Santana snaps out of it and clears the rest of the steps, going over to where Ash is laying out clean brushes and tugging Quinn along behind her.

“So we’re painting a jungle,” Ash says, “because Mom said I could do anything I wanted.”

“And LT has to be in it somewhere,” Brittany adds, clearly having discussed this before.

Ash nods. “And LT has to be in it somewhere. Maybe with the monkeys.”

Quinn tucks her hair behind her ears, studying the vague outline on the fence like she’s truly contemplating the layout of this project. You could do a bird, Santana doesn’t say. She can already see Quinn eyeing the paint cans with her hands on her hips and it feels like enough to just wordlessly accept the brush Brittany hands her as Quinn grabs one of her own and a can of dark blue.

“We need a river, right?” Quinn says as she finds a spot along the fence.

Ash looks between the fence and Quinn’s hands, cradling the brush. “Of course,” she says. “That’s where all the cool stuff lives.”

It doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the drippy outline but Ash just smiles as Quinn starts to paint a deep blue gash through the middle of it. She’s hesitant, like she expects someone to come out here at any second to tell her off for ruining their fence, but still dips her brush in the paint again, glancing back at Santana and Brittany with a little shrug.

“It looks good,” Brittany says, stepping forward to join her.

It’s one long blue line. Quinn already has paint on her fingers.

“We need trees too,” Ash tells Santana, suddenly at her side and giving her a little nudge.

Those at least are on the rainbow-colored outline and Santana figures she can’t really screw up tree trunks, not with Quinn’s river looking more like an odd winding street, so she squats down in front of a can of brown paint and starts putting her mark on Brittany’s fence.

Years from now she’ll probably come back and see the faded reminder of the summer that divided her life into Before and After, a series of shitty trees that took her over four hours and somehow aren’t even noticeable with all the unsettling animals that live in the branches. (Quinn does a bird after all, bright and hopeful. Tubbs ends up with wings. Ash decides the leopard needs fangs and blood and it all sort of feels like a jungle-themed nightmare but they’re happy, so whatever.)

The sun goes down on the four of them still painting, using their fingers to add in lightning bugs and twinkling stars and little pebbles in the river, exhausted and stained and sweaty enough to be grateful for the dip in the temperature.

They don’t talk about it, but Quinn catches Santana’s eye as they both work on the winding tail of a giant snake, and in the greying light her smile seems believable; she leans into Santana’s leg as she paints, and Santana lets herself give in to the warmth it blooms in her chest for just one moment.

Maybe it’ll all feel different someday. She’ll think back to this summer and be grateful, and Quinn and Brittany will be in her life and she’ll love them in a way that doesn’t eat through her.

Her father will have returned and accepted her.

She’ll forgive herself.

It seems poignant in a way that will be bigger upon reflection to be sitting here with Brittany and Quinn as the sky gets dark, the three of them wrapping the snake around a tree, fingers the color of everything they’ve touched today. Santana doesn’t have to tell herself to hold onto this. She doesn’t think she’ll be able to let it go.

Brittany’s parents eventually call them in to eat something before Ash has to go to bed, and Quinn heads home not long after, Santana reluctantly leaving as well, but in those moments as they scrub off the paint and blink at each other in the light of the kitchen it feels exactly like a summer Santana never dreamed of having. It feels full.

Thanks, Brittany texts her at the end of the night. One word, and Santana knows she felt it too.

 


 

Dr. Lopez calls, in the morning, when Santana’s on her way back from the bathroom. It’s early; she’d planned on sleeping in, planned on one full day of Nothing before school starts, knowing the last week of summer gets shorter with every breath. Thursday they go back-to-school shopping. Friday they take Abuela to a facility. Then it’s the weekend, and it’s over. A full summer, gone.

She’s trying to retain her cocoon of sleepiness just enough to make it back to bed when she hears her mother’s phone ringing, in her parents- in the master bedroom. And then her mother’s voice is clipped. And Santana’s at the crack in the door.

The opening only graces her with a side view of her mother: hair down, pyjamas creased, phone a stone to her ear. She’s frowning.

I’m not having this conversation again, Isaiah.

Santana leans into the doorframe. Somehow, after all this time, it still smells like fresh paint.

Her mother rubs her eyes as she speaks, shuts them as she listens. It’s agonizing watching her, agonizing because Santana’s the reason this conversation’s even happening, her parents now on either side of a gaping fault line. (Fault line. Her guilt tastes like dry earth.)

“Come in, mija,” her mother says, minutes later. Too short and too long for the conversation to have transpired. Her phone’s off in her lap, and Santana dutifully opens the door wider, coming to perch next to her on the bed. “He sends his apologies.”

Santana pulls at the tangled ends of her hair. “Great. Thanks.”

Her face only changes at her mother’s smirk, daring the tiniest hint of a smile. She’s allowed to feel bad about this, her mother’s saying. She’s allowed to be disappointed.

“He’s staying in Columbus for a little bit,” her mother says. “Near his brother. To… He says he needs time. But he wants to try.”

Try to what? Love her? Forgive her?

She could have so easily found herself in Utah, torn from her family, from her whole life, praying to wake up different. Healed. As if that wasn’t what she’d been doing all alone anyway. It doesn’t work, Papi. You of all people should understand. You can’t believe it away, no matter how hard you try.

Her mother’s fingers join hers in working through the tangles, gentle as they pull the tiny knots apart. Santana finds her breathing slowing to match her mother’s and it’s meditative, soothing until she glances at her father’s side of the bed. All made up, like her mother could only bear to peel back the duvet one tiny corner at a time.

“If he can’t accept it, with his whole heart, he has no place here,” Mrs. Lopez says when she catches Santana looking over.

“What did he say?” Santana asks. “Exactly. Tell me the words he used.”

She doesn’t know why it matters; they could be terrible, could be full of pain. In his mind he failed his daughter. And he did. But he can’t see why, yet. If he ever will.

“He said he needs to find forgiveness. That his brother will know the right way. He said it may be awhile, but he wants to do right by his family.” Her mother inhales, hands stilling against Santana’s back. “I told him he needs to know exactly what right means before he even thinks of returning.”

Santana’s quiet for a minute, letting the layers of her mother’s response wash over her.

And then: “It’s okay. If he- you know, if he wants to come back, even if he doesn’t quite get it right. I want to let him try. He’s my father. He loves us.”

“Are you sure?” her mother asks. She moves her hand down Santana’s arm, resting it over her fingers. “And not for me. For yourself.”

It’s been the theme of her summer, hasn’t it? Making mistakes. Being give the space to make mistakes. And she knows it’s different, this is a grown man, a doctor, deluding himself that his daughter’s sexuality is a matter of not properly giving herself to God, or whatever. But after all these years, it took imminent death for him to let himself love his brother again. She doesn’t want him to miss out.

She wants to see him grow.

“Yeah,” she says. “I mean, when he’s ready. But I don’t want to deny him the opportunity.”

“Santana,” her mother breathes out. Just her name. One soft release. And Santana finally sees herself in her mother’s eyes. The image is beautiful.

 


 

Six days before they go back to school, Quinn finds herself floundering in the overly-air-conditioned drugstore aisle, thumb hovering over the send button on her phone as she eyes the wall of brightly-colored dyes before her. It’s a whole rainbow of opportunity. A spectrum of options for the chance at renewal.

She should be texting both of them, she knows, both girls who are going to be her bookends this school year, but only one of them would really get what it means to hold a tub of Manic Panic’s Hot Hot Pink to the face of her senior year. The promise it is to herself. (And the other one will understand. She always does, even before anyone speaks. She doesn’t need the explanation when she’s had the heart all along.)

Quinn already knows how the conversation will go: Santana, concerned, thought you wanted back on the Cheerios – Coach won’t let you like that. Quinn, resolute, maybe not. But if she does, I’ll know it’s because she actually values me. And I don’t want less than that, anymore. Santana will make a joke, maybe. Quinn will return the favor. The sky won’t fall.

So she does it – hits send. Buys the hair dye.

By the time she’s halfway home her phone has five unread messages and two missed calls, and the urgency (and love) that radiates from the screen is enough to have her grinning as she texts back that yes, she’s going for it. No, she hadn’t been planning this. She went out for tampons. Santana mentions Cheerios. Quinn’s ready, plastic bag sweaty in her grip.

But.

“Let us come over,” Santana says when Quinn finally calls, at home on the end of her bed with the whole summer sticking to her skin. “Britt and I. We’ll help you not fuck it up.”

She can hear that word – us – and it doesn’t have its usual sting. Maybe just a prick, now. Something through the bottom of her sock she can mostly ignore. And when they come over, somehow both on her front step at the same time, pinkies apart, Quinn doesn’t have to catch her breath.

“You’re gonna look so hot,” Brittany says with a big hug, like they’ve done this forever.

Santana says nothing, but Quinn understands.

They’re working on it.

(And later she says everything, anyway. After the final rinse, when Brittany’s cleaning the tub, when Santana’s wiping at the stains on Quinn’s collarbones. My dad called, she lets drop, her fingers the same pink as the stain she so tenderly scrubs. I think he’ll be back, even if it takes him a little bit. Brittany smiles at Quinn. Santana exhales. So it’ll all be okay.)

Before they go, the three of them take a picture, all perched on the edge of her newly-bleached tub. For posterity, she says. For new beginnings.

They both wrap an arm around her. It’s clear, when she posts the photo online a few days later, even through the absolute barrage of shocked and semi-supportive comments it receives, that every smile in it is genuine.

And the photo she doesn’t post, the one that’s just for them – she texts it to both girls later that night, with the message, blooper reel? :P No one’s eyes are open. They’re nearly falling, holding onto each other for dear life. And yet even through the panic, Santana and Brittany are both pressing kisses to Quinn’s cheeks, all three of them glowing. Bitch that’s Director’s Cut, Santana texts back, just after midnight, just before Brittany’s flurry of hearts. Quinn can only respond with the same.

 


 

The weekend before school starts, three things happen.

The first: Abuela officially moves into her new home, a senior’s facility, full of wheelchairs and white linens and a smell Desi can only identify as Old. She loves it. In her room is a record player, special delivery, with a small case of records to get her started. Santana reads the card for everyone and Mami puts a hand to her chest like she’s holding it in, but Desi sees the gratitude slip out.

“See?” Abuela says, her whole face beaming as she sits in a yellow armchair. “He has good left in him, mijos. Don’t worry. The love is still there.”

Santana takes the card with her. Desi watches her cradle it on the ride home, her finger just barely touching Papi’s name. It’s a promise. He knows Papi will keep it.

The second: they make a plan, the three of them and Abuela, to take a nice weekend drive to Cleveland. There’s a cemetery there with two important people in it, Mami says, and they deserve a family visit. It’s been too long. She promises they’ll get burgers after, before Abuela’s due back at the center, but Santana nudges him at the part Mami says quietly and he knows it’s the real promise. That they’ll get to meet her sister. That she wants them to know her.

The third:

It’s a couple things, actually. But it’s one long moment, from Mami coming home Saturday with a pet carrier all the way to Quinn sitting on Desi’s bed with that soft smile of hers. He can tie it all together with a great stretch of ribbon, the kind that marks the end of a race, only this one doesn’t need to break for them to have won. It’s just showing them they made it.

Mami doesn’t so much announce her big surprise as apologize for it, saying she didn’t get a cat. And it’s true: two little bodies come rolling out onto the carpet the moment she opens the carrier door. They were both the orphans of their litter, she tells them, as Desi takes the grey one in his arms, holding his breath just in case it’s a dream. I couldn’t leave one without a friend. Not when I saw both their tiny faces.

Santana’s crouched beside the coffee table with the smaller kitten, a fluffy Siamese, who lifts his legs like someone stuck him in too-tall boots as he navigates the texture of the rug. She hasn’t had that unabashedly soft look on her face in… God, Desi can’t remember.

“I’m like, one hundred percent in love,” she says, eyes glassy as she looks up at their mother.

Mami smiles. Hand on her heart. “That’s all I wanted. And Desi?”

The grey one – Wolverine, he’s decided, because of the claws – is fighting sleep, curled up like a baby in the crook of his arm. If Santana’s in love just watching her kitten, he doesn’t know what this feeling could be.

It’s in his bedroom they decide to set up the cat things; the litter box, food and water bowls, the cat beds the kittens ignore for a pile of stuffed animals at the foot of his bed. He doesn’t mind because it means they’ll sleep here until they’ve acclimated – and Santana’s happy to not have to adjust the mess in her room.

She names the Siamese one Fitzgerald. Something about a singer, but it suits him. Little Fitz.

It’s what Quinn says when she and Brittany come over, later, everyone crowding into his room to fawn over these two new additions (and, at Brittany’s insistence, let Lord Tubbington meet his cousins). Mostly, Santana and Brittany play referee with the cats on the floor. Desi hovers. Quinn sits cross-legged on the bed, her new hair complementing Mystique on the X-Men poster framed behind her.

“Both their names suit them,” she adds, nodding to Wolvie who’s busy chewing on Desi’s loose shoelace.

“So does your hair,” he chances, Wolvie moving on to Lord Tubbington’s tail, allowing Desi to take a seat on the bed beside Quinn. “Suit you, I mean. Although, I think the cats could probably pull it off too.”

Her smile hits him with the same joy he felt the moment the kittens stumbled out of their carrier. And she seems to share it: it sits in her cheeks, the happiness, as she runs her fingers through the magenta again. He never would have expected it from her, but maybe that’s why it suits her so well. She chose the color she makes him feel inside: warm and too bright. He wonders if she knows; if she’s trying to feel it too. Not with him, obviously, he’s still just eleven, but. About herself, maybe. About life.

On the carpet, Lord Tubbington takes one lurching step forward. Fitzgerald attempts a hiss.

Quinn takes Desi’s hand.

“I took your advice, by the way,” she says, soft like her touch. “Wrote a letter. To… Like you said.”

He doesn’t know what to say in response, but she doesn’t need anything. The last thing she leaves him with is a murmured it helped before joining her friends on the floor, squealing as the kittens decide her lap is their new point of refuge in the Great Tubbington Introduction. Santana and Brittany shift closer, Quinn in the middle. Tubbs rolls to rest at Brittany’s feet. Carefully, as to not disturb the kittens.

And like this Desi can see all three of them: all three cats, all three girls. Just trying to feel it out. Trying to find their place in this new world.

They’ll get there.

Maybe Santana will even finish cleaning out her closet.