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Thunder, Clap Us Open

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The day Santana devotes to finally clearing out her closet, three things happen.

The first; her cell phone explodes with an eerie set of text messages from Quinn, who, in her alien form of compassion, decides the two of them need to work on their botched friendship, after what happened in New York. (The way she words it sounds like the two of them hooked up in some sex dungeon and it gives Santana a good laugh before she thinks about what the haircut actually means to Quinn.) It's probably mostly due to the empty Fabray residence after the divorce and maybe a little because of Quinn finding herself single (not that Santana would ever go near that blonde train wreck, even if Quinn finally clued in on what two girls actually do together), but Santana's just as lonely since Brittany made it clear she's not looking for more than friendship for awhile and maybe Quinn's icy façade could come in handy this summer.

The second; her younger brother Desi drops the bomb that their parents are having a Conversation in her dad's office (which never turns out well, as the two Lopez children learned long ago) and that they keep mentioning Abuela. Desi clambers through half-filled boxes on Santana's floor to get to the bed and swings his feet against the side of the mattress as he explains exactly what he heard, which includes a word Santana's been trying to avoid since her grandmother started sticking shoes in the freezer. Alzheimer's.

"I think Abuela's gonna move in with us," he says quietly, and even though he's eleven and decided long ago that his big sister was only really good for target practice, Santana can't help but want to pull him into a crushing hug. "I think she's gonna forget us, too."

The third; as Desi taps away at his sister's laptop (thank God she hid her porn under a folder marked "Melissa Etheridge songs", otherwise things could get awkward), Santana pulls her old diary out of some dusty corner of the closet and realizes on the last few pages, twelve year-old Brittany wrote her a letter. The discovery makes her heart stop and she busies herself with replying to Quinn's nearly-desperate text messages so she doesn't have to see, in Brittany's handwriting, a snapshot of the year she fell in love.

"You okay, Sanananana?" Desi looks up from the Lego Harry Potter website just in time to catch his sister slam a furry pink notebook far back into the closet and storm downstairs. He stares at the empty spot where she'd been for a beat before shrugging slightly and turning back to the laptop.

Part of him had wanted to ask why her background's a photo of Brittany at Breadstix, but he learned a long time ago that his sister is probably one of the weirdest girls to ever exist. And if he ever tells her this, he's begging for an early grave.

When she returns ten minutes later to confirm that yes, Abuela's moving in by the end of the week, he decides maybe it's worth making her angry just so her face won't look so worn out.

/

Abuela's presence vomits doilies onto nearly every surface in the house. Santana's parents had promised the old woman would mostly stay in the guest bedroom (Abuela's room now, despite the silk throw pillows), but a few boxes became a few more and suddenly her stuff poured out into the hall and made its way across the entire top floor.

When Santana finds a doily in her sock drawer, scarily close to where she's hidden her vibrator, she's had enough.

It's been years since she could look at white anything without feeling like she'll taint it with her impurity.

The doilies have to go.

"Just get rid of them," she tells Desi, arms folded sharply across her tight dress.

He frowns at her. "What's in it for me?"

"I won't hide any more cheese in your closet," she says with a shrug. "Fair trade?"

His gaze remains fixed with hers for an intimidating amount of time before he finally answers, face freezing in an expression she can't read. "You really need to stop hiding things in the closet."

"Just get rid of those damn doilies."

The house is cleared for two days before a little round scrap of lace shows up on Santana's desk. She wonders if it makes her a bad person, wanting to punch her grandmother. Instead of taking action, she calls Quinn and "accidentally" knocks a bottle of black nail polish onto the doily.

/

Santana is not a people person. More so, she's not a Quinn person, and this becomes apparent after twenty minutes of silence between the two of them as they perch on Santana's giant bed.

It was easier when she knew nothing about the girl other than that she was competition for head cheerleader. At least then they could fall into place on the couch during Brittany's movie night without the blatant awkwardness settling over them. Now… Santana's not sure, but it's probably weird to wonder if Quinn's had sex since giving birth or if she still wears her sister's hand-me-down bras.

These are not thoughts to be had about friends. More specifically, these are not thoughts to be had aboutfemale friends, and Santana forces herself to think about Abuela down the hall, who's been playing the same record on repeat for eight hours now.

"She has good taste in music," Quinn says suddenly, breaking the silence. She shifts on the bed to look at Santana then immediately drops her gaze. "Your grandma, I mean."

"Sure," Santana offers, still debating whether or not boys are allowed to wonder these things about girls they know. Her cheeks are hot, but in the dim lighting of her bedroom, she knows Quinn can't tell.

Sometimes having the fortress of an angry dragon has its advantages. Other times it just makes her realize how lonely she's become.

Quinn tries again. "I didn't know she was living with you. I thought she had that place in Cleveland? You used to go see her at Christmas."

"She's too ancient to live on her own," Santana replies curtly.

"I- oh." Quinn's face clouds over with something Santana can't read. "Well now I guess you won't have to freak out about the drive to her place – no more car sickness."

It wasn't the car that made her sick.

She's not about to explain to what might as well be a perfect stranger that family get-togethers only result in the loudest, most terrifying fights she's ever witnessed and the dread is what caused her stomach to empty itself all over the backseat of her dad's expensive car.

(In the quiet pause, she realizes people will only ever be perfect as strangers. And that's what the two of them have unknowingly been trying to achieve, all these years. She's still not sure what she's gained from isolating herself. Secrets, maybe. If only she could trade them in for a prize at the arcade – she'd get that stuffed duck for Brittany.)

"The old woman keeps sticking doilies everywhere," Santana grumbles, picking up a dark pillow and hugging it to her chest.

Quinn nods carefully. "That would explain the bathroom."

It's awkward again. Santana wants to throw the pillow at Quinn's head to try and maybe lighten the mood, but she's not sure how to make things okay without Brittany at her side.

For the fifth time since July started, she finds herself cursing Scotland and Brittany's parents for thinking a month-long vacation would be a good idea. She knows, though, that when Brittany returns, she'll have no excuse for the mangled friendship they've fallen into. Distance can only make things okay for so long.

"So," she starts.

"I'm not good at this," Quinn admits in a rush. "I thought if I just wanted us to be friends again, it would work. But I- this is ridiculous. I've been here half an hour and all that's happened is you've gone from looking like you're about to cry, to looking like you might explode. Maybe I should… I don't know. I should go."

Santana's so tempted to let Quinn leave so she can go back to blasting Amy Winehouse (to combat Abuela's old person music) and sipping her parents' gin until she stops feeling like she'll burst into tears at any moment.

She wants nothing more than to be left alone to mope (and occasionally toss shit at her brother when he pops his head in to complain about her music being too loud).

"Stay."

Both girls glance at each other in surprise.

Santana shrugs away the inquisitive look Quinn's giving her. "We could watch a movie or something. I dunno. You any good at Mario Kart? Puck gave me his old Wii and I sort of like kicking ass."

Quinn's face is the most absurd mixture of astonishment and terror as she gives a slight nod, adjusting her position on the bed. "When you live with that boy, it's sort of inevitable that you'll pick up some sort of Mario skill."

"You clearly should've stayed with me," Santana says loftily. "Maybe you would've picked up on how to be a bamf."

"I wasn't aware that was an option," Quinn says coolly, eyes narrowing slightly.

Santana's immediately filled with guilt for the space she let settle between them when Quinn needed someone. She's not a Quinn person; mostly, she knows Quinn deserves better. Once again, she's not enough.

She hops off the bed, quickly rifling through the game cases on her desk. "Sorry," she says, pulling out Mario Kart. "Wanna play, then?"

"I can't wait to beat your ass." Quinn's grin turns slightly devious as she rises to help Santana set up the Wii.

Hours later, when Desi finds them to say dinner's nearly ready, Santana's lying flat on top of Quinn's back and shouting Spanish curses at the screen as the two of them shake their controllers at Princess Peach.

He backs away slowly, wondering if this is what Johnny Creevie in the other fifth grade class would call "lezzie". At least Santana looks happy, he thinks, jumping down the steps two at a time.

Her pretty loses the scary edge when she's smiling her real smile.

/

Quinn ends up grasping Abuela's hand when they say grace. She turns to Santana as if to ask why she'd never mentioned anything about religion before, but suddenly Abuela's squeezing too tight and muttering something about leaving the baby in the oven and all Quinn can do is dig her fingernails into Santana's palm until Dr. Lopez silences the table.

It's a little like TV families and a lot like Quinn's family used to be, before everything went to shit. When the father rises, everyone shuts their mouth in varying levels of fear. She finds Santana's reaction the most interesting: the girl's eyes grow big and terrified as if she's no older than seven or eight and she drops her gaze to her lap, like a child being reprimanded. Santana's brother – Desi, she's pretty sure he's called – twists his mouth into a mocking smile as his father turns away. Santana shrinks into her seat.

"We're glad to have you joining us tonight, Quinn," Dr. Lopez says in a voice that demands attention.

He's so similar to her own father and she's not sure if she's supposed to be afraid or if she should miss the man who gave her thirty minutes to get the hell out of his life. Either way, she smiles in return.

"Thank-you for having me," she says softly, hand tight in Santana's, only now they've dropped to Santana's knee. She finds she can't let go. "I appreciate it."

Abuela's eyes grow misty. "I had a lover named Quinn once."

Face twisted with horror, Mrs. Lopez jumps up. "No, Mama. You read that in one of your Harlequin books. You married Santiago, remember? Your husband."

"Right," Abuela agrees, but it's obvious she's still unsure.

Across the table, Desi swings his leg far enough to kick Santana in the shin but the girl remains frozen in her seat, staring at her steaming plate. Ten minutes into the meal and Quinn knows why Santana used to be so adamant that movie night happen at Brittany's house.

"He died two years ago," Mrs. Lopez clarifies, sinking back into her chair. "You wore your hat to the funeral."

"I loved that man," Abuela says loudly.

Santana shuts her eyes.

Quinn glances over at Desi and he crosses his eyes, sticking his tongue out to the side. She quirks her eyebrows, nose scrunching up, and the two share a secretive smile.

Abuela raises her glass of water high in the air. "To sin!"

Dr. Lopez's eyes bulge out of his head in unison with Mrs. Lopez's fork clattering onto her plate and if it were possible for Santana to become even smaller in her large chair, she does so, mouthing something to herself that resembles a prayer and a plea for help.

Desi's face breaks out into a wicked grin. "To sin."

/

Brittany calls eight days after Abuela moved in.

When her name flashes across the screen, Santana stares at it as it rings out and continues to remain unmoving, phone in her hand, as Brittany leaves a message. The voicemail notification dances at her but instead of curiosity, she feels the sickening sense of dread rising in her throat. It tastes like breakfast.

In her room, wrapped tight in her black duvet, she can't bring herself to listen to whatever Brittany has to say. Every word that comes out of the girl's mouth carries the sour echo of you're my best friend, Santana; I don't want to change that and though she'd nodded along at the time, right now she wishes more than anything she'd fought for another chance. Maybe, she thinks, eyes fixed on the small screen; maybe she could've made Brittany realize they'll never be just friends.

She's trying to figure out why her first instinct is to call Quinn, despite never having told Quinn anything about what she feels for Brittany, when the door bursts open. Desi stands there in his Spiderman boxers.

"Abuela's asking for Maci," he says seriously, rubbing his eyes.

She drops her phone and sticks her face further out the hole in her black cocoon. "Good for her…?"

"She means you," he explains. "She wants to talk to you, but she keeps calling you Maci and Mami's getting that ghost look on her face again so you should probably go downstairs."

"Right. Yeah."

He frowns at her. "What are you even doing? Were you crying?"

She grabs a pillow and tosses it in his direction, missing on purpose, but it does the job and scares him out of her room. Sometimes she wonders if he's part cat; half the time he's as skittish as Brittany's bastard tabby.

Before leaving her cave, she quickly pats her cheeks with powder to hide the tear streaks.

/

Brittany calls again that evening, after dinner. Santana's in the kitchen with the intention of helping her mother with the dishes like she means to do every night, but it mostly ends up with her sitting on the counter and aimlessly flicking soap suds into the air to watch them drift onto the floor.

When her phone rings, blasting the opening notes of Dancing Queen, her mother frowns at her like she has something on her face. Her hand rises to her cheek out of habit before she realizes.

"It's Brittany," she says automatically, and her mother's eyes narrow with suspicion.

"Did you two get in a fight? She hasn't been around for your sleepovers in awhile," Mrs. Lopez comments, side-stepping a small puddle of soap suds on the floor to stick a plate in the cupboard.

They have a dishwasher so really, it's ridiculous that her mother insists on doing the dishes by hand, but some part of growing up straddling the poverty line seems to have stuck with the woman. Santana's met with this exact same mixed feeling of embarrassment and weakness when her mother refuses to buy anything that isn't on sale.

Her father's the only one in this family who's okay with impulse purchases, which is how Santana ends up with a closet full of designer labels. She blames it on his Old Money and secretly sends most of her wardrobe to Goodwill every chance she gets.

With cautious eyes, she watches the voicemail notification pop up. "Sort of; I don't know. Things are just… different."

"Sometimes it's nice to make new friends," Mrs. Lopez replies. "Like that Quinn girl; she's a sweetheart. And a Christian girl too, right? Must go to the church up near Mason."

"Yeah." Santana sucks in her cheeks and lets her heel fall hard against the cupboard door. "She's full of good Christian values."

Mrs. Lopez clicks her tongue. "You could learn a few things from her, Santana. I bet her life doesn't revolve around boys."

She wants to argue that no, it sort of does – and actually, her own doesn't; it revolves around Brittany – but now's not the time to admit to any of that. She's not going to bring her mother's world to a halt with soap suds on the floor.

"Quinn's a good girl," she says instead, wanting to add more. I'm not; you won't love me if you know.

If she ever thought her life would revolve around not saying something – her, the queen of keeping it real… She also used to think there'd be a point where she could grow into a boy, so it'd be okay to marry princesses.

"Bring her around again," Mrs. Lopez says with a firm nod, shaking her hands dry.

Santana contemplates dropping her phone into a sudsy death before just turning it off and shoving it in the pocket of her tight dress. She has a secret soft spot for dresses with pockets; it's like bum ruffles on a little girl's bathing suit.

"I will, Mami." After a moment, she looks her mother in the eye. "Who's Maci?"

A dish towel lands in her lap as Mrs. Lopez's face slides into something neutral. "The rest of those dishes need drying. Next time Quinn's over, don't hide her away in your room; I'd like to have the chance to chat with her."

Santana wraps the towel around her hand like a boxer before a big fight and stares uselessly at her mother's back as she leaves the room.

In the den, Abuela laughs too loudly at a Spanish game show.

/

Quinn drops by unexpectedly on a Sunday morning, half an hour after the sun rises. Santana would cuss her out if she hadn't already been awake and sitting in the mouth of her closet, still in sleep shorts, carefully reading everything in her old diary but Brittany's letter.

In fact she's so engrossed in trying not to be curious about what Brittany wrote that it doesn't even click in, that Quinn's standing in the doorway.

Quinn rolls her eyes and knocks softly on the black wood of the door. "Santana."

It physically hurts to pry her eyes off the page – she's in the middle of a passage about everything she'd like to do to that Puckerman kid's hair – but when she looks up at Quinn, her stomach drops further.

"You okay?"

Quinn runs a soft palm across her slightly swollen cheek and nods, but it's really a shake of her head and a couple tears roll down the purpling skin under her scared eyes.

Santana's standing in seconds and doesn't even think before pulling Quinn into a tight hug. Though normally she'd protest like usual, Quinn sinks into her, nearly squeezing Santana with her arms, and lets the rest of the tears out silently.

Santana has never witnessed anything more heartbreaking than a girl crying without sound.

"I'm sorry I disturbed you," Quinn finally says in a whisper, pulling away to wipe her cheeks. As she does so, some of the makeup rubs off and a fading handprint shows up along the side of her face.

"Don't start," Santana says with a frown. "My door's always open for you, no matter what happened."

Quinn relaxes slightly with relief.

"But um… what- happened?" She can't help herself; the handprint's so pink and it's a definite bruise forming under Quinn's eye, not from a lack of sleep.

Unsure, Quinn steps further into the room and perches on the edge of the bed before Santana waves her into the middle, joining her, and the two are side-by-side under the black duvet. Quinn's still trembling.

"It's nothing," Quinn says quietly, staring up at the ceiling and counting the dangling crystals on the chandelier.

Santana makes a noise in her throat. "Honey, that is not nothing. That's a whole lot of something that you shouldn't hide because it's probably kind of a big deal. And knowing you, you'll probably try to make it go away by ignoring it."

"It's just sort of embarrassing." Quinn rolls over until she's facing Santana's desk and it's a little bit sad, how she fills the Brittany-hole almost as well as the real thing. "I don't even know why I came here; I just started walking."

Santana reaches out but her hand falls halfway to Quinn's back, because how do you make someone feel better without what she does to Brittany? She's never had to care about someone else; she's never needed to make anyone else okay. She fists the sheets instead and sighs.

"I bet it's not as embarrassing as my diary from when I was twelve – that was awful."

Quinn laughs in that sad, sort of surprised way. "Really?"

"I don't know what it is about thinking every single step is the biggest problem in the world to a preteen girl, but that whole freaking book should just never see the light of day."

"If you share it, I'll share," Quinn says in a voice that's usually reserved for planning about Rachel Berry.

This is not what Santana had in mind. Quinn rolls over and there's a glint in her eyes.

/

"January 30th," Santana starts, cheeks hurting from biting back an embarrassed smile. "In gym class today Puckerman told everybody he had sex with an older girl and Hudson McDouche had to ask what sex was. I really wanted to punch him. I punched Puckerman instead and then after school at the bus stop he told me it was his nanny and I didn't know boys could ever look that sad. Maybe it's not really okay for things like this to happen at twelve."

Quinn traces the sequins on one of Santana's pillows, listening attentively and chewing hard on her bottom lip.

"When I got home Brittany was already there with Mami and the baby and she said she heard about gym class and I didn't want to explain sex to her but in my bedroom she told me she already knew and then I didn't want to know."

Santana pauses, her stomach flipping over as she turns the page and tries not to remember how Brittany's blue eyes weren't sparkling that day.

"Brittany's supposed to be mine. She's my best friend and we do everything together and she's not allowed to be kissing boys and letting them put their hands up her skirt. I didn't even want to look at her. But she made me, because she always does, and then she put in Mulan and gave me the longest hug ever. And it didn't feel like it usually does. Maybe because she's been doing stuff with other people. Is it normal to want to kill whoever touched her? She won't tell me who it is. Maybe that's why."

In the silence, Quinn gives her a mixed look and nods slightly, resting her head on the pillow. "Eventful day," she says softly. "It's weird hearing about everyone before I met them."

Santana's not sure what to reply; she has no idea what the entry revealed and it was a stupid idea anyway, agreeing to share this with Quinn. "Yeah?"

"No one's really changed much," Quinn says with a half-raised eyebrow, meeting Santana's gaze head-on.

"Your turn," Santana says quickly.

Quinn shakes her head and goes back to tracing the sequins, stretching slightly so every bump in her spine becomes visible for one swift moment. Then she's back on the bed, curled up like a cat. "One more entry. Then I share."

It's ridiculous. Santana's not going to sit here and just let go of all these little pieces of her past like this while Quinn plays her like a goddamn violin. It doesn't work that way; she's Santana Lopez – she calls the shots. Nobody tells her what to do.

"May 3rd."

Quinn nods for her to continue. Bitch.

"We're just going to get a house together and fill it with all Britt's cats and live there for the rest of our lives. People suck. Brittany doesn't. I'll keep her safe and cook for her and get an awesome job so we don't have to worry about money and stuff. She'll love me. But she's going to have to clean all those litter boxes because I don't do cat shit. I don't even like cats. They always sleep on my face when I'm at Britt's. Especially that fat bastard cat – I hate him."

Quinn laughs, knowing all too well what that cat does to Brittany's guests.

"And it's totally okay for two girls to live together until they die. Puckerman told Brittany it's going to make her a dyke and she was crying for three hours until I finally explained she'll never be a wall. Sometimes I think she just pretends not to know things so I can feel smart. But we're going to be roommates like Rachel and Monica on Friends and Puckerman can just die in a hole. He's a bastard anyway. His haircut looks like something Britt's cat coughed up. I'll tell him next time he really pisses me off."

This- okay. Santana's praying Quinn isn't smart enough to catch on, but she knows the girl's smarter than half their teachers, so mainly she's just praying Quinn doesn't hate her or isn't about to tell her she's going to Hell.

"You two should still get that house together," Quinn says with a soft smile, and Santana's heart actually stops in her chest for a second.

"What?"

"You could keep her safe and give her a big home for her cats. It'd be sweet."

Santana nearly spits out are you dumb? But the look in Quinn's eyes says no, she's not; she knows. Quinn knows.

"Don't look so shocked, Santana. I support roommates," Quinn says, giving her a slight smirk. "I mean, it makes it easier to pay rent. Anyway. My turn?"

Stunned, Santana nods.

"Right." Quinn pushes up on her elbows before adjusting to a seated position, back against the headboard. She runs a finger along the fuzzy pink cover of Santana's diary before her smile disappears. "I got in a bit of a fight."

"It's only like, seven in the morning. Who could-?"

"I will hunt you down if you tell anyone," Quinn hisses, "But it's not exactly Heaven in the Fabray house. My mom-"

"I'm going to kill her," Santana cuts in.

Quinn shakes her head and flattens her palm against Santana's knee in the softest slap ever. "She has a bit of a problem. Sometimes I get in the way, like this morning."

"Still gonna kill her."

"Just kill whoever makes alcohol," Quinn says, frowning and staring at something invisible in front of her. "And I swear to God, if you tell-"

"Relax, Q. I'm the queen of secrets."

Quinn glances down at the diary then meets Santana's eyes. "Right."

/

Desi finds them asleep in Santana's bed, half holding each other and that weird furry pink book that made Santana so angry, a few weeks ago. He stares at them from the doorway for a minute before wondering how blonde people keep getting in the house while he sleeps.

He's supposed to make sure his sister's getting ready for church, but he doesn't want them to throw something at him, like Santana always did when Brittany slept over and he tried to talk to them.

He settles on slamming the door before popping his head in to try again.

"Oh good; you're up. Mami says you have to get ready for church and I guess that means you too, Quinn?"

It's almost too easy, dodging the pillow this time.

"Go away, you worm. We'll be ready in a few. And tell Mami Quinn's coming in my car."

Something about the sad creases around Santana's eyes makes him realize Quinn's not exactly the same as Brittany and he wonders when he'll be able to tease his sister again without feeling like he's kicking a wounded puppy.

/

Church is different, with the Lopez family. It's different but it's the same and Quinn's still not sure if she's allowed to look at stained glass Mary when their wombs are both now so empty.

The church itself is a lot nicer than her own; the pews are lined with plush velvet cushions and the large statue of Jesus nailed to the cross seems to shine brighter than anything she's ever seen before. It may be Catholicism itself. It may just be the money these respected families pour into their Sunday mornings.

It's the same in the sense that her Sunday best still clings too tight for her liking, despite this being Santana's white dress and Santana's satin bow nestled perfectly in her blonde hair.

Earlier that morning, her breath had caught in her chest as Santana's delicate hands made up Quinn's face like a China doll. She'd sat so perfectly still. Neither said a word.

Though she's listening to the sermon, doing her best to take the words to heart, she's more focused on how Santana's hand grips Abuela's – with the intention of keeping her in place, but it seems more like Santana's the one that needs grounding.

Desi catches Quinn looking at Santana and makes a face until Quinn's biting back a smile.

/

After, they pile into a booth at a pancake house, all dressed up too fancy for the stained table.

Quinn finds herself squashed in next to Santana and Desi and the little boy pokes her in the thigh until she gives him a stern look; then he giggles and flips through his menu like it's what he was doing all along.

Pancakes. Quinn hasn't been allowed to eat anything like this for as long as she can remember and the menu seems like a challenge until Santana glances over and clears her throat.

"Papi? Quinn's allergic to like, half the stuff on here. Can we split a fruit salad?"

He raises his peppered eyebrows over those stern glasses and gives a quick nod before turning back to his menu.

Santana leans over with the intention of stretching and whispers in Quinn's ear. "Stop worrying about your weight."

If they hadn't suffered through years of cheerleading diets together, Quinn might be a little miffed that Santana knows anything. But paired with Brittany they'd all managed to survive on packing peanuts and nicotine gum for two weeks so she's glad to have the excuse of old habits dying hard, instead of admitting to what exactly her father drilled into her head long before she feared red tracksuits.

When the food arrives, Desi sneaks a grape from Santana's bowl and watches his sister's lack of reaction carefully before slumping back into the booth.

Quinn remembers doing the same to her older sister not long before she disappeared.

Chapter Text

Abuela starts a mission.

If it wasn't so sad seeing her grandmother fall apart like this, Santana might be really pissed that her underwear (along with everyone else's in the family) winds up strewn about the porch.

She's in the middle of snatching a red thong off the hanging flower basket when Abuela shuffles up next to her.

"You never did like my decorating, Maci," she says with a disappointed frown.

Suddenly Santana can't swallow over the lump in her throat. "Abuela, I'm Santana."

"Of course you are, sweetheart." Abuela pats her shoulder absentmindedly before adjusting a pair of Superman boxers on the railing. "You tell your sister you love her before you go."

"I don't have a sister," Santana manages to croak out.

Abuela's weathered hands fold around Santana's and squeeze a little too tight. "I always thought you'd make something of yourself. We all had such high hopes for you, mija. High hopes."

Abuela's mission ends abruptly that night when Santana's father puts a lock on the guest bedroom door,just in case.

/

Santana's phone rings while she and Quinn are stretched out on a blanket in the backyard, sunbathing. She'd tossed it aside earlier, when Quinn asked her to rub sunscreen on her back – because she knew all her concentration needed to be on keeping her hand placement PG.

Friends don't think about friends that way.

She repeats it like a mantra, even long after they lie down, squinting behind sunglasses at the overbearing sun.

She's not even sure why she agreed to tan with Quinn when her skin's already a nice golden brown, thanks to her gene pool and tinted moisturizer. It might've been the curiosity of how Quinn's stomach turned out, after the baby. So far she's counted four barely-there stretch marks and they seem to be the only sign of the entire nine months. It's unfair, really, how Quinn manages to keep her body as smooth as a marble statue.

She's still wondering who carved the perfect notched spine down Quinn's back when Dancing Queen starts blaring through her phone's tiny speakers and before she can say anything, Quinn picks up the phone and glances at the screen.

"Brittany's calling," she says, handing it over.

Santana hits ignore and drops the phone by her side.

Quinn's eyebrows shoot up. "I said Brittany, not Berry."

"Like Berry would ever have my number," Santana says with a scoff. "I heard you. I just… I didn't want to interrupt our fun."

"There's grass stuck on my shin and all you've said in the past hour is some mumbled shit about marbles. I really don't mind; call her back."

"It's fine," Santana replies, adjusting her sunglasses.

"Call her back."

"It's fine, Quinn. I'm trying to get my tanning on."

Quinn gives her a wicked glare and if she hadn't spent two years at the girl's side, she might actually shudder. But this is Quinn and she's actually harmless once you get to know her, if not a little icy, so Santana returns the glare and ignores her phone's announcement of a new voicemail.

Quinn, however, grabs the phone and starts pressing buttons.

"What the hell are you doing?"

"Checking your voicemail," she replies in a singsong voice.

"Stop it." Santana tries to snatch the phone away but Quinn's too quick and she has it on speaker and suddenly Brittany's voice fills the air between them.

Hey San; it's been a few weeks so maybe you lost your phone, but I keep leaving messages in case your brother has it again so you know I haven't forgotten about you. I keep seeing men in kilts and it reminds me of when we were eight and saw those guys with bagpipes and you said if they can wear skirts, you can marry a princess and I told you that I wanted to be a unicorn when I grow up. It's still unfair that I can't be magical.

Quinn cuts her eyes between Santana and the phone, as if Brittany might smile back at her, and fills her cheeks up with air.

Santana squeezes her eyes shut.

Remember when you promised me that we'd travel the world together? Well I think we should come back to Scotland because they have these huge castles and we could be princesses together. You'd look so pretty in a crown. Anyway, Dad says I can't talk for long because there's an ocean between us, and I'm starting to think it's more than just water, but I'll see you when I get home. I can't wait to hug my best friend.

The message ends with a crackle and a beep and Quinn presses her lips together for the longest silenceever – eyes fixed to the screen as it fades to black.

"Don't say it," Santana begs, rolling over onto her stomach.

Quinn drops the phone onto the blanket and exhales. "Nice ring tone."

/

The lock on Abuela's door mysteriously disappears the same night Desi wakes up in the bathtub, cradling the shampoo bottle in his arms.

Santana finds him in the morning and her startled scream wakes up the rest of the house.

"I don't understand," Mrs. Lopez says quietly, helping her son out of the tub. "It just- where's Mama? Has anyone checked on her yet?"

"I told you this wasn't going to work." Dr. Lopez brushes past his daughter, frowning at the length of her nightgown and removing the shampoo bottle from his son's arms. "We're not equipped to handle her. She needs to be in a home with people who can watch her all the time and-"

"Stop it. She's family."

"Her mind's going so fast we're lucky she recognizes any of us! At this rate, she'll be a vegetable by next year, Isobel."

"Don't."

"I don't know why you even want her around the kids, with how she's behaving. She has no idea who Santana even is and I'm pretty sure she thinks Desi's the family cat-"

Santana grabs her brother and backs him out of the washroom – lips pressed together in a thin line. He says nothing as he takes her hand, following her into her bedroom, and for once she doesn't tell him to get out.

Back to Black fills the air enough to drown out most of their parents' argument and Santana tucks her brother into her bed before crawling deep into her closet and folding herself behind boxes of things she can't bear to throw away. If her eyes weren't threatening tears, she'd sing along just so she wouldn't have to hear her own name tossed around like a softball – back and forth between her screaming parents.

It's six in the morning and her stomach already aches from trying to keep herself together.

/

It seems like it's probably Santana's turn to show up unannounced, so she pulls on her housecoat and jogs all the way to Quinn's house – feet still in her furry cat slippers. She finds herself slowing to a stop halfway up the walkway; hands balled into fists in her pockets.

This house is fucking huge. She feels like an ant.

After a good ten minutes, she's at the door and Quinn lets her in wordlessly, quickly leading her past a Judy Fabray-sized lump on the living room floor – she's not going to ask – and into Quinn's bedroom.

If Santana's room is a dragon's den, then Quinn's is some weird fairy kingdom: the purple carpet and purple floral wallpaper only enhance the sparkling butterfly decals and Santana nearly jumps out of her skin as she notices a tiny gathering of fairy statues on Quinn's desk. This is not the room of the girl in the cheerleading uniform.

Quinn apologizes. "I haven't really redecorated since I was a kid. This was all my mom's doing, so."

Santana side-eyes a particularly evil-looking fairy statue before sinking onto the bed, kicking off her slippers. "I don't even know what to say."

"You could start with why you're at my house at eight in the morning, looking like a part of the Sleepover Club. Or, I don't know – why you choose to wear cats on your feet." Quinn gives the discarded slippers a smirk.

Santana instinctively folds her arms across her chest. "Brittany gave those to me."

Quinn snaps her eyes to Santana. "They're lovely."

"They're ridiculous," Santana counters. Her expression shifts. "I love them."

Quinn nods, taking a seat on her purple sparkly desk chair and crossing one leg over the other. "Sounds familiar. Still ignoring Brittany's calls?"

Santana deflates.

"She's not going to leave you alone just because you're ignoring her," Quinn says quietly, picking up a tiny fairy and folding it in her hand. "Nor will she suddenly change her mind about where she stands."

"Quinn-"

"You should talk to me. I'd sort of like to not be shut out," Quinn murmurs.

It fills a hole somewhere in Santana's chest while creating another one slightly to the side and she wants to open up – wants to tell her everything – but saying it out loud will mean she's not strong enough on her own.

"I can't."

Quinn drops the fairy back onto the desk. "Santana."

"I can't, okay? I just can't." Santana's eyes fill with tears and she angrily swats at the ones that spill out, almost growling. "I'm not that kind of girl."

The skin around Quinn's mouth softens with a sympathetic frown and she nods knowingly, fingers finding the cross dangling from her neck. "It doesn't change who you are, S. I don't care what anyone says; love will never be a sin."

It's pointless to try and stop the tears at this point and Santana feels as helpless as when she's had too much to drink – like her legs are jelly and there's a goddamn waterfall behind her eyes that'll never run out, as long as she keeps breathing. She knows she looks ridiculous: sobbing in her fluffy yellow housecoat, knees drawn to her chest – but she can't stop.

"I don't want to love her," she blubbers, rubbing the back of her hand against her wet cheeks. "She doesn't want me. She doesn't love me back."

Quinn's arms are around her before she even notices the chair's empty and they hug for a long time, saying nothing.

She's pretty sure she got snot on Quinn's shoulder and there's definitely mascara residue where her face is pressed into fabric, but it's the closest to okay she's felt since locking Sim Artie in a room and setting the place on fire. And this time she doesn't even feel guilty.

/

If it weren't for having spent over two years on the Sue Sylvester Diet with her, Santana wouldn't recognize the grinning girl making bacon and pancakes in this kitchen that looks like it's not used to people. The radio's on – some oldies station – and Quinn shakes her hips in time with the music, every so often turning towards Santana, gracing her with a wide smile.

"Bacon solves everything," she says as the sizzling grows louder.

Santana gives her a smirk, secretly delighted to be allowed to witness this side of Quinn. It took them eight months to even be able to admit to liking food.

(And then Brittany forced them both to join her in the most disgusting KFC feast ever – Santana will never forget how she later felt like she was going to break Quinn's tiny form as she rubbed her back, kneeling at the toilet.)

Quinn sinks into the counter, hips pressed to the edge. "Finn used to make it for me, when I couldn't sleep. He didn't know how to stop me from crying so he figured food would, I don't know, help."

Santana's not sure if she wants to hear this. "Did it?"

"Yeah; it did. It was like… A huge fuck you to both my parents for the years of diets. I'm pretty sure I scared the crap out of Finn when I started laughing and crying, but I realized in his tiny kitchen, eating that greasy, delicious bacon, I was the happiest I'd ever been." Quinn straightens up and quickly busies herself with the food on the stove.

"Is this-" Santana clears her throat. "Is this for earlier? Like, I tell you shit, you tell me shit?"

"You're in love with Brittany. I'm in love with bacon."

"Shut up, Fabray."

Quinn practically slams a plate of food in front of Santana then sits down with her own, eyes distant. "We could be friends, you know; we could tell each other stuff and trust each other and maybe not be so alone."

"You're not alone, Quinn."

Quinn's eyebrow shoots up.

"I mean, you'll always have bacon." Santana grins and shoves a forkful into her mouth, trying to dodge the evil glare Quinn's giving her.

"I don't know why I try with you; you're insufferable."

The pancake in her mouth suddenly turns sour. "Well. You're the only one who tries. So."

"Glee will always be there for you," Quinn offers.

The two burst out laughing and neither even flinches when Quinn accidentally knocks over her glass of water. As the puddle quickly spreads across the table, Santana clutches her sides, unable to break eye contact.

"Glee," she says with a snort, when she can breathe again.

"Rachel Berry's been pretty insistent that the club's a family." Quinn breaks a piece of bacon off in her fingers and dances it along the edge of her plate.

"Brittany too."

"Yeah?"

Santana focuses on drowning her pancake in even more sickly-sweet syrup and when that's covered, she buries her bacon in a fake maple ocean.

"Think they're the kind of family that won't hate me for being-"

"Look at Kurt," Quinn interrupts.

Santana rolls her eyes. "Everybody wants a sassy gay friend. No one's willing to sit next to the plaid-wearing lesbian. And besides; Kurt never slushied any of them."

"So they'll hate you for being a bitch," Quinn says with a shrug. "But I guarantee they won't even bat an eye if you come out. Actually, I think at least half of them already know. And the ones that don't won't care either way."

Santana leans forward on her elbows. "Wait – people know?"

"Well, I know, and I think Rachel's known since you sang Landslide, and Mercedes told me that Kurt keeps hinting at you needing your own Dalton, except with short skirts, so."

"That's fucking awesome." Santana buries her face in her hands and groans.

"Oh, and Mike knows," Quinn adds.

"How?"

Quinn mumbles something incoherent before clearing her throat and trying again. "We- he um, he's been giving me dance lessons, and it sort of came up."

"Great."

"Well my point is, Santana, that all these people know and they don't care. And if anyone outside of gleedoes care, you have over a dozen people who will gladly beat the shit out of them. Or, you know, sing mean songs at them."

She knows if she opens her mouth she'll either burst into tears or do that horribly embarrassing thing where she blubbers on about pointless crap, so she focuses on mashing everything on her plate into a syrupy pulp and trying not to think too hard about anything.

People know and they haven't come at her with pitchforks and torches.

When Quinn finally relents and takes both plates to the sink, knowing the meal has definitely ended, Santana finds her voice again.

"Think any of them will open their doors after my parents kick me out?"

/

Her house is a battlefield when she returns home.

Even the prickly air clings to the fight from that morning and though her dad's since left for work, she can hear the echo of her parents shouting when she slips in the front door.

Santana nearly punches a doily as she walks into the living room, but Abuela greets her with a smile and pats the couch, asking her to join her in watching whatever's on the Spanish channel this half hour.

It's one of those God-awful soap operas.

She almost wishes she didn't know Spanish so she wouldn't have to hear the fight that takes place on the flat screen.

"Manuel's in the hospital," Abuela says in a hushed voice, grabbing Santana's hand. "They want to take him off life support."

"Oh," Santana replies, and she wonders if it's possible to extract herself so she won't have to sit through this entire episode. Soap operas are not her thing. Unless there's a lesbian couple – then she can't help but find herself interested.

She's in the middle of thinking about that British soap she's been watching online, with the teen lesbian couple, when Abuela gives her hand a wicked squeeze.

"I never wanted to take you off life support, mija. But they said you'd never wake up… You never woke up."

"Abuela?"

"A mother should never have to bury her baby."

Breakfast churns in her stomach and she swallows back the nausea. "I'm still alive, Abuela."

"Why did you kill yourself, Maci? Why did you leave us like that?" Abuela's eyes fill with tears and they run down her leathery cheeks as she pulls Santana into a hug, sobbing. "Why couldn't we save you?"

/

Later that afternoon, after dropping Desi off at a friend's house, Santana plucks up the courage and corners her mother in the laundry room.

"Mami. Who's Maci?"

"Don't start, Santana."

She grabs the shirt from her mother's hand and slams the washing machine shut, physically blocking the woman from escaping.

"Who is she and why does Abuela think I'm her?"

Her mother shakes her head, a hand over her mouth. "It's not important, Santana. Don't go digging up things you don't need to know."

"She killed herself."

"Santana."

"She killed herself and Abuela keeps asking me why I did it and I'm still alive, Mami! So why does she think I'm Maci? What happened? Tell me! Tell me; Mami, please! Please don't shut me out…" Santana doesn't notice her own tears until her voice cracks and her mother's holding her, stroking her hair like she did years ago.

"Maci was my little sister; she died at seventeen. You look exactly like her, Santana. Exactly like my baby sis... Now just- please stop asking. I can't."

/

Quinn has spent enough time around Puck to know that neither he nor his partners in crime give a damn about what's legal; so she shouldn't be surprised when that Wednesday morning she finds Santana wedged in her closet, smoking a blunt – but she stumbles backwards at the sight regardless.

"See a ghost, Fabray?"

It's verging on sexy, actually – Santana's perfected smoke rings and that triumphant little smile she has when another halo puffs out into the room.

"Your grandma's just downstairs, Santana. And your brother. He's the one who let me-"

In a flash, Santana tugs Quinn down on the floor next to her and has the joint pressed up to Quinn's lips, urging her to inhale. She's never before been this close to Santana's face without either ending up covered in vomit or reeling from another harshly-whispered insult.

"Calm down, Quinnie Minnie. Relax." Santana's voice is deeper and raspy from the smoke and it wraps around the two of them as effortlessly as the wisps that loft through the air. "You know you want to."

"I just came over to tell you about an idea I had…"

"And I'm telling you that you need to share this with me before I take too much and end up thinking you're edible."

"Santana," Quinn starts, but a finger on her lips shushes her.

"I might devour you," Santana murmurs, again offering the blunt. "You need to smoke this before things get ugly. Okay?"

Good Christian girls never find themselves unable to remove their gaze from their friend's soft lips, but the last thing on her mind is that weathered Bible when she opens her mouth slightly and lets Santana guide her through the first puff.

Sitting in the front of the closet, in a room full of smoke, Quinn shifts even closer to the girl next to her and purposely lets her arm make its way around the inviting waist as the two of them work their way through the joint. She won't be able to explain it hours later, but it makes sense to be this close when the utter relaxation washes over them both. It's like they're actually the same person, except split in the middle.

Quinn wonders if the half she's stuck with is the half with all the bad luck, then remembers she's not the one who's in love with the girl everyone loves and immediately feels a little guilty.

"I'm sorry you love Brittany," she says softly, and though her tongue wants to caress each word that doesn't come out right, it's close enough to what she meant that she doesn't bother to elaborate. Santana knows, anyway.

"Me too. I- fuck. I just suck so bad at loving the right way."

"The right way?" Her teeth might be the kind of shiny that's only found on cellophane before you screw up ripping it with the plastic edge. She can't decide if this is a good thing or not. "If there's a wrong way, I'm probably doing it too."

Santana exhales loudly and dances her fingers up Quinn's knee, like fairy legs. "If I could love her like a guy…"

"She doesn't want that," Quinn interrupts.

"No," Santana snaps. "She wants to be friends. She wants to talk about feelings and shit, but only so I'll admit things I swore I'd never even let myself think about. And then it's not enough for her, so she wants fucking Wheels McGee, and I'm not good enough for her when he's gone, and she's… I won't have a home if I come out, and she keeps pushing and it's not fair, Quinn! I don't want my parents to hate me but it means I can't love Britt properly and she doesn't want my half-assed love. She doesn't want me."

When Santana cries, it breaks something inside Quinn's chest similar to what happened during that phone call from Rachel about the baby.

She's starting to think there'll never be enough space in her chest for all the things that break her and maybe she'll have to give up her womb and her arms until the gap is big enough for her to fall apart without it showing but Santana's sobs shake through the both of them and this whole closet isn't enough to hold the sound.

"You're not loving her wrong, Santana. This is Lima. I don't think she understands… We're not allowed to be that, here. We get microwave timers and other people's basement cots. We don't-"

"You got pregnant, Q." Santana shifts until there's a few inches of space between them and the skin where they'd been touching is suddenly left cold. "Puck didn't stick his cock in me and accidentally make me a lesbian; this is either a curse or a really freaking unfortunate cluster of rainbow genes. Nine months later and your mom forgave you for the baby. I really doubt I can squeeze the gay out of my little lady to make my parents love me again."

"I'm sorry," Quinn says disjointedly, breath hitching as their arms brush against each other again.

"Yeah. Me too."

/

Wikipedia is a fucking reliable source. Yeah, some people edit fake lesbian relationships onto celebrities' pages, but no one cares about Schizophrenia's love affair with Borderline Personality Disorder so the rest of the site's pretty legit.

This is what she tells herself, anyway, while Quinn reads the article over her shoulder – that damn strawberry lipgloss wafting everywhere.

"People serenade lovers all the time," Quinn says encouragingly, pressing her chin onto the bare skin of Santana's shoulder. "I mean, if glee club's taught you anything…"

"It's for movies, Quinn. And hapless romantics like Berry who settle for giant, cottage cheese oafs who'll just crush her in bed and leave her with a massive hole she has to fill with burgers and cigarettes and cheesy songs until she can look at herself in the mirror again."

"That-"

"If I didn't hate her so much, I might be really depressed that she's going to lose her virginity to a guy who thought my clit was a third nipple." Santana tears her eyes away from the computer screen, skin buzzing. "That's just not cool."

Quinn shakes her head and drops herself into Santana's lap, taking control of the computer. "You know you're either going to end up fucking her or killing her."

"You're fun when you're stoned," Santana says with a grin.

Quinn guides her attention back to Wikipedia and highlights a paragraph with the mouse, giving Santana a pointed glare.

"So girls love music. So what?"

Quinn's nails are like claws in Santana's thigh. "Girls love big gestures, S."

"Maybe Brittany's not just a girl."

"No. She's a girl in love with a girl and all she wants is to know that's okay. She's probably just as scared as you, Santana. But she doesn't want to let it control her; she wants to give it a huge middle finger and hold your hand at the mall." Quinn bounces slightly, draping her arm around Santana's neck.

She knows this – sort of. At least, she knows Brittany wants them to be a normal couple or nothing at all. She'd actually love to be able to take Britt to the movies without worrying that it'll get back to her parents and she'll come home to find all her stuff spread out on the lawn, like she's a disease and all she's ever done is contaminate their life. If she weren't so scared… Brittany's worth the risk. But maybe she might not be worth being homeless at seventeen and knowing she'll never see her little brother again.

"I can't give her what she wants," Santana says helplessly. "Not yet."

Quinn's eyebrows do that weird contortionist thing. "Well, one day, right? Maybe she just needs to hear that it's not hopeless, waiting for you."

In the doorway, unbeknownst to the girls, Desi stands with a tray of snacks sent up by Mrs. Lopez. He was going to give it to them and leave but watching the two of them all over each other on the chair… he can't help but feel a twist in his stomach.

"Are you two in love?" The question slips out before he realizes what's happening and he expects a pillow, but Santana's fear hits him instead.

"She's a girl," Santana cries, shoving Quinn off her lap. "That's gross."

His big sister's terrified. His brave, sometimes diabolical big sister is actually trembling. Maybe he's supposed to use this against her, but in that computer chair, she looks so small and frightened. He just wants to hug her.

"Right. You're not a lezzie," he says, only it makes her eyes grow even bigger. "I mean- you're just Santana. You're awesome."

She turns to Quinn before catching herself and nodding along. "Of course I'm awesome. I keep it real and I'm hilarious. Now, why the hell are you in my room, worm?"

This he can handle. "Snacks," he says, and lifts the tray in the air. "Mami sent them."

Santana's still shaking a little, so he hands the tray to Quinn and blushes slightly as her fingertips graze his wrist like the first time he ever felt a rose petal. If Santana's not in love with Quinn, then maybe-

"Out," Santana orders.

He gives her a halfhearted "bitch," because this is how it's supposed to be; this is how they function – then leaves her to go back to not being a lesbian with Quinn.

Chapter Text

Brittany calls again in the middle of the night.

If Santana wasn't already on the back porch, nursing a bottle of jack, she wouldn't bother even glancing at the screen. But her blood hums with liquid courage and her fingers are too quick for her brain so the phone's pressed to her ear and she's whispering hello before she realizes what's happening.

"You've been ignoring me, Santana."

There's that voice that's woven completely out of shooting stars and sugar cane. It derails her; sends the porch steps underneath her a thousand miles away and she's not really floating, but all around her is empty space and she has nothing to hold onto.

"I'm sorry," she whispers.

"I thought we were friends."

It's late. She keeps her voice hushed – despite neither parent willing to crack open an eye even if she was crying for help. "I thought you loved me. I thought-"

"Stop. Don't do this." Brittany's just as quiet, but it's out of hurt. "Not when I'm this far away."

She knows it's pointless to cry, but the tears don't listen. "I'm in love with you, Brittany. I'd die for you. And you keep-"

"I don't want to keep hiding!" Brittany's crying now too, and maybe she should feel guilty, but it's horribly sweet: knowing she's hurting the girl that's caused her so much pain.

"I'm scared, Britt. I'm so scared and I can't-"

"I don't want half a girlfriend." The phone crackles with a muffled sob and this hurts. Now she feels guilty. "I don't want to ever have to love you in secret, Santana. I'm so proud of who you are and I want everyone to know but you won't-"

She nearly flings the bottle across the yard, but settles on kicking that ugly-ass gnome off the porch. Good riddance. "No, I won't! I can't."

"Why not?"

"I- I have to go, Britt. It's too late for this."

She counts her heartbeat in the heavy breaths on the other end of the line and taps three full minutes into the glass bottle with her shiny black fingernails before Brittany graces her with a cold reply.

"Yeah. It is too late. Goodnight, San. I'm really sorry."

/

Nothing fills the hole left by Brittany's phone call. She tries Quinn's greasy bacon; her mother's tea, which tastes like gym socks; a ballad in the shower that ends in tears; even more alcohol; even more weed.

In desperation, she finds herself back in Puck's bed – naked and holding his pillow like a teddy bear.

"You sure you want to?" He's wearing that cocky grin of his but she can see the uncertainty underneath it and it's sort of nice, realizing he cares.

But this was never about feelings. "I'm sure. I need this."

"Whatever you say, hot stuff."

It ends not too differently from their first time – only now she's even more embarrassed by her wet cheeks and the lump in her throat that just won't leave. To distract him, she sinks to her knees at the end of the bed and sucks him off like it's all she was made to do.

When he grabs her hair, she swallows back Brittany's name and prays it's not obvious.

"Stop. Santana."

He's an idiot, half the time. He fucks up more than she does and he got his ass beat in juvie, but some things he just knows. And he knows.

"It's not going to change things with her," he says, helping her back up onto the bed.

"I don't want to talk about it."

He's a thermos of hot chocolate at the ice rink as he pulls her into his chest and runs his fingers through her hair, so much more delicate than before. "We don't have to. Just- don't throw yourself into something that's only gonna hurt you. I'm not what you need. You know that."

"I want to do this, Puck." She's surrounded by his peppery body spray and their skin sticks together nearly the same as last summer, when she barely left his sheets. "Noah. Please."

"You want to be the kind of girl who does this," he replies. It stings. "Truth is, you're so much better than that."

He's one of the smartest idiots she knows and it saddens her, a little, realizing how he probably knows all the answers to make this country functional but will waste those brain cells bashing his head against every wall that tells him he's not good enough.

"I love you," she tells him, because he needs to know.

And he knows. "I'm your boy."

/

Desi crawls into her shins when she slips in the front door. He looks up at her almost apologetically, dark eyes shining in the dim hall lighting. Something's off; she can't name it.

"Abuela bought me a collar online," he explains. "So I thought I'd make her happy. She's calling me Norman."

"That's the cat they had," she mutters as she kicks off her shoes.

"What?"

"Abuelo and her – they had a cat named Norman when I was little. He was a fat stripy bastard." She smirks and yanks her brother up to his feet. "Fatter than Lord Tubbs, even. Big orange thing."

Desi tugs on his collar and twitches his nose, exactly like that old cat used to do, and suddenly she's wondering if her own mannerisms are the same as the girl for whom Abuela keeps confusing her. Maybe this is why her mother finds it so painful to keep eye contact.

Maybe she's just a painful reminder of the ugly past.

"Are Mami and Papi home?" Frowning, she tugs her brother into the kitchen and drops her bag on the table before starting a pot of coffee.

"Papi was here… He said something about an emergency with one of his clients. I haven't seen Mami since yesterday morning. Abuela says they went to Paris. That's in France, right? Why would they go to France without me? I really like twirly mustaches."

The coffee machine spurts and bubbles to life, ridding the kitchen of its industrial cleaner aroma.

"They didn't go without you, worm. Mami's probably out with the girls and I bet you anything, one of Papi's clients had another psychotic episode. We'll manage on our own, right?" She grabs a mug out of the cupboard, then as an afterthought, takes out a second. "Coffee?"

"I take mine black," he informs her with a serious face.

It's ridiculous. She knows it; he knows it. But ever since Papi mentioned that only women add extra shit to a good cup of coffee, Desi's been fixated on taking his coffee as pure as it comes. One of these days she'd like to tell her father exactly what his misogynistic ways are doing to his children – but she's terrified of what he might do to her if she dare breach their unspoken contract of silence.

"Sananana? Did you have sex?"

Hot coffee drenches her bare legs and the tiled floor and she jumps at least a foot in the air, cursing in Spanish. "Desi! Dios Mio. Why the hell would you ask me that?"

He's not going to tell her that he knows because of how sad and deflated she looks, like after a balloon animal's been out in the sun too long. Little brothers aren't supposed to care this much about their bitchy sisters. Even if she's not actually a bitch at all; even if she's just super sad and makes his chest hurt when he thinks about it.

"Your clothes are all messed up. And your makeup's smeared."

Her hand immediately goes to her mouth, maybe with the intention of wiping something away, but it just sort of sits there as her eyes fill with tears.

She's not supposed to cry in front of him. It's a secret rule.

"I'm sorry, Des. I just- um, I got smoke in my eyes, earlier." She comes to life and runs her fingers along the soft skin under her eyes, turning to face the counter.

"You were smoking?"

This straightens her spine. "Don't tell Papi, okay?"

"He'd kill you. You're not allowed to smoke, Santana. That's-"

"I know," she snaps, re-filling a mug with coffee. Her knuckles are white like the laces on his brand-new sneakers, only it's a little scary. "There's a lot he'd kill me for, if he knew. So. Just don't tell."

"Our secret," he says solemnly, as she hands him his coffee. "No one will know."

/

Their parents come home in different cars at the same time. Santana watches from the kitchen window, standing on her tiptoes, and can tell from the distance between them that they're in the middle of another fight.

As they snip at each other at the front door, it occurs to her that she can't remember the last time the Great Wall of Anger didn't run down the middle of the two of them.

It wasn't always like this; she holds onto the thought every time they start bickering in the kitchen before work. There had to be a point – and she guesses it was probably before Abuelo died and she got suspended for fighting – where her parents were in love and talked about more than just what's stressing them (and could talk without shouting, for that matter). People don't stay married for nineteen years without having at least a few good years in the beginning.

She has a sneaking suspicion that things started to go downhill when she couldn't go a day without punching somebody on the schoolyard. And yes, she was fighting because people kept teasing Brittany, but after the first time she told this to her parents and they exchanged a Look, she just stopped explaining.

It would make sense that their crumbling marriage is her fault. Lord knows she's the biggest disappointment in this family; with her marred permanent record, disinterest in med school, and lack of social graces.

She tries; it's never good enough. They're still fighting.

Her name gets thrown into the loud conversation and she knows that neither knows she's even on this floor, but she still flinches every punch thrown at her name with their vicious words.

Desi slips into the den unnoticed – it's only as he wraps his arms around her middle in a tight hug that she realizes he's not safe in bed, where she'd left him. She pulls him closer and prays her torso can be that security blanket that takes away the monsters.

In a moment of panic, she prays that she herself isn't one of his monsters.

/

Quinn calls long after any reasonable conversational hour and her small, haunting voice from the other end sends chills like fingernails down the chalkboard of Santana's spine.

"Alicia Keys," is how she starts the conversation.

And Santana's lost. "Quinn, are you drunk?"

"No." The silence stretches on forever. In the background, something glass smashes. "My mom is."

"Quinn…"

"Alicia Keys," Quinn tries again. "Unthinkable. Just- look it up, okay? I think the lyrics fit. I think… I've been listening to it on repeat for an hour now and if I was in love with somebody-"

Santana lets out a breath. "Is this about Brittany?"

"Well it's not about Berry…"

"I'm not singing to her, okay? It wouldn't help. At least not at this point."

Something loud and unclear happens on Quinn's end of the line and she manages to get out, before hanging up, "Just listen to the damn song."

/

The song acts as a slightly less painful version of an ice pick to her heart, as a few lines immediately jump out at her: if you ask me, I'm ready. Quinn. That girl really-

Suddenly Santana can hear the crash from Quinn's end of the conversation in the back of her mind again and oh. Okay.

No, the song isn't the helpful gold nugget Quinn wants it to be, but it's a step in the right direction, and though it hurts like a mother eff, the gesture's appreciated.

For the first five minutes.

Then it's too much and iTunes is closed with as much force one can muster in a click of a tiny grey button, and even after, she's left feeling restless and unsettled, like something clawed its way inside her and decided to mark its pain on the cold bars of her ribcage.

Her room is silent in a Quinn sort of way; like too much bubbles under the surface and every breath comes out in a gasp; like oxygen's a savior; like there's a life raft too far away to reach.

It's frightening and Santana finds herself on Sims for the first time in, well, since Artie stopped being a threat.

She'll admit it was a little cruel of her to use the video game as a form of torture for his digitalized wheelchair self, but it was better than actually trapping him in a room with no doors until he died in a puddle of his own piss.

Not to mention that down the block from Artie's House of Pain, Britts and Tana were in the middle of raising triplets that resembled sausage rolls while chasing away the social worker.

It's actually embarrassing – not that she'd ever admit it, but even to herself – how much time she used to spend creating this perfect virtual world for herself and Brittany.

And now…

She replaces the triplets with a perfect little blonde toddler that manages to make even the gaudy nursery look cute and Sim Britts couldn't be happier with this; she alternates between dancing the kid around the room and sneaking off with Tana to Woohoo in their king-sized bed.

This is when Desi walks in. Santana doesn't move fast enough and he catches a glimpse of the screen with that inquisitive look of his and damn she needs to get that kid a bell for his collar so he'll stop sneaking up on her.

"Is that you?" he asks as he points to Tana, who's snoring in bed.

Her cheeks burn hot; too hot for this conversation. Not now. "It's just a stupid game, Des. I was deleting shit."

He ignores her completely and stares at the computer screen – eyes like saucers. "Are those girls sharing a bed? Santana-"

"They're roommates," she cuts in.

"No they're not; they have a baby."

"Babysitting," she tries feebly, and it doesn't work, and they both know it, but the word hangs between them with a sad vibrancy regardless.

Desi meets her gaze and this time she has to look away first because she can't take his questions.

"Babysitting," he echoes. "Like, for a friend?"

"Yeah."

It's not enough. He accepts it. "Burt and Ernie were roommates, you know."

There's a lump in her throat that won't go away no matter how many times she swallows and they're at this spot again; she can't cry but she needs to; it's not okay – he flattens his palm against her knee.

"How's Quinn?" he asks her now.

"Not- not good, I don't think. At least not at the moment."

His eyes flash with concern. "And you're playing video games? Santana."

/

Her brother's evil. He probably thinks the same of her, but here she is, perched hesitantly at Quinn's front door when she should be sleeping, all because her worm of a brother guilted her into this shit; into being an actual friend.

This is weird; from inside she can hear Judy Fabray shouting at her daughter and though it's loud enough for the squirrels to pause as they cross the street, not a single neighbor seems to have noticed. It's a prime example of Quinn's upbringing, Santana thinks; how everything gets ignored until it's too late.

She'd almost like to see what would happen if an ambulance needed to be called, but that's Quinn in there, and no.

Judy passes by the front window and Santana jumps off the doorstep; suddenly afraid of getting involved. This isn't her fight. Quinn's crying inside and it's none of Santana's business, but she finds herself sliding open the back patio doors before she can tell herself to leave.

(It's been months since she had to sneak into someone's house; last time she fell into Brittany's arms the moment she catapulted herself through the window.)

The walls are laced with memories of past battles – it's the first thing she notices. The second: as she pads quietly down the hall, not a single floorboard dares creek under her footfall, as if noise like that simply isn't allowed.

Santana's as silent as the house as she takes a seat on the staircase, waiting for Quinn. And this is a felony, breaking and entering – or just entering, as the back door was unlocked – but on the other side of that tall dark wall, Quinn muffles her sobs with apologies as her mother slurs on and on about inadequacy.

Santana digs her fingernails into a crack in the wood of the step and holds her breath like it might make the air go quiet as well.

It takes Quinn the length of five Spice Girl songs hummed in Santana's head to free herself from Judy's tirades and if she's surprised to see someone sitting on her stairs, it doesn't show on her tear-stained face.

In fact, as she taps Santana's shoulder before walking upstairs, it seems almost as if she was expecting this.

/

"Did you listen to the song?"

Out of every single possible conversation starter, this is not what Santana was expecting. The somewhat snappy words don't exactly fit with Quinn's achingly sad eyes and lips turned down like the crescent of a moon outside.

It prickles her skin, but it's easier than acknowledging what just went down. "Quinn…"

"It's a good song," Quinn snaps, picking at a loose thread on her duvet.

"I'm not-" Santana inhales, leaning back against the wallpaper; away from Quinn. "-ready."

"Why?"

Quinn runs her fingertips along the pattern on her duvet; tracing out letters and words onto the soft fabric as she carefully avoids Santana's eyes. This is a question she's not supposed to ask. This is where they change the subject to something lighter – like the giant crush Santana's little brother seems to have developed on Quinn. Neither is supposed to wait like this, for an answer that can't be said.

Sometimes, tucked deep in the folds of her dark sheets, Santana will roll the question on her tongue like a ribbon of smoke – sometimes she folds it into a tidy bow; sometimes a knotted mess.

There is an answer, she knows. It sticks in her throat and tastes an awful lot like fear.

Quinn pulls a fluffed pillow into her lap and hugs it like it's the belly she traded in for hollowed cheeks and eyes full of regret.

"I slept with Puck," Santana admits in a China doll voice, careful not to break.

Something like pain or guilt darts across Quinn's face and for a fleeting moment, Santana thinks she might be on her way to understanding the hidden thoughts inside that pretty blonde head – but Quinn hardens and Santana finds herself back in the dark; so far away from the girl right beside her.

"Why do you do this?" The words pass from Quinn's lips so quietly that at first Santana isn't sure they're even said out loud, but the question sticks in those hazel eyes like the answer might actually mean something and it isn't the first time, but Santana's trapped.

"Do what?"

"Sleep around. Like it's nothing."

She tries to shrug it off; drop the weight of her own words before replying. "Because they expect me to."

Quinn deflates like a balloon left in the sun too long and her voice falls with her face. "I wish it didn't have to be that way."

Somewhere downstairs, a loud crash reverberates off the walls and Quinn winces slightly – the only sign of a reaction – as if it's nothing more than spilt milk on a white tablecloth. Santana doesn't even realize her hands are clenched fists until blood trickles out from where her nails cut into the skin of her palm and this is so fucked up; that Quinn can just sit here like her mother's drunken words didn't just slap her across the face fifteen minutes ago.

If she weren't such a chicken, she'd say something; find a solution; drag Judy's ass to one of those twelve-step programs. (If she weren't such a chicken, Brittany would be sitting right next to her, stroking Quinn's hair and murmuring soothing words.)

Santana takes Quinn's hand in her own and traces a tiny heart on the palm before folding Quinn's fingers over it and cradling the girl's trembling hand like a forgotten wish from the bottom of a well.

"Me too," she says softly.

/

Strips of sun fall across the duvet – slipping in from between the slated blinds – when Santana finds it in herself to pull away from Quinn's arms. They didn't do anything, but it still feels wrong to let herself be held by her sleeping best friend when the poor girl is probably dreaming of her daughter, or something.

This isn't her moment, but the motion of freeing herself causes Quinn to wake up and reach out for Santana.

"Go back to sleep, Quinn," she murmurs as she gently pushes Quinn's hand off her torso.

Maybe she spoke too loud, or maybe her words set off an alarm, but Quinn sits up and stares at Santana like she might find something in her dark brown eyes – buried treasure, maybe; maybe a landmine.

"Santana?" Quinn has that angel voice of hers again; the one made of cotton candy clouds and a mother's soft touch. "Why d'you only sleep around with guys? Why not girls? If you-"

"Please don't go there," Santana mutters; it's too early for this – she's not ready for this.

"But you're so beautiful. I'm sure even straight girls have-"

They don't do this; don't compliment each other like best friends on after-school specials. She can't remember the last time she even acknowledged Quinn's physical appearance (outside of her head, of course) without it somehow turning into an offensive comment about stretch marks or weight.

And it's not that she even means to be so harsh to a girl who really doesn't deserve it – and screw what the rest of the school says; because yes, Quinn's sort of a bitch, but she hasn't seen another single person in that shitty school who's gone through half of what Quinn's gone through and made it out alive – but it's how they communicate. They're mean because it's easier than sitting down and talking about feelings.

"-Quinn-"

"So how can you even be sure you're a lesbian if you're always with boys? Maybe you're just bi-"

"I'm in love with Brittany," she bursts out, wanting so desperately to crawl back under the covers and disappear. "I fuck guys to make it go away; to try and make me…"

"Normal?" Quinn offers in the smallest voice possible.

"Yeah."

"But you're so much better than that." Quinn must be the queen of bad timing, or just really fucking emotional, because she chooses now to start crying – instead of hours ago, when it would've made sense.

Santana's going soft. Or maybe she was always soft and her armor's just starting to deteriorate. Either way, she finds herself pulling Quinn into one of those hugs that are better suited for sappy people like Berry, even though nobody wants to be close enough to that girl to let her comfort them. And shit, that's depressing. Maybe it looks fine on the outside, but actually being the girl no one wants?

The only difference between her and Rachel is that people would probably like Rachel if they took a second to look past her reputation.

"Nobody wants me, Quinn," she admits quietly, running her fingers through Quinn's short hair.

"I want you," Quinn murmurs into the fabric of Santana's shirt.

"No you don't."

"You're the only person who knows about my mom. And the only person who'd actually care if something happens to me. So yes, I want you. Just not in the way you need, I guess." Quinn pulls away and wipes her eyes; fixes her shirt with a shaking hand.

Santana's suddenly left cold from where Quinn was pressed against her. "I need Brittany."

"Yeah." Quinn sighs with something similar to defeat. "I know you do; I'm sorry."

Chapter Text

Abuela has a fall. It happens while Santana's at the supermarket with Desi, picking up a couple boxes of Kraft Dinner at his request, and by the time they return the ambulance is in the driveway and her mother's crying on the front step.

"Mami?" Santana winds the handles of the plastic bag tighter around her hand as she gets closer; close enough to see the lines of exhaustion around her mother's eyes.

Her mother numbly shakes her head. "Abuela fell down the stairs… She thought she heard Maci at the door."

"Maci?" Desi tears his eyes off his grandmother's frail form being lifted into the back of the ambulance and glances questioningly at his mother first, then his sister, who gives him a look that says not now.

"Will she be okay?" Santana asks timidly.

"I've called your father; he says he has a friend at the hospital who'll ensure Abuela gets the best care possible. Until then, I need you to look after your brother while I go with the paramedics and make sure your abuela doesn't get too confused."

She hadn't noticed until now, but when her mother's scared her accent returns; like a safety blanket.

"I'll hold down the fort," she says with a firm nod.

Her mother reaches out and gives her hand a squeeze. "That's my strong girl."

/

She isn't a very strong girl. In the literal sense, this becomes apparent when she tries to lift a casserole dish out of the cupboard to get one of their more durable pots and nearly falls over backwards with the strain. If it weren't for Desi's quick helping hand, she'd probably also be in the hospital after a fall.

In the sense she's sure her mother meant, it's clear how weak she is when, while waiting for the pasta to cook, she finds herself hovering over Brittany's name in her phone; debating on whether or not she should call.

"Sanny?"

Her little brother leans his chest against the edge of the center island, hands popping up like a puppy peeking out of a box, trying to see the screen of her cell phone.

She angles it away before shutting it completely.

"What's wrong?" he asks her, frowning. "You seem sad."

"Just- you know. Abuela." It's a lie; he gives her that face that says he's not buying her bullshit.

"Is it boy problems?" he presses.

She almost laughs – almost. "Des… What if I told you it'll never be boy problems?"

When he meets her gaze, chin up in defiance (or solidarity; she's not sure), she sees a flash of him years from now: long after the trials of everyday life have worn him down to the sad, tired mess everyone around her seems to be these days. It's startling, really, how when she looks at him – honestly looks at him; not just in passing – she can already see the man he's too young to be.

He's grown up much too fast for a little boy.

"You mean, like…" Desi waits for her to finish, like he'd wait forever for her to be able to say it.

She shuts her eyes for a moment and tilts her head back until she can see the wavering string of a cobweb dangling from the light fixture and breathes in like it's the last breath she'll ever be able to take with these lungs.

"Like it's only ever been girl problems," she says softly – maybe too softly, as he frowns like maybe he didn't hear properly. "Like… I'm…"

His fingers fold over hers so quickly she can't even remember them not being there. "I know, Santana."

She needs to say it though; can't let the moment pass without voicing the feverish secret that plagues her day and night. "I'm a lesbian. I like girls, Des. That- I can't change it. I wish I could."

He gives her the most bewildered look and strokes the pad of his finger across her black nail polish.

"Please don't change," he murmurs. "Don't ever change. You're okay now."

Behind her, the pot of pasta hisses with boiling steam that's probably bubbling over onto the stove and though it's definitely going to leave a mess, she can't bring herself to move an inch; even lets the tears well up in her eyes as Desi continues to stroke her painted nails with his soft, tiny fingers.

"Mami and Papi won't love me anymore if they find out," she admits in a choked whisper. "You know that, right?"

He nods slowly. "If they kick you out, you can always stay in my room. I'll even let you have the bed; my racetrack rug's pretty comfy. I wouldn't mind."

"I love you," she tells him, tears spilling out through her eyelashes.

"I'll always love you," he promises. "Even when you throw stuff at me."

/

Quinn stops by unannounced the next morning, when neither of Santana's parents have returned home from the hospital and she and Desi are curled up on the couch, the menu of Imagine Me & You frozen on the TV screen in front of them.

("I love a girl, Des," she'd told him halfway through the movie.

He'd looked at her with a faint smile and taken her hand again like it was that blanket he used to carry with him everywhere. "Brittany?"

"Yeah," she'd replied, voice caught between laughter and tears. "I love Brittany.")

The doorbell sounds throughout the house and Santana leaves her brother on the couch with his arms reaching out where she'd slept all night to see who on earth is actually crazy enough to come over so early in the morning.

"Jesus Christ, it's not even seven," she grumbles as Quinn gives her a tiny wave.

"Glad you're embracing your religion," Quinn says, stepping inside. "I found another song that you need to listen to."

Santana rolls her eyes. "My brother's sleeping in the living room, so we can head down to the basement; my dad won't mind if we use his office for a little bit. Not that he'll find out."

"I've never seen your basement," Quinn mentions as she carefully makes her way to the top of the stairs.

"Big day, then."

/

The song, just- wow. Santana's desperate to make a snarky comment but by now it's pretty clear this is Quinn's way of distracting herself from whatever's going on at home, and Santana's really not ready to sink to that level of bitch just yet.

But seriously: Sea of Love?

"It sounds great, Q. But-"

"But what? It's perfect. You love her, right? And you're not ready, and the song isn't saying that you are, but it's just a nice confirmation that you're there." Quinn speaks as if she might've rehearsed this a few times in her mirror, or at least thought about her reasoning on the walk over. It's cute.

"But Britt knows I love her already." Santana sighs. "She knows and still doesn't want anything to do with me. I hate to say it, but… maybe this isn't something that can be fixed with a song."

Quinn sucks in her cheeks. "Rachel Berry would burn you alive if she was here."

"Can you just kiss her already? I'm kind of sick of all this fucking Berry talk, okay? It's not right to be this fixated on someone, you creep."

It's definitely the wrong thing to say: Quinn's eyes go dark and narrow the same as when Finn did that idiotic thing where he embarrassed everyone around him (and it doesn't matter which one; they happened so frequently when she was still hung up on him) and her knuckles turn snow white, like she's ready to pounce.

"Scary Quinn," Santana says meekly, shrinking back into the leather office chair.

"I'm not the one who practically drunkenly announced her love for that argyle-wearing freak," Quinn hisses.

"I'm a lesbian, Quinn. So what if I think her mouth might be better at something other than singing?"

Quinn instantly recoils like the image in her head burns like acid.

"Gross," she mutters, but the word's empty.

Santana manages a shrug. "At least I can admit it."

"I'm not in love with Rachel Berry," Quinn cries out, digging her nails into the armrests so hard Santana's afraid she might damage the leather. "She's annoying and steals my boyfriends and never stops talking. I mean, if I was ever going to go gay, or like, had to get with a girl, I'd never choose someone who actually enjoys Top 40 radio; that's disgusting."

It's amusing, really. No longer scared, Santana presses on. "So who'd you choose, if you had to?"

"You," Quinn replies as if it's the most obvious thing in the world.

"…Me."

"Well, at least I'd know you have some experience in that area," she explains, staring at the computer monitor. "And you're a perfectionist, so you'd be good…"

Santana grins. "You've thought about this, haven't you?"

A deep flush colors Quinn's cheeks. "Maybe once…"

"Does that mean you've thought about being with a girl?"

"Maybe," Quinn mumbles shyly.

"Are you-?"

"I'm straight," she interjects, almost offended. "I'm definitely not gay. But that doesn't mean I haven't given a little thought to all the possibilities out there, okay? We're both attractive girls; there have been moments where something could've happened. It's not weird!"

Santana's not one to gloat (too much), but a strange sort of pride fills her chest with this knowledge; like something like this, something like talking about a hypothetical lesbian situation with your friend, could actually be normal.

In an odd way, it feels like the closest she's ever been to Quinn, in all their years of friendship – or whatever that label covers.

"Can you please stop staring at me like that?" Quinn squeaks out; ears pink.

Santana looks away, still grinning. "Sorry. It's just- seriously? This is… wow."

Quinn huffs a little and folds her arms over her chest. "It's not like I just told you I'm in love with you. Stop making it a big deal."

"When you say possibilities, are you just talking about holding hands, or is it like-"

"It's nothing pornographic," Quinn starts, dropping her gaze.

"But?"

"I mean, haven't you ever thought about what it would be like to kiss someone?"

Santana's eyes widen until she's sure she looks like a comic book character; all shades of surprise and unabashed curiosity.

Quinn lifts her shoulders in a slight shrug.

"Would you ever…"

"Maybe," Quinn admits in a bashful voice. "If we were high, or something; I don't know. If I didn't have to think about what it meant…"

Santana chuckles and leans back in the chair. "Call me when you want your token college experience, okay? I promise you won't be disappointed."

/

Quinn stays and makes them a big breakfast after Santana's little brother wakes up, because it's the right thing to do. She won't admit to actually wanting to spend time with these people who feel more like family than her own mother, but somewhere between doling out strips of bacon and dodging one of Santana's hash-browns, she thinks they might've figured it out.

Desi, to his credit, treats her like she was always meant to be here.

Santana's still giving her that weirdly sexy look that she's been wearing since their earlier conversation in the basement. It's definitely strange, but oddly enough, she doesn't feel threatened. By now she knows Santana's as harmless as a snail.

And maybe she's not the only one who spends most of her life tucked away in a hard shell.

"We should play Mario Kart," Desi announces with a mouth full of toast.

"Chew. Swallow." Santana points her fork at him like a dog trainer and he actually obeys her before repeating his words. Santana grins. "That's a great idea."

"I can't wait to beat Quinn," he says gleefully.

Quinn narrows her eyes at him in a playful way.

"Not like Chris Brown," he corrects quickly. "I just want to leave you crying in my virtual dust."

Santana laughs so hard milk dribbles out of her nose and Quinn's pretty sure she's damaged her throat with the awful snort that escapes after his comment but sitting in their kitchen, food everywhere, she realizes this feels more like home than anything else she ever had to experience in her seventeen years of life.

/

Desi, true to his word, beats them both so hard Quinn actually stares at the screen with her mouth hanging open. Santana tosses a pillow at her brother's head before rolling over on her bed to rest her cheek on Quinn's shoulder, sighing.

"This is sad," Santana murmurs.

Quinn nods; still gaping.

"No; this is really sad. Like, I changed this kid's diapers and suddenly he's beating me at the easiest video game ever? I'm pathetic."

Desi raises his arms above his head like he's holding up a trophy. "I'd like to thank my fans, and everyone who's supported me along the way-"

"Dork," Quinn mutters, leaning into Santana.

He turns to her and grins. "Someone's jealous of my level of awesome."

"I'm not-"

"Don't worry, Quinn. At least you're a pretty loser," he says offhandedly, causing her to blush profusely and bury her face in Santana's hair.

(She makes a mental note to ask Santana what kind of shampoo she uses.)

"Stop hitting on my friend," Santana commands as she inches even closer to Quinn. "You're eleven; it's weird."

He frowns at them both. "Is she a lesbian too?"

Quinn jerks back so quickly she topples off the bed and by the time she's risen to her feet, Santana's already doubled over in laughter; curled up on the bed in the fetal position and clutching her stomach like it might jump out her throat if she laughs any harder.

Quinn whacks Santana in the leg. "I'm not! You bitch. Shut up."

"No, you just think about kissing girls all the time," Santana chuckles as she stretches out on her back and stares up at Quinn's disapproving face.

"That's not what I said," Quinn says harshly, trying to stop the blush that threatens to attack.

"So you just think about kissing me?"

If Santana's little brother weren't sitting literally two feet away, Quinn would probably smack Santana so hard the bruise would be visible for weeks; that, or storm out Berry-style.

And then give her another damn smack for making it impossible to think about Berry without thinking about Berry's mouth.

Jesus Christ.

"Quinn?" Santana sits up and they're face-to-face, eying each other with mixed levels of trepidation.

She wants to look away – wants to somehow clear her head of all those unwanted thoughts of mouths and kissing and God, Santana's lips look soft; softer than any boy Quinn's ever kissed… and definitely more appealing.

It's like they're sharing a joint again, only Quinn's hands are busy knotting up the hem of her shirt and Santana's reaching forward to stop Quinn from tearing holes in the fabric.

Out of the corner of her eye, she catches Desi turning away to give them privacy – though it won't register until much later, when she becomes hyperaware of every single detail leading up to this moment.

She'll remember how Santana's eyes filled with such fear and sincerity, despite her staying completely still; remember how her hands felt in Santana's; remember how hard it became to breathe the moment she realized the room wasn't getting smaller – she was actually leaning in closer.

And closer.

Santana's lips open with hesitance, but she kisses back with equal parts want and certainty. Quinn never expected it to be this soft; for it to stir something deep in her stomach and cause her knees to actually feel like Jell-O.

Sure, she'd thought about kissing Santana, but she never once expected Santana to kiss back – at least not like this; not like it was something she'd also thought about.

When they part, Quinn can't help but exhale in awe.

"I'm sorry," Santana breathes, but it sounds like thank-you.

Quinn shakes her head and frees her hand to brush a strand of hair out of Santana's eyes. "This won't change things, right?"

"Of course not."

But Santana sounds as unsure as Quinn feels and when Desi turns back around, watching them like he's just as worried about what this means, Quinn finds herself wondering if she should've just stayed at home this morning; far away from any of this.

"I should-"

"You should," Santana mumbles, biting her bottom lip.

Quinn steps back and instinctively smoothes down her shirt. "Right. So. I guess I'll see you around?"

"See you," Santana echoes.

"Bye Quinn," Desi calls out as she passes him, and she sees a question in his frowning eyes, but bless his heart he doesn't ask it.

One of these days she'll need to explain to every other boy in the world that this is how they're supposed to be. And one of these days she'll need to ask herself the question Desi knows has to be answered.

/

Desi's pretty sure his sister and all her drama will make a good few chapters in his memoir, after they're grown up and all of it gets sorted out.

He knows that at school, when all the kids are complaining about their siblings and he tells them his sister is so cool she's in a gang that stops bullying, that not a single kid seems unimpressed with Santana. In fact, one girl in his class even complained that her big sister would never be as cool as Santana.

She's even better than TV sisters because she's brave enough to love someone when it's not really a good thing in their town and she knows better swear words than truckers.

Sometimes he stands in front of the bathroom mirror and practices that really evil look she gives, just in case he ever needs to scare someone that's messing with her. Not that she couldn't handle it on her own – but he wants to know that he could take care of her, just in case.

One day he'll tell her that the paper he wrote about her, the one on heroes, earned him a gold star sticker and a spot on the Bulletin Board of Fame.

One day, he'll tell her how proud of her he is.

/

Santana's parents call later that night, right after she'd just prepared herself to call Quinn and maybe talk about what the fuck happened earlier.

Her mother tells her that Abuela broke her ankle and will need surgery; her father reminds her to water the plants.

"Where will you guys be?" she asks, hating how tiny she sounds.

"I'm staying here with your abuela," her mother says softly.

Her father coughs.

"Papi?"

"I have a conference in Boston for a few days; you're old enough to take care of the house, right mija?" His tone doesn't leave room for negotiation, so she nods and realizes he can't see.

"Of course," she murmurs. "Abuela's going to be okay?"

Her father starts to say something but her mother cuts in with, "Of course she will, nena. You know she's where you get your strength."

Santana thinks about the two names in her phone that cause her to stutter now and wonders just exactly what strong means, if this is it. "Right. You make sure they take good care of her, Mami. And have fun in Boston, Papi."

She expects something along the lines of conferences aren't meant for enjoyment, but her father gives her a soft reply before saying goodbye and she's left with a dial tone.

Something's changed.

It's not a good sign.

/

Brittany sends her a text while she's in the middle of losing yet another round of Mario Kart to her giddy brother and the typed-out message causes her to drop her controller completely.

"Something wrong, Sanny?"

She shakes her head, but the screen seems to jeer at her, and the words just won't go away no matter how hard she stares at them.

Be home Friday… Wish I could stay longer.

Friday. As in two days from now; as in Brittany will be back in Lima in two days and back in Santana's life and wanting to talk about things that make less sense than things with Quinn and holy fuck two days isn't enough time to run away to Canada.

She's always figured Canada has to be better than any other country for hiding out – gay marriage is legal and girls can go topless in Ontario. (She's not dumb enough to think the entire country is full of igloos, despite what Puck says, and if they like their girls topless then the nightlife must be insanely awesome, otherwise why would so many people willingly stay in such a cold country? She's still not sure about Russia.)

"Britt's coming home," she manages to squeak out.

Desi pauses the game and rolls over to face her. "Do you need a paper bag or something? A cigarette?"

"Don't ever start smoking," she tells him, but pushes herself off the bed anyway. "Yeah; I think I do. That, or a noose."

He follows her to the backyard and takes a giant step backwards as she pulls out the package of cigarettes, like by just being around them he might get cancer and die. She doesn't blame him; they smell horrendous and leave a musty taste in her mouth. Yet she can't find it in herself to quit.

"This'll be the death of me someday," she says as she takes a seat on the steps.

He sits down on the porch swing and watches smoke pool out of her mouth as she talks, mesmerized by the swirls. "Smoking? Or Brittany?"

She laughs so she doesn't cry. "Both."

"D'you wanna talk about it?"

"I don't know," she says truthfully, and the smoke curls nicely in her lungs, no doubt turning them as black as her nails, but something in her abdomen relaxes.

He nods. "Maybe you should talk to Quinn, after the other day."

"It's weird having someone know about this shit," she admits.

"I'm sorry. I could pretend I don't know anything?"

"No," she says quickly. "I like it. Feels less… lonely."

He's quiet for awhile; eyes fixed on the cigarette held gracefully between two fingers; only looking away to watch the tendrils of smoke float up around her face like soft hands that wipe away her worries. The two of them find solace in their own little worlds as she comes to terms with the damage she's doing to her lungs and love life and he accepts that his clothes will probably reek all day.

"A lot of gay teenagers kill themselves because it's too scary," he says after a long silence, and his words leave tire treads across her heart as she realizes what he must've read on the internet or seen on the news.

"It's not easy," she murmurs, taking a long drag to rid her throat of the tearful lump. "But don't worry about me, okay?"

"It's just… You're never happy anymore, Santana. You used to smile."

"Desi, listen to me. If I ever even start to feel like it's too much to handle, I promise you I'll drive myself to the hospital and make them keep me safe until I'm feeling better. Okay? I will never leave you like that."

His eyes fill with tears that spill over in alligator droplets and she flicks the end of her cigarette into a bucket of rainwater before joining him on the porch swing and pulling him into a tight hug; running her fingers through his dark curls again and again like she used to do when he was little and had nightmares.

"I love you and I'll never leave you," she whispers soothingly, pressing her lips to the top of his head. "Don't worry, baby. I'm gonna be all right."

He wraps his arms around her waist, pulling her as close as possible, and sobs into her shirt while she continues to assure him she's not going anywhere. They stay like this until the sun goes down; and after he sits tucked under her arm, both hands holding one of hers like he used to hold his teddy bear, before their father said he was too old to need something to hold onto.

Everyone needs something to hold onto.

Chapter Text

Quinn calls early the next morning. Santana's phone manages to play two bars of Heads Will Roll before the call ends abruptly and Santana's left staring at the fading screen. She's about to call back when Quinn calls again, and hangs up even quicker than before, and this happens three more times before Santana finally sends her a text.

Caller ID, Q.

It takes five whole minutes (in which Santana drags her sorry ass out of bed and throws on an oversized tee) for Quinn to reply with: oh.

Oh. One word and Santana can practically see the uncertainty etched across Quinn's forehead. One word and Santana's stomach drops not unlike the day Brittany dragged her onto that behemoth of a rollercoaster and she nearly showered everyone on the ride with semi-digested corndogs.

So she dials Quinn's number; shakily holds the phone to her ear – because Brittany comes home tomorrow and Santana needs the only friend she's got to be there for her after she leaves Brittany's house in tears yet again.

/

They agree to meet at the park. It's been raining on and off all morning, but Quinn insists on meeting at the swings because it's neutral ground and Santana doesn't have the heart to argue after Quinn admits to breaking into her mom's alcohol cupboard to try and feel a little better. Neither says it, but both think of Quinn's mom as they hang up.

Judy's haunted eyes follow Santana as she paces through the gutters; watch her from her thoughts as she sinks onto a wet swing.

She comes to face them as Quinn stops directly in front of the swing-set, bottle of vodka tucked under her arm the way one might cradle a favorite doll, and worries her lip between her teeth.

"Hey," Santana says softly.

Quinn nods. "Hi."

They don't say much after Quinn falls into place on the second swing – Santana tries everything to direct her attention away from Quinn's lips and Quinn focuses on keeping her mouth on or near the bottle of vodka, but it's okay. Silence works for now.

Santana's really not sure she can stomach another conversation in which her other best friend tells her it has to be more complicated than it is.

"I'm sorry," Quinn finally mumbles to the bottle, eyes fixed on the dark sand.

"Why?"

Quinn chuckles and it sounds like a mirror cracking. "It's pathetic, Santana. This. Us. Aren't we supposed to have it all figured out? Aren't we the popular girls?"

"Yeah," Santana breathes. "Maybe."

Quinn runs the edge of her nail down the neck of the bottle and rests it on the V of the label – Odka, Santana thinks, and yes, it's odd – as her gaze shifts to the foggy horizon, like something out there might be waiting for her.

"I didn't mean to kiss you. I'm not-"

Santana's chest tightens. "It doesn't make you anything, Q."

"That doesn't, but…" Quinn shakes her head and swallows a bitter mouthful of vodka with a grimace. "They named me after my grandmother."

Santana buries the toe of her sneaker in the wet sand but says nothing; lets Quinn continue because it sounds like something that needs to be spoken out loud lest it fester and slick her bones down with a poisonous regret.

"Lucy, not Quinn. And my grandmother was so sad, that out of all her grandchildren, I was the one named after her. Why couldn't you at least be a little bit pretty, Lucy? You think you don't change for other people but they're the only reason any of it matters. Are you happy with yourself?" Quinn's voice grows thick with tears as she carries on. "You just want to be good enough; just want someone to love you."

"Quinn…"

"You have Brittany," she says with the slightest attempt of a shrug.

Santana shakes her head. "No I don't. She'll come home tomorrow and I just…"

Wordlessly, Quinn hands her the bottle. She drinks because it feels the least like drowning and the two of them watch where the horizon blends grey sky with foggy earth until the clouds release a sudden downpour onto the sleeping town – then they squeal and dive into the mouth of the bright red tube slide like they did once before, when they were fourteen and Quinn hugged her sides in the rain like they might fall apart at any given moment.

/

Puck isn't expecting two soaking wet girls on his doorstep at nine in the morning. Heck, he isn't expectinganyone at nine in the morning, least of all two sopping girls in clothes that might be a little see-through from the rain, but he invites them in nonetheless because his mom didn't raise him to be impolite.

Quinn and Santana stand there shivering for a good three minutes before his little sister runs in from the TV room.

"Hannah," he says as he runs a hand through his mohawk, "go watch Adventure Time."

Hannah curiously eyes Quinn as she hugs the doorframe. "Is she sick again, Noah?"

Quinn sways on her feet and clings tighter to Santana's side, trying her hardest not to reach out and hold the little girl who made her hot chocolate every night before bed when she wanted so badly to call this family home.

"No," he replies. "Now go."

Santana gives the girl a tiny wave. Hannah frowns.

"I hope you feel better, Quinn," she says softly, before turning to glare at Santana. "Don't hurt Quinn. Or I'll hurt you."

As Hannah pads away to go back to her morning cartoons, Puck shoots Santana an apologetic look and motions for the two girls to follow him upstairs.

"I promise I won't try anything," he says.

Quinn breathes out a chuckle.

He smiles cautiously. "I have some dry clothes and blankets, and Quinn sorta looks like she could use a nap, so…"

It won't be the first time he takes her up to his bedroom, but at least this time her cheeks are only wet from the rain and her arms curl around Santana's side instead of the smallest baby bump. He forces himself to swallow as she sinks into his bed like she's coming home because shit, she isn't his girl, no matter what happened in the past.

His throat burns something fierce when Santana drops to her knees next to the bed to help Quinn take off her wet nylons – it's innocent this time, but suddenly every other time he's had Santana in his room comes flashing back and all he can do is think about the delicate way Santana once ghosted her fingers across Brittany's cheekbone when she thought no one was looking.

He hands them dry clothes and leaves the room to make some hot chocolate because even if they never know, they're his girls and he'll throw himself in front of a bus if it makes them happy.

It's only as he fills two mugs that he places the lingering scent surrounding Quinn – it's the same that clings to her mother like an unwanted perfume.

"Shit," he mutters to himself.

From the doorway, Hannah mouths a silent sorry towards the ceiling and watches her brother put everything he has into those two mugs.

/

Quinn falls asleep two sips into her hot chocolate. Santana gently pries the mug from her hands and sets it on the dresser before resuming her position at the side of the bed, tracing her fingers along Quinn's scalp.

"She's lucky she has you," Puck comments from his place in the old beanbag chair. He absentmindedly plucks at his guitar; stopping here and there to adjust a tuning peg.

Santana twists to face him. "What?"

"All I'm saying is if Judy had a friend like you, I bet she wouldn't find herself divorced and depressed at forty with only the bottle to keep her company."

"Quinn's nothing like her mother," Santana says bitterly.

He twangs out a sharp note. "No; I'm sorry. She isn't."

Santana returns to running her fingers through Quinn's hair to try and help it dry faster. There's something about rainwater that turns hair into this sad, somewhat frizzy mess and she doesn't want Quinn to sober up to find herself looking anything but beautiful.

"But she could be," Puck continues. "If she keeps doing this-"

"I've got it," Santana snaps.

His fingers nurse a soft melody from the strings. "Like I said: she's lucky. Wish someone cared that much about me."

She's about to say something in return, maybe try to convince him there's someone out there that'll rescue him from his own demons, when the room goes completely dark. Someone screams downstairs – it's Hannah. The flickering light from the computer blinks no more and Santana frowns at the floor barely lit from the foggy light that drifts in through the window.

It's storming outside; she wonders how it took her so long to notice.

"I'll get candles," Puck says as Hannah comes barreling into the bedroom.

She throws herself onto her brother's bed and doesn't even bother to glance at anyone else before wrapping her arms around Quinn's sleeping body, like she won't be safe until she's completely surrounded by Quinn.

Santana switches her fingers to Hannah's hair now; whispers reassurances through her fingertips.

/

The four of them sit unspeaking in the candlelight for what seems like an eternity; Hannah dozes off almost immediately after Santana pulls the quilt over her tiny form and Puck goes back to his guitar, but the music barely makes a dent in the thick silence.

Santana wants to say something, but her mind's still a bit cloudy from the vodka she forced down to try and get Quinn to stop drinking and even if she had a clue as to which thought she should voice first, it doesn't seem appropriate to try and fracture this silence. At least in the quiet she doesn't have to worry about admitting the wrong thing.

Part of her thinks Puck might already know – that he can see the shared kiss on her and Quinn's lips, glowing like a buzzing open sign.

She's desperate to tell him it didn't mean anything and that she only let it happen because Brittany's been away too long, letting too much time fall between them until she just needed a body to fill the space. But- she wants to tell him Quinn's a space-filler. And that feels worse than admitting she might have been thinking about Quinn's lips long before they kissed.

That's the main reason she's afraid to actually talk about it to Quinn – she doesn't want to ruin whatever hangs so delicately between them.

The silence itches.

She glances at Puck and he gives her his trademark smirk before asking what's up.

"Play me something?" she says softly, stretching out on her back on the rug. Though the thing's burned her in the past, it's surprisingly comfy in the candlelight.

He quirks an eyebrow and frowns at the neck of his guitar for a moment before sitting up a little straighter and nodding. "I've got something," he says. "When I was learning it, I couldn't stop thinking of you, so."

"Puck…"

"Dude. It's not as sappy as it seems, okay? Guys are allowed to have feelings too, you know."

He shifts in the beanbag chair and avoids her eyes and for a moment, she thinks she might've embarrassed him, but then his voice comes out so full of emotion that all she can think about are the tears filling her eyes.

"…And there will come a time, you'll see, with no more tears. And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears." He stretches out his leg so the end of his sock brushes against her shin and she chuckles as she wipes her cheeks. "Get over your hill and see what you find there; with grace in your heart and flowers in your hair…"

She loves him. Quinn stirs slightly on the bed and the song melts on Puck's tongue like honey and Santana really loves him.

/

It's late when Santana finally walks Quinn home. The rain stopped sometime after Quinn woke up and insisted on joining Puck and Santana in the softest version of Coldplay's Yellow that Santana had ever heard (not that she'll admit to ever listening to Coldplay, except when Brittany's around) and even after the power came back on they continued to sing quietly, Puck nursing the guitar like a lost lover.

(Their singing woke Hannah who she stayed silent on the bed, despite noticing the tears in Santana's eyes – for which Santana was grateful.)

"I'm sorry," Quinn mumbles for the seventeenth time since they left Puck's house. She's sobered up, but apparently that only means endless guilt and unneeded apologies.

Santana rolls her eyes and guides Quinn around a large puddle. "Stop."

"But I need you to know I'm sorry," Quinn insists, and when Santana finally glances over at her, she realizes this isn't just about the alcohol.

"Okay," she says quickly. "You're sorry. I forgive you."

Quinn's face relaxes and she gives Santana's hand a small squeeze before dropping her gaze to the wet sidewalk. A silence falls over them; Santana loses her thoughts to the chorus of the song Puck sang to her, earlier, and Quinn focuses on the feeling of her hand in Santana's, like maybe this is the last time they can do this without it meaning something more.

As they slow to a stop in front of the Fabray house, Quinn opens her mouth to say something but is cut off by Santana's sharp words.

"Brittany comes home tomorrow."

The clouds growl up above. Quinn takes in the way Santana holds herself so carefully, like the words are explosive, and shifts backwards to leave a little more space between them.

"Are you-" Quinn glances over at her empty house, then back to Santana. "I mean, are you ready to…"

Santana blinks and the fear dissipates from her eyes. "Well like, I've missed her, and… you know. It's been awhile."

"Right. Yeah. Well, I'll be here if you need me," Quinn offers quietly.

It strikes her then how different this summer's been from all the others – there's no Cheerios camp to keep her occupied (and in shape); her nights don't end in tears from everything her father didn't say; she has a friend. Quinn Fabray has a real friend.

"Thanks, Q," Santana says with a soft smile, and bumps her hand into Quinn's arm. "You'll be okay tonight?"

"Of course," Quinn says, and gives her a cheery smile; enough to make the words seem like they could be true.

/

Santana comes home to an empty house; it envelops her quietly and breathes out as she falls softly onto her bed with her hands half-curled in fists. The lights stay off. Desi will be home in the morning; Mami will call; she'll have to face all her shortcomings with Brittany's return.

For now, she rests in the sheets; the moon dripping lace through her window.

"I'm sorry," she whispers to no one in particular. "I'm sorry; I'm sorry; I'm sorry." She says it like a heartbeat – the darkness whispers back.

I'm sorry.

/

Abuela comes home in the morning. Tires burn to a stop on the asphalt outside Santana's window and she watches, bleary-eyed and still in her underwear from having just stepped out of bed, as her tiny mother struggles to help Abuela and her crutches into the house.

She should go down and help out.

Instead, she glances at her phone (2 missed calls) and climbs back in bed.

Laughter from downstairs wakes her a few hours later and this time she pulls on sweatpants and a tank top and drags her protesting body to the source of the noise. She finds them in the living room, all of them – Abuela sits on the couch with her leg resting on the coffee table; Mami perches nearby in the armchair; Desi grins from his spot cross-legged on the floor.

He directs his smile to Santana as she walks in the room. "You're up! Good. Mami said I couldn't bother you until you woke up because you need your sleep."

She mouths a quick thanks to her mother.

"Can I get something from your closet?" Desi asks and she flinches unintentionally at the last word. "I really want to do something nice for Abuela."

"Sure," she says, and settles onto the couch next to her grandmother as Desi runs off.

Abuela gives her a tiny pat. "You always did look better without those gobs of makeup, mija."

Santana opens her mouth to reply but compliments only seem to be directed at her when she's mistaken for someone else, and she's really not in the mood to play Maci right now. It's too early.

"I would've called from the hospital, but…" Her mother drops her hands and chews on her lip; the lines in her face even more pronounced than a week ago.

"It's okay," she replies quickly.

Her mother nods and cuts her gaze to the front door. "Your father said he'd be home today, to help, but you know how these things go. I'm sure this conference is important."

Family's important too, Santana wants to say, but at this point she's so tired of pretending to be something her father wants that she prefers it when he has no time for them. At least this way no one gets their hopes up for nothing.

"Everything's okay?" she asks instead, eyes fixed on her mother's hands, running the beads of her rosary through her fingers again and again.

"It's fine," her mother replies. "And here?"

"Good," Santana says firmly. Neither presses further.

Desi breaks the spell with a giggle as he practically runs into the living room and Santana's sure she's hallucinating when she realizes he's dressed up in her candy striper outfit.

"I'm here to make you feel better, Abuela!" Desi announces, throwing his arms in the air, and Santana realizes with slight shock that he's stuffed the top with balled-up socks to add to the effect.

Abuela laughs the way Santana remembers from childhood; so full and joyful that she almost forgets Abuelo's not in the other room, laughing with them. It chokes her, for a moment – remembering that he's gone; remembering that Abuela's going too.

She glances at her mother and it seems she feels the same way, judging by the tears in her eyes.

Desi doesn't notice, thankfully. He parades through the living room with gusto and shimmies his hips a few times before bending over to fluff a pillow. Abuela claps her hands, shaking with laughter, and mimics throwing money in his direction.

Desi continues his little routine almost like he'd been practicing when Santana wasn't looking and she can't help it; she loses herself in peels of laughter as her mother cracks up as well and they cheer him on the way TV families do.

It feels… right.

Until the door slams and Dr. Lopez marches into the room so sternly Santana feels that old urge to flee and hide in her closet with her stuffed animals so he can't yell at her.

"Isobel," he says in a sickly calm voice. Mrs. Lopez keeps her eyes fixed on the carpet and sits so still, like an ice sculpture. "Isobel, look at me." When she doesn't move, his voice rises to a bark. "ISOBEL!"

Santana jumps; her mother jumps; Abuela recoils. Desi stands in the middle of the room with his arms half-curled to his chest.

"Get that faggot costume off our son, Isobel," Dr. Lopez growls. "Now!"

Something in Santana's chest tumbles forward at that word and she grips the arms of her chair so tight her knuckles feel like the skin's about to rip open just so she doesn't fall. She can't even look in her father's direction. His gaze sweeps the room and burns her skin as it passes over her.

Her mother starts to get out of her seat – maybe with the intention of talking him down; maybe to get Desi out of the costume – but she stops as her son shouts out.

"No!"

Dr. Lopez pitches forward slightly in the doorway but holds himself back as if the room doesn't deserve his presence; as if the very act of sharing a space with that costume would strip him of his dignity.

"DO NOT talk to your father that way!" he roars. "Get out of that faggot costume or get out of my goddamn house!"

Desi sneaks a glance at Santana and the fear in his eyes breaks her heart but she can't move; she can't speak; she can't breathe lest that word cling to her name and her father figures it out.

"No," Desi says quietly. His voice quivers. He juts out his chin and meets his father's gaze – this time speaking a little louder. "No."

"I will not tolerate this kind of behavior in my house," Dr. Lopez hisses, the veins in his forehead pulsing the way they did two years ago when a group of teenage boys smashed his car windows. "Isobel, take that disgusting thing off your son before he turns into one of those sick sinners."

"Don't touch me!" Desi screams as Mrs. Lopez advances slightly. She shifts her gaze to her husband then back to her son, so terrified, and freezes completely.

"Take it off," Dr. Lopez says in a low voice.

Santana watches her brother's trembling hands as he shakes his head.

"There's nothing wrong with being gay," he says with fear edging in his voice. "Wearing a dress doesn't make me gay but…" He stares at his father with some defiance, but mainly a plea for him to listen. "There's nothing wrong with being gay, Papi. There's nothing-"

"ENOUGH!"

Dr. Lopez slams his fist into the doorframe and the whole house shakes – though Santana doesn't notice at first, given how much she's already shaking, but a photo falls off the wall.

"Homosexuality is a disease, Desi. I don't care what lies they fill your head with at that progressive school of yours but with all this talk of equality and tolerance, this country's just breeding disease and I will notlet my own son stand here and try to convince me it's-"

"He's eleven, Papi," Santana mumbles, and immediately regrets speaking when her father's glare lands on her. "Sorry. I'm sorry."

Dr. Lopez runs a hand through his peppered hair and cracks his neck in frustration. "I don't know why I bother coming home when this is the kind of shit you greet me with. I'm going to a hotel tonight. When I return tomorrow, this'd better be finished. I don't want to hear another word."

The house deflates as he leaves and it isn't until his car pulls out of the driveway that Santana lets herself breathe again.

"Take off the dress, Desi," she says softly.

He looks at her with the saddest expression of betrayal and disappointment before turning on his heel and leaving the room.

Abuela clicks her tongue. "Marry a lawyer, I said. Marry a nice butcher. Instead you bring home this doctor… thinks he can fix with world with little blue pills… Someone take me to bed. I need my bed."

Mrs. Lopez actively avoids her daughter's eyes as she gets up to help Abuela.

Santana tugs a loose thread out of the chair's cushion and lets it fall to the floor.

"I'm sick," she whispers.

/

Brittany doesn't call.

It isn't as if Santana waits by her phone or anything, but she keeps it in her hand, and later when she silently drifts around her mother in the kitchen, preparing dinner, her phone sits in the breast pocket of the flannel shirt she pulled over her tank top when it got chilly.

Some summer, she thinks.

It's after six and Brittany's definitely home by now but she hasn't called and Santana's starting to think this is it; this is what it's like to be abandoned.

People have left her a hundred times before but she never planted a part of herself in them the way she has with Brittany; she never let her roots settle in anyone but Brittany; she never thought they'd ever be yanked away like this.

Something wails deep inside her chest as she sets the table. She fixes her focus on lining the forks up perfectly with the edge of the napkin so she doesn't have to think.

"You're quiet," her mother comments as they pass each other.

"Long day," she replies.

Mrs. Lopez makes a noise in the back of her throat.

"I'm sorry about Papi," Santana says softly, pairing each fork with a knife. "I should've-"

"No. I should have, mija. He's my husband."

Their eyes meet as Mrs. Lopez pauses in the doorway and there's a table between them but suddenly Santana feels so close to her mother, like she knows; like she finally understands. They don't break the gaze until the timer on the oven goes off and even then, Mrs. Lopez hesitates a moment before giving a slight wave towards the kitchen and shaking her head.

Santana's not sure what draws her back towards her mother but she finds herself nearly stumbling into the older woman who greets the roast with yellow oven mitts.

"Mami, do you think… Can boys wear dresses?" she asks. Her voice falters and she feels young again, like she could fist her mother's skirt and find all the answers to the Big Questions to later tell Brittany under the slides.

Her mother sets the roast on the stove and carefully removes the oven mitts before turning to face Santana with reluctance in her eyes.

"Your father wasn't always like this, Santana. When I fell in love… He's a good man; you know that, right? You know he loves you," she says, and her fingers find their way to her rosary, pressing silence into the dark beads.

"I know," Santana says quickly.

Mrs. Lopez nods slowly and traces the edge of the cross with a worn-down fingernail. "He thinks the world of his kids; he'd do anything for you."

Santana tugs her bottom lip between her teeth and drops her gaze.

"He just wants you to do well," Mrs. Lopez explains, and her voice trails off, and she's silent for awhile, cradling the cross in her weathered hands. When she speaks again, it's to a vacant spot between the two of them. "I think it matters less what you wear if you do so with good intentions."

"Desi has good intentions," Santana replies, to the same vacant spot.

Mrs. Lopez picks up her oven mitts again and bursts to life with a small spin towards the stove. "Jesus didn't wear pants, mija. And look at all the good he did."

/

Something hard and small hits her window late that night. She hugs her arms over her bare stomach as she stumbles over to see what's going on – Brittany stands in her yard wearing a halo of moonlight.

A red glow tickles the glass as Santana slides the window open – the reflection of her clock – and she focuses on the backwards numbers until all she can see is Brittany.

"It's after three," she calls down in a soft voice.

Brittany's mouth catches somewhere between a smile and a frown. "Come for a walk?"

That voice is her favorite velvety song tucked away in the folds of her timeline and the moment it graces her ears again, all she wants to do is listen to it for hours; listen to it smooth out the wrinkles in every painful word until all is right in the world.

Some part of her whispers that she should go back to bed; deal with this in the morning.

Brittany waits as she pulls on an old nightdress and joins her on the front lawn.

/

They dip in and out of suburban shadows; weave across the empty streets. Each time Brittany slips into the reaching glow of a streetlight Santana finds another thing she hadn't noticed before: new freckles mark constellations on Brittany's skin; streaks of sunshine or time dance their way through Brittany's hair; her eyes are a darker shade of blue.

When she catches Santana staring, her face breaks out in a smile and Santana can't help but think her eyes are the same blue of the sky moments before the sun comes up, when the night still holds power over the town.

"You look nice," Brittany tells her, sidling up to the curb. She's wearing slippers, grey owl slippers, and her pyjama pants have Christmas ducks all over them, but she's still so beautiful.

Santana's cheeks heat up and her heart stirs. "Thanks, Britt. You look great. You always look great."

They come to an intersection and Brittany stands directly under the traffic lights, looking up at the glowing red like it's the sun and she's spent years trapped in darkness. Her arms dangle at her sides and Santana's heart wants nothing more than to wrap Brittany in a hug; to press up against her back and envelop her in warmth – but things are different now, between them.

She hangs back a few feet and lets Brittany watch the lights change from red to green.

Go.

Santana stays rooted to the spot.

"I thought Scotland would have a lot more bagpipes," Brittany muses, still absorbed in the constant glow of green-to-yellow. "And I thought the music would be happy. Mostly it made me think of funerals."

"I'm sorry," Santana offers in a timid voice.

Brittany brings her hands up to her chest and clasps them together, almost like she's praying. "They played bagpipes at your Abuelo's funeral, remember? You covered your ears."

We hid in the cloakroom, Santana wants to say. You kissed the tears off my cheeks and held me until I could speak again. You told me if you ever had to sit through my funeral, it would kill you.

"I remember, B."

Brittany starts walking again, taking off with such speed Santana has to jog to catch up. She half expects her breath to puff out in wispy clouds with the chill Brittany leaves in her wake.

"I don't want to love you anymore," Brittany says with that painful hint of tears. "I can't do it, Santana. Do you know how hard it is, needing someone who refuses to be there?"

"I'm here," Santana murmurs, eyes stinging.

Behind them, the light switches to red.

Brittany veers over to the side of the road and walks with one foot on the curb; up-down-up. Her arms lift out at the sides, keeping her balance, like a tightrope walker. Santana wants to be the safety net. She needs to soften the fall.

"I just want to hold your hand," Brittany admits with a sniffle, and when she steps down off the curb, Santana doesn't hesitate; she grabs Brittany's hand and holds on for dear life.

"Please don't stop loving me," she begs.

Brittany clutches tightly to Santana's trembling hand. "I've tried. I don't think I can."

"Can you wait for me?"

Another silence slips over the two of them, as they walk along hand-in-hand; this one suffocating and thick with coils of fear. Santana watches her feet. Brittany minds their tangled fingers.

"How long?"

Up ahead, a squirrel darts out into the middle of the road and stops completely, watching them. His arms pull up to his chest almost protectively and his tail twitches once, twice, and then he's dashing to the other side of the street where a tree waits for him.

As he disappears in the shadowed branches, Santana finds her voice.

"Remember when we were kids and you were scared of the noise the toilet makes, when you flush it? And you'd cover your ears while I flushed it for you, and sometimes you'd run out of the room, and… When we were eight you thought there was something evil in your closet and before you went to sleep, you'd make me check every corner so you could be safe… And when you turned eleven and your sister got sick, and all you wanted to do was stay at the hospital with her but you couldn't…"

"So you snuck out every night to hold me until the sun came up," Brittany finishes. "Even though if your dad found out, he would've been furious. I remember."

"I just need time," Santana says softly, glancing over at Brittany.

"I know."

Santana takes a deep breath and drops her gaze back to the asphalt. "I need time to be okay with no longer being a part of my family, after I tell them."

"Santana…"

"They won't love me once they know," she mumbles. "But you will. And that's- it's enough."

Brittany releases Santana's hand and the skin where they'd been touching is abruptly left cold. "What if I'm not enough, Santana?"

A breeze picks up and sends whispers through the trees. As the rustling dies down and the street quiets, Brittany hides herself in the shadows; ducks her head and submerges herself completely under the cloak of darkness.

Santana looks up to find she's stopped under a flickering streetlight.

She doesn't have an answer. Brittany knows.

The streetlight dims out and suddenly they're both caught in the dark.

Chapter Text

Santana's family has been going to the same church every Sunday since she was a tiny little thing in miniscule Mary Janes and a frilly red dress. She's spent every Sunday losing her swirling thoughts in the reds and blues and yellows of the massive stained glass windows. Every single Sunday since before she could even walk without clutching her father's finger, she's found herself in the same row next to the Virgin Mary holding infant Jesus; so proud and docile on the painted glass.

This Sunday is no different – Santana smoothes down the skirt of her simple black dress as she slides into her usual seat at the end of the pew. She used to have Desi glued to her side, back when he was too young to not wiggle around; now Abuela sits next to her and she holds her grandmother's hand so the woman doesn't flee.

It's what she tells herself, anyway. Sometimes she holds on so she herself doesn't slip between the words of the most-read passage in her Bible.

Leviticus 18:22 – she has the page open in the Bible her mother gave her for her 8th birthday, and she knows she's not supposed to be reading right now; knows she should pay attention, but the words swim before her eyes and yank on her heart while the service continues.

"As we prepare to celebrate the mystery of Christ's love, let us acknowledge our failures and ask the Lord for pardon and strength."

Her father sends a poignant look to Desi, who misses it, being more focused on watching his feet swing in front of him, but Santana catches the full meaning as she closes her Bible and sets it on the bench beside her.

Abuela gives Santana's hand a firm squeeze.

The silence lifts and the crowd begins speaking; Santana joins a beat after the rest and lets her gaze drift to Mary's kind eyes while reciting words she sometimes finds herself whispering at night as she tries so desperately to fall asleep.

I confess to you almighty God,
and to you, brothers and sisters,
that I have sinned through my own fault,
in my thoughts and in my words,
and in what I have done,
and in what I have failed to do;
and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin,
all the angels and the saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord, our God.

"May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive our sins, and bring us to everlasting life."

"Amen," Santana says with everyone else.

Abuela waits a second longer; looks Santana in the eye. "Amen."

/

In the pancake house, piled on top of each other in the small booth, Santana sits with her elbows tucked to her sides and holds her breath each time her father's gaze passes across her side of the table.

He hasn't said a word to her since coming home from the hotel the other morning. She waits in fear.

As usual, she orders a dish with copious amounts of fruit and little else to avoid the guilt that comes with consuming anything that isn't on the Sue Sylvester List of Approved Foods. She's off the Cheerios, sure, but some habits are harder to break than bread with a family whose love comes with conditions.

There's a dotted line she signed, somewhere; there's fine print that outlines exactly who she's supposed to be if she wants to be a part of this family.

Each day brings her closer to the end of her contract.

And she waits.

Desi steals a strawberry from her plate and she lets him, like she does every Sunday, because some things aren't worth fighting for anymore. She's too tired to care about a missing piece of fruit that still wouldn't be able to fill the empty hole inside her.

These days, all her energy goes into staying absolutely still so not even a goosebump or raised hair falls out of line.

Even when Desi kicks her under the table she remains frozen in her spot; too afraid to breathe as her father glances at her once again. His dark eyes used to hold the sort of warmth a child seeks out after a nightmare – now, as his daughter daren't even shiver lest she be reprimanded, his eyes hold only shadows.

/

Sunday is her day for repose; her day of rest. She tells this to herself at each week's end and yet she still finds herself burrowed under blankets in her room, holding her breath. When she was younger it was easier to kick off her dress shoes and submerge herself in a game of Barbies or house or whatever it was that Brittany wanted to play that day.

Now, with Brittany so far from her, with her memories so smudged, she finds it difficult to even contemplate opening her laptop to play another mindless round of Solitaire.

She blindly sticks her hand out a hole in her blanket burrito and grabs for her phone; Quinn's number is dialed in an instant and she finds the vaguest hint of comfort in the echoing rings.

"Santana?"

Her lungs relax and air flows freely upon hearing Quinn's familiar voice. How strange, she thinks, that the same girl who was once her only competition now brings her such relief.

"My parents went out and I'm stuck watching Desi, and I thought maybe you might want to-"

Quinn makes a slight noise in her throat. "I'm sorry, Santana. I'm at Mike's… He's giving me dance lessons."

"Mike Chang?" Santana's chest twists and she lets her tent of blankets collapse on her face, momentarily stifling her breathing. Of course it's Mike Chang; they don't know any other Mikes, let alone another whose body moves so eloquently.

"Yeah, he- he offered."

"Okay." She's not sure why this leaves a bitter taste in her mouth; all she knows is her heart feels like a tangled iron chain and Mike suddenly looks a lot like Artie, in her mind. "Cool. Tell him I say hi."

"I… I will," Quinn says hesitantly. "If you want, I could ask if he could give you lessons as well; I'm sure he wouldn't mind."

"No, that's fine. I'll just call Brittany or something. Have fun with Mike," Santana says too cheerfully. The words leave a tangy trail as they slide off her tongue. "And don't forget to hydrate."

Quinn's soft chuckle breathes sunshine through the phone. "Thanks, S. I'll talk to you later."

Santana rushes a quiet goodbye before hanging up and rolling over so her face is smooshed against her pillow. On the other end of the line, Quinn listens to the dial tone and wonders why the knowledge that she was Santana's first choice feels so much like a trophy.

She's still smiling as she makes her way back downstairs to Mike's basement studio. He smiles in return, so pleased to finally see her happy.

/

Desi's feet betray him as he goes to get Santana and now he knows that yes, it's possible to fall up the stairs. He laughs to himself as he rubs at a spot on his knee that'll definitely bruise and wonders if he should bother telling Santana; if it might put a smile on her scarily blank face.

The words disappear from his mouth as she opens her bedroom door – he sees the faint remainder of disappointment in her eyes from something he won't ask about and now he really needs to find his voice because she's staring at him like he's grown a second head (or worse, like she's thinking about hugging him).

"Y-your favorite blonde's here," he manages to get out, before slipping away from her suffocating look and heading back downstairs.

His feet betray him once more as he rushes back into the living room and now he knows for sure – his hands are definitely his only friends.

He falls back into place next to Abuela's propped up leg, grabbing the marker to continue drawing on her cast, as Santana, wrapped in a blanket, trudges into the sunlit room.

Brittany jumps up from the other side of Abuela's cast, where she was drawing a cat with a mustache – and there's that streaky disappointment in Santana's dark eyes again; it wakes something in the pit of Desi's stomach.

It's only as Brittany follows Santana back up the stairs (don't think he misses the way their hands cautiously bump together the moment they think they're out of sight) that he realizes why Santana looked so puzzled with Brittany's presence: she was expecting Quinn.

Abuela absentmindedly pats his head and yes, he's given up on wearing that collar, but he presses up into her palm anyway, purring slightly – because he can at least make one person in this house smile.

His abuela meets his eye in a moment of clarity and he's startled to find a knowing look on her face, after such a long stretch of blank gazes.

"That girl's got a mess of a heart," she tells him, switching her focus to the colorful drawings on her cast. "But she's a good kid. She'll figure it out."

She rests her hand flat on top of a drawing of one of those flowers Mami always used to put in her hair and he covers her hand with his own, staring hard at his smooth fingers on top of her wrinkled ones. Time must be heavy, he thinks. Abuela wears so much of it.

"I hope so," he says finally, looking up at Abuela. She gives him a soft nod. "I really hope she'll be okay."

/

Brittany sinks into her usual spot in Santana's chair like it hasn't been over a month since she was last in this cave of a room – she fills the space with her careful smile and deep blue eyes that roam everywhere but the girl sitting across from her, a lump on the unmade bed.

Santana doesn't mean to make a noise. She'd actually been counting the seconds of silence in her own heartbeats but somehow her tongue slipped and a tiny squeak tumbled out and Brittany still isn't looking at her. Santana tightens the blanket around her shoulders.

"When did Abuela move in?" Brittany asks finally, pulling her knees to her chest.

"While you were away. She…" Santana's gaze lands on her dresser, half expecting to see a rogue doily. "Her memory's going. Alzheimer's."

Anyone else would have an apology at the ready; Brittany nods like it's her own diagnosis.

"She still remembers me though," she says quietly.

It's almost painless when Santana says, "You're impossible to forget."

Brittany finally lifts her gaze to meet Santana's and her eyes are full like the moon on a cloudless night, asking if it's okay to light up the dark stretch of sky – Santana gives a subconscious nod and brings a hand to her mouth as her throat suddenly burns with the threat of tears.

"Hey," Brittany says softly, rising from the chair to join Santana on the bed. It's a sacred place and feels so much like the day they broke into the church because Santana needed to show Brittany how happy Mary was, on the colored glass. 'It's okay… You're okay, Santana. You're okay."

Tears spill out onto Brittany's waiting fingertip and the whisper of a touch feels more like a kiss than anything ever has before, the way it burns her skin so perfectly.

Her heart presses its nose up against the bars of her ribcage, trying to get closer to Brittany; she has to pull away before it breaks through her chest completely and even then it still throws itself against her ribs repeatedly like shaking her walls might make it easier to cry in front of the girl who once kissed an entire poem into the tender skin of her inner thigh and then later said that vicious sentence that yanked the rug out from under whatever they were.

"Santana," Brittany calls out in a whisper, leaning in as Santana pulls back.

Without thinking, Santana reaches out to cup Brittany's cheek and the contact singes the skin of her palm like she reached out to caress the sun. She keeps her hand there a heartbeat longer before retreating; inching down into her blankets with only an apology etched across her face.

Brittany nods and finds a spot at the edge of the bed, staring at the floor like the wooden boards pass each other as waves in a raging sea.

It hits Santana all at once, how unfair it is that they can communicate so perfectly without words – she's sure if they had to work at understanding each other, it would be so much easier to extract themselves from the tangled red strings of this… whatever. (The word relationship can't even flit through Santana's thoughts – it's foggy and half smothered by fear every time she tries to draw it forward.)

It's been this way since they first met; since she first pinky promised on their friendship and Brittany didn't let go. They've been caught in a silent conversation since their gazes first found each other across a noisy classroom.

And now Santana has to shut her eyes, because Brittany watches her from the edge of the bed like they aren't two separate people – like Santana's life is Brittany's life and yes, that's how it's been since the beginning of time. But it still doesn't make it any easier to breathe.

A touch on her palm brings her out from her thoughts; she stills her heart and focuses on the feeling of fingertip against lifelines.

Brittany writes an invisible word.

When Santana opens her eyes, she swears she can see the letters glimmering on her skin – hi.

She lifts her gaze to meet Brittany's and whispers, "Hey."

/

They don't leave Santana's bed for hours after that. The August sun climbs higher in the sky until it passes over them completely, and just when Santana thinks they're finally getting that glorious, sticky Lima heat the weatherman's been promising for weeks, clouds blot the sky with a shade of dusk and Brittany's hands on her bare back turn to ice.

(After coaxing Santana out of the blankets, Brittany took to writing notes on the skin of Santana's back – like she did when they were younger, in the dark long after they were supposed to be asleep.)

"I think I left the heat in Scotland," Brittany comments idly, tracing a U and then an L with her fingertip.

Santana shivers slightly under the cool touch, but drops her head to the pillow she's hugging and focuses on the feeling of the now-complete word. Beautiful. "Should have brought that back for me," she murmurs. "As a souvenir."

Brittany's hand jumps away from Santana's back, letting the shirt fall into place. "Oh! I did bring something back for you. Not the heat, but. I got you something."

Curious, Santana lifts her head to watch as Brittany hops off the bed, dropping to the floor to rummage through the bag she brought with her. Long blonde tresses fall in her face and Santana has such an urge to brush them away; press her lips to Brittany's tender neck and curl around her like a child's fingers around a pebble.

"Here," Brittany says almost breathlessly, turning now with something in her hand. Her eyes sparkle with that unabashed joy that tumbles out of her no matter where she goes; a comfort as uncertainty suddenly washes over Santana. "This is for you."

Brittany drops her voice to a whisper and opens her hand, palm up. A tiny replica of a near-crumbling castle sits in Brittany's hand so delicately, like her skin is plush velvet, meant to hold a ring. Santana swallows back a rush of tears and tries to ignore how earnestly Brittany kneels in front of her, waiting for a response.

The castle is beautiful; exactly the kind of tacky trinket Santana won't admit to loving. She knows this is why Brittany got it for her – had they been in the gift shop together, Santana would have paused in front of it, unable to bite back a goofy smile as she fingered the turrets. It's beautiful because it's another reminder that she and Brittany fit; that Brittany will always know what Santana won't say and the two are tied in ways she'll probably never understand.

She misses the exact moment she begins to cry but her cheeks are wet as she reaches out for the little castle and cradles it so carefully in a gentle hand.

Brittany knows her place right now and hangs back, watching Santana's eyes take in each miniature painted stone, smiling with such loving it actually starts to hurt. She wouldn't trade that ache for anything, though. It's there to remind her how much Santana means to her; how much she needs this girl who's so valiantly pretending a tiny castle didn't just break her into pieces.

"It's perfect, Britt," Santana says through her tears, and her face breaks into a smile. "I love it."

It's all Brittany needs to hear before she launches herself at Santana, hugging her so tightly she forgets where she ends and Santana begins.

Santana pretends not to notice when her phone lights up with a new text from Quinn.

/

When the sun comes up again, bringing with it a new day, Santana lasts all of three minutes before she twists over in her sheets to find the other half of her bed empty.

Which- duh.

Brittany left as soon as the streetlights came on, saying she promised her sister they'd get in a movie before bedtime, so Santana shouldn't be clutching her fists to her bare chest in an attempt to stifle her disappointment. She fell asleep alone. Logic tells her it's only right that she woke up alone as well.

But her body's like memory foam – even in her dreams the imprint of Brittany's curves remained in her arms, etched in her skin; feeling so much like home after a month of that monstrous bed feeling too empty.

It shouldn't be like this, but an evening of Brittany stretched out on the blankets, limbs everywhere, somehow caused Santana to forget it was ever different.

Brittany's absence is a suffocating hangover in the climbing August heat.

Wait – that's new.

She glances out her window like that might actually tell her the temperature, then brings up the weather on her phone (ignoring the missed call and several unread texts) to see the summer might actually have arrived.

She should've guessed from her nightshirt hanging off a lampshade; even in sleep she's quick to wriggle out of her clothes when the heat becomes too much.

Hazy, she allows herself a few more minutes of sitting in bed, sheets pooling at her waist, to mull things over. Cicadas hum outside for the first time since June and she lets her thoughts hum with them; too bleary-minded to make an attempt at focusing.

It's only as her little brother bursts through the doorway that she jumps to life, scrambling to cover herself with her sheets.

"I saw nothing I swear!" Desi cries out, shielding his eyes with his arm.

The way he steps backwards, she's sure he saw nipple but she's not awake enough to give a shit. The kid was breastfed; boobs won't kill him.

(Unless he turns out to be gay as well – and aside from their parents having to think of some tragic boating accident to explain why they no longer have any children, the idea gives her a small chuckle. The laughter stops when she realizes she's just flashed her kid brother and is now cackling to herself.)

"Get out, worm," she tosses out halfheartedly, tightening her crossed arms over the sheet.

He visibly shudders and speaks directly to the floor. "Mami told me to get you up so you don't waste the day being a lazy bum in your princess bed."

"It's ten," she informs him.

"You're ten," he retorts in a greasy voice, immediately laughing at himself. "I used that comeback on Mami when she said the counter was dirty and she smacked me with a wet dishrag."

Santana can't help but laugh with him, the mental image already filing itself in her vault of things to bring back when she's hiding in her closet, close to tears.

"But anyway, you should get up. She's taking the day off work to pick up around the house so unless you want to spend the day scrubbing toilets, you should probably find plans." He shifts in the doorway and gives her a strange look. "If you can't find anyone to hang out with, I'm going over to Jake's dad's house to swim and he really wouldn't mind if you came with me…"

The last thing she wants to do is parade around in a bikini in front of prepubescent boys. She gets enough of that with Puck.

Still, the sentiment's appreciated.

Until- "Why wouldn't I be able to find anyone?" she demands, suddenly realizing what he meant with that.

"W-well, normally you'd hang out with Quinn, but she-" He swallows and tries again. "I just haven't seen her around lately and then Brittany was over and I thought…"

"Thought what?"

"Did you break her heart?" His voice comes out all small and tentative, like the line he just crossed might grow teeth and rip him apart, but he juts out his chin to try and convince himself he's stronger than whatever's going to happen next.

She can't attack him after he just reminded her that he's the only person on this entire planet that cares enough to pay attention.

"I mean, you kissed her, and then…" He speaks even softer now, his hands coming up to curl over his heart. "Is she okay?"

Santana thinks back to the hollow echo in Quinn's eyes as they said goodbye, standing like brackets on Quinn's front step, and has to clear her throat to speak through the expanding worry.

"I haven't- oh God." She shakes her head and blinks back the sort of tears that only grace her when she's in trouble, like the first time she ever landed in the principal's office for defending Brittany's honor. "Des, I kissed her. Oh Jesus. Oh my God."

He stares at her with the most incredulous expression on his wise little face.

"Did you kiss Brittany?" he asks patiently, as if she's a child with a bruised knee.

"No. I mean, I wanted to, but. She doesn't want- I don't know why I'm explaining this to you. You don't care," she bites out, running a finger under her eyes to rid the soft skin of tears.

"Okay," he says with a simple shrug. "If you want."

"But Quinn's not an option," she continues quietly, unable to meet his gaze. "Neither one's an option because I can't be with a girl because I won't have a father if I'm one of them."

He considers this carefully; his body hangs against the doorframe so softly he reminds her of butter on the kitchen table, dish perfectly aligned with the grain of the wood. She can almost see the thoughts writing themselves out inside his mind and she wonders if the letters ever come out in his handwriting, like hers do most of the time (or like someone else's, like how sometimes when she thinks it's like Brittany's writing the thoughts inside her skull).

"But you'll still have a brother," he says finally. "And a mother. And a grandmother. And a girlfriend, Santana. And you know what? That's an awful lot of good things. And right now it's just an awful lot ofshit."

She can't even bring herself to chastise him for the foul language when the rest of that was so… right.

"But what if I'm not ready?" she murmurs, hating how tired and small she sounds.

He shrugs his bony shoulders again. "You weren't ready to jump off the high diving board at the community pool but you did that and didn't drown."

"Puck pushed me," she informs him.

"I just think that even if Papi doesn't speak to you ever again because he's stupid, it's better than youbeing stupid and not fixing things with your blondes. And you know, if you don't want Quinn, you should tell her that in a few years, I'm gonna be super tall and strong and full of the Lopez charm so I'd definitely be worth the wait."

Desi grins at her and she can't help but grin right back.

"You really think Mami will still love me?" she asks instead of commenting on his high hopes, because she was once a kid with a crush and she wants him to hold onto that feeling as long as possible.

"I think you being a lesbian is a gazillion times better than you puking all down the inside of her coat when you were six and she still loved you after that, so." His eyes fill with warmth and reassurance as he pushes off of the doorframe and straightens up, giving her a nod.

She presses her lips together and curls her fingers around the edge of the sheet. "I'm scared, Des."

"I know." He smiles sadly. "But you're brave; you're gonna be okay."

Her heart clenches and she suddenly sees the two of them as adults, with families of their own, both keeping in touch with crude emails and those stupid Hallmark cards he always forces her to read at the store. She hopes that one day she'll be able to support him the way he's done for her, at eleven for Christ's sake; hopes one day she'll find the words (or card) to tell him how he's saving her life, day after day.

She's going to fix things with- her blondes. Yeah; she likes that. She's going to fix things with her blondes.

/

Quinn isn't expecting anyone to call this early in the day (or at all; she'd only slipped her phone in her pocket so she could keep track of the time). She's on her way to Mike's, again, eyes on the heat rising from the sidewalk when her phone starts to vibrate.

It actually startles her. And then she thinks how sad this is, that she's grown so used to no one contacting her.

(Even with Mike she's the one that calls him, and yes, that's probably because she keeps everyone so far at bay that they're afraid to approach her, but part of her worries it's because he secretly dreads spending time with her and only does this because he's a Nice Guy.)

She wrestles her phone from the tight pocket of her denim shorts to see it's Santana calling; then hates how unsure she sounds when she answers.

"Sorry if I disturbed you or some shit," Santana greets her, also sounding just as unsure.

Quinn tenses as a dog-walker and the largest husky she's ever seen pass her. "You didn't… I'm just- on my way to Mike's."

His name on her tongue sounds like an old friend or a beau and she nearly laughs at the thought; that someone like her would actually have a guy like him in her life.

"I wasn't aware this was a thing."

"Santana." (And now she's trying to decipher how this name sounds; if it's as complicated as she feels or just rests there as a simple friend.)

"Isn't he still dating Tina? Or did she ditch him for some other vampire-loving Asian?"

Quinn rolls her eyes. "It's just dance lessons. He's doing me a favor."

"Oh? And are you doing him a favor by providing some eye-candy while he mopes over his obviously failing relationship?" Santana practically barks through the phone and Quinn physically reels back at the venomous words.

"Why does this bother you so much? Can't I have friends?"

The question lingers between them in an uneasy space, leaving Quinn to wonder when the two of them became a black hole – stuck with only each other because everything else gets pulled right through them.

"Sorry. I'm just a little on edge…" Santana's voice softens slightly. "My brother walked in on me naked this morning and the air-conditioner broke some time last night. And of course, today had to be the day Lima breaks record for the hottest day of the year."

"Of course," Quinn echoes, still mildly wounded from Santana's earlier accusations.

"So is this dance shit an all-day thing or do you want to like, I don't know, hang out?"

And suddenly the uncertainty is back in Santana's voice, soaking through every word and muffling what was left of Santana's forced confidence. Quinn doesn't want to hear her like this.

"It's not, but Tina's coming over after and they invited me to watch a movie with them, so…" So I thought I should accept because no one else ever invites me out goes unspoken, but they both hear it and breathe softly through the phone for a beat.

"Sure. Right, yeah. Well whenever you're free, let me know," Santana rushes.

"Okay." Quinn hesitates, not really wanting to say what she does next. "I- I called you the other day, and texted, and you never…"

"Oh, I couldn't find my phone."

"But you found it now?" Quinn squeezes her eyes shut as a particularly harsh glint of sun from a car window slashes across her face.

"Um," Santana wavers. "Yeah."

"Oh."

"Yeah," Santana repeats again, almost whispering. "Brittany was over."

Quinn can't listen to this. She wishes she could shut off her ears as well; squeeze them shut like her eyes and render herself completely cut off from the outside world. But that would leave her with her thoughts, and. Well.

"Please don't," she breathes.

Santana lets it drop. "Stop by next time you're free. Desi really misses you. I think he has a bit of a crush on you…"

"Cute," Quinn replies, a smile making its way across her face. "Tell him next time I'm over, I'll bring cookies. One of my mom's church friends brought some by and neither of us is really allowed to eat junk food, so. Might as well give them to someone who can enjoy them."

Santana starts to say something but cuts herself off and tries again. "I'll let him know."

It's only long after Quinn hangs up and is about to knock on Mike's front door that she realizes what Santana had started to say – enjoy them yourself. She can't explain the tears in her eyes when Mike opens the door.

He doesn't ask but gives her a cautious hug anyway.

/

By lunch time, the temperature has already beaten last year's record high – Santana takes to lying on the kitchen floor with the fridge open to try and find some relief. Her mother's passed through to yell at her three times already, reminding her how much money she's wasting with the fridge door open like that, but there's no way in Hell anyone can survive this heat with a broken air-conditioner.

She almost regrets not taking Desi up on his offer to join him at his friend's place.

(Almost because her makeup may already have dripped onto the kitchen tiles, but it's still better lying in a pool of her own sweat than having to deal with prepubescent boners barely hidden by swim trunks.)

"Honestly, Santana; if you refuse to get off that floor I'll force you to mop it while you're down there," Mrs. Lopez says with a scowl, emptying her dustpan into the trash.

Santana scraps together the last of her energy to return her mother's scowl. "I'm dying," she says flatly.

"Doesn't Brittany have a hot tub?"

She does.

They used to spend all summer in it; sipping mocktails and feeling each other up under the water. (Santana's cheeks still heat up when she thinks about the first time they discovered the jets.)

It's not a good idea. She'd be better off digging a hole in the backyard and sticking the hose in it, like she once tried to do as a child, because a mud bath won't taunt her in a skimpy bikini. But she can't explain this to her mother and she's pretty sure there's a permanent indent from the tiles in her back so she fishes her phone out of her shorts pocket and dials.

/

Brittany's dad answers the door. Santana actually reels back a little – so used to the girls racing each other to greet whoever stands on the front porch. He senses her surprise and gives her that Pierce grin, stepping aside so she can come in to the air-conditioned heaven.

"Tracy took Ash to the mall," he explains as she breathes in the cool air.

"I thought Ash hated shopping." Santana pauses in removing her shoes and glances up in slight confusion at the man whose blue eyes are lit up like a Christmas tree.

"She did," he says, "Until we stopped taking her to the girly half of the store."

Santana frowns, now thoroughly mystified.

"My baby girl's getting her first pair of boxers," he says proudly, leaning back against the wall. "It's a big day."

It hits her the same sudden way it usually does – the longing for her dad to be like this man. She used to pretend that she and Brittany shared a dad, back when they were little enough to get kissed goodnight, and would always echo Brittany's Goodnight Daddy after he pressed his lips to their foreheads and tucked them in.

"That's great," she finally says, smiling.

He nods and his expression shifts into something more serious. "I know it's not the Lima ideal, but you have to love your kids for exactly who they are or else they'll resent you for who you are. If my little girl wants to wear boy clothes, I'll pay for the shopping trip. If one day she decides she's happier as Ashton, I'll pay for the operation." He shrugs. "As a parent, all you can do is listen to what they need and do your best to provide."

Santana's eyes sting and she has to look down, at her bare feet on the stone tiles, so she doesn't burst into tears right here in the foyer.

Mr. Pierce touches her arm. "You know I consider you my honorary daughter, right? I love you exactly as you are as well."

He pulls her into a tight hug and she lets herself relax in his arms, realizing how much she missed this whole family while they were away. She feels at home. Her hair is still plastered to her forehead from the walk over, but not one bit of her feels that tugging anxiety she gets whenever she's around her own father. She can breathe.

"Britt's out back with Kurt," he says as he releases her. "They made some sort of fancy popsicles earlier so you'd better get out there before they eat them all."

She thanks him quietly and weaves her way through the house that knows her so well, unable to shake the raw emotion from her face before stepping outside. Oh well. Kurt will have to deal with her looking like a human for one afternoon.

/

As it goes, Kurt's already distraught from what the humidity's done to his hair and barely notices when Santana strips down to her red bikini and joins them in the hot tub. Brittany licks her lips, but Santana tries to pretend it's because of the lime green popsicle in her hand.

"It's mocha kiwi," Brittany informs her, and Kurt smiles like a proud father. "Kurt's recipe."

He nods and sends the floating cooler over to Santana's half of the hot tub. "I've been trying out new chilled treats for the summer months. As the weather hasn't exactly been cooperating, I thought I'd take this opportunity to expand my repertoire. But just between you and me, I'd rather go back to making dessert cakes than have to deal with… this." He motions to his slightly voluminous hair.

Brittany smiles at the both of them. "You should try a popsicle, Santana," she says as she pokes the cooler. "They're really good."

Santana can't bite back the grin on her face as she selects a dark purple popsicle from the tray and Brittany gives her a little dance of encouragement.

"Ah," Kurt says fondly. "Blueberry cheesecake."

She's about to question what the fuck he put in these iced treats when she tastes it and oh sweet Jesus, it's definitely blueberry cheesecake. "You angel," she blurts out through a mouthful of heaven.

"Appropriate, coming from the devil herself. I wasn't going to comment on your choice of red swimwear, but-" Kurt stops short as Brittany frowns at him.

Santana rolls her eyes. "I was talking to the popsicle."

"Of course you were," he replies.

"I think Santana looks really good in red," Brittany cuts in, and licks her lips again – this time Santana knows it's not because of the popsicle.

Her cheeks burn up and she sticks her own blueberry cheesecake delight in her mouth to try and cool down.

Kurt glances between the two of them. "Okay, whatever's going on here? I'd rather not be caught in the middle but seeing as I am, I request that nothing happens while my designer swim trunks must share the tub with you girls."

Santana stares at the cooler in the center of the hot tub and tries to work out if he means what she thinks he means. She's sure he does – he's not as oblivious as his tree trunk of a step-brother, but she's still trying to hold onto that last bit of hope that Brittany's wandering eyes are only noticeable to the one whose body can feel their path burned into the skin.

She narrows her eyes at him nonetheless and he reels back slightly.

"Nothing's going on here," she tries, keeping her face in a neutral stony expression.

"My bad," he says quietly. "But I still request that this nothing doesn't take place while I'm in this hot basin of an STI breeding ground, because as much as I love both you girls, and I do, I don't want my first time to carry the scars of a non-sexually transmitted infection."

"Oh hold up. Are you calling me dirty?"

Kurt shrinks down in the water. "Not you… Puck, maybe. The boy eats food off the floor. There's no telling what he might do after dark."

"And you don't think I might've maybe thought about this at some point in my life, Kurt? My dad's adoctor. If there was something not right with my lady bits, Kurt, I can guarantee you it'd be taken care of the second it happened. So please – shut your girly mouth before I ram the rest of your freaky little angel desserts down your throat. And the next time you want to make assumptions about someone's sex life,don't."

"I- I'm sorry," he manages to get out, face caught between fear and disbelief. "I truly wasn't trying to say anything with that, I just – Brittany said it was a hot tub, and all I could think about was that video Miss Pillsbury made us watch at the end of the year assembly, and I…"

"It's okay," Brittany says, patting him on the arm.

Santana scrunches up her nose.

"I know you're not dirty," he finishes earnestly. "I'm just a little paranoid when it comes to stuff like this. My dad had a talk with me-"

"Oh honey; say no more." Santana waves the last of her popsicle and shakes her head.

Allowing himself to rise up from the water, no longer smothered in fear, Kurt gives Santana a searching look. "You know, he could talk to you, if you-"

"I'd really rather not hear about the birds and the bees from your old man. You know, I'm pretty sure I know more than there is in those little pamphlets they have at the pharmacy. Plus, my information wasn't published in seventy-three." Santana finishes with a sarcastic smile.

Brittany reaches for another popsicle – pink this time – and glances over at Kurt.

"I didn't mean that sort of talk," he says quietly.

Santana suddenly catches on to what's happening and stiffens in her seat, eyebrows twisting into a scowl. "I'm sorry. What kind of talk did you have in mind, lady fingers?"

He and Brittany exchange a quick look before he turns back to Santana, addressing her with the patience of a schoolteacher. She could punch his delicate little face.

"Britt thought that it might help you, talking to my dad; seeing as he's already had to deal with something like this before. No one else has to know, but sometimes it's easier to talk to someone who's not really involved with it." He starts to reach out to her but thinks better of it and lets his hand fall underwater.

Santana turns to Brittany; stomach churning with betrayal. "You told him? What part of I can't have anyone knowing didn't you get, B? What if this got back to my family? My dad?"

"I'm sorry," Brittany starts. "I didn't-"

"She didn't tell me," Kurt cuts in. This time he does reach out to Santana and she has no choice but to let him take her hand. "I've known since I was on the Cheerios. Before that, even. But we weren't really friends, nor did I have a personal investment in your wellbeing, so I left it alone and hoped you'd find your way."

"So what changed?" she asks, immediately cursing her voice for letting the uncertainty slip through.

He looks to Brittany. "Someone I care about very much told me you needed guidance. I'm not one to meddle in someone else's life – unless it involves makeovers – but I want you girls to be happy, and clearly… well." He shrugs. "I'm sorry if you feel attacked; that wasn't my intention." His face softens and he drops his voice. "It's just us here, Santana. You can let the walls down; be yourself. You don't need to worry about anyone judging you or breaking your trust. It's okay."

She blames the lump in her throat on the heavy chlorine in the hot tub, but nods at Kurt with glassy eyes and gives his hand a tiny squeeze.

"I didn't know who else to turn to," Brittany says in a quiet voice. "I just want you to be proud of who you are, San. Because you're the most awesome girl I've ever known."

Santana swallows back the threat of tears and scoots a little closer to Brittany, leaning into her side.

"Thanks," she murmurs. "Ah- both of you. I mean, Kurt, I'll kill you if you tell a soul, but I guess… I appreciate this. No one- no one ever really takes the time to-"

"You don't have to do this," Kurt says with a tiny smile.

She breathes a sigh of relief. "Thank God."

Brittany chuckles.

"I'll leave you my dad's number, before I go," Kurt tells her. "And you don't have to use it, ever, but just know that he's willing to talk to you whenever you need it. Even if you just want to talk cars. But I'm warning you – once you get him started, there's no stopping."

Santana smirks and laughs slightly, not doubting this. "Good thing I know my way around a car then."

Kurt sighs. "Of course you do."

Brittany gives Kurt a silent thank-you before tangling her fingers with Santana's and then gets herself another popsicle.

"Cherry truffle," she says to Santana, offering her the first lick.

It's Brittany's way of apologizing and telling her it'll be okay all at once and Santana gives her a quick nod to let her know she's got it before trying out this new flavor.

"Tongue orgasms," she says with a groan, resting her cheek against Brittany's. "Kurt, I don't know how you do it."

He waves his hand with a dramatic flair. "Magic."

Brittany whispers, "Google."

/

Santana doesn't get home until long after the sun goes down, taking with it the heavy heat. They'd moved inside to de-prune their fingers and make some more of those popsicles, because you truly can't have enough of something that orgasmic, and soon after they'd set them in the freezer, Brittany's little sister returned, wanting to show them her new clothes.

The entire fashion show, in which Ash strutted around the kitchen in her new baggy jeans and Chucks, Santana let her fingers remain tangled with Brittany's, not even flinching when Mrs. Pierce smiled at them. It felt… good. It was starting to feel natural.

She even took Brittany in her arms when Kurt brought out the hair products, to show Ash how to get that messy-yet-controlled 'do.

The whole thing felt surreal. Walking home, she keeps the taste on her tongue, rolling it over in her mouth to commit to memory every angle. Sticking her key in the lock, she gives herself a moment to remember exactly how it felt to dance with Brittany in the kitchen while Kurt helped Mrs. Pierce make dinner.

She's still smiling when she kicks off her shoes.

The smile slips off her face when she sees her father sitting in the living room, in his armchair, staring at her with his bone-chilling eyes. He says nothing; just watches her as she makes her way down the hall and into the kitchen to grab a bottle of water. She feels his gaze on her back as she walks upstairs and can only shake it off when she's locked in her bedroom, sitting in the mouth of her closet.

It's late. He's not even supposed to be home on a Monday night, let alone awake and sitting in the dimly-lit room like a statue on a throne.

She paces her breathing and shuts her eyes to try and shake the panic from her chest.

This is her father. He's not supposed to make her feel this way. But that's just it – this is her father; the man who cut all ties with his own brother after he left the church. She fears him more than she fears God; not because her father will send her to Hell, but because he could make her life worse than any eternal damnation (and probably will when he finds out).

It takes her nearly half an hour to calm down. Once her hands stop shaking, she takes her phone out of her bag, where it sat all day, to send Brittany a goodnight text.

1 New Voicemail greets her.

It's from Quinn. The panic returns and her heart speeds up, but she dials her voicemail nonetheless because even if she just spent the day learning what her life could be like if she disappears from her father's life, this is still reality and in it Quinn is the only person who could possibly understand what she'd be giving up.

Quinn's voice is soft and breathless on the recording. "I was walking home from Mike's and thinking about- well, everything… And I was thinking about glee club, and how many times we had to sit through people serenading each other, and."

There's a pause, in which Quinn catches her breath and lets it all out in a whisper.

"And I realized no one's ever sung to you. And I realized how much you deserve a song. So. Well. Here you go."

Santana sits motionless in her closet, eyes spilling over with tears, as Quinn's cautious, smoke-like voice fills the air.

"Bad day, looking for a way, home; looking for the great escape.
Gets in his car and drives away – far from all the things that we are.

"Puts on a smile and breathes it in and breathes it out; he says bye-bye – bye to all of the noise.
Oh he says bye-bye – bye to all of the noise.

"Hey child, things are looking down. That's okay; you don't need to win anyways.
Don't be afraid, just eat up all the grey – and it will fade all away.
Don't let yourself fall down…"

Quinn ends the song with a rushed, "Don't think too much about this, okay?" And suddenly Santana's left plunged into the darkness of her small closet, cheeks stained with tears; wondering how the hell she's supposed to breathe when her heart's just squeezed itself through her ribs to settle nicely in her open palms.

She tries not to think too much about it when she hits save on her phone and tells herself it means nothing when she replays the message three more times before finally crawling into bed, cradling her heart between her hands so it doesn't get lost in the endless sea of cotton sheets.

She tries so hard to just let it be, but as she drifts off, her left hand burns with Brittany's touch and her right hand trembles with the echo of Quinn's.

Chapter Text

Santana can sense change in the feverish heat that takes over the town – it prickles her skin in the evening; alerts the hairs on the back of her neck in the morning. At night, the stars hang low and hazy, whispering in a frequency she can't quite hear.

Something perches on a precipice – she holds her breath.

And it isn't just her that seems to notice. Abuela hugs her abdomen like she has something to protect; Desi sets his video games to low volume, keeping an ear out for an unknown; her parents clock in and clock out, rotating their schedules so that one or the other is always around just in case.

She wonders if they talked about it or if it just happened, like the doily that shows up unannounced, pressed between the pages of her Bible – almost forgotten.

It's early morning when she finds it, set out on her side table like someone wanted it to be the first thing she saw upon waking, and she sucks in her cheeks at the sight. She has to; the pristine piece of white fabric glows like an omen in the mottled window light and almost forces her backwards in the tangle of dark sheets.

"Get out," she hisses with uncertainty, eyes fixed on her tainted leather book.

The doily shivers slightly as it's met with her exhale of air. She cringes.

It doesn't burn like she expects it to when she reaches out for the Bible and as her fingers break it open to the marked page, avoiding contact with the doily, she finds the book's cool to the touch.

Figures.

And then she notices a quiet pencil marked passage that hadn't been touched before. Her chest stills.

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

She cloaks herself in a sheet, clutching the book to her chest, and pads down the hall to Abuela's room. The lock rests near the baseboard; no longer needed with the woman slowed down by that Sharpie-covered cast.

When Santana enters, Abuela lifts her eyes from the small television set on the dresser and pats the empty half of her bed. The mattress dips as Santana joins her.

"You…" Santana holds out the Bible, catching her bottom lip between her teeth.

Abuela's eyes light up but she says nothing; only turns her attention back to the TV where contestants slap their game-show buttons on mute and occasionally fuzz up as a cloud passes by outside.

They sit in silence as someone on screen wins a prize and confetti rains down. It doesn't make sense (not the game show; they're all the same, even in Spanish) – she doesn't understand why. But then Abuela reaches over with cold hands; gives her bare leg a squeeze; looks at her like she actually knows who she's sitting with.

And for the first time, Santana feels like she's allowed to exist in her own body.

Abuela tugs the Bible out of Santana's grip and stares hard at the leather cover, tracing her thumb over the gold letters. When she glances up at Santana, her face is soft. "El amor cubre multitud de pecados. You're not lost."

Santana doesn't realize she's crying until Abuela wipes the tears away with a soft thumb.

/

Later in the morning Santana finds herself peering over a basket of dirty laundry, trying not to fall down the basement stairs, all because she made one passing comment about Desi's socks being left in a ball on the bathroom floor.

"If you don't like how I run my house," her mother said as she gathered her things to leave for work, "Then by all means feel free to take care of it yourself."

Normally Santana would weasel her way out of any kind of chore, choosing instead to lounge on her bed with her laptop on her stomach – but the look Abuela gave her this morning is still burned into her vision, appearing whenever she happens to glance at a blank wall, and she wants to be better.

She wants to be the kind of person who deserves their grandmother's love and acceptance.

So she surprises her mother (and Desi, as she snatches the bulk of his growing collection of Superman boxers off his floor) and offers to run a few loads of laundry, landing herself with a towering pile of dirty clothes in the plastic basket and a staircase that's definitely seen better days.

She makes it to the second last stair before losing her footing and toppling directly into her father.

"Dio, I'm so sorry, Papi; I didn't mean-"

He steadies her and takes a step back, fixing the sleeves of his dark button-down shirt. "I keep meaning to do something about those stairs," he says. "They're just asking for an accident."

It's only as she calms her wailing heart that she notices the warmth in his eyes and the computer behind him, whose screen flicks through a slideshow of photos. She catches a glimpse of herself eight years ago, with her arms wrapped around little Desi; the two of them covered in sand.

It was taken their last night in Miami, before the endless car ride that saw the beginning stages of Santana's carsickness.

She remembers how her parents woke her up in what seemed like the middle of the night, telling her to get in her bathing suit; Papi carried her through the hotel and out onto the beach, where she didn't let go of his hand until they saw the dolphins.

He sat with her at the edge of the water, writing short messages in the wet sand whenever the ocean pulled back. She drew him hearts. And rainbows.

And the four of them dug an impressive hole in the sand after the dolphins disappeared and it was just them and the faint stars above… They all sat at the edges of the hole, feet dangling in what Santana had called "mud-sand", laughing and laughing until Santana thought their hearts were sure to explode.

"It's good that you're helping your mother with the chores," Papi says to her, drawing her from the memory. "She's been so stressed lately, with your abuela."

Santana shifts the laundry basket in her arms. "We need a maid," she jokes.

"Your mother refuses." He rubs at his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, suddenly losing the gentle smile that was just there.

"Well." She flicks her eyes to the computer screen – it's switched to a photo of infant Desi with a bowl on his head. "I'm doing my best to help out when I can… I can do more if you think it's not enough."

He stares at her for a beat longer than comfortable and finally says, "You're doing enough, Santana. We-"

She desperately wants to slip away to the laundry room so she can set the basket down and escape his painful gaze but he pins her to the spot with his dark eyes and then his whole face switches to something calmer; something docile and almost afraid.

"I'm proud of you," he tells her softly.

Neither speaks, even breathes, for the seconds that follow – Santana's sure he must mean his other daughter, the one he's built up in his head all these years (the one he won't burn alive if he ever finds out the truth about her), and he deflates slightly, as if he's only now realizing that those words actually left his mouth.

"I-" she tries, voice catching. "Why?" His eyebrows draw together in confusion and she quickly corrects, "I mean, thank-you. I… Thank-you, Papi."

He seems too shaken to speak, so when he drops his gaze to the laundry basket she takes it as his way of telling her she should probably go put the laundry on.

She does just that.

The washing machine hums loud enough to drown out any squeaking of his office chair and she sinks to the tiled floor, fingers wrapping around the edge of the basket that sits next to her in the shadow of the hulking washing machine.

Not a single thing comes to mind except: he's going to be so disappointed.

It's only after the washing machine's run through its cycle and she switches the load to the dryer that she chances the walk back through his basement office, doing her best not to disturb him.

A part of her brain recognizes that the computer's still filtering through the slideshow screensaver but most of her attention falls on the journal in his hands, where he presses an HB pencil hard to the paper, no doubt filling the lines with those block letters she used to moon over.

Her footfall creaks the bottom step and he jolts upright, spine suddenly as straight as she's spent years wishing she could be.

"Santana?"

Shit.

"Yes, Papi?" Her heart speeds up the way it does whenever her name slips through his frowning lips and she pauses with her hand on the quaking banister, unable to turn around to face him.

He doesn't turn around either; she hears his lack of movement in the silence of his chair.

"When… Your enhancements… Did they make you happy?" he asks in a voice so small she's barely sure it's actually his.

It takes her a moment but then she hears the question beneath his words – the trembling ball of nerves question that quietly asks her, did I do the right thing?

Now she turns to let her eyes stroke a path down his stiffened back, pausing in the creases of his button-down shirt, and can feel everything he desperately wants to but can't say.

Did I do you right?

Am I a good father?

She swallows twice, unable to rid her throat of the growing lump, and does her best to steady her voice as it comes out timid and small. "They did."

On the surface, he's asking about her breasts of all things – which would seem so ridiculous and mortifying if she hadn't spent an entire night sobbing in her parents' bathroom about how her flat chest meant she'd never be good enough for anyone, let alone good enough to live.

They don't bring it up because it's not something people ever bring up, but before her father signed the medical forms he took her hand in his and made her promise that if she had the surgery she wouldn't ever try to kill herself. It was the only time she ever heard fear in his voice.

She hears the same fear now, as he finally turns his chair around to face her.

"I'm happy," she tells him, and she knows they both hear the tears in her voice but some color returns to his face and she relaxes her grip on the banister so her nails are no longer digging crescents into the polished wood.

He gives her a breath of a nod. "Good. That's all a father ever wants to hear."

The screensaver flicks to a photo of Santana in ninth grade, showing off her cheerleading uniform with Brittany and Quinn as her bookends. It's a blonde sandwich, her mother had said, and Santana was just thankful her mother didn't substitute blonde for white, like she usually did whenever they were in a particularly long line at the supermarket.

She finds herself staring at the way Brittany's arm hooks around her waist, and how Quinn stands further away than necessary, like something about her two new friends might be contagious, or just off-limits.

And now she's really in trouble, because her eyes cloud over with unshed tears at the thought of what her father would say if he knew how close she's become with Brittany, and with Quinn – if he saw the way she cracks open in the middle and her pieces fall to the sides to reveal something soft, and delicate, whenever she's around either girl.

Here she is with her own father, her father who just told her he's proud of her, suddenly filled with a suffocating fear.

She runs.

The dryer goes off but she runs up the stairs, nearly slipping as she reaches the top step, and doesn't stop running until she's tucked away in the darkest corner of her closet with the palms of her hands pressed hard to her eyes.

Even then her heart keeps running, like there's something safe just over the horizon and all this darkness only furthers the need to keep going.

/

It takes her over twenty minutes of dry silence, fingers gripping her hanging Sunday best, for the fear to simmer down in her stomach. There it lies low; burrows hot and hazy for some other time.

She crawls out the mouth of her closet – because ever since the metaphor occurred to her, she hasn't been able to stand tall in the threshold – and comes face-to-face with that doily from this morning, sitting quietly on her bedspread.

With her eyes still fuzzy from closet darkness she lets herself mistake it as a snowflake against a night sky backdrop, and like this she can pick it up; hold it so delicately; walk it over to her dresser.

She watches herself in the mirror with the doily in her hands. Her skin glows like the Aztec goddess she once let Brittany make her feel she was and her striped tank top highlights those enhancements she promised her father make her happy (or at least happy enough to ignore any tugging alternatives).

As she places the doily on the dresser she holds her own eye contact through the mirror, a staring contest that shakes both sides of the participant, and doesn't look away until the doily melts under her touch into a needle-hot piece of fabric. No longer a snowflake, she smoothes it down with the tips of her fingernails. And she knows it's not the doily, it's her; she's the one who burns under the touch of something so pure.

So she places the miniature castle Brittany gave her directly in the center of the doily; an altar that glows like candlelight at the base of her mirror.

And like this she can let out her breath – because everything settles into a calming heat that soothes the hairs on the back of her neck.

Now, barefoot in the middle of her dragon's den, she decides to pull out the number Kurt gave her the other day – the one written on a piece of Brittany's strawberry-scented stationary – and at the very least enter it in her phone's directory.

She programs numbers and chooses a ringtone (Born This Way, just because) while thinking about how loudly her heartbeat echoes around her room – like the walls truly are made of stone; like all these years she's been shutting her eyes at the end of the day deep inside a bone-cold cave.

She could make a comparison between herself and a dragon, but mostly she just finds herself remembering that book Brittany toted around for months in their childhood, the one about the dragon who slept curled up on top of a pile of treasures – and that's where the comparison falls flat because she's never been one to keep her precious things so close to her.

No; she bristles and sends them far, far away; shuts her eyes and tells herself their worth is better off in someone else's hands.

(But she's spent countless nights curled up on top of Brittany's spot on her bed, cheek pressed to the sheets where Brittany used to sleep, and maybe her treasures are just memories and wishes of things she won't let herself have.)

The shine of her black nail polish catches in the light, creating the image of talons instead of perfectly groomed fingernails, and she curses her younger self for ever thinking black wallpaper would be a good idea. (At the time all she wanted was a room that could swallow her whole, so she could stop swallowing her words whenever anyone was around.) If this is a cave then she can be a bat – strung upside-down, cocooned in a pair of slick black wings, with only the call-and-answer of sonar to guide her.

She makes a soft noise in the back of her throat, half expecting to hear something in return.

Someone slams a car door outside.

Startled, her finger slips – accidentally selecting Burt Hummel's number on her touch-screen.

"Well," she says, to break the silence of her bedroom. The word drifts through the air and lands somewhere at her feet. So she says it again, louder this time, and hovers over the call button.

/

Looking back, Desi will probably think of this as the summer no one looked each other in the eye. But it's better than the summer they all slammed doors – and the summer he was shipped to Bible camp (all he learned there was how to make a lanyard and what not to ask about Jesus).

He kind of hopes he'll be able to think of this summer as the one where his father proved everyone wrong, but it doesn't seem to be heading that way.

(It'll definitely be the summer his sister was so brave. He already knows this much.)

He's still thinking of what could possibly happen in the last few weeks of summer when he finds Santana standing completely still in the middle of her room, phone in her hand like it's a bomb she's about to strap to her chest.

She doesn't see him at first. He uses this to his advantage and lets it fully sink in, how much she's changed since school let out. She still wears her worries like a backpack full of bricks but the load's a little lighter now; her shoulders aren't so tired and she stands taller – like she's allowed to fully face the world.

He should thank Brittany, or maybe Quinn – he's not so sure who inspired the change but either way it puts a faint smile on his face. She's getting there.

The floor creaks under his sudden shift of weight and now she notices him; she spins quickly, her troubled eyes growing distant, and raises her finger at him like he's about to be reprimanded.

"Des," she says, sounding sort of breathless.

Her room is dark for an August afternoon but some light manages to sneak through the curtains, spilling onto her black duvet and seeping into the cracks in the floorboards. Some cuts a path down the side of her face, tracing her jaw line, and then she shifts and it marks her neck like a halfhearted noose.

Desi shudders.

"Can I play on your computer?" he asks her. "Mami took hers to work today and I wanted to watch Youtube videos."

She waves him over to her desk and as he settles himself in front of her laptop she sinks onto her bed, making a noise halfway between a sigh and a whimper. It's something he's sure he wasn't meant to hear so he pretends to be overly interested in some dirt on the track pad, and scratches at it with his thumbnail, only to accidentally open up whatever window she'd recently closed.

It happens to be Facebook – Brittany's profile, to be exact. He quickly checks to make sure Santana's not watching him (she's still staring at her phone) and takes this stroke of luck to explore the girl who's captured his sister's heart.

As he clicks through her profile pictures, he's made aware of how odd it is that she's been in his life since the day he was born, even accompanying Santana to the hospital to meet him for the first time, and yet he's never really had the chance to get to know her.

She's always been a blur rushing past, holding his sister's hand as they clamber up the stairs to Santana's room. He sees her in increments – a twirling skirt in the kitchen while Santana digs through the fridge; a pale hand closing the bedroom door behind them; a blonde head sticking out of a pile of blankets on the couch.

He's gotten to know more about her from the things she leaves behind: pictures of her cats dressed up in doll clothes; a motocross helmet at the door with her shoes; her Sweet Valley High box set; stories Santana slips up and tells him when she forgets there's anything to guard.

And now he's finding more and more pieces of her, in the comments left on her wall and the pages she's liked.

He always thought of her as the dancer; as his sister's best friend; as the silly girl who sometimes brought him chocolate.

But she's more (and he knew this all along, but now he can really see it) – she's popular and funny and she listens to all the rap music his mother won't let him hear. He's sure if they were the same age, he'd want to be her friend as well; want to leave her videos of drunken cats on her wall and put a smile on that pretty face.

She's whole. And now he understands how her absence made his sister fold in on herself like a flimsy house of cards.

(Part of him wants to hate her, for the mess she's caused, but her eyes are so bright in these photos that he knows she never meant to hurt anyone; least of all Santana.)

She's so vibrant that it actually starts to hurt, looking at her page – so he exits the window and is left staring at Santana's computer background: a picture of some old crumbling castle.

It's changed from the last time he was on her computer – it used to be Brittany at Breadstix, hair up in a cheerleading ponytail – and he swivels around in the chair to ask Santana what happened. But then he catches her staring at him, like it's what she's been doing all this time, and she's so cemented in her position that she doesn't even notice he's moved.

"I think I'm done now," he says quietly; skin prickling from the eerie look in her eyes.

Her lips move but the rest of her face remains frozen in a vacant expression, like she's completely hollowed out.

"Why are you so okay with gay people, Desi?" she asks.

It's one of those questions that are so full of something more that the force of them feels like an anvil on his chest and he doesn't want to answer, doesn't want to put anything else into the canyon of whatever she's thinking right now, but she's so painfully empty that he can't help needing to fill her up.

"Why shouldn't I be?" he starts, readying himself to further explain.

Except Santana cuts him off. "Do you believe in God?"

No one's ever given him the chance to believe differently. But that's not what she's really asking, right now; she's trying to tell him all the reasons why he shouldn't be okay with who she is – why his opinion has an entire book to prove it wrong – but she doesn't know that he's been waiting for her to bring this up. He's ready.

"Santana, are you human?"

Her face scrunches up in confusion but she gives him a small nod, bringing her knees to her chest so she has something to hold onto.

He nods back. "All humans were created in God's image. And He loves us all, no matter what. There's a lot of things that people try to complicate it with, but that doesn't matter, okay? You're human. God loves you. That's it. Okay? If He didn't love you, you'd probably be a spider or a fruit fly."

She laughs despite herself and he can't help but smile at the way it tumbles out: all awkward and clumsy like the hand she brings to her mouth was really a tripwire, sending the laugh stumbling over itself.

"And guess what?" he continues. She raises her eyebrows at him. "You may only have two arms, but that's because it only takes two arms to hug somebody you love. Spiders can't give hugs, you know. I think that's enough proof that you're perfect, don't you?"

"You should write a book, Desi," she says with a grateful smile, before pushing off the bed to come give him a hug.

He presses his ear into her chest, focusing on her steady heartbeat. "Maybe I'll write the new New Testament and then everyone can stop being so stupid about what it really means."

She pulls him closer, toying with his dark curls. "Where'd you learn to be so smart, mijo?"

His cheeks warm. She hasn't called him that since he was really little; back when she copied every single thing their mother did.

"I learned it from you," he says simply. It's worth it to feel her whole body smile.

/

Quinn calls later that afternoon when the sun hangs heavy in the cloudless sky and Santana is in the kitchen, perched on the counter while she waits for the microwave timer to go off.

Her hands fumble slightly as she answers the phone but she manages to get it to her ear without dropping it in the sink so there's a smile in her voice when she says hello – which, it's new, but it's a nice feeling.

"I didn't expect you to answer," Quinn says, sounding a little out of breath and quite startled.

Guilt pools low in Santana's stomach. "I got your voicemail," she says in lieu of an apology, and Quinn takes in a sharp breath. "It-"

"We don't have to talk about that," Quinn rushes out, cutting her off.

"Well, just- thank-you," Santana says, hoping her appreciation can be felt through the phone. "You should sing more in glee club."

"And risk having my throat ripped out by Rachel Berry? No thank-you."

Santana laughs. She'd missed this. "Please. She's the size of a Shih-Tzu; I could punt her down the hall before she even got close to you."

Quinn lets out a snort of laughter and immediately tries to cover it up, only to end up laughing even harder.

"Dork," Santana teases, because this is easy and she likes the feeling of only barely catching her bubbling happiness before it spills out of her chest.

"Believe it or not," Quinn says in a very matter-of-fact voice, "I did call for a reason."

"Oh really now?"

"Mhm." There's a smile in her words that manages to squeeze its way through the phone.

Santana bites her cheek. "And what exactly would that reason be?"

The microwave timer goes off, alerting her that her plate is sufficiently heated (and possibly the food onthe plate, if she's lucky), but she stays seated on the counter; choosing instead to listen to Quinn's whisper-soft words while her heels bump against the cupboard doors.

"Well I ran into Brittany and her mom at the supermarket this morning," Quinn starts. (Hearing Brittany's name causes Santana's breath to catch but she forces her lungs to behave.) "I was picking up a few things for my mom and they were getting enough ice cream to feed a busload of Finn Hudsons. And Mrs. Pierce reminded me of when we all used to have those sleepovers at her house and I thought, well. We're kind of friends again, right? So why not get together? There's only a couple weeks left before school starts. We could rent a few movies… maybe dig up that old brownie recipe of yours. What do you think?"

It kind of sounds like her worst nightmare come to life – she's been doing all right focusing on only one of them at a time, trying not to complicate things with either of them, so an entire night trapped between the two of them?

"Yeah, sure," she says automatically, wondering when exactly her brain disconnected from her mouth.

Quinn squeals and Santana's reminded that neither of them really have any friends outside of each other, and apart from those suspicious dance lessons with Mike Chang, Quinn has to spend most of her time stuck at home with her mother – so as much as she wants to take back what she just said, she knows Quinn needs it.

"We could do it at my place?" Santana offers, then flushes hot as she catches the double entendre.

"You sure? I mean with your parents and grandma it's-"

"Yeah." Santana rolls the palm of her hand against the edge of the counter, eyes fixed on the blinking microwave clock. "My dad's going to Cleveland for a few days so we could have the bottom floor to ourselves, if we do it Friday. My mom has a late shift and I could probably bribe Des to stay upstairs."

"Cool, yeah. This is going to be fun."

She can hear Quinn's grin through the phone and it feels almost good, agreeing to this. But she knows it won't be as simple as just throwing on some cheesy movie and hiding behind a bowl of popcorn – Brittany has a ridiculous knack for reading people and she'll probably guess what happened the moment she sees them in the same room.

"Yeah," she says finally, wincing at the sigh in her voice. "The Unholy Trinity Reunion Tour."

/

When she returns upstairs with a cooling plate of last night's dinner, her bed is made and the pillows at her headboard are fluffed up like in a magazine spread. She pauses in the doorway, nearly stumbling backwards at the sight. She always means to make her bed, but she spend so much time burrowing in the sheets that it seems sort of pointless to make it look nice when she's just going to mess it up again.

So this – this drenches her with confusion. Until she hears the shuffle-tap of Abuela and the one crutch she's taken to using coming up behind her in the hallway.

"You're so messy," Abuela says as Santana turns to face her. "You and Nicola… Every time she's over the place looks like a pigsty."

The empty name drips cold down Santana's spine as she realizes this isn't a conversation meant for her. She grips the edges of her plate harder, taking a step back so the doorway separates the two of them.

"Do they not clean, at her house? Those hippy-dippy parents of hers know nothing about how to raise a child," Abuela continues, her fingers tying invisible knots in the air between them. "Always sending her over here, like your good manners will rub off on her. And how's that supposed to look for us? The whole town thinks they're cuckoo. We're the only…"

Suddenly her voice drops off and her face shifts into a startled expression, eyes growing distant and wet.

"Abuela?" Santana sets her plate down on her dresser and reaches out to touch her grandmother's arm.

The woman trembles at the touch and stares in confusion at the cast on her foot. "What am I… What is this? Santana?"

"Let me take you back to your room, Abuela," Santana says in a controlled voice, trying not to let the fear slip through.

Abuela nods and Santana puts an arm around her, slowly leading her down the hall. She forces herself not to think about how small and insubstantial her grandmother feels under her arm because this is the woman who taught her to jump rope when she was a little girl. This is the woman who sang her Spanish lullabies whenever she had a bad dream. She doesn't want to have to see her abuela as anything other than strong.

Her throat is raw and aching by the time she sits her abuela down on the bed and the tears finally come when she presses her lips to Abuela's forehead in a fierce kiss. She can't get out the I love you she wants to, but she thinks Abuela knows as she pulls back and meets her eye.

It's the second time that day she's crying in her grandmother's bedroom but this time the hand that cups her face can't stop the feeling of the rug being yanked out from underneath her.

Everything has shifted and she just really needs her mom.

/

Because the world just doesn't want to throw Santana a bone, her mother calls to say she'll be staying late at the office and needs someone to make dinner for the family. What she's really saying is she needs Santana to take on the mother role, which isn't unusual but hasn't happened as frequently since the summer started, and Santana has no choice but to assure her mom she'll take care of it.

Mrs. Lopez only stays late when there's something to be avoided at home. Santana doesn't want to know what's happened now between her parents, so she takes a roast out of the freezer to defrost and heads back upstairs with the intention of distracting herself with loud music and the wonderful world of Sims.

She's nearly at her door when she notices her parents' door is half open and the slowly sinking sun illuminates the room from the west-facing window.

It glows.

She's always obeyed the unspoken rule of staying out of their room, but something draws her in and she's perched on the edge of their bed before she knows what's happening.

The last time she was in here, she was on the floor near the dresser, hugging her knees as her parents told her Abuelo passed away. She'll never forget that sick, haunted look on her mother's face – it was the moment she realized what exactly the loss of a loved one does to a person.

(She remembers at his funeral, gripping Brittany's hand so tight it hurt because she couldn't get out the words to say how desperately she needed to know she wouldn't lose her. She wanted her and Brittany to be like Abuela and Abuelo – only she didn't know it at the time; she only felt the urgent tug of longing deep in her stomach.)

She stares at the spot on the carpet where her life once came to a complete stop – they've since remodeled the room, changing everything from the furniture to the wallpaper, but she swears she can see the imprint of her younger self burned into the ground.

The memory propels her off the bed and she's on the floor in seconds, hugging her knees like she's young again. She looks up to where her parents had sat on the bed – her father was wearing a sweater that day, she remembers; he used to wear soft things before his world hardened – and though the room is empty, something does catch her eye.

There's a stack of photos on her mother's side table, half behind a picture frame that showcases the day Santana lost her first tooth.

Curious, she heads over and carefully removes the stack of photos without disturbing anything else on the table. She doesn't want them to know she's been in here.

The first photo is of her mother, years before she had kids. Her hair is loose and frames her smiling face and Santana can see the resemblance between them, but she mostly sees Desi's mischievous eyes. Part of her wonders if her mother was just as sneaky smart as him when she was his age. But then she flips through to the second photo and her heart stills.

It's her mother again, only younger and hugging a girl who looks exactly like Santana. She sees her own mouth caught between a smirk and a laugh; her own nose wrinkling as her cheek touches her mother's cheek. And her eyes – these are definitely her dark eyes; wide and desperate to hide the fear that bubbles up inside.

She doesn't need to turn it over to see what's written on the back. She knows this is Maci. This is her aunt. And she was beautiful, and so sad. Santana can almost feel the sadness surrounding her in the photograph.

"Who's that?"

She jumps out of her skin, nearly tossing the photos up in the air as Desi appears at her side. By the startled look on his face she guesses he assumed she knew he was next to her but she's really considering putting a bell on that collar he insists on wearing because he's too damn good at sneaking up on people.

"Who is that?" he repeats, climbing up on the bed so he can get a better view. "She looks like you."

Santana sinks down on the mattress next to him, angling the photo so they can both look at it. "That's Mami's sister," she says quietly.

He seems to catch the somber tone of her voice because he shifts a little closer to her and glances up at her with big eyes. "I didn't know she had a sister."

"She died before we were born," Santana tells him, wondering if she has the right to say any of this when she only knows tiny scraps of the whole story. "Her name was Maci. Abuela…"

"I can see why she confuses you," he says. He touches the photo with a careful fingertip, brushing against Maci's long dark hair.

"Mami doesn't like to talk about her."

He rests his head against her shoulder and lets his hand fall against her thigh, warm on her bare skin as he presses his palm flat against her. "If you died I don't think I'd like to talk about you either. You can wear out a memory like a video tape and I'd just… I wouldn't ever want to forget you. So I'd just think about you a lot and only say your name when I was praying."

She wraps an arm around him and pulls him closer to her body, unable to speak. His curls are soft as she runs her fingers through them and he always used to protest to this when he was little, but she'd do it until he fell asleep and she knew he never really hated it.

He lets out a whispery sigh and she presses a kiss to the top of his head in reply.

"This family's got a lot of secrets, huh?" he murmurs.

Santana glances down at the stack of photos in her hand and decides she'll put them back without rifling through the rest of them. If memories do wear out, she doesn't want to use up what her mother has left of the sister who took her life so long ago.

"I think there's a lot that's just better off staying in the closet," she says in a quiet voice, immediately catching what just slipped out.

Desi catches it as well and she can feel the disappointment in the sag of his shoulders. "Stuff stays hidden if it's bad or painful. You're not bad, Santana. I know you're scared, but… what if you didn't have to hide anymore? What if you could just be who you are all the time?"

He isn't expecting an answer so she just gives his shoulder a slight squeeze and stares into the guarded eyes of the aunt she never knew.

They stay in their parents' room for awhile, until the filtered sun drips from the dresser to the carpet, and it isn't until Santana's removing the roast from the oven that she wonders if she actually might know more about her aunt than anyone.

/

Her mother comes home long after her father's gone to bed. The house is silent and mostly dark, save for the dangling lightbulb above the kitchen sink.

Santana had every intention of washing up after dinner – but she's still sitting on the counter, watching soggy Cheerios float around a bowl from breakfast. When she hears the creak of the front door opening she sucks in her cheeks and listens to her mother's heels click across the hall.

"Santana, you scared me," her mother says quietly as she pauses in the kitchen doorway.

Her dark hair is still pulled back in a tight bun from work but a few strands have managed to escape and hang in her face, enhancing the exhaustion lining the skin around her eyes.

She isn't really scared, or even startled; what she means is you shouldn't be awake this late but Santana tilts her chin upwards in slight defiance and holds her mother's gaze until those tired eyes break away, finding a scuffed spot on the floor to focus on.

"Papi went to bed," Santana says in a ghostly cold voice.

Her mother lets go of whatever last thread of strength she'd been holding since the morning and glances up at her daughter with searching eyes. She seems to find what she's looking for because her posture straightens up and she tightens her grip on her purse, and in the shadowy doorway her face is all cut up from the dim light above the sink – and Santana doesn't want to see the uncertainty slip through for the second it does but she can't look away, either.

"We need milk," her mother says with a clipped force to her words. "Get your shoes on; we're taking my car."

Santana slides off the countertop and pockets her phone, but hesitates as she crosses the kitchen. "Mami? It's nearly one. Can't this wait 'til morning?"

"We need milk, Santana."

Her tone of voice leaves no room for argument so Santana slips her feet into the first thing she finds by the door, a pair of bright yellow rain boots that remind her too much of Brittany, and finds her mother in the front seat of the car, holding her keys like the world is ending.

They drive slowly, and quietly; streetlights fondle the car with their outstretched beams and Santana watches her reflection in the window; watches her eyes flick from light to dark with each passing beam. She can't remember the last time her mother drove her anywhere. The vacuum silence of the car is a comfort.

A slight breeze has picked up by the time her mother pulls into the parking lot of the twenty-four hour supermarket and Santana rubs at the goose bumps on her arms, focusing on the sound of her rain boots trudging against the asphalt.

At the mouth of the store, she feels small enough to crawl into the front of the cart.

The place is empty and her mother's heels click against the tiles with an importance that sets her teeth on edge. She wants to say something, but her mother looks so washed out under the fluorescent lights that she just ends up grabbing onto the side of the cart like she did when she was young and matches her clomping rain boot pace with her mother's tiny heels.

They're quite a pair, she thinks, as they pass the dairy section without grabbing a single item.

"Do you remember when you started getting those nightmares?" Her mother breaks the soft silence between them with an even softer murmur.

Santana keeps her eyes on her rain boots. "You'd take me to the porch swing, and sing to me."

"Your father was the one who insisted on that swing," her mother says to their empty cart. "I thought it was a waste of money, but he insisted."

They turn down the cereal aisle; when they were kids Mrs. Lopez wouldn't even let them look at the cereal because it was all sugary crap, she said. The first time Santana slept over at Brittany's house they had Lucky Charms for breakfast and she decided her own kids would never have to suffer because the good stuff costs more.

Now, she eyes the rows of chocolate marshmallow sugary sweet boxes and immediately finds herself searching for something plain; something cheap and in a box that doesn't make her teeth hurt.

"Thanks for being the mom that you are," she says suddenly, almost tripping over her boots as she turns to look at her mother.

Mrs. Lopez tucks a stray strand of hair behind her ear, a gesture that makes Santana's heart ache, and focuses on the gentle way her fingers grip the handle of the cart. "I asked you to go easy on me, when you were born. I was so scared of doing the wrong thing. Every mother is, I think. But you were a good baby. Sometimes I think about how tiny you were; how you always used to press your face into my neck."

"Is it hard, watching your kids grow up?" Santana asks.

"In a way. You have to let go of the idea that you have any say in who they are, and you realize that you've somehow managed to raise these independent people. These real, human people who have opinions and beliefs that won't always match your own."

Mrs. Lopez takes a hand off the cart to brush a few stray hairs out of Santana's eyes.

"That one pesky piece," she says with a laugh, and continues with her previous train of thought. "But it's good; it's a good thing when you can see that the little babies you diapered and fed are now people you can sit down and have a conversation with."

Santana chews on her bottom lip, lost in her thoughts.

"You make that same thinking face," Mrs. Lopez says all of a sudden, almost afraid of her own words. "As Maci. I see so much of her in you."

"I'm sorry," Santana says quietly.

Mrs. Lopez shakes her head and steers them down the junk food aisle. "It's not a bad thing. I just worry… I'm just afraid of the world getting to you, the way it did to her. I couldn't stand…"

Santana trails her fingertips across a shelf of soda bottles and thinks of the photo she found earlier; the arm her mother had wrapped around Maci looked harmless, at the time, but the more she pictures it in her head the more it seems like an act of protection. Her mother was the anchor but sometimes the sea is too strong.

And it all feels like such a sharp knife to the heart: first she lost her sister, then her father, and now her mother's going as fast as the sun sets in December.

"I'm not going anywhere," Santana promises. "You don't have to worry about me, okay Mami?"

Her mother stops the cart in front of the pet food and it rolls slightly as she jerks away from it, nearly knocking Santana over as she pulls her into a crushing hug.

"Oh, Santana. I want you to get as far away from this town as you can. Don't you ever look back, mija. You just go and forget about all the shit you hear from these people. It's poison. The world's so much bigger than Lima, baby. You need to know this. You need to get out of here before it kills you."

Santana presses her face into her mother's neck and breathes in the sharp scent of perfume and spices she'll always equate with love.

"How come you didn't get out?" she asks. "Why didn't you leave?"

Mrs. Lopez only pulls her daughter closer and begins to cry, standing in front of the jumbo bags of dog chow. It's bitter and lonely and the lights buzz too loud for the middle of the night – and Santana's toes are bruised from the rain boots, the stupid scuffed rain boots, but she links her hands behind her mother's back and remembers when the fact that her fingertips couldn't touch forced her to believe that her mother would go on forever.

They don't get any milk that night. They don't buy anything that night, and when Santana sneaks downstairs after her mother falls asleep, she opens the fridge to find a full carton of milk right there in plain sight.

Chapter Text

She's in the kitchen when the rain starts. Hands in a sink of dishwater; eyes fixed on the sliver of window peaking through the faded curtains.

A neighbor still has washing on the line in their backyard and she just watches the linens and dress shirts crumple under the weight of raindrops while aimlessly running a sponge over a plate from breakfast.

This is her mother's job, but her mother's with Abuela at the doctor and her brother left half an hour ago for his friend's house, leaving her alone with the breakfast mess that somehow managed to get left behind in the confusion of the morning's events.

She's glad her father left before the sun came up – had he been here to see Abuela like that, he'd bring up nursing homes again and she can't take another argument between her parents. Not now.

That's what they fight about when they think the rest of the house is asleep: Abuela, and what comes next.

She can hear their hushed voices through the walls when she's too tired to close her eyes.

If pressed, she couldn't choose a side. One wants professionals to give this woman the care she needs; one desperately clings to the last threads of her family.

But it's painful, heartbreaking and painful, watching her sweet Abuela reduced to tears because no one will let her see her husband. All morning; all through breakfast; all through the Spanish soap that diluted her wailing.

Santiago. My Santiago.

Part of her wanted to join in; cry for the man who took care of her when her parents needed a break and taught her the value of patience.

She didn't really get a chance to say goodbye – not at the funeral, of which her memories are short, swampy bursts; flashes of Brittany's voice soft at her ear and the fabric of the dress bought for the occasion rough against her skin. It was a closed casket, she's pretty sure. But everything else has melted into memories of her childhood spent at their house – the quiet, sickly sweet afternoons with her Abuelo while Abuela had something special in the oven.

The oven is hot, mija! Not safe for little fingers. You go wait with your AbueloGo keep him company, my sweet.

He always had a deck of cards in his hands – shuffling and shuffling and dealing and playing in silence on the dented TV tray; his long fingers stiff and slow with age, but still so soft whenever she folded hers around them. And she'd watch him, cross-legged on the footstool she dragged up to the side of his tray, careful to hold her tongue as he dealt out yet another round; careful to keep her own small hands folded in the frilly skirt of her favorite dress.

Yellow. He always loved her in yellow.

Every so often – mostly when he was about to win another game – he'd raise his milky brown eyes at her in a shared glance, his lips curling in a secretive smile around his gums ("those old chompers make me feeltonto," he'd always tell her with a scowl), and make sure her attention was on the next card he placed.

"Bien," she'd say, clapping her hands together, as he let out a breathy chuckle.

The sweet sort of humble pride in his eyes always left a funny little tingle in her belly and she'd bite back the grin that threatened every time, busying herself with the lacy hem of her dress just to give him the moment he needed to gather the deck of cards in his shaky hands again.

It never felt slow, waiting for dinner, for her chance to ring the little silver dinner bell; time stretched on, but in a haze – like it lingered just enough to make the moment last.

It leaves a sour taste in her mouth when she realizes the house that held so many of her childhood memories now belongs to someone else; someone who'll hang foreign pictures on the walls and won't ever know the beauty of her precious Abuela dancing in the colored light of the big stained glass window.

She pulls the plug from the bottom of the sink and lets the water drain.

/

Later she finds herself standing in the hall – just standing there with her lip tucked between her teeth, listening.

The rain thrums on and finally she sinks down to the edge of the rug, back pressed to the door. A breeze hisses through the crack at the bottom of the door and sends goosebumps trailing across her skin – calling her little hairs to attention in the sudden chill.

Soldiers, she thinks. Like little green army men.

From this angle, she can see the cobwebs hanging from the light fixture; the buildup of dust and age smothering the arms of the ceiling lamp.

Desi used to call it an octopus; she'd roll her eyes and scowl because duh, it only has four arms and an octopus has eight. Eight arms, she'd shout at him, frustrated by the smug little look on his face whenever their mother would tell him it could be whatever he wanted it to be. It's a light, Santana always said.

It's a light. But from down here, she realizes the door's window casts shadows across the ceiling – four shadows; four arms and four shadows – and her heart twists.

What else hasn't she seen?

By mid-morning she's figured out a pattern in the weaving vines on the floral wallpaper; found faces hidden in the soft petals; discovered the echo of her fingerprint in the swirls on the wood of the baseboards.

She's tucked her face into her knees for a momentary escape of everything that slipped through her cracks these past seventeen years when footsteps sound across the porch and something slides through the mail slot.

She doesn't move in time and the avalanche of envelopes mainly gets her head and shins before scattering across the surrounding ocean of floor.

It's like snow – paper snow, damp from the rain, not unlike the snowflakes they made at school in second grade that she accidentally dropped in a puddle on her way home. Paper snowflakes hung to dry over the radiator never quite make it back to pure but a little wrinkle here and there never hurt anyone, or so her father told her at the time. Botox patients might claim otherwise.

She gathers up a handful of envelopes: bills, mostly. Something for her mother, for her father. The Lego Club sends a catalogue for Desi; all bright colors and blinding fonts.

He gets another toy catalogue: something blue and dark and clearly geared towards boys his age with parents who'll buy the latest edition of whatever handheld game they've come out with this time. At his age, she was only allowed to order books.

Education is the foundation of a life worth living, her father always told her.

There's a large puddle of envelopes around her so she sorts it all into stacks, three of them, and then her fingers catch on a glossy postcard.

No one gets postcards.

They're brief and kitschy and never manage to say what they're supposed to say: hi how are you hope you're well we're having a ball be back soon miss you love you xoxo.

A postcard is a reminder that you're stuck at home while someone else has an adventure – unless it's a postcard from the only tourist shop in Lima, the Lima General near the highway (that also doubles as a gas station), and then it's just a reminder that wherever you are is better than this shitty excuse of a town.

This particular postcard nearly slides through her fingers before she can take a look at it but she catches it at the last moment and then she almost laughs.

It's raining in the picture. It's raining and it's an old, crumbling castle – big and maybe at one time imposing against the backdrop of ashen sky.

Greetings from Aberdeenshire!

She nearly drops it again in her rush to flip it around but then the familiar loopy scrawl catches her and leaves her breathless.

Great Googly Moogly!

Remember when we were ferocious beasts in the unexplored lands of your backyard? Scotland's been like that except foggy and kind of pretty lonely. Ash thinks it's good though. I think you'd like it here.

You always liked things when they were falling apart, even if you never admitted it. Like the old wagon we found in someone's trash. You never wanted to let that go.

It's my third last day here, Santana. I was really excited to come home but maybe I'm not so much anymore, you know? It's like back-to-school shopping, how you can't wait to use your new notebooks and pens but then it's the night before school starts and you can't stop shaking. There's not enough time.

The writing squashes up near the bottom of the card and bleeds over into the address section but with a moment's squinting Santana makes it out.

I just don't want to run out of time with you. And I kind of think that we are.

She doesn't even sign her name, just swirls what might be the letter B in some other language but mostly looks like a lopsided heart – and isn't that how Brittany's always gone about it?

The card's flimsy enough to sway under the pressure of her grip but she's not risking dropping it the couple inches to the floor.

Brittany was the one who dug that green wagon out of the trash pile at the curb but the moment she freed it, Santana couldn't pry her gaze away from it. Something about the way the wheels buckled in at the sides and the bed of the wagon sunk down just enough to fit a good pile of rocks in it…

Somewhere in her closet she probably still has a handful of the rocks they'd collect, tucked in a shoebox next to her old pink diary.

Brittany wrote to her.

The wind outside rattles the glass in the panes and her teeth chatter along with it, shaking the way Brittany always shakes when she's too anxious to speak. But Santana's always been there to hold her; just fold her in a warm hug and breathe with her until the trembling stops.

Part of her worries this might be the first year she isn't with Brittany, the day before they're due back at school. She hasn't had to pack her bag without Brittany sneaking in cat-shaped erasers since middle school and the thought of having nothing tiny to wrap her fingers around while digging for a pen makes her heart sink.

It's like a missing limb, or a lung, or whatever holds her up day after day that suddenly disappears – she almost feels like the ball on New Year's Eve.

No one ever asks it if it wants to fall. It just slips lower and lower, bringing with it a new year and promises no one ever keeps.

Something let go. She's dropping.

/

It seems redundant to take a shower while it's raining (storming, really, judging by what the wind's doing to the neighbor's washing) but the morning's done something to her; nudged her halfway out of her skin like a leg dangling over the side of the bed – and she just needs to let her mind run blank.

No one's due home for hours so she sheds her clothes in her parents' ensuite; the one whose opalescent slate tiles look like something out of a magazine, and is mostly off limits to anyone under the age of forty. (Unless of course someone's sick; her mother swears by a good steam bath to cure any ailment.)

It's a stupid room, when she thinks about it – fancy enough to have candy-colored soaps by the sink and a shower that feels like a rainforest; like the kind of indulgent crap she sees on Cribs that always makes her roll her eyes because really, who needs a waterslide in their bedroom? It just doesn't sit right with her, especially when she reminds herself it's the psychotic episodes of her father's "clients" that pay for all this.

She's always hated how he uses that word: like his doctor title is only a formality and they come to him for legal advice, not treatment.

Doctors have patients. He has a sports car and a house that might as well be made of diamonds.

It isn't right.

Her mother always called it dirty money, and that's exactly what she thinks as she lathers her hair with her father's expensive shampoo (it's light blue, and delicious, and she feels a little better knowing how much he hates it whenever anyone uses his stuff). Dirty money bought this shampoo. Dirty money bought this body scrub. Dirty money bought this entire life.

It's hard to feel clean even as the suds swirl past her feet and down the drain. She's not sure she knowshow to feel clean, at this point; it's been so long since her body didn't feel tainted like a stained glass window with a crack down the middle.

And when she chances a look at her scrubbed down skin, even her fingers are seeking out the split seam; the one letting her light tumble out. She checks the drain for any shimmering tendrils just to be safe.

It's clear. The water runs clear. It doesn't make her feel much better.

The rain's still going strong when she finally gets out and wraps herself in a fluffy towel (white, like the scallop shell sink, but still so impure) and she decides she might as well skip her usual after-shower ritual of extensive hair care to watch the rain.

After pulling on a floral romper, she spreads a blanket on the kitchen island and lies down so she has a perfect view of the big bay window in the dining room. It's the best place to storm watch, really. She used to get a bum smacking for climbing up here as a child but it was worth it just to watch the rain cascade down the glass panes of their neighbor's sun room.

It's a waterfall, she used to tell anyone who'd listen, even after being scolded for climbing on the counters again.

There's just something so soothing about witnessing the rain thrum on; like fingers through her hair.

If it were up to her, she'd never leave her house again – she'd just lie here and fall asleep to the constant heartbeat of the storm.

Everything could stop and she could breathe.

/

By noon, Santana's back at the sink and the neighbor's washing is in a soggy pile on the ground, courtesy of the increasing winds and claps of thunder so loud they shake the walls.

She's in the middle of building a mountain of soap suds on top of a bowl that was clean (before she decided it was a good day to turn five again, because why the hell not) when the doorbell rings and her sink time is cut short.

It's not a huge deal, mainly because the reality of what she was doing was starting to creep back, but then the doorbell rings again while she's wiping her hands on a dishtowel and by the time she's at the door, she's more than just a little ticked.

The scowl slips off her face as soon as the door swings open.

"It's raining," is all Quinn has to say from the doorstep, and Santana just nods numbly; unable to look away from the hideous rain poncho Quinn has on.

It's one of those cheap red plastic things from tourist attractions that looks like its past life was a blood-soaked garbage bag and it hasn't seemed to have done its job of keeping her dry, because her hair hangs in wet curls in her face and water pools at her feet where she stands still half in the doorway.

Santana has to avert her eyes. She feels like she swallowed an anchor or something as equally improbable as Quinn Fabray looking like she frequently takes public transit.

She's – she's embarrassed for her, she finally realizes.

"Sorry about the puddle," Quinn says as she shrugs her way out of the poncho, which only manages to mess her hair even more, plastering it to her cheeks.

Santana shakes herself from her stupor and says a quiet, "here," before reaching out with a cautious pinkie to brush a wet strand of hair out of Quinn's eyes.

Her knuckle grazes Quinn's cheek and the two of them pause – Quinn with her hands still tangled in red plastic and Santana with her face burning, not sure if she's more flustered by the stupid poncho or by the way Quinn's looking at her.

She drops her hand. Quinn slips out of her wet flats and toes the floor with her slightly damp socks.

They're a pale lilac color, the socks, and have little blue birds adorning them like clouds in a television sky. It's the kind of thing that Brittany would like and the thought sits heavy in Santana's gut.

"My grandma sent them to me," Quinn says when she catches her looking. "A late birthday present, or something. The other pair has bunnies on them."

"She knows you're not six, right?"

Quinn laughs, eyes too bright for her tired face. "She also sent me butterfly fridge magnets, so I'm not sure."

"Butterflies," Santana says with a wry smile, shaking her head.

"Gave my mom a good laugh," Quinn says, the smile on her face fading slightly. "She made me stick them on the fridge; even asked me if I had any drawings I wanted to pin up there."

Santana's struck with the mental image of crayon stick figures with Quinn's perfect signature underneath and can't help but snort.

An expression that shouldn't look so sad works its way back onto Quinn's face.

"I kind of feel like I should draw something anyway, just to make her happy."

Santana thinks back to the sink of soap suds as she stares at Quinn's socks, and maybe it's just this kind of day. "Let's do it then."

"What?"

"Draw something fridge-worthy," she explains, and although part of her wants to ask what Quinn's doing here in the first place, she's smiling back at her and it seems like it might be enough just to dig out her brother's old box of crayons.

/

"I think you may well be the next da Vinci."

Quinn looks up from her rainbow-feathered bird and the tongue sticking out the side of her mouth catches in her blinding grin, like that weird emoticon Santana never got until now.

"I mean, that's one fine bird," Santana continues, unable to stop her own smile from growing.

They've absolutely covered the kitchen table in an emptied-out 64 pack of crayons and it just feels so absurd, the two of them sitting here, like someone should be coming by with orange slices and chocolate milk any minute now. For a moment she finds herself wondering what Quinn was like in preschool before she remembers Quinn didn't go to preschool, it was Lucy, and maybe Lucy's the girl who's been hiding all this artistic talent because apart from misguided graffiti, Santana's never had any idea that Quinn was someone who could turn a piece of printer paper into art.

"It's something, at least," Quinn says, reaching for the burnt sienna crayon.

Santana rolls her eyes and continues scribbling out another storm cloud. "I'd put it on my fridge, Q. And by that I mean I'd steal a fridge so I could display this Crayola Mona Lisa, because I don't yet own my own art gallery."

This gets a laugh out of Quinn. "I'd really like to see you try to drag a fridge down the street, Miss Lopez."

"Hey, these guns supported the entire pyramid, thanks to you. If I can lift a Cheerio, I can lift a fridge."

She immediately realizes it was the wrong thing to say when Quinn shrinks down in her seat, face a mixture of regret and guilt.

"Quinn…"

The crayon drops onto the table as Quinn fully catches on to what they've been doing for the past twenty minutes and the change in her is so swift that Santana nearly misses it, but then there's no missing the hollow tone to her voice or the way her eyes glass over like she couldn't quite reach the icy expression she was going for.

"I was actually on my way to um, to Mike's, to-"

"Please don't do this, Quinn. Forget I said anything. We can just go back to drawing, or listen to music, or play Mario Kart or something. Just- don't leave, okay?" Santana's not begging, but there's a hint of desperation in her voice that she's not exactly going out of her way to hide.

The breath Quinn takes is painfully slow.

"A lot has happened," she nearly whispers, and Santana leans closer just so she can hear her. "I wasn't… We weren't really…"

"I know," Santana murmurs. "We both did things back then."

"And it's different now," Quinn confirms, though her voice rises at the end like a question.

Santana chances a small smile. "It's different now. Hell, I don't think sophomore year Santana would be caught dead with crayons, do you?"

Gratitude washes over Quinn's face for a brief second before she's smiling as well, shaking her head. "Her captain would kill her. And then Coach Sylvester would dig her out of the ground and kill her again."

"I miss it," Santana admits softly. "Cheerios. Being a part of something I could be proud of."

"Yeah," Quinn breathes. "Me too."

They're quiet for a moment before Quinn asks for the cerulean crayon, so she can start on the bird's underbelly. Santana goes back to her drawing as well, adding a few menacing lightning bolts to the sky, but her mind's still on the polyester uniform and the security that came with that red and white skirt.

Years ago she found herself agreeing with Rachel, that being a part of something special made youspecial, and at the time it seemed like something of an achievement; something to hope for, amidst the daily high school monotony. She wanted to be special.

Top of the pyramid; star in the spotlight; something to be proud of.

But by now she's watched too many girls come tumbling down to aspire for greatness. It's a dream for the movies; for the white girls with their bumbling fathers and PTA mothers.

Her dreams are simple, now: she wants to be loved. She wants to be safe.

She wants to fall asleep to the sound of rain and wake under a blanket that wasn't there before.

/

They don't actually leave the kitchen, despite Santana's offer to let Quinn win a few rounds of Mario Kart – a consolation prize for their competition of who could draw the best giraffe, which Santana naturally won as hers had a snake of a blue tongue holding a rainbow.

She makes them peanut butter toast and steaming cups of tea and Quinn offers to help, but Santana's content just fitting as much peanut butter as possible onto each piece.

Besides, it's sort of nice having Quinn watch her like they've been doing this for years.

"You're leaving a pattern," Quinn comments, pointing a crayon at the marks in the peanut butter on the piece of toast.

It's like tire tracks or a ploughed field and Santana never really thought about it before, but she's sort of always wondered how her mother got the spread of peanut butter to be so smooth. She stares at the knife.

"Even butter knives are made for right-handed people? Jesus Christ."

Quinn chuckles and shakes her head. "It must be hard, living in a world built for everyone but you."

Her chest tightens. "You have no idea."

Quinn recognizes what she said and pulls her lip between her teeth, like she might be able to take it back if she's quiet enough. And it's sweet, but Santana has a whole lifetime ahead of her to get used to this backwards world. She might as well start with this butter knife.

"Hey," she says, drawing Quinn out of her quiet shell as she gestures towards the toast. "At least I can make this world a prettier place. You people have to work twice as hard at that."

It doesn't quite fix the shadow in Quinn's eyes, but her smile's a bit more noticeable. "We're not thatdifferent, Santana."

"No," she says, unable to stop her thoughts from getting away from her. "I guess we're not."

The knife is a little more secure in her hand as she finishes with the peanut butter. It's just a butter knife, but years ago it was just a pair of scissors, and this time she knows her father's not going to bring her home a left-handed knife to make things easier for her.

So maybe she'll leave trails in the spread whenever she prepares a snack but there's something satisfying about acknowledging this – like it's hers now, and even if she loses everything else, she'll still have this one little thing.

They eat in silence, minus the muted crunching that comes with toast, until Quinn cradles her mug of tea and gives Santana a soft sort of look.

"You never did ask me why I came over," she says. "You know that, right?"

She didn't ask because Quinn never asked why she appeared on her stairs that one night; or maybe because Quinn showed up in a cheap plastic poncho; or maybe she just didn't want to understand the quiet hurt in Quinn's eyes that, despite Quinn's best efforts, never seems to leave – only blooms or curls in on itself depending on the day.

"I have another song for you," Quinn says, not waiting for a response. The tea's lost its heat but Quinn still treats it as a mug of boiling water and blows softly before sipping. "I wanted you to hear it before the sleepover tomorrow night."

"You don't have to keep doing this for me," Santana says in a quiet voice. "I mean, it's not… I'm not completely hopeless, Q. I could probably figure it out on my own."

The flash of panic on Quinn's face jars her for a second before it's replaced with a concerned frown, like Quinn's only saying this to humor her. "Of course; I know that. I just thought you might want company or something."

She almost asks if Quinn doesn't have someone she'd like to sing to, seeing as she's got such a knack for finding the sort of songs that actually say things, but there's still a voicemail saved on her phone that she's not supposed to think too much about and the question seems to maybe answer itself.

Still, Santana wonders if there's a song out there that could actually voice what they've both been avoiding and if each song Quinn picks for this Brittany thing might be getting them one step closer to… well. She's not supposed to think too much about it, even if it's the static buzz in the back of her mind.

Quinn's doing this for Santana, because friends help friends, so it's not much use wondering about the unspoken things when she still has such a Grand Canyon of Brittany things left to say; and maybe Quinn will find the right song, and maybe she doesn't feel wedged between the only two people who can put up with her for long periods of time.

"I really do appreciate you doing this for me," she says to Quinn now. "Not many people…"

Quinn rolls her eyes. "Oh please. You know if you even thought about this near Rachel, she'd have an entire PowerPoint presentation dedicated just to genres of songs that might work. And I'm sure Mike would drop everything to choreograph something for you. I mean, even Finn-"

Santana raises a hand. "We do not say that name in this house, Quinn Fabray."

Quinn laughs and mimes zipping her lips. "Sorry. But you know they'd all do this for you, Santana. They just want you to be happy."

There's a number in Santana's phone just waiting for a call that seems to illustrate Quinn's point, but she can't help wondering if they'd all be so quick to rally around Quinn – because pregnancy aside, the world seems to assume she can handle this on her own.

(And even the pregnancy only earned her a few sappy songs about how they'd support her no matter what, which everyone seemed to forget about after the summer. Santana's not innocent either, but at least she wasn't pretending like the whole thing never even happened. Someone needed to remember.)

It spikes something in her chest when she realizes this whole summer, they've only been focused on Santana's problems – on everything with Brittany, and her fears about her family, and the stupid amount of time she needs to figure out things she already knows.

It isn't fair. She glances over at Quinn with an apology on her tongue, but then the words fall away as quickly as they came.

There's still a slight yellow tinge on the skin of her cheek that Santana's watched slip from purple to dusk to an almost alien shade of green. She can still remember the first time she saw that bruise, when Quinn came over early that Sunday morning looking like her house had fallen down around her – and she realizes that it may be about her, but it's also always been about Quinn: those embarrassing diary entries, the songs, the mindless way she keeps drifting back.

The table's full of their crayon masterpieces because Quinn came over with that heavy sadness in her eyes again and without knowing it, Santana's dedicated her whole summer to washing it away. Or at least giving her a few moments of distraction.

And maybe – maybe without actually realizing it, they've both been doing it for each other: distracting each other from the heaviness they carry with them because it's easier than stopping to turn and face their own weight.

If only she were braver, she starts to think – but cuts it off as soon as Quinn pulls her iPod out of her dress pocket because there are more important things at hand that the if onlys.

Like the song she's about to hear, and the glimmer in Quinn's eyes (and if only she were braver; if only; if only; she'd have a song for Quinn).

/

The rain has mostly stopped by the time Quinn leaves with an armful of drawings, petering out to a slight drizzle that when commented on only results in a faint flash of remorse across Quinn's face before she's tightening her grip on that awful red poncho and muttering a soft farewell.

Santana resists the urge to salute her as she all but hops down the steps, and then the urge to call her back when she becomes just a flash of blonde hair and a prick of red in the distance.

We could watch movies or something, she wants to say, because the careful steps Quinn takes make her look more like a soldier going off to war than a child returning home to Mother and Santana isn't so sure there's not a bomb ready to detonate the moment Quinn shuts the door behind her.

But she's already rounded the corner and Santana's left with a tightness deep in her core that sticks like molasses and doesn't leave even after her mother and Abuela come home, armed with enough groceries to feed an army ("We thought you might need some snacks for your party tomorrow night, mija," her mother says when asked about the excessive amount of bags) and it's still there all through dinner: the quiet affair with her father's seat empty; Desi kicking questions into her shin while Abuela spits out something about Nixon.

She spends the meal dancing the pepper shaker across the edge of her placemat and wondering if the bruise Desi's no doubt leaving on her leg will even come close to anything she's seen on Quinn.

Makeup can only do so much.

Santana falls asleep with her hands wrapped around her stomach; as if the warmth of her palms might somehow draw out the coils of tension, or at least coax them into a quiet acquiescence.

The last thing she remembers is the sound of rain.

/

There's a cake sitting under a glass dome on the kitchen counter when Desi gets up. It's round and iced white with dollops of red spattered about – the sugary sweet equivalent of a pompom, like the ones Santana used to toss at him whenever he interrupted her and her friends practicing in the backyard.

He always secretly enjoyed those afternoons: the barefoot grass cartwheels and tumbles; the giggling that grew into belly laughter; the smiles they forgot to wipe away.

He'd sit just inside the screen door at the back of the house, catching the drips of his popsicle while they started the music over and over again. And sometimes he swore Santana noticed him but her head would turn so quickly and then she was back falling into Brittany's arms, so much softer than the other girls a few steps away.

It's strange, he thinks, and maybe also sad, how most of the girls who came over to practice just disappeared; how only Brittany stuck around.

(And sometimes Quinn, but only ever for short stretches of time, never stepping foot in the house. He remembers her silent and wary; a thorn stuck in her paw. He remembers her somber and he knows she's different now, but it's hard to find the line. Everything's so blurry.)

"The uniform means power," Santana told him once when he asked why she wore it every day. "It means we get to sit wherever we want in the lunch room and no one takes our food."

He was young when it started – just seven, when she first brought home those pompoms and the uniform that felt rough under his fingers.

It seemed stupid, back then. To want to wear the same thing every day. To want to keep falling and falling off the top of the pyramid. Mami took him to see Santana perform and all he could think about was how scared she looked, being tossed up into the air.

And then she brought home the quiet blonde girl who walked soft like a cat; then the three of them filled the backyard with the same song on repeat and squeals of laughter and tumbles in the grass; then he understood.

He thought the world for sure must be ending the day Santana came home to say she'd quit the Cheerios.

"You're a singer too," Mami reminded her, when Santana hugged her knees at the kitchen table. "Never did any of your routines bring the audience to their feet the way you did when you sang at Sectionals."

She can sing, and he's always known that, but there was something about cheerleading that just put this funny smile on her face. Maybe it was that she was doing it with her best friends.

Because when he saw her sing at Sectionals, what he remembers most isn't when she found his face in the audience, but when she caught sight of Brittany.

When he thinks of the three of them he thinks of pompoms and cartwheels in the grass and the five six seven eight chant that brought them back into position. He thinks of the first sleepover they ever had over here, after they took home their first cheerleading trophy, when they set a pan of brownies on fire and Quinn was the only one who knew what to do. But Santana cleaned up the burnt remains, and Brittany made them smoothies, and they somehow managed to cover up the charred smell in the air with perfume and candles.

They're not cheerleaders anymore. But Mami must have forgotten when she made this cake or maybe she has faith that they'll find their way again.

He has a little faith too, when Santana notices the cake and the funny smile teases her lips. Her cheeks glow and he thinks Mami must have been right all along.

/

The air is sweet and soft as Santana stretches out on the porch swing, not exactly reading her book.

She's waiting, having long since readied the house for the sleepover after the swell of anxiety made it impossible for her to just sit idly while pillows could be fluffed and bowls of chips could be arranged for the umpteenth time.

Her battered copy of A Complicated Kindness was supposed to take her mind off the increasingly-more-terrifying-each-time-she-thinks-of-it scenario that awaits her the moment both Quinn and Brittany are in a room together, but the pages offer her no solace today.

Not when the book only manages to draw up images of the stifling church parking lot and hushed whispers about the uncle she hasn't seen in four years. She remembers him loud and smiling, the opposite of her father, and it's an anchor in her chest, wondering if he ever even thinks of the niece he promised to one day take to see the giant goldfish in the pond at his summer house.

How horrible, really, to have a family you're no longer allowed to see.

She could be that stain in her father's past, one day. It's an even heavier thought and she drops the book open-faced on her chest, shutting her eyes in the early evening sun.

"Did you know that when a family cat died in ancient Egypt, the family would mourn by shaving off their eyebrows?"

Brittany slips through the open screen door and sinks down onto the edge of the porch swing and without thinking, Santana finds herself tucking her legs in Brittany's lap. It's instinctual but by the time she realizes what she's done, Brittany's already settled into place, resting her hands on Santana's bare ankles.

"I don't think I'd shave off my eyebrows for Lord T," she says with a slight frown, adjusting her shirt under the straps of her black suspenders. "Well. Maybe just one of them."

A laugh spills out of Santana and she shakes her head. "If anyone could rock it, it'd be you, Britt."

Brittany covers one eyebrow with her hand. "You think? I'd probably look like a pirate. But actually, that's not-"

The open book catches her attention and she reaches over and grabs in it one fluid motion, before Santana even has time to figure out what's going on. Then her tongue's poking out the corner of her mouth as she skims the summary on the inner flap; looking so much like the child Santana met in the children's section of the library, desperately trying to reach a book on the top shelf.

("Which one do you want?" Santana asked, puffing up her chest to make her look a little taller.

The pretty girl with a long blonde braid pointed to a book with a beast on the cover and ended up laughing as Santana climbed the shelves to get it for her.

"You're a monkey," she said shyly, reaching out for the copy of Where the Wild Things Are. "You wanna read with me?")

"Mennonites," Brittany says, marking Santana's place with a thumb as she flips to a random page. A fractured smile graces her lips and she begins to read aloud. "All I remember is Bert saying end of story. End of story. And how it left me speechless and depressed."

She pauses to take it in and Santana's eyes flutter shut; it's been so long since anyone's read to her and the words are silk on her pleading skin, soft and gentle, just like the lazy fingertip that circles Santana's ankle bone.

"But that's because endings are my weakness," Brittany goes on, "and I hate them and mistrust anybody who knows when they occur."

Brittany says something more in the breath she lets out but it misses Santana's ears by a mile and in the time it takes her to find her voice and cut through the silence Brittany's already setting the book back in place and filling the air with another set of words.

"My sister had an asthma attack yesterday; we had to take her to the hospital to get a breathing treatment."

Santana struggles to sit up but Brittany holds her legs in place and she just ends up falling back down against the arm of the swing, eyes wide with concern. "How is she? Is she-"

"She refused to miss soccer practice today, so I'd say she's all right."

"You should've called me," Santana says almost automatically, and then her cheeks go hot.

Brittany dances her knuckles along Santana's legs to a beat of a song only she can hear and nods slightly before shaking her head. "Well Quinn called me while we were in the emergency room, so I just ended up talking to her."

There's a question that threatens to escape but Santana shoves it back down, forcing her expression into something like natural curiosity. Brittany catches it, though. She always does.

"She didn't know if she should bring something for you, for the sleepover, so she called to ask." Brittany's smile slips and she's staring at the little gnome on the back steps. "She seems sad. I thought that after the haircut… I don't know."

There aren't any words that could adequately explain the heaviness Quinn carries with her, so Santana settles on nodding and Brittany rocks the swing to the tune of their silence.

A few leaves in the big elm tree at the edge of the yard are blushing a pale orange and her heart thrums as she realizes how brittle the summer days have become; how quickly the sun's taken to sinking, almost running away from the shadow of the moon. With each shortened day comes another step towards the start of school – to the inevitable defeat of whatever hazy solace she's managed to create in the folds of the hot-and-cold afternoons.

A quick glance at Brittany tells her they're both in the same frame of mind, watching a leaf free itself from a gently swaying branch before drifting down to the grass below.

She thinks back to the end of the postcard Brittany sent her; the scribbled I just don't want to run out of time with you.

Maybe it's been out of her control all along.

/

Quinn shows up with a tub of gummy worms and a large knot in her stomach that only pulls tighter the moment Brittany bounces into the open doorway. And then Santana has her by the hand, a knee-jerk reaction to her proximity, and Quinn just shoves the tub of candy in their direction before blindly making her way into the house.

She bites back a laugh because of course Brittany's already here; they agreed on seven, but she's never once managed to arrive before Brittany despite her many desperately calculated attempts.

And the house is already filled with the combination of their scents: wisps of sugarcane mixing with sandalwood, and citrus, acidic sweet and the feeling of home – the exact smell of a hundred impromptu hugs and bus rides home from cheer camp where they'd all squish into one bus seat; Quinn at the window, so she could pretend to watch the scenery when hands slipped too low.

Santana just follows her into the living room, Brittany behind her already tearing the plastic off the tub of gummy worms, and gives her a timid smile.

She wonders if a night of pretending she isn't awake behind her locked bedroom door would be better than this. But then Brittany slips her arms around her from behind and she sinks into the hug, automatic after so many years, as a whisper hits her ear: Santana's mom bought bacon for breakfast.

The smile on Brittany's face is so bright when Quinn turns that it hurts her eyes but she returns it anyway, the way she'll always do when it comes to Brittany.

"You'd better not have chewed your nails down to stubs, Q," Santana says as she arranges the snack bowls on the coffee table to make room for the gummy worms. "Because I have an entire shoebox full of nail polish and there's no way you're worming your way out of this one."

Brittany takes one of Quinn's hands in her own and gives it a quick once-over.

"She's good," she says. "Quinn's been putting that nail file to good use."

The flush on Santana's cheeks is barely noticeable but it's enough to stir something in Quinn's chest and she quickly fills her mouth with a handful of chocolate-covered peanuts to distract herself.

"And we put it to a vote-" Brittany continues with a grin, seemingly picking up on Santana's train of thought. "You get to choose tonight's movie, Quinn!"

"Out of my collection," Santana adds as she eyes Quinn with a soft expression on her face.

"Out of her collection," Brittany echoes. She has Quinn by the middle again; cradling her so carefully Quinn has to fight back a shiver. "But first, nails. Okay?"

It's the first pause long enough for her to realize they're expecting a response and she promptly nods along, trying to figure out if it's always been such a back-and-forth with them or if maybe she's just finally fallen behind.

There isn't much time to think about it because they're on the floor within minutes; seated in a sloppy circle around Santana's shoebox of nail polish like it's a campfire, minus the singing. (There is a moment where Brittany opens her mouth and Quinn braces herself for Kumbaya but the closest she gets is a sweet bubbly laugh as Brittany's hand hovers above the bottles.)

It's automatic – Quinn's fingers find the pale pink; the bottle of quiet blush that almost always adorns her nails. It was the first color her mother ever let her wear, the perfect shade to match the satin bow on her Sunday dress, and she's always sort of operated in shades of pink.

Rose for her lips; amaranth for her flats; coral for the headband nestled in her blonde hair.

(Sometimes she thinks of the small blanket in the hospital: a soft lavender pink that felt like her favorite corner of her grandmother's garden. It's hardest when she thinks of Beth.)

The lid's nearly completely unscrewed when Brittany reaches over her for the glittery purple nail polish and it's such an obvious choice that Quinn feels stupid for not guessing sooner. Brittany likes glitter like Santana likes black – and Santana already has three nails on her right hand coated in a jet black sheen, never one to wait.

She never actually manages to fully unscrew the lid of the shell pink because then Brittany's painting the pinkie of Santana's right hand with her glittery purple polish and something just twists in Quinn's chest; just coils tight and stamps out the fire before she's even aware of what's happening.

Santana shares such a private smile with Brittany and Quinn's fingers jerk into motion; screwing the lid as tight as it goes and blindly reaching out for another bottle.

She doesn't take her eyes off Santana's glittering nail: the one sparkling beacon in a sea of black.

When she finally glances down at the bottle in her loose fist she isn't even surprised to see she's chosen a blood red. Her mother's voice sounds in the back of her mind, a cottony harsh colors wash you out, Quinnie and there's not a thread of hesitance in her as she loosens the lid and carefully pulls out a full brush.

Santana's mother has never actually chastised them for painting their nails on the Persian rug, but she doesn't want to be the reason for a scolding from a woman whom she knows has a wooden spoon just for the occasion.

("Kinky spanking action," is how Puck defined it when Santana accidentally mentioned it after a football game.)

Quinn's just finishing up the last nail when Santana catches her eye and she's never seen the girl wear that expression before – not for Brittany; not for her brother; not even for her abuela. Her lips tug at the corners as she considers that this gentle face might actually be just for her.

"Looks good, Q," is all Santana says before she's back to helping Brittany get her right hand.

Quinn's lips are a full smile as she holds her painted nails out in front of her, framed in the background by Santana's hand spread out on her leg, nails drying. Blood red and jet black – the ruthless sort of colors for exactly the kind of girls who used to rule McKinley with an iron fist.

For the first time in months, she doesn't miss her ponytail one bit.

/

Quinn carefully selects What's Eating Gilbert Grape after a moment's hesitation between that and Imagine Me & You ("Luce and Rachel," she'd just repeated to herself, upon Santana's run-down of the plot) and a few quips about how Santana must have robbed the discount bin at Family Video because her entire collection just screams two-for-five-dollars.

And it's nothing Santana hasn't heard before, mainly from her mother and sometimes Brittany – who's snuck in a handful of movies made in this millennium – but coming from Quinn it just strikes her as so ridiculous because she's seen Quinn's interests on Facebook and it includes a myriad of musicals she's sure even Rachel hasn't seen before.

(It occurs to her that had they not joined Cheerios, they probably would've been clawing each other for the position of president of the Film Appreciation club, which last she heard was wiped out after some of the students attempted to screen pornography during one of their Friday meetings.)

But ten minutes in Quinn seems fine with her selection, more so when Brittany tucks her under her arm on the couch, and Santana lets her head fall on Brittany's shoulder, only lifting it for a second to glance over at Quinn.

The lights are dim enough for her to just make out the soft features of Quinn's face and the bloom of a smile seems so promising that she can't stop her own smile from growing.

Brittany catches it as well: the gentle assurance of Quinn's smile, like maybe it isn't so much that she's drowning but her body's simply exhausted from treading the deep waters; and maybe she'll be fine as long as she has something to hold on to – a piece of driftwood, or a flotation device, or a friend.

The tender look Brittany gives Santana is so full of hope it sends a deep ache through her chest and then Brittany pulls Quinn even closer, impossibly close, and it feels as if they might be able to get by just holding her up.

/

It gets late and they move to the kitchen. The oven is on; then the radio, flicked through until settled on the oldies. Jo Stafford sings about heartbreak and as Brittany clasps Santana's hands, twirling her around the room, Quinn thinks she just might understand.

Blue moon, you saw me standing alone; without a dream in my heart; without a love of my own.

It's the same brownie recipe they've been using since the very beginning; and they've had mishaps along the way, fires and flour spills, but it's enough to keep trying; to just keep measuring out cups of sugar and cracking eggs without a speck of shell.

Quinn handles the dry ingredients and Santana rests her head on Brittany's shoulder, twirling softly now as the brass band slows.

It's how it always goes: they dance and she mixes, and she sits and they fetch trays, and they bake and she watches.

It's always been a her and them, but it's never quite felt like this.

Her hand nearly slips with the cocoa powder and when she glances up she feels Santana's eyes on her before she sees them; but their gazes meet somewhere in the middle, Santana watching her over Brittany's shoulder, and Brittany hums gently to the tune of the radio.

Quinn can almost lose herself in the folds of Brittany's voice – almost because Santana's eyes on her feel like a veil, weighted and somber, and no matter how hard she tries it's impossible to look away. Santana holds her there like a magnet; just holds and watches and frowns like she's not very sure either.

Neither girl protests as Quinn slips away while the batter's being poured – Brittany might not have seen her, distracted by the slight spill on the counter, but Santana sees and looks away.

It isn't a dismissal; nor an apology, or excuse, or allowance.

Santana steadies Brittany from behind and Quinn makes her way upstairs, almost drawn towards Desi's room the same as she was drawn away from the kitchen.

His sweet face shows a glimmer of surprise as he glances up from his comic book but then he's patting the bed and digging around his side-table drawer for a crinkly bag and offering her a Hershey's kiss like it might actually be the real thing; timid and cautious and sheepish all at once.

She accepts without a moment's hesitation and the smile on his face is enough to take another.

She sort of sinks into his duvet – Wolverine, which makes her think of Sam, which makes her think of the motel and the kids and the way Stacy used her stomach as a pillow when she napped – and it isn't the chocolate, or Desi's careful gaze, but she finds herself spilling words she mostly keeps buried deep.

"I bet you never heard about my baby," she all but whispers, and the look on his face is enough to bring tears to her eyes.

She wasn't expecting judgment from such a gentle boy, but the acceptance in his eyes hits her in a tidal wave and she blinks until the tears have dissipated, closing her fingers around the small chocolate he places in her palm.

"Her name is Beth," she continues, daringly soft. "I didn't keep her, but I- I think of her often, and. She's such a good little girl."

Desi unwraps a chocolate for himself and holds it close to his lips, pausing for a moment, eyebrows neatly drawn together, before he speaks. "Santana told me it was the bravest thing she'd ever seen anyone do. Give her up, I mean. She just… she just told me that her friend gave up her baby. Not that it was you. But I sort of thought, you know."

Her fingers fumble with the creases of the foil wrapping before Desi pops his own chocolate in his mouth and carefully helps her with hers; never touching the chocolate itself, only prying back enough foil for her to do it on her own.

"I didn't think Santana…" Quinn bites the tip off her chocolate and feels impossibly small, mouse small, sitting on a Wolverine duvet in a room painted in comic book colors.

Desi nods, a tiny pensive smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. "She was crying when she came home from that choir competition and Mami said she had a friend in the hospital. She didn't really talk about it for awhile. For a long time."

"She's a pretty good friend, huh?" Quinn murmurs, hating the way her voice shakes.

"She loves you," he says to her, not meeting her gaze. He toys with the corner of his comic book and speaks even quieter. "I think it's pretty brave too, you know. You'd have to love someone an awful lot to give them up."

"I do love her," Quinn replies, a bit to both his statements, and her heart just sinks a little lower in her chest.

"You should write her a letter," he says, scooping up the tiny balls of foil on his bed and dropping them back in the bag. "I bet she'd really love knowing what you're thinking about and all the things you'd like to say to her."

She thinks of the tiny fist that fit around her finger so perfectly that she wondered if anything had truly ever fit before – and of the crayon drawings her mother hung on the fridge with a blinding smile, and of the emptiness in her womb that's somehow expanded to her chest and lungs and limbs and just completely hollowed her out – and yes, there are so many things she'd like to say.

Brittany comes to find her with a breathless smile, Santana a step behind her, and they both pull back slightly as they take in the half a chocolate in her hand and the very pointed stare Desi's sending to Santana.

"Brownies are done," Brittany says, eyes dropping as she faintly bumps Santana.

"We thought you'd want to help ice them," Santana adds. "And we have sprinkles in case you want to getreally fancy."

She smiles and it's tentative and Quinn wants to both hug her and hit her, not necessarily in that order, because she's only now realizing how incredibly painful it is to see her hand brushing against Brittany's; like a steam burn from the kettle or the hiss of acidic pain when a battery exploded in her flashlight at cheer camp.

"Rainbow sprinkles?"

Her cheeks hurt from the smile she puts on and she knows Brittany catches it, she always does, but the girl knows enough to just give her a happy nod and reach out a hand for her to take.

Maybe Brittany knows; there's no guilt left in Quinn's heart to trickle out so she stands and takes Brittany's hand with a smaller smile, smaller but acquiescent, and it feels a little like coming home – she almost expects a drunken mother to come stumbling around the corner, but it's just Santana on the other side of Brittany (and again she fights the urge to both slap her and pull her close).

Desi frowns at her like he might actually be able to hear her thoughts so she pops the rest of the chocolate in her mouth and tries to remind herself she's standing on solid ground.

"We should save a brownie for your brother," she says as Santana leads them back downstairs, and it's not enough to right her balance but a small thank-you drifts out of Desi's room and her feet don't miss a single step.

/

After the cake is gone (Brittany insists on taking a photo, which she sets as her phone background) – and a large section of the tray of brownies, minus two set out on a plate for Desi – they end up on the back porch; seated haphazardly on the porch swing.

Brittany wanted to look for constellations but the view is hazy at best on a good day, and after agreeing that the blinking light up there was indeed a plane, they called it quits and dropped themselves onto the porch swing with the remainder of the tub of gummy worms that Brittany maintained would be great stargazing food.

"Gummy worms should catch gummy fish," was the last thing she mumbled before falling asleep with her face buried in Quinn's shoulder.

It's soft and pleasant, Brittany tucked into her like that, but after three minutes the breath on her skin begins to feel like a baby placed on her chest in a hospital bed and if there was a cliff behind her ribs, her heart would've jumped exactly seventeen seconds ago.

She almost doesn't notice when Santana takes her hand.

But the snag of glitter polish catches under the pad of her finger and it's caustic as she runs her fingertip over it again, and again, until Santana grabs her wrist and just holds her there.

"Quinn."

Nine nails belong to Santana and one belongs to Brittany – and her eyes sting as she wonders why it's so hard for anyone to get close to her; not love her, but just- just care.

"I slapped Rachel," she says, before Santana has time to let go. "At Prom."

Her lungs are sore and needy as the words tumble out; jump out; claw their way out.

"After I lost," she continues; quietly, whisper-soft, but so raw it burns. "In the bathroom. I just… slapped her."

Santana's hand slips down now, covering Quinn's fingers; holding heat to her palm. Her eyes are dark with concern, wide and searching, and it's equally as terrifying as it is reassuring – that someone hears her; that someone's listening.

"I really tried with the haircut," Santana tells her in such a tiny voice.

A pair of scissors and a hotel bathroom mirror and the rose petal hush of Brittany's voice, singing as her fingertips traced tear tracks. Later that night Quinn thought of Samson and had to pace the halls until her breathing no longer pulled so hard.

"I know," she means to say, but it's just a quiet sob and Brittany stirs at her neck, curling up even closer.

She's not asleep – Quinn feels the change in her breathing, the consciousness, but her body's just as malleable; her arms like ribbons around Quinn's middle, tying up her pieces, holding her together.

Quinn looks up to find Santana watching as well: watching the way Brittany closes herself around Quinn like a protective barrier; like a lock clicking into place.

"I didn't win either," Santana says quietly, mostly to the breath of space between their palms.

Quinn squeezes her hand until she's sure every last atom is touching, so close she feels Santana's pulse swaying with hers.

"Rachel looked just like my mom," she murmurs, not daring to meet Santana's eyes. "After I…"

Santana says "Oh, Quinn" just like the breeze in her grandmother's garden and it tugs so hard, so desperately.

Her hand feels lost in Santana's; unbearably small, plankton in the ocean small, to the point where she's not sure clinging on is actually doing anything – and she's crying again, when Brittany shifts and turns to cover their clasped hands with her own, bringing them up to her lips, pressing a kiss to Quinn's knuckles, then Santana's.

"Rachel is Rachel," she murmurs into the back of Quinn's hand, "and you're only you, and we won't let it change. Okay? We won't let that happen. We're not going to let that happen."

Santana squeezes up to the other side of Brittany, tucking her in the middle, like a nesting doll.

Her voice is twilight as she promises, "It doesn't have to be like that."

/

Santana laughs because they all change into old Cheerios sweats come bedtime; because laughing means she doesn't have to think about it.

They share her bed and she wonders if it's possible for them to just stay like this: stay a trinity forever, whatever may come, so long as they all shall live – every cliché, because they deserve that much, at least.

"Besties for life," Brittany mumbles into a pillow, and Santana feels guilty for ever dreaming of more when this should be enough.

/

The sky is amber and the bed is empty. It's early and somehow Santana's alone – tucked in, blanket carefully pulled to her chin, so it isn't abandonment but the sheets next to her are cold and someone left the curtains open.

It's chilly; not summer chilly but fall chilly, crisp morning breeze, the kind that always makes her crave a cigarette.

(Sometimes Puck lets her steal his cigars – cigarillos, he always corrects, but cigars sound cooler – and they smoke them on his back step, flicking ashes into gravel, grimacing when he forgets and picks up a pack of strawberry-flavored by mistake.

She teases him about that – that they come in flavors, vanilla and grape and peach, but the taste stains her lips so she usually lets it go until he slips up and buys strawberry again. It reminds her of loot bag candy and burning tires: the worst combination; the worst flavor.)

Down the hall Abuela has the same song playing on repeat – something Santana vaguely recognizes from afternoons at her Abuela's house; distant and tinny and the sort of thing Quinn would probably love.

It's not vinyl though – Papi donated the old record player after deeming it a dust collector and Abuela had a few CDs in her music collection, but it still doesn't feel the same as the massive wall of records she had back at her house; sleeve upon sleeve of songs Santana had never heard before, but Abuela always knew all the words.

Santana can barely make out the soft whisper of Abuela's voice now, gliding over the lyrics.

The many ways you speak of love; I've heard before but it sounds so good

It's all she can do to slip out of bed and not cry as her feet hit the cold floor. Her fingers tremble as she struggles to re-knot the tie to her sweats but she does so quietly, not wanting to lose the distant trails of Abuela's song.

Please, say the one part I love once more…

/

Santana finds them in the kitchen, like a family at the table.

Desi has his coffee mug on the wrong side, snug against Quinn's glass of something pink (one of her mother's weird juices, most likely), and Brittany has her mother's hand, clutching it like a Bible.

"The right hand is the head hand," she says now, as Santana hangs back in the doorway, not wanting to be noticed just yet. "And the left is the heart hand. Because you have that vein, you know, your wedding ring, and it ties up to your heart. And then your head hand – it's the connection, you know? When you make an oath, when you meet someone new, or someone important… Head hand, heart hand."

They're using the good dishes – the white ones trimmed with gold; a cluster of sweet pink flowers in the center – and Santana's sure this must be her mother's doing, only unlocking the China cabinet for special occasions.

(She's been keeping a list of Good China meals: the first dinner she ever cooked on her own, slightly darkened fish sticks and apple slices; the 2am "breakfast" after returning home from the emergency room, Desi's arm in a lime green cast; the party-sized chocolate cake her father brought home for no reason other than he spotted the yellow roses on top – her mother's favorite – and decided Thursday night needed celebrating.)

It's sweet, watching them around the breakfast table – sweet like an after-school special, ignoring the drastically different skin tones (and she likes that part too, that Desi's dark arm looks even warmer next to Quinn's pale skin) – and her chest feels full as she steps through the threshold and breaks their conversation.

"There was a thunderstorm this morning," her mother says as she scoots her chair over, making room. "I found Desi and the girls on the porch. They didn't want to wake you."

"You were snoring," Desi informs her.

She gives his shoulder a smack and sinks into the seat between her mother and Quinn. "I don't snore," she says.

"Right. It was probably the dragon you keep in your closet." Quinn's standing up, halfway to the stove where a large pan of bacon sits on the back burner, and a flash of alarm crosses her face as she catches her words.

"Dinosaur," Brittany corrects. Mrs. Lopez laughs. "It's a stegosaurus; I've seen it. He's very friendly, but he has a terrible sinus condition. Not a great sleepover buddy."

Quinn laughs as well as she loads up a plate for Santana and as it's set on the table, Santana catches the question in Quinn's eyes; the silent inquiry, searching for any signs that she's done something wrong.

It's an expression Santana's almost grown used to seeing on her – the hesitation, and regret, and the quiet way she readies herself for castigation – like her tiny gold cross; another reminder of how damaging fathers can be sometimes, even long after they're gone.

Santana touches Quinn's wrist as she pulls away, carefully sliding back into her seat. It's a slight touch, a whisper, but Quinn understands. She smiles.

Breakfast tastes apologetic, on Santana's tongue – she asks and her mother complains that Quinn wouldn't let anyone else help with the cooking, just sat them all down with tea and got to work, and as Santana swallows a mouthful of remorse in her eggs she thinks back to Quinn's eyes on the porch swing the night before: fractured and shining, like broken glass.

She's thankful when Brittany speaks again, over the sound of Quinn staring hard at her plate.

"If it could be anything in the world, what would your dream house be like?" Brittany says mostly to the juice pitcher in the middle of the table; the one with a chicken on it that Santana's always thought must have once existed as a vase.

It's quiet and Mrs. Lopez speaks up first, pressing a napkin to her lips as she sets her cup of tea down on the table.

"My dream house is anywhere with my sweet kids," she says, smile deepening as both her kids roll their eyes. "We could be living in a shack on the edge of the world and I'd be happy as long as my babies were with me."

"I think we'd need a really big pool," Desi says. "And a church inside so we could make up our own good things to say."

Santana's chest warms. Quinn gives her a gentle look.

"I'd like my own church," Quinn says, putting a faint blush on Desi's cheeks. "Or maybe just big stained glass windows." She pauses to think. "And a nice studio, where I could write."

Mrs. Lopez says, "You've always struck me as a writer, Quinn," and Santana wants to kiss her mother as a shy smile grows on Quinn's face.

"I think a castle would be pretty cool," Brittany says with a shrug, sending a tug through Santana's heart.

She thinks of July, ages ago, when she read the diary entry out loud and Quinn looked at her like she'd just cracked in half – and of the small trinket Brittany brought back for her, from Scotland, now sitting on her dresser.

Her mind's actually on the front of that postcard when Brittany adds, "I saw you got the postcard I sent you, Santana – Ash said the mail must've eaten it or something, but I thought it'd get to you eventually."

Quinn sits up at this and Santana stabs mindlessly at a piece of bacon, biding her time.

"You sent her a postcard?" Quinn asks. "That's so sweet."

There's a small glance from Desi, concerned and knowing, and Santana wants to squash him in a hug when he yanks the conversation back in the right direction.

"I think a castle would be way too drafty," he says as the hand he waves gets dangerously close to Quinn's face.

She flinches and Santana's eyes automatically travel to the faded bruise on her cheek, only visible to someone who knows what they're looking for. It's a quiet shade of yellow now; pale like a buttercup, but still so harsh on Quinn's soft skin.

"Santana, what about you?" Desi reaches forward to steal bacon from her plate and she lets him, knowing he's earned it. "Your dream house?"

Quinn wants a studio and her mother wants her children. Brittany wants a castle which mostly means a moat with sharks and Desi wants a pool – without sharks, Santana's guessing, but then again he's always said they'd be good friends if you fed them enough and told them you loved them.

But Santana doesn't dream this way. The thought's never even been a blip on her radar, until now.

She's only half joking when she says, "I'd just be happy with a closet I could live in."

/

When Mrs. Lopez gets up to bring a plate of food to Abuela, Quinn takes it from her.

She's not sure why, exactly; it's just that the sound of the door shutting woke her late last night, and it took her a moment of quick breaths to remind herself this was Santana's mom coming home from work, not her own mother slipping in from God knows where.

And the woman looks tired – even more now than she did when she stepped onto the porch this morning in a dark robe to find Quinn and Brittany sitting on the steps, Desi nestled between them in X-Men pyjamas.

(She'd told him Mystique was her favorite and after a funny smile he said he could understand that.)

Abuela has music on when Quinn knocks; Etta James, If I Can't Have You, which sounds just as heartbroken as Abuela sings along – softly, but surely, with her eyes closed.

Then she's looking at Quinn with a mother's expression, a twist of a knife in Quinn's heart, and it doesn't matter if she recognizes her as the girl who went to church with the family because the next thing Quinn knows she's by the bed and Abuela has her in a warm hug, careful not to jostle the plate.

"You look so sad," Abuela says as Quinn pulls away. "That's not just a broken heart, is it cariño?"

The song ends and Abuela reaches over to her small stack of CDs on the nightstand, fingers struggling with the plastic cases. She puts on someone Quinn doesn't recognize; breathy and sad and Spanish, but still beautiful; enough to cause Quinn's hands to tremble slightly as she sets the plate down on the bed.

"Mama, leave the poor girl alone." Mrs. Lopez appears in the doorway, still holding her cup of tea. It must have gone cold by now but her hands wrap around it as if steam still rises, careful and easy. "She made you a nice breakfast. The least you can do is say thank-you."

Abuela reaches out and Quinn feels trapped as she takes her hand, despite it just being a quick squeeze and a murmured thank-you. She's halfway between the bed and the doorway, dangerously close to the soft cast on Abuela's leg; to Mrs. Lopez's caring eyes.

"She's new to the school, this year? Maci's grade?"

Quinn sucks in her cheeks as Mrs. Lopez visibly deflates at her mother's words, suddenly looking so completely drained and as small as Quinn feels.

"No, Mama." Mrs. Lopez reaches up for her cross, squeezing it in her palm, an action Quinn can almost feel in her own hand after all these years of doing the same. "Why don't you come back downstairs, Quinn sweetheart? The girls and Desi were digging around for some ice cream when I left them."

There's a skip in the song, a hitch of breath, and Quinn finds herself slipping out of the room, fitting seamlessly into the arm Mrs. Lopez wraps around her as they head back downstairs.

She's not sure what to say – if there is anything to say – but then it doesn't matter anyway; Mrs. Lopez fills the silence with her steady voice.

"It's been so hard, watching her go. So hard."

The arm around Quinn's waist feels so secure and for a moment she thinks about the cluster of empty bottles under her sink back home, the smell of her mother on a Saturday night, and it's almost on the tip of her tongue – I know exactly what you mean.

But Desi's voice comes from the kitchen and they've found ice cream – "chocolate, is that okay with everyone?" – and Mrs. Lopez just gives Quinn's shoulder a gentle squeeze before breaking away, already straightening up into a mother's posture; strong and open and warm, like Quinn remembers her mother to be: so long ago when she was small and they read stories until her father went to bed.

/

The house seems to sigh once Quinn heads home.

Desi didn't really want to see her go – she cooks bacon better than anyone else in his family and even let him tell her all about the plot of his favorite X-Men movie (even though he knew she'd seen it, when she mentioned something about Magneto in a certain scene).

And when the storm started, loud and heavy and strong, she found him in the kitchen, sitting small under the table.

"Let's go watch the lightning," she said, and her eyes were so bright that he took her hand and risked certain death on the porch steps, as the street became a river and the sky lit up white.

Then Brittany joined them – quiet, sleepy Brittany, which he thinks he might like best, even if she doesn't say much – and he felt secure; small and warm, safe and sound, tucked between the two of them.

It's sad when Quinn goes home and sadder still when Santana slips out to the porch with Brittany after Mami heads up for a shower.

He doesn't mean to spy on them – well he does, but he only really wanted to see if they talked about Quinn, because he knows Santana doesn't like to deal with things – but he has the curtains pulled back slightly in the living room and is standing statue still when he sees them kiss.

It's a sad kiss; that's what he thinks when they pull away, Brittany's eyes big and blue like the clearing sky behind them.

Sad in the way Santana sort of holds onto the bottom of Brittany's shirt – little fingers, children's fingers – and stumbles slightly as Brittany turns her head.

He doesn't want to think about it; doesn't want to have seen it, or know it happened, or catch his sister's face as Brittany makes her way down the porch steps. Because now she's kissed Quinn and Brittany and he doesn't understand how it's fair to any of them, even his sister, who he thinks is incredibly stupid and feeble and just needs a hug.

His stomach is a tar pit as Brittany disappears around a corner and Santana just stays in place; just stands in her shadowy corner, tucked away from the neighbors, so much the child whose balloon slipped out of her hand.

He refuses to speak to her once she's back inside cleaning the kitchen, even when she asks him about Quinn the night before and what she said in his bedroom.

None of your business, he almost shouts.

Like a little kid he covers his ears and pretends he never heard her or the other question tucked underneath, asking what she's supposed to do.

Then Mami comes back downstairs, hair up in a wet bun, and asks if he'd like to come grocery shopping with her.

"We need milk," she says to no one in particular, but his sister's face pulls and he thinks of her small fingers clutching Brittany's shirt.

He doesn't speak again until he's in the car, strapped into the backseat because Mami still says the airbags in the front would kill him if they crashed, and then they hit a red light and he asks her about what she said at breakfast.

"Why wouldn't Papi come too?" he says. His seatbelt is tight and it digs in hard. "Why wouldn't he be in your dream house?"

She sighs and through the rearview mirror he catches a glimpse of the girl in the pictures Santana showed him, so young with eyes as old as the sun. "My kids come first," she says. "That's what it means when you become a mother. There's nothing in the world that comes before your babies. Nothing."

/

Santana finds Abuela in the den, crutch resting on the coffee table, some old Spanish soap on TV.

It's unbelievable, how fast the woman can get around, despite the soft cast covering her leg. She's sure it's not meant to be this way but then maybe Alzheimer's brings superpowers; and it's a thought that settles some of the raging sea in her stomach, for a little bit at least.

"Manuel's twin brother came back from the war," Abuela says, ushering Santana over to the couch. "They say he's the real father of Manuel's little girl."

Santana drops onto the edge of the scratchy orange couch, banished here when she was little; one of the few pieces of furniture her parents kept from when they had their small apartment after college. It's hideous but her mother won't throw it away and Santana likes it for that reason alone, that it means something.

After a minute of dramatic pauses from the TV, the scratchiness becomes too much and she sinks to the floor, using the couch as a backrest.

Her Spanish isn't great, but she can make out enough of the plot to know people really need to stop sleeping around and trying to poison each other. It makes her think of the Barbie games she and Brittany use to play when they were kids and then her lips are tingling so much she has to cover them with her palm.

"You used to always watch with me, mija," Abuela says, and her hands find Santana's hair, quietly setting to work. "On your lunch break from school, remember? You said Anita was so pretty. Such a pretty lady, you'd say."

Santana's eyes shut and she tries to focus on the feeling of Abuela's fingers on her scalp; gentle and warm, a loving touch.

If she tries hard enough she can almost forget Abuela isn't talking to her but the ghost in the room; the one that hangs around her mother as a shadow, always there; a dark stain she can't escape.

Santana doesn't want to think about it anymore. She doesn't want to know.

"My sweet girl," Abuela says.

There's a doily on top of the fish tank and Santana wonders when it got there.

/

She's dreaming about dungeons when the shouting wakes her. It's hushed – as hushed as thin walls and the constant rising from a whisper allows – but it's enough to catch the panicked tone and she's slipping into her robe before she even has all the sleep out of her eyes.

"What's going on?" she asks as she stumbles into the hall, to see her brother doing the same, clad in superhero pyjamas that are still pushed halfway up his legs.

She dimly registers that her father must have come home after she fell asleep last night but then she realizes that it's still night, albeit barely given how close they are to the sun's arrival, and they're all still in their sleepwear, looking so much like frightened children that it almost seems funny.

It's an odd sight, their parents – neither has on enough to qualify as an outfit (and she prays to never again see that much of her father's legs) but their faces are just as stricken as the day they got the phone call about Abuelo and suddenly her stomach bottoms out.

"Mami?"

The quick hand placed on her mother's back and the fluidity with which her father does it will stick with her for hours afterwards; how they seemed to move as one, as she remembers them from early childhood, in soft tones and shared looks.

"We can't find your Abuela," her mother whispers.

Desi's at Santana's side in seconds and she wraps an arm around him without thinking, just knowing he needs to be close.

"She's on crutches," she tries feebly, but they all seem to be thinking the same thing – how fast Abuela's been scuttling down the stairs these days, and how quietly she moves.

Her father, her stern, guarded father, speaks through a hint of tears. "I don't think she could have gotten very far, but just- just be prepared, all right?"

There's a moment of absolute silence and then Desi sniffs at her side, already straightening up and holding onto her waist like she's the one who needs support. A sudden wetness dropping onto her chest alerts her to the fact that she's been crying – quietly, just tears, but enough for her brother to notice.

She registers next to nothing as they talk of police and reports and search parties. All she can see is the lock that once shut Abuela's door – that once felt like the bars of a jail cell, but now she understands – and how small it seems, sitting open on the floor.

/

It's when they miss Sunday mass that she starts to panic.

She'd pulled on a pair of nylons and started to do her hair just in case, pinning it back in soft curls, but Desi stopped her before she had time to find a dress and she knew; she knew they were better off praying from home.

Their parents have both gone out looking – their mother after physically beating the officer staying at the house ("I am not a frazzled old housewife," she'd hissed, hair still in rollers, "if my husband is looking, then I'm looking") – and Desi finds solace in reciting all the comic book characters he knows ("You look a lot like Cyborg," he tells the officer), every so often drifting back over to the window and brushing aside the curtains long enough to announce she isn't back yet.

Santana just has her head bowed, hoping.

Her Sunday best consists of a leopard print nightgown, hair curled but no makeup, nylons without a single run, and the soft wheezing her breathing's been making for the past hour and a half. No one, thankfully, comments on that.

The officer does however make them all coffee, after Desi insists he drink with them, and Santana's grateful for the warmth of the cup when another officer returns without anything to say.

It's the slight shrug that gets her; it feels too much like giving up.

"We're asking around," he tells the three of them, nudging his partner when he notices the coffee. "Most everyone was asleep but I'm sure someone will have seen her."

"I bet she went to Paris," Desi says out of the blue. He turns back from the window and his eyes are saucer-wide; perplexed and exhausted, no doubt a mirror to Santana's own face. "I bet she's at the top of the Eiffel tower right now, writing us a postcard."

Neither officer knows what to say so Santana replies, "She's probably already befriended all the local cats and they followed her up to the top, making sure she held onto the handrail."

It's meant to put a smile on his face but he just sort of stares back at her, unblinking, and tugs at his pyjama top.

She doesn't say anything after that.

/

Three hours pass. Her father returns. After a cup of coffee he heads out again, saying their mother will be back soon.

Santana hopes for news but then her mother returns without a word to say and she has to force herself to stay in place because her mother needs her to be strong.

Her mother especially needs her when the tears start and then she can feel her heart cracking.

/

A neighbor stops by with lunch and Santana picks at a salad, thankful when Desi wolfs down three sandwiches in a row and asks for another.

"He's a growing boy," her mother says. Santana wonders when exactly they stopped saying that about her.

She doesn't feel finished yet. Her skin doesn't fit right.

They all jump when the phone rings and her mother throws out the loudest slew of Spanish Santana's ever heard when it turns out to be a telemarketer. The officer doesn't seem surprised by the outburst, reminding her that bigger things happen every day.

It's strange and sad and almost funny that her chest's so tight she's sure it's due to burst any minute now and yet after this the cops may go on to investigate a murder or bust up a drug lab or save a child.

She feels small and smaller so when she glances over to see her mother curled up in the armchair, wiping her cheeks with shaking palms.

/

Desi falls asleep. Their mother goes off into the house with the intention of watering the plants and Santana makes a mental note to stop by the garden center soon as her mother practically drowns the ficus in the front hall.

She's tallying up the costs of replacing all their plants when voices sound from the porch and an officer rises to his feet.

Her heart stops.

Quinn steps through the open front door in a white sundress and has Abuela by the hand, chattering on about Meet Me in St. Louis, her eyes bright and animated like Santana's never seen her before.

"She was pulling weeds in my neighbor's garden," Quinn explains after Mrs. Lopez nearly plows her down in a fierce hug. "So I asked her if she wanted to take a walk with me."

"She's a very sweet girl," Abuela comments, giving Quinn's hair a soft pat. "We should keep her."

Santana waits until everyone mostly moves on to Abuela and then pulls Quinn into a tight hug, burying her face in her neck. She smells sweet like spring and running water and as she brings a hand up to Santana's hair, Santana just lets all her worries and frustrations go in a long breathy groan.

"She's home," Quinn murmurs close to Santana's ear. "It's okay."

Santana's fingers find the ribbon of Quinn's dress and hold on; clutching so tight she fears she might rip the satiny fabric, but she can't bring herself to untangle her grip – and Quinn doesn't seem like she'll be detaching herself any time soon either, as she rubs gentle circles into Santana's back; an almost hypnotic touch.

Quinn doesn't let go until the officers need to get by but even after she has her hand snug up against Santana's; a quiet reminder that it's okay to breathe now.

It's a struggle to remember that once she's gone – once her father starts flipping through his address book to see if he knows anyone who could take Abuela, and then her mother's voice could break glass as the argument rises and Santana decides it's in her best interest to melt into a puddle and slip under the rug.

She's frozen in the hall when Desi finds her, arms hugging her stomach, and his hands are cold as he leads her downstairs to the laundry room.

The screensaver on her father's computer is still flicking through old family photos as they pass by – her mother smiles like sunshine in each of them, holding her children so close – and it isn't funny in the least but she laughs to cover up the voices that slip down from upstairs and then Desi puts on a load of laundry, loud enough for them to make a nest in a pile of clean towels and ignore the sound of their mother crying.

"I'd sing you something but I don't want your ears to bleed," he tells her very seriously, burrowing deeper into their nest.

She can just make out his face in the dim lighting and he seems just as close to tears as she is, so she reaches across the expanse of towels to fold her hand around his.

"Should I sing a hymn since we missed church?" she asks.

He makes his cauliflower face, as she's always called it – the one he's been making since an infant whenever cauliflower managed to pass through his lips, and it's equal parts hilarious and disturbing that a face can contort like that – and hurriedly shakes his head.

"No, are you kidding me? Anything but hymns!" His fingers wiggle slightly against hers and he tilts his head, thinking. "Something sad," he says. "I think we're allowed that much today."

It takes her a moment but a song comes – right in time for something heavy to clunk in the washing machine, and she takes it as her cue to start singing; softly, barely loud enough for her brother to hear, but just enough to smooth out the worry creases in his forehead.

"Drink up baby, stay up all night; with the things you could do, you won't but you might." She inches her way closer to him until she can rest her head on his belly, and then she sings to the beat of his heart; to the rise and fall of his chest. "The potential you'll be, that you'll never see… Promises you'll only make."

He picks up on the tune almost immediately, humming along in his careful way, like he's afraid the notes will run away if he's too brash. She's sure she could listen to him hum forever; his voice the shadow to her words, holding her from behind; hand steady in hers.

"…And I'll make you okay, and drive them away; the images stuck in your head…"

She sings until the washing machine hits the rinse cycle; until the voices die down upstairs and a door slams; until Desi's breathing slows and she knows he's nodded off.

There's a shaky breath and she sighs out the last line, this time for herself.

"…I'll keep them still."

/

When they find their mother actually pouring herself a drink, they know their father won't be returning home that night. Part of Santana wants to ask about what's going to happen to Abuela but her mother's hand shakes as she clutches the glass and it reverberates around Santana's ribcage, trickling down her spine.

"Go watch TV," is all her mother says, tired and mostly to the countertop, shoulders so slumped she seems to have shrunk six inches.

Desi's eyes are wide and fearful as he nudges Santana towards the living room and they have enough seating to fit an entire football team but she isn't surprised when he fills in the couch cushion beside her, not even protesting when she flips to the news channel.

They sit through three equally depressing stories about the economy and gas prices and then the doorbell rings and every hair on Santana's skin rises to attention, prickled and chilled with such a wary feeling.

"Santana?" her mother's voice calls out, pinched and uneasy, and Santana's on her feet within seconds, hands already clammy.

"Mami?"

Her heart pitches forward before she's even around the corner but then she spies the white dress and everything bottoms out as she takes in Quinn – beautiful, guarded, terribly sad Quinn – with the side of her face stained a frightening dark red.

She's been crying but she isn't now, just trembling, trembling and gasping apologetically, holding her wrist with a pale hand.

"What happened," Santana breathes out, unable to will herself forward.

Her mother gently tugs Quinn further into the house and immediately sets her drink down on a shelf when she catches Quinn shrinking away from it, hazel eyes glassy with fear – and Santana's seen her mother scared before, more so in the past few months than in the past few years, but this is more than that: this is a mother seeing a helpless daughter, and Santana knows her mother understands.

"I'm going to get the first-aid kit," her mother says now, voice still strained, "and you take her into the other room; get her settled under a blanket and get your brother to make her some tea."

"I swear she didn't do it on purpose," Quinn says hoarsely as Santana's mother disappears upstairs, and gives Santana such a pleading look it physically aches to see it. "It was an accident. I got in the way."

Her cheek is swollen and bruised under the drying blood and being this close it doesn't look quite as severe as it initially did, but Santana's stomach still churns at the thought of anything leaving such a large gash in Quinn's perfect skin and she'd pull her closer and just hold her there if she didn't look so ready to crumble.

"Quinn," she murmurs, unable to look away from how tightly Quinn's fingers curl around her own wrist like a handcuff.

Quinn slowly shakes her head and lets out another gasp, trying to mask it with a cough that only shakes her body like a prisoner with his hands on the bars of his jail cell.

"I'm so sorry," she whispers. "I just- I didn't know- I don't have anywhere else-"

This jerks Santana into motion and she slips an arm around Quinn's waist, cradling her delicately so she doesn't hurt anything, carefully pulling her in the direction of the couch. "I'd be insulted if this wasn't your first stop, Q. Don't worry about it."

It's easy enough to keep her voice light but she has to fight to keep the sob in when Desi catches sight of Quinn – his eyes immediately fill with tears and he rushes over with his arms open, catching her middle like a firefly in a mason jar, before helping her over to the couch.

"Don't worry, Quinn; you're still the prettiest girl I've ever seen," he tells her shyly, hands in his pockets, before scuttling off to make her a cup of tea.

Mrs. Lopez returns with their first-aid kit and the fluffy white blanket off her bed, which she refuses to let anyone near without first washing their hands, but waves it away with a quick "oh, I can always wash it" when Quinn tells her she doesn't want to ruin it.

"You're in shock," she tells her, before wrapping her up in the blanket and ordering Santana to let Quinn choose something to watch on TV. "We're going to get you cleaned up and taken care of and then if you want, you can let us know what happened. But only if you want to, Quinn. Your story belongs to you and no one should ever push you."

Santana sits mesmerized on the other end of the couch, watching her mother's delicate hands wash away the dried blood to reveal a small but deep gash just above Quinn's cheekbone.

It's the same careful touch from when she freed a butterfly from a spider web after Santana ran to her in tears, and from her wedding video when she slipped the ring onto her husband's finger, and from when Desi broke his arm and she wiped away his tears as they rode in the ambulance.

"You really don't need to do this," Quinn says through a faint hiccup, eyes still brimming with unshed tears. "I could- I could go to-"

Mrs. Lopez carefully applies a butterfly bandage, fingers wary of the mottled bruising, and makes a small noise in the back of her throat. "Nonsense, sweetheart. You brought our Abuela home safe and now it's our turn to make you safe. You'll sleep with Santana tonight and tomorrow we can figure out what needs to be done, as soon as my husband gets home."

"He can help," Santana says quietly, hugging a pillow. "You know, your-"

"My mom didn't do it on purpose," Quinn says in such a fragile, teary voice. "She was trying- she just… I tried to take the bottle from her, and it… I think the wall took most of the damage, really. It's not…"

Mrs. Lopez cups Quinn's uninjured cheek with her palm and presses a soft kiss to her forehead. "Whatever you need, mija, we'll help you get it."

"Mami," Santana murmurs, eyeing Quinn's arm. "Her wrist…"

Quinn loosens her grip on her wrist and Santana's breath catches in her chest as the swelling becomes visible.

"It twisted," Quinn explains in a hushed voice, eyes fixed on the coffee table.

"We'll fix you up," Mrs. Lopez says, softly, a promise as Quinn seems to shrink even further under the blanket.

Desi appears with a steaming mug of tea – the mug from the aquarium, Santana's favorite, with the manatees on the side – and visibly stops himself from scooping Quinn up in a hug. He does hover, however, achingly close, a barrier between her and the rest of the world.

She sips the tea in tiny increments as Mrs. Lopez tends to her swollen wrist ("sprained, most likely," she says, "but I want my husband to take a look tomorrow") with a tensor bandage and an ice pack, the kind that needs to be cracked first, which on any other day would put a smile on Desi's face but he doesn't even blink; just keeps his eyes fixed on Quinn's, chest rising in tandem with hers.

Quinn puts on the History Channel – some program about the end of the world, which feels oddly appropriate and heartbreaking and prolific all at once – and they watch in silence, Mrs. Lopez eventually packing up her first-aid kit and dropping herself into the armchair, until Quinn nods off a few too many times and Mrs. Lopez orders everyone to bed.

"I'll make a big breakfast tomorrow," she tells them, fixing the blanket around Quinn's shoulders so it hangs like a cape, "and we can put icing sugar on everything if we want."

It sparks a tiny smile from Quinn and it's enough to let some air back into Santana's lungs as she catches Quinn's good hand and threads her fingers through hers. She knows her mother's supposed to be at work early tomorrow morning (and she's told her off for this before, taking on so many shifts) and it's overwhelmingly kind and caring and motherly, that she'd so willingly just stay here for Quinn.

("You're like Super Mom," she'll tell her later, when they run into each other in the hall on Santana's way back from the bathroom.)

Quinn seems to figure it out, or just guess that hanging around the house on a Monday morning isn't what Mrs. Lopez usually does, because by the time she's changed into the sleepwear Santana lent her she already has that unworthy look in her eyes and is about to say something when Santana cuts her off.

"My dad wants to put Abuela in a home. If you hadn't found her…" Santana folds back the duvet so Quinn can get under and then tucks her in, fluffy white blanket and all. "I really didn't think I'd see her again. And sometimes, I think the same about you… If maybe tonight will be the night your mom falls asleep with the stove on and the house catches fire, or you get in the car with her, or-"

"I take care of her," Quinn insists, eyes following Santana as she switches off all but one of her lamps.

"Yeah, but who takes care of you, Quinn?"

The room falls thick with silence and Santana holds her breath as she flicks off the light, crawls under the covers, and carefully snakes her arm across the mattress, until her hand finds Quinn's. It isn't enough just to hold it but she isn't sure what would suffice at this point; it almost feels like a gaping crater in her chest that grows wider each time she pulls Quinn close; each time she breathes her in.

And she can smell that familiar Quinn smell now; sweet and faint like forget-me-nots, so subdued she always finds herself trying to place it long after it's faded, but so distinctive she'd recognize it in a field of blonde-haired girls, each as sad and lost as the next.

"Twenty-four astronauts were born in our state," Quinn whispers after a noticeable amount of quiet has gathered. "Did you know that?"

Santana swallows back a thousand questions she knows won't do a lick of good. "I didn't, no."

"There's just something about Ohio that makes you need to escape."

Quinn releases Santana's hand and cold rushes in where they'd been touching but then she's inching even closer, her head a breath away from Santana's pillow. Even in the dark Santana can make out the small bandage on Quinn's cheek, so out of place it's nauseating, and she's once again filled with an overwhelming need to pull Quinn close and just keep her safe.

"And in Roman mythology," Quinn continues, even quieter than before, her breath soft against Santana's cheeks, "there was a goddess named Lima, who was the goddess of thresholds – of beginnings."

"We're getting out of her, Q," Santana whispers back, shifting enough to look Quinn in the eye. "I promise. Okay? We'll get out of this shitty town and never look back."

A deep sadness fills Quinn's eyes and it spills onto the pillow and sheets as she breathes out, "But what if I can't?"

Santana goes to ask for clarification, if Quinn means she can't get out or if she just can't stop looking back, but the question dies as hesitant lips meet hers and this time Santana doesn't pull away – she presses closer (hold on, she tries to say, just hold on for me), impossibly close, until she isn't sure if she's tasting Quinn or the folds of her soul, and suddenly all she knows is the whisper of a sigh Quinn lets out and the saltiness of tears on her lips.

It's over before she can fully place it – then she's just left with the sound of Quinn crying in the darkness and the tang of sadness lingering on her lips, so terribly heavy it pulls at her heart like an undertow and she clings to Quinn's fingers so she won't be dragged into the deep.

If Quinn was a goddess it would be of lost souls, Santana decides, and beauty, and the kind of sadness that lingers the way Quinn never seems to; long enough to be understood and cared for and loved.

She waits for Quinn to fall asleep (which isn't long, but feels like an eternity with each quiet sob that shakes through her body) and finally plants a soft kiss on Quinn's forehead, mindful of the flowering bruises just below her eye.

It's unfair – bitterly, horribly unfair – that it's only in tragedy that Quinn becomes so vibrant, so bright.

And as she drifts off all she can think of is how fitting it would be if Quinn truly was a figure of mythology.

She could have her own star in the sky and hang there for all eternity.

Safe, she thinks. Quinn could be safe.

Chapter Text

Her mother wakes her gently; a hand on her shoulder, a whisper in her ear. It's early – early enough for the sky to still be milk slate – and beside her Quinn still sleeps, cradling her bandaged wrist to her chest.

She needs her rest, her mother says. We'll let her be.

If Santana's careful, she almost can't see the remnants of last night coloring Quinn's pretty face: the bruising, and the small butterfly bandage, and the kiss that felt more like an anchor cut loose at sea. She can still taste the salt on her lips. The deep.

They linger in the doorway for only a moment and then her mother tugs her forward, hand cold in the early hour. It's easier to pretend nothing's trembling.

It's easier to forget the view from the doorway – the casket of blankets, Quinn static and stained.

"She's just a child," her mother whispers to the staircase, and Santana lets that go too.

They trail from the darkness to the earthy light of the kitchen, the sole bulb above the sink, to the cave-like chill of the basement, where her father waits for them with mugs of coffee and the two leather office chairs, having himself taken the rusted monstrosity of a drafting stool that's been hanging in the shadows down here for years.

This is how she knows the heaviness of the gathering – this and the creases around his eyes, no doubt from what he's already pieced together – and as the stool creaks beneath him, she finally lets go of her mother's hand and takes her seat.

An anvil dropping. That's what she is, sitting between them, their eyes trained on her hands gripping the mug like she's already splitting the ground beneath them, and she isn't even sure any of this is hers to tell. Not when Quinn's sleeping upstairs in her bed, the same pale skin against the sheets as the girl who climbed in at the end of July; just as battered, just as weary.

Her parents seem to understand this, somehow, even without her really looking up from the rising steam. And yet they're still waiting for her to cut it open, and she's so fucking deep in this wound.

"This isn't exactly… I know it's a tricky situation," her mother says carefully, as if someone buried landmines between her words. "I think what's best is if you tell us as much as you feel you can without betraying Quinn, and then we'll see if there's anything we can do."

At this she glances at her husband, who seems to have discarded his comfortingly reserved doctor expression for something much more open and receiving and for a moment Santana wonders what words were exchanged between them last night that brought him home – the slam of the door and the drink her mother poured sitting heavy in her memory – but then the worry slips through whatever calm he'd been wearing and she has to avert her eyes.

"I thought I could keep her safe," is what comes out first, soft and ragged, and it's enough to send her mother grabbing for her hand.

The oh, nena finds her exactly as she expected it to, and then the patient silence that follows has enough give for a few more words to come tumbling out: the length of time she's let slip between finding out and it getting this bad, the buildup of empties at the Fabray residence, how she isn't even sure anymore if Judy's to blame.

Her father stops her there just to try and understand, and then she's blurting out, "Quinn's dad… he isn't a nice man. I think he might've broken them, Papi," and her mother isn't the only one swiping at tears.

She hates how wet it all comes out after that, the little pieces of Quinn's story that feel too much like betrayal to be shared, but the idea of doing nothing is even worse and she squeezes her mother's hand until the full-on sobbing wins out and then she just folds over in her seat and shakes.

It's her father's palm that rubs her back, as much a surprise to both of them.

But he smoothes out circles until the hiccupping stops and then finds her a box of tissues from his desk to blot at her cheeks and just takes a moment to digest it all.

"I have a colleague who I believe could help her mother," he says finally, quiet and level, though not enough to mask anything. "I would like to talk to her first, though, just to get a better understanding of the situation."

"You can take the girls over after breakfast, and Santana can get Quinn settled again while you have a talk with Mrs. Fabray," her mother says, busying herself with the coffee mugs on the desk just to steady her hands.

"Mami-"

The look her mother gives her is both empathic and apologetic, and she understands before her mother speaks.

"I know you want to take care of her," she says as she brushes a few strands of hair out of Santana's eyes. "But we have to respect that this is between Quinn and her mother, and whatever they choose to do is entirely their business. You know this."

She does, but- but it's Quinn, and it must show on her face because her mother follows that with a gentle, "we'll offer what we can. And then we'll keep them in our prayers and keep our door open should any needs arise."

"She's my best friend," is what she manages to say, instead of the colossal bouquet of other damnable sentences.

I'm scared if I let her go, she won't come back.

But you don't know Quinn like I do.

Judy's not the only one you should be talking to, Papi.

I'm so scared she's already imploding.

"This is the right thing," her father says. He looks her in the eye, straight and unwavering. "We're doing the right thing."

And she tries her hardest to remember how he's built his life around other people's tragedies, how much he knows about healing, how he's known as the best at what he does for a reason. But all she can think about is the very fine line between right and cleanest, and how it still doesn't feel like enough.

 


 

Realistically, there are too many of them for breakfast to take place at the kitchen table, but Dr. Lopez heads down to his office to make some phone calls and Desi sleeps in and Quinn refuses to let Mrs. Lopez do all the cooking so it ends up just being Santana toeing the cold rung of her chair, trying her best to focus on anything but Quinn at the stove.

Because the quiet picture of domesticity isn't hers. In a few hours Quinn will be back in her own house and Santana will have to make her bed around the imprint left in the sheets. No one will be there to wear her kitchen like a second skin, and this more than anything sits hard in her stomach.

It's the feeling of the lock being back on Abuela's door; Santana knows why it has to be this way, but it doesn't feel any less like abandonment in the middle of a battlefield.

Quinn had just taken the news of the day's plans with a tiny smile and a gracious nod and Santana had wanted to hit her, yell at her, anything, just try to get her to protest, tell Quinn she knew she felt something underneath that mask, but the thing is she doesn't know. She has no idea.

Quinn kissed her last night with a desperate sadness but even then, Santana couldn't understand.

Couldn't understand why she tasted like a burnt-out star; why she stands at the stove like the empty light of a wish made on something that died years ago.

Can't understand why Quinn hasn't collapsed like a sandcastle at high tide knowing that after all this, she still has to go back to the same grave of a house with only the promise that something, at some point, could change. If it were Santana, she'd be rubble.

But it's Quinn.

And Quinn hums with the radio.

And Santana trembles under the heaviness of remorse.

She's just about picked the skin of her nail beds down to bloody stumps by the time Desi comes bouncing in, hair a mess and a piece of paper clutched to his pyjama top like he's holding the secrets of the universe in his small hands.

"This is for Quinn," he says with a shy smile. It's enough to draw Quinn away from the stove and into a seat at the table and Mrs. Lopez looks a little grateful.

He hands it to her in such a way it's impossible for anyone else to see what's on it, so all Santana catches is the glowing softness of Quinn's face and the hush that takes over the both of them as she absorbs it all.

"I did red and white because of your cheerleading," he explains, and then Quinn has him in a hug, and the paper angles just enough for Santana to catch a drawing of a smiling blonde superhero.

"It's the best thing anyone's ever given to me," Quinn just about whispers, arm still half around his shoulders.

Desi's cheeks darken a little and he runs a finger along the edge of the paper. "I just wanted you to feel better," he says.

Quinn looks at him in awe and unworthiness, mixed in such a way it just looks sad, and she seems to take in every last inch of him before drawing in a sharp breath and promising him she does. "You're the greatest kid I've ever met, Desi."

Santana catches her mother's eye from across the kitchen and isn't at all surprised to see tears, both of pride and a raw shade of sadness. This is why she needs to stay with us, Santana wants to say. But it's why Quinn needs something to change at home and why Santana just resigns herself to watching Quinn and Desi talk quietly about superheroes, safe in their own little world.

She doesn't say anything at all throughout breakfast. It's both the most harmless and the most painful. Her mother just keeps squeezing her hand.

 


 

Abuela catches them right before they're due to set out (Quinn the very definition of calm in one of Santana's sundresses, Santana barely able to hold herself upright) with ribbons in her hand and a wistful edge in her eyes and insists they don't go before she can do their hair.

"You're such pretty girls," she says from the couch as Santana kneels before her.

Santana keeps her gaze level with the coffee table, not daring to look at Quinn perched on the ottoman, knowing full well what pretty's done for the both of them; what it's left behind in its place.

Still, the child in her warms under the touch of fingers on her scalp and a part of her feels closer to her mother, somehow, thinking of all the stories of Abuela doing her hair before school. She said the only reason it tugged was because I was wiggling so much, her mother used to tell her. Used to ghost a palm across her hair as if it might still be in a long braid.

It's the same action Santana finds herself doing once Abuela's done; just touching the plaited hair, watching the same ritual be done to what's grown back of Quinn's hair from New York.

Quinn can't seem to keep still on her knees, but it's only in microscopic shivers and it's like this that Santana maps out the fractures in Quinn's calm demeanor. And it isn't even that she thought Quinn was unrattled by having to return home (she'd be foolish if she thought Quinn hadn't climbed into this armor a thousand times before) but she'd expected the mask, in a way, and dreaded it, and seeing Quinn falter is both gratifying and disquieting.

"Just enough to make a decent braid," Abuela says as she ties Quinn's hair off with a ribbon the same shade as the dress she's wearing.

("I've never seen you in this before," Quinn had said as they stood in the mouth of Santana's closet. She'd run her good hand over the coral fabric and Santana had just adverted her eyes.)

"There," Abuela finalizes, and Quinn rises to her feet, and the room's so achingly quiet Santana has to clench her jaw.

Quinn just adjusts her tensor bandage and says a soft thank-you, very obviously avoiding her reflection in the framed mirror above the couch.

You look beautiful, Santana wants to tell her. But it feels like that's exactly what Quinn's trying to escape, the sad fact that the beauty's still there with the bruising and the small bandage, with that same shadowed look in her eyes, and Santana thinks she could understand.

Quinn's not the only one who built herself out of other people's ideals. And soon enough they'll get Santana too.

"You girls ready?" Dr. Lopez asks, appearing in the doorway with his car keys and a light jacket.

Santana looks to Quinn and nods without confirmation.

Quinn has a hand to the small length of her braid, eyes fixed on the mirror, the ribbon somewhere between the color of hope and repentance.

 


 

The entire air-conditioned car ride, Quinn sits with her finger on the lock button; rocking it back and forth as if she wants to both barricade herself inside and hurl herself out the door while the car's still going fast enough to forget her.

Santana sits next to her with her knees up and alternates between watching the button click from side to side and eyeing the empty space beside her father up front.

"When we get there, take Quinn to her room to get settled," is all he says the whole ride over.

It sounds like he's saying it more from a father's place than anything and Santana wishes she had the words to thank him or apologize or possibly ask him to remember this when the axe falls; that at one time he had it in him to protect what he should have let go.

But she's exactly like him in so many ways and the extent of her courage is to nod at him through the rearview mirror and carefully drift her hand across the leather seat, holding her breath as her fingertips brush skin, until Quinn's hand flutters and finally settles on top of hers.

She keeps it there until the car slows to a stop at the curb and doesn't look at Santana once.

Not even when her mother opens the door, a trembling apology of bruises and sickening guilt, too small to even fill her own space.

Not even when she pulls Santana straight up the stairs and only stops when Santana grabs her good wrist.

Not until they've both dropped into place on the top step like a pair of scolded schoolchildren as the low sounds of Dr. Lopez's voice drift out of the sitting room. And then Quinn just lifts her chin and takes in a ragged breath and finally lets Santana see the veil that's slipped over her like a quiet, rolling fog.

Judy's sobs grow a little louder, and Santana understands. The pull of the house offers to cloak her too.

She has nothing left to give but her silence, and this somehow blooms between them like a pair of fluttering curtains, shielding them from the heaviness of the conversation taking place just downstairs. They sit half in the dark and Quinn tugs at the edges of the tensor bandage. They sit with their knees together and Santana shuts her eyes.

"It's funny," Quinn says finally, her voice both honey and sage. "All our life, our father fought tooth and nail for a quiet house. And now that he's gone…"

"Oh, like you could've possibly been a noisy kid," Santana breathes out.

Quinn glances over and keeps her eyes on Santana for a heavy pause, considering her words. "But I was there," she says. "He wanted silence, and I was there."

Santana doesn't have anything more to say than the obvious I hate your shitty father but she also knows too well the complications of not wanting to feel guilty for loving someone, of hoping foolishly for them to be better and secretly for yourself to fill in the gap, and shielding yourself from the sickly skin they wear in public. Because what does it say about you if you'd forgive them?

"She didn't hit me, you know," Quinn whispers beside her.

If possible, Judy sounds even more broken from their perch on the stairs. Santana half listens for her father, but he doesn't even make a dent in the gathering white noise.

"Not on purpose," Quinn continues, soft for the topic and for the old house. "I was trying- she just kept apologizing for everything and I couldn't-" She stops and stares at her lap, the dress draping carefully over her small frame. "I just wanted her to stop drinking. For one goddamn Sunday. But she wouldn't let go of that bottle and it smashed, and… just hit the wall. Glass everywhere. And I guess we both pulled back at the same time, and she took me down with her."

"Quinn…"

"Tell your mom, okay? She thinks my mother's a monster."

Quinn coolly avoids her gaze, too busy plucking at the edge of that coral skirt like it's a knot that won't untie. Santana has to stop herself from reaching out.

"She doesn't think that," she says, cut off by a piercing look. "I mean, yeah, maybe last night it looked pretty fucked up but she'd trust that you'd say something if you were in danger or whatever." I don't know why, she almost adds, but thinks of breakfast on Saturday and reconsiders.

A flicker of something gentle and unrecognizable passes over Quinn's face and it's as reassuring as it is upsetting; selfish reasons for both, and Santana doesn't want to think about it. Not when they're here because Quinn's own mother is about as effective at scraping herself off the floor as a handful of wet tissues. Not on the stairs, the house still sucking their bones dry.

"Well-" Quinn sort of murmurs, "tell her thanks, all right?"

And Santana nods ardently, hoping it might actually be as simple as that.

 


 

There's a brief second as they're leaving – Judy a little less shaky, Quinn doing a damn good job of covering up almost all discernible feelings – where Santana contemplates just dropping down onto the walkway toddler-style and refusing to budge until someone can promise her they'll all be fine. But it passes as soon as it comes and she gives Quinn a small nod and follows her father to the car, forcing herself not to look back.

"We've done our part," her father tells her on the drive home.

She's alone in the backseat and she can't bring herself to ask if he thinks it's enough.

Her mother's words from their early morning conversation are still clear in her head and she knows, realistically, they shouldn't even have meddled this much. Quinn's nearly an adult now. She's had years to adapt.

"Papi," Santana says slowly, running her nail along a crease in the leather seat. "If- if Quinn had been younger…"

He takes in a measured breath. "Legally, we would have had to report it."

"And do you think that would've done anything?" she asks softly.

They're at a stop sign, and out the window Santana watches a daycare group toddle by with dripping popsicles. One of the little boys catches her eye through the tinted windows and just holds her gaze, face fixed in thoughtful curiosity, until the car starts up again. She turns in her seat as they go but he's already moved on, a trail of purple drops behind him.

"I think Quinn is an intelligent, self-sufficient young woman, and it would have been more of a hassle than anything to have to go through that," her father says finally.

And God, she knows, but- "What if she…"

"Santana," he gently interjects. That's it. She doesn't even know what she was going to say, and he lets the air between them settle.

There's still something though, something small and prickly, pushing her to keep asking. Keep trying. For what, she has no idea, but it drags a match down her spine and sets a fire deep and low, fierce enough to keep burning even after they pull into the driveway and slip into the quiet of the house.

Desi hovers at her side until she shoos him away. Her father excuses himself to his office. Abuela rises from the couch, slow and steady; face cut with uncertainty.

Her mother just pulls her to her chest and says nothing.

It's both a cage and an opening door.

 


 

She retreats to her closet more out of habit than anything, but it does offer some comfort and there's almost a nostalgia to it, now, nestled between the boxes she tried so valiantly to sort out in July.

It might have just been something to do in Brittany's absence but there was so much crap that had piled up over the years and it almost felt like shedding a skin, finally packing some of it away and letting it go. It had been her mother's idea. And she wonders, dimly, what her mother would think of the items she kept; the bits of her past she still can't shake.

The rock collection just behind a box of trophies. An old envelope of scrap paper, scrawled with elementary school notes. The dress she wore the first time she ever let anyone see her naked, now balled up in the very back corner, not too far from her abandoned diary.

With Brittany's secret letter. As if everything else already wasn't.

It could be the way sweat now clings to her skin, hiding amongst her clothes, or the quiet that reminds her too much of Quinn, but she finds herself grabbing for the diary before she has enough time to talk herself out of it and then freezes at the careless swirl of Brittany's middle school lettering.

("Mr. Radcliffe says I write with the delicacy of a hippo," she remembers Brittany once telling her, some rainy afternoon on Brittany's bed.)

It's already incited an ache low in her stomach and she hasn't even been able to bring herself to look at anything other than her stupid, looping name. Brittany still writes the S the same – twice as large as anything else on the page; the curves almost perfect circles.

Santana.

(And the way Brittany would say it…)

She runs a finger along the edge of the book, softly, grazing the gaudy pink fur, half wondering where the book even came from to begin with and why one small blurb from her middle school existence has her like this now, years later when it shouldn't mean anything. When it's just a flimsy snapshot of who she used to be to Brittany, and-

And there's no hope of being that person again. Not to Brittany, not to herself.

I'm so sorry, she tries to say, but it gets caught somewhere between her sinking chest and an accidental glance to the page.

Santana. You're in the bathroom and you'll probably be mad when you see me with this.

Maybe; twelve year-old Santana was a bottle rocket and she probably would have exploded, catching someone thumbing through her secrets like that. Except the someone was Brittany, and she pretty much knew everything anyway, and maybe twelve year-old Santana would have just stood there and deflated at the sight. ("That's sort of private, Britt," she can imagine herself saying. But Brittany was sneaky enough that Santana never knew.)

You're straightening your hair, Brittany's letter continues. Santana remembers well; the hours spent trying to fix its weird one-foot-in-this-world-one-foot-in-outer-space kind of curl, like she knew her mother and her cousins and her not-by-blood aunts to do.

Brittany always thought it was a waste of time. And Santana wonders what she thinks now, with Santana's hair not even being all her own anymore, woven in like a good disguise.

You always say you need to, the hair and makeup and padded bra. You say it's about being happy. I'm happy, and I don't do anything. I told you this and you said it's because I'm already beautiful. Santana, so are you. I try to say it and my tongue trips. You'd probably say no anyways. You always do.

If it wouldn't hurt so much, Santana would roll her eyes. Instead she scoots deeper back into the closet and holds the diary close to her chest for a brief, breathless second.

And then reads on, because she doesn't know how to do anything else.

I think that's what I was trying to show you on Tuesday. You were just so sad, and you touched your face with small hands. I just wanted you to know how beautiful you are. I didn't think you would cry.

You said it was nothing. Santana, it was a kiss.

There's nothing to stop her chest from just bottoming out right there in the closet, in the darkest corner, holding the diary like everything else will fall too if she dares let go. Move, she commands herself, get up, but she's fixed to the spot, fused to the floor, skin already singed with the memory.

Brittany knew all along, what they were doing. All this time.

And Santana floundered wordlessly beside her, trying everything, anything, to stitch it up in such a way it wouldn't mean what she knew it to be.

When did Brittany think she'd get that letter? How many times did she try to tell her? Were all those quiet looks from her side of the pillow really silent feelers, trying to see if Santana had yet figured it out? Brittany knew, and just waited.

And they could have had years and years to figure this shit out. (They have, a voice inside her argues. She places a palm over its mouth.) She could have found a hole years ago to plant a small seed that she wouldn't become the girl her parents wanted, and they would have had time to mind the sprout, and maybe even found it in them to tend to the flower.

Now she just has a handful of bad seeds and a weed inside her that won't stay down.

I hate you, she aches to say.

Not to Brittany. Never to Brittany. Brittany waited all this time, only to find the bricks being laid down.

I hate you, she tries to tell herself. A voice inside calls back, you should have known.

 


 

It kind of falls into place, after, that the paper with Kurt's dad's number on it ends up in her hand as her mother comes through with a laundry basket. The number's in her phone, but the scented paper feels more like a choice, somehow, and as her mother strips the sheets from the bed, disturbing the lingering imprint of Quinn's ghost, Santana decides there might be more to bravery than wielding a sword.

"Mami," she starts carefully, spinning her desk chair to face out.

Her mother stills, waiting for Santana to go on. It could be the benignity of the moment but Santana doesn't think she's ever seen her mother look so pretty, so open, like she'd wait until the sun went out if it was what her daughter wanted. It's both a knife and a reassuring touch, and she doesn't know what's worse.

"I just wanted- I just wanted to say thank-you, for what you did for Quinn. I know you didn't need that on top of everything else, but I really appreciate it." She curls her fingers around the piece of paper in her lap, choosing to stop there.

Her mother's eyes soften as if she was expecting something entirely different, and maybe she knows what Santana keeps trying to say, but responds like this is the conversation she's been waiting to have anyway.

"Santana," she says, sinking onto the edge of the bed, "if someone means enough to you that you'd let them in like that, then of course I'm going to make them a priority. That's what a mother does. You'll be the same when you have kids, mija. You have the same big heart."

Bleeding heart maybe, she thinks, giving her mother a slow nod. But maybe it's the same thing, and her mother knows that too.

Her mother rises from the bed and moves on to the pillowcases, but Santana knows if she wanted she could say one word and the conversation could continue just like that. There's always an open ear if she wants it; this she knows more than anything.

"Just- thank-you," she says in place of everything else. The paper's warm in her hand.

She flattens it out in her lap as her mother passes by, pausing to press a kiss into Santana's hair. "I know," her mother says. "I know."

It's only at the sound of her mother's feet on the stairs that Santana finally uncurls from her spot in her desk chair and decides she has it in her to make the call. There's more to bravery than wielding a sword, and it might just be knowing when to put it away.

Burt Hummel picks up on the second ring.

 


 

The Hummel-Hudsons don't actually live that far from her, closer to Brittany than anything, and shifting her purse to her other shoulder Santana wonders how many times she's walked past this house without realizing.

It looks big enough from the outside that she can picture Finn going through without getting his head stuck in ceiling fans and cozy enough to feel like a real family lives there (step-family, she reminds herself, they had a choice) and she's trying so hard to stop thinking about how much her hands are shaking.

It's just coffee and Kurt's fancy sandwiches.

It shouldn't feel like placing her head in a guillotine.

There's a flicker at the curtains and she barely has time to swallow before Kurt's beckoning from the open front door, grinning like the weird gnome in her backyard (and wearing an eerily similar pair of suspenders).

"Santana!" he calls out, just in case she hadn't already seen him bouncing in the doorway.

It's kind of what she was expecting and kind of the fantasy version, where a pit of flames didn't open up to swallow her whole and Rachel Berry didn't announce her arrival at the homo house to the world. Kurt just smiles and waves, and part of her remembers that he's actually an all right kid when they're not playing their roles at school, and she only barely remembers to scowl as she makes her way up to the house.

She's here because of Brittany, as Kurt's well aware, and not because she actually needs anyone's help. If she can keep telling herself that, maybe she can get through it.

 


 

So, small reminders of the giant toddler living here aside, the grand tour only proves that Kurt Hummel definitely knows his way through an interior design magazine. And she kind of actually tells him that, but then he goes and ruins it with smiling like they're in on some joke and she has to bite her tongue so she doesn't say something Brittany would get mad at her for.

"Don't start thinking this means you're off my list, Sparkle Motion," she says with about half the snark as usual, to which he just laughs and waves a hand.

"You're not fooling anyone," he gets in before his dad comes downstairs, and it's all she can do not to reach over and smack that smug look off his face.

Brittany must have gotten to him.

This of all things stops her hands from trembling.

"It's nice to see you again, Santana," Kurt's dad – Burt, she reminds herself, he told her to call him Burt – says from the bottom of the stairs, straightening his ball cap.

She almost asks what he means but vaguely remembers their awkward performance at his wedding, and then wonders if he actually does remember her from nearly a year ago or if Kurt just forced him to be polite. Probably the latter, but he smiles comfortably as Kurt leads them to the kitchen, explaining exactly what's in his finger sandwiches as if that's why they're all here, and Santana lets out a breath she's been holding since leaving her house.

Every person in this room knows she's a lesbian. And the only person who cares is her.

Kurt leaves them with a weird little salute and a notice that Finn took Rachel to a movie so he won't be around all afternoon (something Santana just knows was Kurt's doing, which she can't help but find oddly sweet) and there's about three seconds of dead silence before Burt lets out a chuckle.

"You'd think the Queen was coming over, the way that kid prepared," he says, eyeing the fancy coffee carafe.

Santana fights the warmth that threatens to spread at that, directing her focus on the three-tiered platter of dainty sandwiches with small handwritten labels.

Salmon cucumber. Camembert fig. Taleggio pear.

Burt follows her gaze and shakes his head.

"I'm not even sure any of this is edible, but he insisted on handling the menu. We can always order pizza if it's too much for you," he offers.

"It's fine," she says quickly, heat rushing to her cheeks. She clears her throat and tries again, this time with her voice controlled. "I just wasn't expecting something this extravagant, given the short notice. Ah, thank-you, by the way."

"Don't mention it," he says with an easy smile. "And you really thought Kurt wouldn't go all-out, with McKinley's own bully patrol coming over?"

Bully patrol that disbanded shortly after prom, she considers telling him, but there's a warmth in his eyes that tells her he doesn't need to know, just appreciates that it was there at all.

And it's strange to consider what she saw as a quick fix to the moment's Brittany problem had an actual lasting impression on someone – stranger still that it doesn't come with the usual questioning of her motives – but then she's sitting with Kurt Hummel's father about to finally talk about what she's been keeping secret for so long and the residual effects of the Bully Whips isn't the strangest part.

Burt takes her weak smile as an actual response and just moves on to pouring her a cup of coffee, treating it like the most natural thing in the world.

"Kurt warned me you probably take it black for appearances sake, but I have a feeling you're a cream person like myself," he says, the smile never leaving his face, and when she replies with a sheepish nod his smile only increases.

She wants to ask what else Kurt warned him about, but she also doesn't want to hear all the ways she's already disappointed someone who doesn't even know her and it's easiest just to accept her coffee with another tiny smile and hope he's ready to take the lead in the conversation because she doesn't trust her tongue to say the right words any more than she trusts Brittany's cat with an open fridge.

Burt seems to sense it, because he grabs one of the less suspicious sandwiches and slips right into easygoing-father-figure mode, starting the dialogue with a considering look.

"I gotta say, Santana, when Kurt first brought it up, I thought he must've been pulling my leg," he says.

"Me too," she says weakly, which gets a small laugh out of him.

He takes a bite out of the sandwich and doesn't seem too offended by its contents, so Santana decides to risk it and try one of the same kind, to maybe quiet some of her nervous stomach.

"I'm just a working dad with a gay kid," he continues, looking at his sandwich like it might be able to explain itself, "so I don't know how much help I can be. If this is the worst thing that's ever happened to you, blame it all on Kurt, okay?"

He snorts before she has the chance to figure out what's going on and then she's smiling too, a little less nauseous than two seconds ago.

"Oh don't worry, that was already the plan," she says a little less convincingly than she would have liked, but enough to get the message across.

"I can see why Kurt likes you," he says, cupping a hand on her shoulder, which- well, maybe Santana's underestimated Kurt all this time. If she hadn't been so busy maintaining her status, then maybe… Probably not, but it's nice to think that not everyone at that school either hates her or fears her. That maybe a few people might actually stick around if she lets down her guard.

She's been trying her hardest not to think about what's going to happen when the whole school knows, but a part of her's already very aware of the most likely possibilities; that she either turns into another Kurt, putting up with the insults and attacks until she doesn't notice anymore, or ends up eating lunch in the auditorium Rachel Berry style to avoid the slushies.

And God, she'd take an eternity as a social reject over losing her family any day. But it's never been about choice, and she knows that more than anything.

"I won't lie to you, Santana," Burt says now, chancing another one of the little sandwiches. "You're an adult and I respect you so I won't pull any of that fluffy crap. No one dreams about their kid being gay. Like no one dreams about their kid needing braces, or having a cleft palate, or anything else that makes life more difficult for them."

He stops to toss the sandwich in his mouth, then makes a face that warns Santana to stay away from the entire right half of the middle tier of sandwiches.

She's been safe enough with whatever cucumber-something she's been nibbling away on. It's not worth the risk.

"As a parent," he goes on, swallowing his regret in his sandwich decision, "you obviously want the very best for your kids. That means the easiest, most fulfilling life possible. So when Kurt told me he was gay, I thought, you know, jeez, this poor kid has enough on his plate already. And in a small town, with those old-fashioned ideals… But I didn't want him to be ashamed of it, or anything; he is who he is and I love every bit of him."

Santana nods along carefully, tongue tied up with about a thousand questions that have nothing to do with Kurt, picking at the bread of the sandwich on her plate like it might be possible to build a strong enough wall with the balled-up bits.

Burt watches her hands for a few seconds and then continues.

"Do I wish it was different? Well, yeah, but only in the sense that the world was safer for him. Because he's going to get out of here and I won't always be around to protect him. And that's the hardest part."

Her eyes sting with tears she won't let fall, thinking about her mother and what she said in the supermarket; how all she wanted was for Santana to get out of this town.

How maybe Santana and Maci had more in common than she'd ever know. And no one would ever be able to talk about it.

Burt's hand covers hers on the table cloth, his so large it hides hers completely, in a gesture that feels more like an apology than anything else. Kurt told him about her parents. He knows what she's up against, and what the most likely outcome is, and how terrified she is to just exist like this.

"I know there are some parents who don't get it," he says in a voice softer than before. "For whatever reason, they can't understand it, or don't want to, or forget that's the same kid they held in the hospital. But I think if your parents are even half aware of what a great kid they have, they'll love you all the same."

"I really hope you're right," she manages to get out before the tears swallow her voice whole, and he gives her hand a squeeze when she excuses herself to freshen up.

"I'll try to get through these funky sandwiches," he says lightheartedly as she goes.

 


 

All Kurt mentioned in his house tour earlier was that the bathroom was upstairs, and as Santana's wiping her cheeks she curses herself for not prodding further because none of the doors are marked in any way and there's a very real possibility that she could find herself in the toxic spill moonlighting as Finn's bedroom.

It's the stuff of nightmares, but it does manage to stop any more tears from falling and she finds herself weirdly grateful two seconds later when a door opens and she pretty much collides with a gnome-sized body.

"Santana? Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry!"

And of course it would be Rachel Berry, because the last person Santana would ever want to see with a splotchy crying face is the mouth with legs.

And of course all she can come up with is a dumb, "Kurt said you guys were at the movies," which explains nothing and puts the most bewildered expression on Berry's face.

"We were," she says carefully, eyeing Santana as if checking for visible damage.

It's then that Santana catches Rachel rubbing her arm where they'd hit, and Kurt must have put something in those sandwiches because she actually finds herself about to apologize. As if any of this is her fault.

"Oh," she just mumbles, wondering how deep a hole she can dig herself before she gets out of this house of horrors.

Rachel slowly glances around the landing as if there might be a hidden camera or some sort of explanation and then makes her way back to Santana's awkward gaze, now thoroughly concerned. "We saw an animated film, and it was shorter than we… I'm sorry, I just don't understand what you're doing here."

Neither do I, Santana thinks, but schools her features into a mild scowl to try and hold on to the upper hand.

"Having coffee with Burt."

It's worth it just for the alarmed deer-in-the-headlights expression that flashes across Rachel's face. But then something else washes over her, and before Santana knows what's happening Rachel has this sympathetic look in her eyes, and the landing's not big enough for the two of them.

"I heard about your grandmother," Rachel says quietly, which is both the last thing Santana expected and inexplicably comforting in the moment.

Until Rachel continues with an even gentler, "Santana I'm so sorry, I've heard how horrible Alzheimer's can be and I wanted to say-"

And Santana's just so tired of wearing this skin, of always having to be this person to Rachel and everyone else, when she's spent the whole summer realizing how little any of it really matters.

"Rachel," she cuts in, exhaustion obvious in her voice.

Rachel, for once in her life, shuts her mouth.

Santana just rubs at the skin under her eye and shakes her head, not even sure where she was going with this. "Thanks," she murmurs.

Rachel nods. Then moves as if she's considering hugging her, but seems to think better of it and stops herself. "We don't have to be enemies, you know. At this point, it's- I'm not saying we should be friends, but-"

"I already have enough friends," Santana interrupts, half waiting for Rachel to call her on her bluff.

Rachel just presses her lips together and nods again.

"I know," she says. "I just don't think it would be the end of the world if we were civil towards each other."

It's something Santana grudgingly realized at some point this summer, amidst everything else, and it's almost a relief to hear Rachel voice that thought, as much as habit's telling her to smack those words out of the girl's big mouth. There's just been so much to battle already.

"I'm still going to inform you when you suck," she snips, but it's said with less venom than usual, and she knows Rachel sees right through her.

"Of course, Santana," Rachel says.

It has to be the sandwiches, because a weird part of her actually considers going in for a hug for the quickest second, and then she's not sure if she should bleach her brain or go save Burt from whatever kind of poison has made its way into his system.

She settles on giving Rachel the most awkward pat on the arm and asking which of these overly tall doors leads to the bathroom (to which Rachel laughs and points to the one on the left), and then spends a good five minutes just staring at herself in the mirror, trying to figure out when exactly she grew up. Maybe when she realized there were better things to fight than herself.

 


 

Her only explanation when Puck answers is that she kind of just kept walking, somehow finding herself in his part of town, and it's a testament to their friendship that he doesn't even ask where she'd been; only tells her he'll be there in three minutes and his mom's napping so his place isn't an option.

"But I've got someplace else in mind," he promises before hanging up, and she doesn't doubt that it'll be the distraction she's looking for.

He shows up shortly after on his mother's yellow banana bike with the most ridiculous pair of aviators. It's enough to dislodge the lump in her throat and she laughs for a good five minutes before he finally swats at her and tells her to get on.

"We don't have all day, Lopez," he says as she squeezes herself onto the long black seat, and though she wants to tell him otherwise, we have forever if we want it, there's enough of a bite in the late summer air for her to just wrap herself around his waist and settle into the ride.

His shoulder is the perfect spot for her chin, sitting on the back of the bike; she considers as she sticks to his unnecessary leather jacket that this is exactly who she was supposed to be, the bitter girl on the back of the tough boy's bike, hair streaming out behind her in the breeze like every movie cliché she tried to memorize as a small child. Tried to burn it into her skin, like a promise that the future would hold a spot for her.

And tried so valiantly to fully embody when the time came with her cheerleading uniform and nail file and cigarettes-to-cigars – lipstick and leather, sarcasm and scowls – but hers still wasn't the right skin, so she learned, and she never quite found her footing.

"Do you ever think about who we could've been?" she starts to ask Puck, trailing off as they turn a corner and the sun hits her full force.

They're heading towards the elementary school, she already knows.

He only came there in the sixth grade but they spent enough time in middle school just exploring the ravine at the back, the whole group of them who pretended they weren't really friends, to develop a weird sense of ownership over the place. She still remembers the first pack of cigarettes any of them had ever seen up close, half buried under some wet leaves. How she was the only one who was brave enough to touch them. How it felt nothing like bravery.

"I kinda always thought it would go like this anyway," Puck finally responds.

His voice is the soft that's only for her. She leans into his warm body as they take another turn.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

All of us so empty? she wants to ask, but they're at the overgrown mouth of the ravine now and the bike slows to a stop against the woodchips. The hot, earthy smell hits her then as it always does; a wall first, then a bath. Puck takes her hand and helps her down.

She sticks to his side as he walks the bike, tires crunching softly against the woodchips and dry leaves of the halfhearted path. Years ago a committee came in and cleared away dozens of trees so it would be more accessible for the kinds of people they wanted to frequent it, dog-walkers and joggers and stroller-pushing mothers, cutting down on the local teens who hid their illicit activities underneath the canopy of leafy green. It's all sort of crept back to the forest-like state of before, and Santana thinks it's probably best this way. Trees fall every storm so of course new ones should grow.

"I thought more of us would stick around," Puck says after a little while, nudging a small branch out of their way with his foot.

She knows exactly who he's talking about: Matt and Zackary, both having transferred schools in efforts to better their chances; Alexis (moved out of Lima completely, promising letters that never came); Finn – all Puck's doing, twice now, over a stolen baseball card and then a stolen girl.

And it all comes back to Quinn.

Under different circumstances she might tell him about everything from the past night, but it's such a vacuum of events and she's not even sure there are words to explain it.

Quinn's mom is still drinking. Quinn's still destroying herself. I don't know what to do. If there's even anything that can be done.

"I didn't think you'd stick around, out of everyone," she admits.

He fixes her with a steady gaze, step never faltering. "Thought the same of you. Maybe for Brittany, but not any of the rest of us. You always seemed to have bigger things planned."

She had Brittany planned. And- well. Brittany could never be pinned down like that. She should have known.

There were other halfhearted plans of course, the right people to befriend and social ladders to climb, like securing a spot on top might save her from the same Lima chains that seemed to find them all if they weren't careful. She knew out of their eighth grade class, maybe two of them would leave the state. She'd always secretly thought it would be her and Brittany. That they'd do it together.

She stumbles over the next branch and Puck catches her by the arm, grip firm until she steadies herself.

"Careful, sweet cheeks."

I was, she thinks. So careful. But she fell in love with her best friend anyway, and everything seemed to crumble from there.

"Sam's folks found a place in Tennessee," Puck says after a beat, stepping ahead to wheel the bike across a small footbridge. "Looks like they're gonna stay there."

Her stomach kind of drops at his words, weirdly light like a handful of leaves tossed in the air, and she wonders if this might be the start to another end. Like the way their odd little group in middle school just fizzled out over the course of a few years until it wasn't anymore. Until it was just her and Puck and her and Brittany and no one hung back after school to see if anyone wanted to play Manhunt in the ravine.

Their ragtag team of misfits now has more holes in it than Patches' shoes and she still has no idea when she ever started to care for these singing losers, but they're still hers. They're still going to sting when they go.

"Tennessee better stock up on chapstick," she says kind of quietly, and Puck elbows her arm and chuckles.

"We'll see him again," he promises, guiding her around a rather large mud puddle. "Can't get rid of that pair of lips that easily."

He probably knows nothing more than she does about that (more people have disappeared from his life than she'd like to count) but his words are enough to stave off the brunt of the sick, the feeling of abandonment and guilt still right there under the surface.

There was more they could have done. If she'd asked her father, maybe… Her mother for sure would at least understand where he was coming from, so weighted with poverty. It's where she left her deepest roots.

She probably won't even have a chance to give him a proper goodbye, she realizes with startling force, foot catching on a wet leaf and only stopped in her slide by Puck's hand.

"Not exactly my usual terrain," she says dryly, squinting up at him.

He shakes his head and leads them up a less trafficked path after a moment's consideration, watching her through a small creek before they're back on dry ground. "Guess it hasn't been ours for years, huh," he says.

She glances around the rising mounds of the ravine, moss already claiming the artfully placed rock circles and dragging them back down into nature, nests and webs joining the gaps in the air between the reaching branches, fallen trees shirking their outer skins to give it back to the earthy mouth underfoot. Such a hunger. She knew it once.

"Not for a while," she agrees.

He's stopped the bike just a step ahead of her and it takes her a second to recognize this, bumping into the back tire before she knows what's happening. Her name comes out quietly, in a breath, like he doesn't quite want to say it. And then she sees the form just in front of his feet and wants him to take it back.

"Is it…" she starts, tongue stumbling over itself in an effort not to understand.

"Dead," he confirms. He lowers himself into a careful squat in front of the small squirrel. "Pretty recent too, I'd say. Probably fell from a tree."

She looks up kind of in spite of herself and doesn't know what she was expecting other than the splayed branches and mottled sunlight barely making its way through. A hole, maybe. A sign that the squirrel was missed.

She can't even peek at it. "We should bury it," she decides.

Puck rises and kicks the stand on his bike, letting it rest on its own, and Santana finally sees the squirrel in all its tiny glory: fur the color of soft coal, mouth just a fraction open.

It isn't really the dead squirrel but there's a lump in her throat and an ache behind her eyes and Puck knows enough to dig the hole a few feet away, so she can watch his hands work and not the little chest for the breath that won't come. When he finishes he wipes his palms on his jeans and fixes her with a solemn look.

"We're gonna honor the shit out of him, Santana."

He wraps the small body in the biggest leaves he can find and lets Santana hover at his elbow while he lowers the poor thing into the hole, saying a simple thanks to God for giving this life to the earth for as long as it was. "It's all he could've asked for," he says, moving aside to let Santana sprinkle some dirt into the makeshift grave. She does so with shaky hands and Puck fills the rest.

"We should mark it," she says when he's shifting some small stones over the area so nothing gets in.

"With? No offence to your God, but I'm not exactly a cross kinda guy."

She nods and chews on her lip for a second, searching the ravine around them. "Just a stick, I think. Something that isn't too… not-squirrely."

"Gotcha," Puck replies, already heading towards a gathering of a few fallen trees to search out their grave marker.

He comes back with what was surely a branch not too long ago but now looks like the perfect chunky stick and gives Santana a moment to appraise it before wedging it deep into the ground at the head of the grave. And then he comes and stands next to her, dirty, sweaty arm snaking its way around her waist, tightening when her head falls against his shoulder.

She doesn't have anything to say to the squirrel that the earth hasn't already so she just gives it a moment of silence. A moment to settle.

And then looks up at Puck, finding the young boy she once knew peering wetly through those dark eyes.

"Godspeed, little dude," he says just above a whisper.

It's enough of an ending to feel necessary. She echoes the same.

 


 

They take the long way back to her place when the sun starts to slip low in the sky, having seen out the day with a shared cigar at the deepest part of the ravine.

Puck cycles slowly for her benefit mostly, sensing her exhaustion, and she can't bring herself to do anything but rest her head on his shoulder and watch the houses pass by in the setting sun. It's red and then slate, and summer won't be here for much longer.

"Puck?" she murmurs, when it's been quiet so long she'd think he was asleep if they weren't on a bike.

"You okay, Lopez?"

She lets her eyes flutter closed for a moment and considers her next words, a coolness settling into her extremities before she can even get them out. "I think-" she starts, then exhales, then watches a cat slink under a parked car and tries again. "I think I might be gay. Like a lesbian or something."

She almost expects the sky to fall, but only a slight breeze licks at their heels.

"Yeah?" It feels like cheating that she can't see his face but she knows without guessing an eyebrow's raised and the corner of his mouth's quirked just enough to respect the seriousness of her words. "Wasn't me, was it?"

A breathy laugh tumbles out. "No, wasn't you."

It's a joke and they both know it but she loves him for not letting the heaviness find them.

"You know I've got your back," he tells her. "I'm your boy."

She nods against his leather jacket, briefly considering peeling herself off of it to save herself the marks on her skin before deciding she doesn't actually care. Not with the weightlessness bubbling up inside her; not with such an easy dusk guiding them along.

"How long have you known?" she asks as they turn down her street.

The streetlights are on now and the houses she knows by heart all glow with families settling down for dinner, curtains drawn just enough to cast a softness over the road. She doesn't think there'll ever be anything like the feeling of coming home at the end of the day.

Puck coasts the last couple house lengths to her driveway, the bike gliding almost silently against the asphalt.

"I don't know," he says truthfully. "Didn't know you before you met Brittany."

I don't think I did either, she thinks. Not when it came down to it.

She can see the shapes of her family gathering around the dining room table and a warmth blooms in her chest; an automatic reassurance that hasn't left her from childhood. She'll be joining them soon enough, shaking the evening chill at the door.

Puck lets her off at the curb and then pauses for a second, a slight frown on his face, before tugging her towards his chest in a bearlike hug.

"M'proud of you," he sort of mumbles into her hair, as if he wasn't even sure he wanted her to hear it. She pulls back anyway, just enough to give him a grateful smile, and he rolls his eyes and pushes her towards the house. "Yeah, whatever. Go get your grub."

He waits in the road until she's safely inside and she wonders how anyone could have ever thought he was heartless.

 


 

Brittany calls at the break of day before the morning's even fully had a chance to arrive.

It's what Santana expects and it's what she dreads because Brittany starts the conversation with the softest Kurt told me you came over and the only words she has in response aren't anything close to what Brittany wants to hear.

She pushes some hair out of her face and blinks at the ceiling, and Brittany says her name and it sounds so small.

So fearful.

"I wanted you to know how proud I am of you," Brittany murmurs into the phone. "I know it wasn't something you wanted to do, but I hope it at least helped a bit."

"It did," Santana says quietly.

It helped her see how lucky Kurt was to have a father who'd love every part of him, despite what he'd been brought up to think. It helped her see exactly what she was afraid of and how likely it is to actually happen. Her own father may be a lot of things, but he's a believer above all else and his faith just doesn't have room for a daughter like her.

"I realized I'd have better luck telling him I worship Satan," she goes on, staring at the dangling crystals of her little chandelier. The morning light's barely had a chance to pass through them and in the softness they all look like water.

"Santana…"

"It's okay, Britt-Britt." Her voice trembles and she forces it to stabilize before continuing. "It'll be awful, but… but at least everything will be out in the open, right?"

Brittany's sigh comes out like she's on the verge of tears and Santana wishes she could tell her otherwise, that as long as she was true to herself her parents would accept anything, maybe even going as far as celebrating all the bits of her that were written in a vicious red ink.

Everything just aches so much, wanting desperately to go back to before she had to paint her parents a villainous shade for what she isn't even sure is too far from the truth.

"I'm sorry," Brittany whispers. "I'm so sorry, Santana."

It isn't your fault, she tries to say, but-

But it hasn't been Santana pushing the knife in further, hoping the blood that comes out might look something like honesty. She feels sick just thinking it. She feels sick.

She's been trying so hard just to place everything into sealed little boxes, tucked away in the dark for safest keeping, and all it seems to have done is caused it all to splinter away at the core, crumbling to dust in her careful hands.

If she'd only found a song for Brittany; then maybe it wouldn't have come to this.

If only she'd been brave enough to own up to any of it years before, when she could have built a thick enough shell around it to not be so rattled by all she's sure to lose.

(The worst part may be knowing the truth.)

She shuts her eyes and all she can see is Brittany's letter in the back of her diary, dark ink so preserved it could almost have been written only yesterday. You said it was nothing. Santana, it was a kiss.

She should have known. (She did.) She kissed back.

"I'm sorry, Britt. I'm really, really sorry. I wish I wasn't so scared." And it isn't like Brittany didn't already know, but Santana feels heavier having finally said the words. The knife's been in her hand all this time.

 


 

Santana doesn't really have an answer as to why she appears in her mother's doorway just after seven, still in sleep shorts and a tank top, still cradling her phone, but her mother's up and getting ready for work and just ushers Santana in without asking, letting her fall onto the unmade bed and curl up like a sleepy cat without a word being said.

The sheets hold tight to the familiar scent of rosemary and autumn and Santana buries her face in them for a long moment, only pulling back at the sound of a chair being tucked in to watch her mother at the vanity.

It was her favorite part as a child, the tubes of lipstick and mascara wands.

The idea that all it took to find beauty was a quiet ritual in front of an aging mirror.

Sometimes she'd ask her mother if she could wear lipstick too, and sometimes her mother even acquiesced, but for the most part Santana was content just to sit at the foot of the bed and train her eyes on the motion of her mother's steady hands, watching her paint her face a colored confidence.

It isn't anywhere close to the same now, but she supposes not much truly is once it's left the veil of childhood.

Her mother's beauty still leaves her slightly breathless and that's enough to keep her heart from breaking. If she only watches her mother's hands, nothing else will crack.

But there are creases in her mother's face that have slipped in over the past few years, and the reminder of passing time finds the slyest way to grip at her heart; to tug her back into acknowledgement, that there's nothing she can do about what she's leaving in her wake. It isn't just a few ripples anymore. She's afraid it's become a shipwreck.

"Mami…"

It slips out of her hold like everything else, and it cuts the air in the sunny room.

"Mm, Santana?"

She doesn't look because she knows her mother's trying to find her gaze through the mirror, but the smile in her voice makes itself heard whether or not Santana's willing to listen.

The sheets are still soft enough to pull over her face without blocking off all air and she thinks maybe her words won't come through so sharp, now, having to fight their way through the cotton. Maybe they'll even bring with them what she so desperately wants to say – anchors on her tongue that pierce and sink each time she tries to cut the line.

I'm hurt, Mami. I did it all myself.

I think I snipped the sun from the sky, and it's stuck under my nails like a grime I can't scrub away.

How much do you pretend not to know about a breaking heart?

"When Maci… Before… Did she ever say?" It's a murmur, but her mother hears her.

Furtively catches her in the mirror. Pins her to the spot and wills her to fly away. "I think she did," her mother says, a whisper between them. "I think she tried."

It takes two bare hands on her molten hot core, but Santana finally latches on to a small string of words, wrenching them out like the old plug at the bottom of her tub and holding her breath as the sea breaks through.

"Do you think you'd know it if you heard it again?"

She can see it in her mother's eyes: the alarm and the inquest, dropping her mascara with a clatter in the urgency of needing to know. Are you talking about Quinn, or are you talking about yourself?

And the worst of it is Santana can't even tell at this point, if she's carrying Quinn's sadness inside her as well or if this was there all along, asbestos in her foundations that's only now been disturbed enough to seep into everything. She doesn't even know why she said anything, but the words came. They were heard.

"Santana," her mother's murmuring, at the bed so quick it's as if she didn't move at all, pressing her lips against her daughter's head as if she might be able to suck out the poison.

But then, it was about Quinn, about how many anchors have found her tongue, and how all Santana can do is watch them drag her back down under the deep where everything dangerous has learned transparency. She's been tracing Quinn's veins through her skin all summer, and there are so many signs she thinks she's missed.

Like the anchor she tied to her own heart when she denied Brittany's kiss its very existence.

Like the bomb that's sprouted in its place.

"I think I ruined something really important," she admits into the duvet, shutting her eyes at the kiss her mother places on her forehead. "I don't know how to make it right."

The bed dips beside her as her mother sinks into it, hand drifting over to rub Santana's back. It takes a few minutes for her to respond and when she does her voice is gentle and understanding; exactly what Santana didn't know she needed.

"Well, my sweet, there's no undoing what's already been done. You know this. I think what's troubling you maybe isn't so much not knowing what you need to do next, but more that you're afraid of what will happen once you do it. Am I close?"

From where she's lying all she can see of her mother is her skirt and a small patch of her nylons and it fills her with a sudden comfort that for this one brief moment her entire world is still her mami – hand warm on her back, voice light in the air between them – as if the past ten years have been nothing more than a dream and she's waking up in her princess bed to find her mother spent the whole night at her side once again.

And then she shifts to find her mother's face, seeing the softness of the woman who read her bedtime stories and the firmness of an entire decade of parent-teacher interviews and bandaging bruised knuckles and it draws out another sort of comfort; one she can't entirely place, but has a lot to do with just knowing she hasn't gone through it all on her own. That her mother's been just off to the side all this time.

"You know me better than I do," she half mumbles, betraying the tone of her voice with a sheepish smile.

"That's motherhood," her mother says, returning the smile. "Until you were seven I even knew when you had to pee before you did."

"Mami, come on."

She rolls her eyes but she can't help laughing at that. With the way she used to wiggle about, probably everyone knew before she did. It's why Brittany was always dragging her to the bathroom in the middle of their Barbie games.

"You didn't ask what I messed up," she remembers suddenly, smile giving way to a frown.

Her mother shakes her head, tucking some hair behind Santana's ear. "I figure if it's that important, I'll find out eventually anyway. No use trying to drag it out of you before you're ready."

Well of course. "You think you're so clever, don't you."

"Where'd you think you got it from, you silly girl?"

Her mother laughs and gives her one last quick kiss on the head before pushing off the bed and smoothing down her skirt with a critical eye. Santana wants to tell her she looks ready to take on the world, but then she sort of always does. Even when the day's shoved her face into the ground; even when she shouldn't have any fight left in her.

Santana sits up to watch her mother pin her hair into place and hopes, just maybe, she might be lucky enough to get this from her too.

 


 

She heads to Brittany's mainly because she isn't really sure she's capable of anything else, and it seems like Brittany must have been expecting it with the smile she gives her from the front stoop, all calm and stained red from what must have been a cherry popsicle.

Her hair is even blonder from the sun, somehow; soft like the sweeping reach of a lighthouse, curling sweetly around her cheeks the way it always does in the summer, and Santana remembers how she used to tug at the curls when they were little just to see them slip right back into place. How she tried to hide her envy. Not of the silkiness of Brittany's hair, but the tender touches it was allowed to give.

"Hey," Brittany says, rising from the stoop.

The sound's stolen by a fluttering of wind chimes, but Santana's long since memorized the shape of that word on Brittany's lips.

"Hi," she returns just as quiet.

They meet halfway down the walk, pinkies catching on autopilot, Brittany a familiar warmth against Santana's side. She hums something sweet under her breath and Santana realizes this moment could have happened any other summer – has happened every other summer, even the year it looked like Santana might actually end up the taller one and they couldn't manage to stay in step, the two of them bumping along like a wagon with a bent wheel. The thought hangs heavy in her chest. They're still a twosome, whatever that's now come to mean.

"Britt," she says, stepping over Lord Tubbington in the doorway. Just the one word. One word for an unreachable thousand more.

Brittany gently unhooks her pinkie and curls her hand so it's closed around Santana's, anchoring her in place. They've come to a stop in the flow of traffic (really just Lord Tubbington waddling down the hall to the kitchen) and Santana's purse is in the process of slipping down her arm, but all she can focus on is the look Brittany's giving her: steady and resolute, answering the question Santana couldn't bring herself to ask.

I think you know, Santana.

She does. And Brittany shifts just a breath closer, dropping her lips to Santana's forehead for the briefest second before letting her go and trusting she'll follow. If she was able to do anything else, she wouldn't be here with a lump in her throat, her mother's words from earlier still tangling her thoughts. It's caustic and all she can do is fall into Brittany's side at the kitchen counter. Wrap an arm around her waist. Wish it was any other summer but this one.

"Ash baked us a cake," Brittany says into her hair, motioning to the cat-shaped pan cooling on the stovetop.

Santana shuts her eyes and tries to memorize this feeling, Brittany radiating heat in the over air-conditioned house, a burning sun against her skin. "Why?" she asks.

She can feel Brittany shrug.

"Thought we needed it, I guess. It's chocolate," she adds, like that explains it.

It's the kind of sweet gesture she's come to associate with the Pierce family; these random acts of kindness that always make an appearance when they're most needed. It's something her own mother has said she wished rubbed off on Santana, but it's seeming more and more like it might have skipped right to Desi by some odd fluke, and she can't say she actually minds being surrounded by these uncharacteristically thoughtful people. She may not entirely deserve it, but she's grateful. Grateful and sorry she's never been able to do the same in return.

They take the cake downstairs when Brittany mentions she was in the middle of doing laundry, and Santana does her best to ignore the ache that sets in at the domesticity of it all. Just the two of them sorting colors and measuring detergent. The sort of thing she's never let herself hope for from the future.

"I'm trying to get better at these things for when we go to college," Brittany admits when the load's in and they're sitting on top of the washing machine, eating cake straight from the pan. "Laundry and cooking and budgeting and stuff."

But you'll have me to do that, Santana only barely stops herself from saying.

"You're going to be great at it, Britt," she murmurs instead.

Brittany smiles sort of sadly, sort of knowingly, and rests her hand on top of Santana's. "I think my parents didn't bother with it all because they thought you'd do it all for me," she says, quietly.

"Britt-" she starts, but Brittany waves it away.

"And like, yeah, you're my other half so of course you're going to help me out," she goes on, just as soft, "but it doesn't mean I don't want to be able to do these things on my own. Equivalency and all that."

"Equality?" Santana supplements.

"Yeah. Like, what if you trip on an escalator and it eats both your hands and suddenly you can't open car doors and use the toaster? I just want to know- if something happens, I want to be able to take care of stuff. For you, but for me too." She frowns a little and scoops out another chunk of cake – the cat's ear, and Santana thinks it's just as well it doesn't have to listen to this conversation – and lets out a sigh as she chews.

"I get it," Santana says, focusing on the mangled cat's face in the cake pan. "You just want to be prepared."

Brittany nods and sort of vibrates in place as the washing machine kicks into the next cycle, her hand fluttering overtop Santana's like a swirl of leaves in the wind.

"It's sad to think about though, isn't it?" she says, struggling to maintain the lightness in her voice.

"Yeah," Santana says. "It is."

They leave it at that as the cycle carries on, and anything else they were going to say is drowned out by the sudden surge of water hitting the laundry room sink in a soapy whirlpool. It used to terrify Santana, the noise, to the point where she'd flee the basement if it happened while she was playing down there, but now it's almost mesmerizing; the sight of all that dirty water disappearing down the drain. Even as Brittany's hand leaves her and they're switching the load to the dryer. The image stays with her.

 


 

Tubbs joins them sometime around the third load, when all the cake's gone but a few crumbs in the edges of the pan. He doesn't acknowledge Santana any more than a quick sniff at her toes and bypasses Brittany for the cake crumbs but his presence shifts the air in the room, deflating some of the lingering tension.

He's slower now than when he was a kitten, which is as much to do with age as it is circumference, so he has no defense when Brittany rolls him over under the pretense of belly rubs and sneakily pulls Ash's soccer socks over his stubby little legs. And then he just freezes in place and stares at her with a mixture of horror and absolute contempt and Santana bursts out into the most unattractive laughter that has ever left her mouth.

"He looks like a little munchkin from the Wizard of Oz," she gets out between wheezes, prompting Brittany to snort and smack at her leg.

"Santana, that's mean," she says behind her hand, words twisted with thinly-veiled laughter.

"We could stick him in a skirt and pass him off as Rachel Berry," Santana carries on, wiping at her eyes, only feeling a little bad for the comment. With a new nose, it wouldn't be that far a stretch anyway.

Brittany's laugh breaks out at that, startling Lord Tubbington so much that he flops onto his side and sends the socks sliding across the tiles. Santana can barely see through the tears forming to push them back on.

"It'd be the quietest we'd ever see her," Brittany snickers, fully abandoning any attempts to hide her amusement. "Oh, I'd like to see LT on a vegan diet."

Lord Tubbington glares at the two of them with the same look that Santana would expect from Rachel if she heard this conversation and the laughter sort of dies out to low chuckles. There's an underlying guilt to it that neither comments on, and they tried so hard to keep that buried when they were on Cheerios, but one glance to Brittany says she's feeling the same about it now.

They weren't really born mean girls; Brittany even less than Santana, and it's been getting harder and harder to perfect. Especially now without their Cheerios uniforms; now that Quinn isn't around to anchor them to their roles. They keep drifting somewhere in between.

"Rachel was at Kurt's, when I was there," Santana tries to say lightly, but it sinks between them with Lord Tubbington's sour face.

"Was she awful?" Brittany asks.

They both kind of know the answer to that. They have for years, really. They've known her for years, and yet at some point she didn't fit with anyone anymore, and it's actually really fucking sad.

"Britt, what if we were different people?" She means a hundred different things with that, but Brittany gets it.

"She wouldn't have done the same," Brittany says quietly, reaching forward to tug the socks off Tubbs's feet. "I mean, yeah, a little, but not as…"

"Personal?" Santana offers. Brittany nods and bites her lip. "Are we terrible people?"

Brittany drops her gaze to her lap and focuses on balling up the socks all tight, rolling them in her palms, then pulling them out full length and wrapping them around her fingers. It's hypnotic, the gesture. Santana almost forgets her question, until Brittany murmurs her response.

"It's not like we're the only ones," she starts, quieting as she slips a sock over her hand. "I don't know. Maybe we are. Maybe everybody is in high school. Nobody wants to think about it, because-"

"It's terrible."

Brittany closes her eyes for a moment and leans back against the washing machine. "Rachel sent that other tiny singing girl to a crack house, but we filled Rachel's locker with cheese in grade seven. Everybody throws their own kind of slushies, I think."

Rachel didn't even cry when she found the cheese, Santana recalls. She'd just steeled herself and walked away like she'd been expecting it for a long time. Maybe she had been. And all Santana ever did was reinforce her belief that their small world existed to kick her in the stomach.

"I don't want…"

Brittany tangles their fingers together, giving Santana an empathetic squeeze. "I know," she says. "Me neither."

Santana chews on the inside of her cheek and inches closer until she's right at Brittany's side, accidentally grazing Lord Tubbington's belly in the process, then carefully rests her head against Brittany's shoulder. Brittany wraps an arm around her and draws something on the bare skin of her collarbone: an apology maybe, or a resolution, and Santana's both concerned and mildly relieved that she can't figure out what it is. She used to be able to get these the second Brittany drew them. Maybe it means something that some of their knots are coming undone.

"I don't know how to stop things from happening," she admits against Brittany's arm.

"Santana," Brittany whispers. Turns until her face is in Santana's hair. Kisses her head like it could fix everything. And Lord Tubbington sighs, and Santana shuts her eyes.

 


 

It isn't a conscious decision to crawl into Brittany's bed as the day gets hotter, but it's where they've always sort of found themselves, and when Brittany folds herself around Santana from behind it feels like a puzzle piece finally sliding into place after hours of the sides just not matching up.

Their skin is warm where it touches and cool everywhere else from the air-conditioning and Brittany's breathing against Santana's neck is so soothing she finds herself drifting off.

"Everybody's so sad," is the last thing she hears from Brittany before she's slipped into a hazy sleep.

She's still half conscious of Brittany holding her, but in her dream the touch is a cocoon, and she's tucking in from the cold, and all around her is the sound of crashing waves against a biting shore. Voices flit by like gusts of wind, but she catches none of them; just the sea and the salt-air and her brittle bones shifting into something braver.

It stays with her when she wakes, the sway of the ocean. She's still in Brittany's arms but she feels briny. Seasick.

"You were whimpering," Brittany whispers into her hair. "I tried to wake you."

The sun's fallen a little lower in the sky now, a midafternoon light, bathing Brittany's room in a soft golden hue. Like the light they chased after on their bikes when they still knew enough to fill their summers with endlessness.

Santana focuses her gaze on a patch of sun across Brittany's dresser, hitting the mirror in such a way it looks like a shadow of a star.

"Quinn's not doing okay," she murmurs, feeling Brittany tense behind her. "With her mom."

"What happened?" Brittany asks gently.

She tightens her hold on Santana's midsection, just a little, enough to keep her from being swallowed whole by the memory of Quinn's bloodstained face and shaking hands; ghostly pale and dripping with apologies, like anyone could think she was at fault.

"She showed up Sunday night like, covered in blood," Santana whispers.

"From her mom?"

Santana swallows hard and concentrates on the feeling of Brittany's palms warming her stomach, like maybe they can guide her through the rest of this. "I think, yeah," she says, so soft it barely comes out at all. "Not intentionally, but…"

"Yeah," Brittany breathes out.

"And my parents- they didn't know what to do," she continues quietly, "but my father said he had a colleague that could help, if Judy was willing. I really hope she tries, Britt. For Quinn, but like, for her too, because it's just gotten so bad. You know?"

She can feel Brittany's forehead against the back of her head now, so close it feels like they might just be parts of some greater whole. A monster, possibly. Or maybe just one of those unsuspecting creatures that doesn't know it's caught up in the worst of it until it's too late. Not a dragon but a griffin, trying so hard to wash the blood from its talons.

"I know," Brittany says. "I hope she tries too. If she got better, I mean, maybe Quinn…"

She leaves it at that, but Santana knows.

"She's been so sad," Santana murmurs. "For a long time."

I think it's drowning her. I think it might be contagious. I think we're all infected, Britt. Nobody knows what to do.

"Do you ever think… like, what if she didn't give up the baby?"

Brittany asks it so fearfully it's like the words burn her tongue, sizzling right through the flesh, and Santana feels it all the same when it pierces the air between them; the blasphemy of saying that much when they've all been throwing themselves through the fire to avoid it.

"Maybe she would've been good," Brittany adds in the tiniest voice.

"Yeah, but how sad do you think the baby would've ended up?" Santana chances.

Beth, she wants to say. But giving it a name means acknowledging that it's living and breathing and growing somewhere, somewhere that isn't with Quinn, somewhere that's giving it more than she could have ever hoped, and it feels so wrong to be thinking about this. It isn't hers. It isn't theirs.

"It isn't right to talk about it, is it," Brittany exhales. Not the baby, but- everything.

Santana shakes her head against the pillow and wonders, dimly, if now would be the right time to mention the kiss Quinn gave her on Sunday. It wasn't… real, she wants to believe, but denying it feels even worse than denying the past five years of her life, and maybe Brittany already knows just by looking at her. Maybe it lights up her lips like a radioactive spill.

"God," Brittany says. "God. This blows."

The laugh that spills out hurts, but it's a necessary pain, Santana decides. Needed by the both of them.

She tries to hold onto it when they fall into the next silence, already feeling the drag of the inescapable sadness and drowsiness that always seems to find her these days. And it has Brittany too, now, weighting her heavy against Santana's form. Santana kind of hopes they fall into the same dream just so she won't have to float through it alone.

 


 

It's only on the walk home late that night, still summer-sticky and covered in cat fur, that Santana fully lets herself consider what Brittany said coming out of a dream, too afraid at the time of what the meaning might be.

I'm really scared we're losing her, Brittany had mumbled against Santana's neck.

The smallest, most broken voice, like she'd only dreamt of Quinn being taken away again and again. Santana didn't ask because she couldn't handle knowing. (Because it happened in her dream as well, and she didn't want to take it as a sign.) Brittany didn't offer because she knew the implications of anything even near to that.

But now under a sky of pinpricked stars it's all that runs through her mind – the smothering fear, and the desperation to stop it.

Part of her wants to call Quinn right this instant and threaten her until she promises not to disappear under all her sadness and guilt and then confiscate everything and anything that she could possibly use to hurt herself, like maybe physically having it might make a dent in it. But she knows it's so much more than knives and pills and bottles that clink in the recycling bin. There's a feverish wasp in her head that'll sting and sting long after Santana's cleared the world of potential weapons. She'll never be able to take Quinn's thoughts, no matter how hard she tries.

And it isn't even so much that she's afraid Quinn's about to off herself, because apart from the weird level of pride she has from just growing up like she did, Quinn just isn't someone who quits early. Lets it swallow her whole, sure. But she can't be the first one to blink.

Santana has her phone out anyway, though, not because she could actually find the words to say any of this to Quinn, but just because she needed to know the option's there. If it gets any worse, she could.

And she doesn't exactly mean to check her voicemail, but the night's brought a chill and she hugs herself as she walks and every tree sways away from her as if she'll ruin them too. It's the kind of darkness that coaxes out her need to hear Quinn's voice. The sweetness of it, when they both still believed a song could fix things.

When Quinn sang like every word could hold them afloat.

It's acidic now, listening to Quinn's song, the melody methodically stripping layers of her skin, but it rings out in a hauntingly glassy tone and she does nothing to stop the tears from building up.

Don't be afraid, just eat up all the grey.

It occurs to her as she crosses a road that's known her for her entire life that she has no idea what the song even sounded like originally, before Quinn filled it with her cautious grace. That she doesn't ever want to hear the original. That if she had her way, it would be forever preserved like this.

Just a shy girl and a gritty voicemail.

Just a song for Santana.

 


 

Nobody's waited up for her. Not intentionally, but Abuela's at the kitchen table, hands knotted up with the hour, and Santana drifts into place across from her because there are thoughts in her head that won't let up.

She doesn't even need Abuela to recognize her tonight, and maybe that's how she knows it's bad. That she's so ready to slip into anyone else's skin. That when Abuela looks right through her, it's a calmness she's been trying so hard not to wait for.

"Tell me a story," she asks softly, to the bruised fruit on the table.

It takes a moment before Abuela hears her. And then there's a shift and a slow breath and her hands have Santana's and they're anywhere but this kitchen, this echoing night. Maybe in the colored light of Abuela's old windows. Maybe in a Lima Santana will never know.

"It was a day without sun," Abuela says.

Santana shuts her eyes.

"You girls were still little, but your sister was old enough to understand these things. The paint on the neighbor's door. They were dark; darker than us. Their boys were all grown up and in the city, doing Lord only knows for nothing. Should have come home for their parents, but nobody wanted to talk about it." Abuela rubs circles into Santana's palm and stares vacantly at something out the window, her face both soft and hardened at once.

"Was it raining?" Santana asks.

She's almost heard this story before. Not in one sitting, not by any one person, but in odds and ends collected over the years. It hasn't lost its razored edge.

"Misting," Abuela replies, quiet. "Here and there. You had to wear your sister's old rain boots and you cried and cried. They rubbed you raw, you said. But what's a mother supposed to do? No one had any extra in those days. We did what we could, mija. It was never enough."

"I forgive you," Santana says in a whisper, waiting for the ghost to steal back her words.

It never comes. Abuela meets her gaze with a slow nod.

"Out of all of us on the block, you were the only one to say anything about the paint," she says. "I know you don't remember. You were so little. All elbows and sass. Espero que mueran, you said, wasting paint like that. Oh, they all laughed. No one knew what to say. And you know the rest; your sister hit your mouth so fierce it bled, and the both of you were howling, and we still had the appointment to make. Took you two weeks to ask about the word in the paint. I'd hoped you would have forgotten. You were so stubborn, mi pequeña. You had to ask."

There's a soft shape in the doorway now, heavy as cloth in the darkness. Santana knows before the creaking floorboards that it's her mother. Hair already down for the night, makeup wiped clean. Her face is all sad recognition. Santana half wills her back into the shadows just to make it go away.

I don't want you to catch my guilt, she swallows down, for the way she's stepped into this conversation like it's a cloak stolen from someone else's back. If these words were for her, she would already know them. She can see it in her mother's eyes.

And the gratitude. And the apology.

"It's late, Mama," her mother says to Abuela, shifting her weight to rest against the doorframe.

Abuela slips out of her trance with an almost ghostly sound. Not a whimper, but close enough to wither in the air.

"Why don't you take me to bed," Abuela agrees, rising from the table.

The beads of her rosary whisper with the movement.

Santana eyes her mother from her chair, seeking out an answer to the unasked question, already halfway to heading upstairs. But her mother doesn't tell her to get some sleep or rest her lazy bones like she's been doing since Santana was old enough to keep pushing back. She just eyes her in return, face an unreadable blank slate.

It isn't that there's nothing more to be said. They'll talk about it tomorrow or even later in the week, but it will be brought up and Santana will voice her penance. There was a line she shouldn't have crossed and she's waist deep in the sand.

But there's still something turning between them, some unfinished business that Santana can't word, that pins Santana to her chair and has her mother watching her with careful eyes.

There are a million things Santana could say.

She shakes her head.

Her mother echoes the gesture and lets out a gentle, "It's been a long couple of days, hasn't it."

"I think we're just stumbling through," Santana exhales. Her throat's raw. Thick with all the hours she's hidden away.

"That's okay," her mother says, tightening her dark robe around her shoulders. "That's what it is."

And then she has Abuela by the arm, leading her up the staircase to the room with the lock on the door and the CDs where there should be dust-covered records. And Santana draws her knees to her chest, tiny in the chair, tucking in her chin until she's a rounded stone in the half-lit kitchen and the only sound is her steady breathing.

She had heard the story before. Long ago, when she wasn't supposed to be listening.

Long ago when her mother was still an only child and the world still knew its axis.

All she'd understood then was that there actually was a world outside of the tiny scopes of children; something large and jagged and cold steel to the touch. She knew she'd know it someday. That there was validation for her fear.

We're not gonna survive it, she'd told Brittany sometime later under the slides.

Brittany, with all her innocence. Brittany with all her genius.

Well not alone, silly. But that's why you have me.

 


 

Santana's in the shower when her phone rings that morning, working her way through Madonna's greatest hits, and Desi flounders for four bars of Heads Will Roll before squeezing his eyes shut and answering it. There's an urgency to the ringing that he can't quite place until the caller speaks and then he thinks Santana might understand enough not to pinch his ear for daring to enter her room without permission.

Because Quinn sounds so pretty and small, and Desi has to sit down on the bed to stop it from swallowing him.

"She's taking a shower," he tells her when she asks, tugging at a loose thread on the duvet. "You can probably hear her singing even through the phone though."

Quinn's laugh is like rain on a car window and he traces its path down to the silence, fisting the fabric of the duvet until the funny fluttering in his stomach manages to settle. He's not supposed to be doing any of this; holding his sister's phone, sitting on her bed, filling up her room. But the part that snags the most is that it's Quinn on the other line, all breathy and shadows, and she hasn't yet slipped away.

"Will you tell her I called?" she asks.

He almost nods before remembering they're on the phone and then promises he will as soon as she's out of the shower. Not for Santana, but for Quinn. After seeing her with all that blood, he thinks he'd do anything for her. Even end the world, if that's what she wanted. But he isn't sure it is anymore.

"I um- Quinn," he adds, carefully, flattening his palm against the bed. "Are you feeling any better? From Sunday, I mean?"

There's a long pause and he's sure he ruined it somehow. She's fragile, he knows, like a first edition comic book, just waiting to be torn in half. He's ripped too many pages before not to know that sinking feeling.

But then Quinn breathes again, softly. Against the phone. "Yeah," she says. "A bit, I think. Thanks, Desi."

"For what?" he says, trying to remind his lungs what they're supposed to be doing.

Santana stops singing in the shower and he has maybe five minutes before she'll be out here in a towel, threatening his entire existence for tainting her space. Private things, she's always saying. But nothing feels private anymore; not after all she's accidentally told him.

"For being you," Quinn says. "Around me."

The water shuts off and the pipes groan.

His cheeks are all achy from biting back that smile. The Quinn smile. The one that comes every time he's scared and happy at the same time.

"I think you're kind of awesome," he admits in a quiet voice.

Quinn laughs again and it's an eyelash wish.

"I have to go," he says. "Santana'll call you back when she's dressed, probably. Um, stay better, okay? Or if you're not feeling better you can come over and we can play Mario Kart."

"I will definitely come over to play Mario Kart with you if I'm not feeling better," she tells him. It isn't her Santana voice, or her adult voice, but something sweeter and just as honest. Like she wants him to know she means it. Even if she didn't, he's okay just hearing her say it.

"Okay," he says.

"Okay," she repeats. There's a smile in it somewhere.

He holds onto it when she goes, trying to make it feel real.

And maybe it's enough to just do that because when Santana fills the doorway with her scowl and dripping hair all he has to say is it was Quinn on the phone for her to soften and come join him on the bed, leaving water droplets in the sheets.

"Everything's such a fucking mess," she tells him, quiet enough for him to ignore the swearing.

She looks different without her makeup; almost sort of hopeful. He'd tell her but she'd probably flick his nose and maybe it's best that she just doesn't know. She's always trying to cover things up. He doesn't want her to bury any more of herself.

Not when she's sitting next to him in one of the ratty towels they always hide from guests, eyelashes still webbed wet from the shower, breathing heavy like she's already under dirt. Not when he's finally old enough to understand.

"What're you going to do?" he asks.

Her eyes are sharp and then deflating, like both the needle and the balloon. If he could, he'd make it right, but none of this is his to touch.

She gives him a small shrug, straightening up like she realized how much she's been showing. "I don't know," she says, running a finger under her eye. "I don't even know how it got like this, Desi. And I feel like such an idiot for…"

She shrugs again and lets out a little laugh, hollow and tinny.

He doesn't know either and he's been trying so hard to figure it out. There don't seem to be any lines from Point A to anywhere and he knows they're all knotted and this is his big sister and it's supposed to be a summer vacation, for goodness sake. Even though he knows they kind of stop being vacations when you get older, like people just stop being able to untangle themselves.

He knows it'll be him soon enough, trying to find the loose end. He can only hope he isn't doing it alone.

"You should call her back," he says. "Quinn, I mean," he adds, when Santana looks at him like this is the first time she's heard this language. "I told her you'd call."

"Right," she says with a nod.

It's his cue to leave, and he knows he's getting older because he almost doesn't even have to hop anymore to get down from her bed. But then she makes a slight noise to hold him in place and he hovers at her dresser until she can find enough of her words to continue.

"How'd she sound?" she asks, pulling her lip between her teeth.

He shakes his head and shifts in his spot until the floorboards creak in protest. "like she's trying," he says, not sure if it's even close to being true. "I really think she's doing better."

It's the hope in her eyes. He can't figure out how to break it when it's only just appeared.

 


 

Santana waits until her hair's dry and she's done her makeup to return Quinn's call. It isn't armor, but it's something close, and as she slowly twirls in her desk chair it feels like it could be enough just to pretend everything's fine.

(Even if it's exactly what she's been doing for the past three years. She's accepted the truth now, and maybe all that matters is that she knows.)

But then Quinn answers in that careful voice of hers and anything Santana had prepared sinks into the rug at her feet, getting lost in the black and white fibers.

"Desi told you I called, then?"

It's nowhere near a hello but they've always been too close to the wick to stall on pleasantries and Santana tilts back in her chair until all she can see is ceiling and lets out a slow, even breath.

"Did anything change?" she asks, hoping that edge of fear isn't audible. "After Sunday, my dad… did it even make a difference?"

Quinn sighs and Santana wants to slap her. Hug her. Be done with all of this.

"I panicked on Sunday. It was nowhere near as bad as it seemed, Santana. And you know it's been-"

Much worse before, Santana fills in for her. Obviously. They may not have been the closest of friends, but she always knew when shit had gone down in the Fabray house. As if Quinn could truly hide any of that from a girl who tried so hard to exist as someone who'd only tear her down.

She pinches the bridge of her nose, eyes shut. "I'm pretty sure my parents are ready to sell a kidney if that's what it takes, so don't pull any of this bullshit with me, Q. Either it helped or it didn't and things still suck. I just want to know so I can… you know, be there for you."

"She's… trying," Quinn finally gets out, voice strained with what Santana imagines is years of repressed emotions. "We're trying. Okay?"

"It's something," Santana says quietly.

"It's all there is," Quinn replies. "And if I wanted to wallow in it, I would've skipped the phone call and just gone back to bed."

Santana doesn't voice her apology, but it's still there. "Whatever," she says instead. "Why'd you call?"

There's a rustle that sounds like papers and a creak of some sort of chair and it's obvious in Quinn's voice she's straightened up, eager to drag the conversation back to its intended trajectory.

"Brittany's already on board, so really, calling you was mostly a formality. But my mom's donor contributions means she sometimes gets free passes to show openings at ArtSpace and since it was mostly my dad's thing, before- you know, all that crap, I thought maybe you and Brittany and I would check it out."

"When is it?" Santana asks thinly. There's really nothing more she can say at this point, now that Brittany's already confirmed for the both of them.

Quinn makes a soft, pleased noise. "Ah, today," she says. "I didn't know about the tickets until I got home on Monday, and then Brittany said you were asleep in her bed when I called yesterday, so-"

"Quinn…"

"It's a photographer," Quinn goes on, sounding almost forceful, "and he deals mostly in late nineteenth century artifacts, and I think it'll be a nice break from everything. Yes?"

The tug nearly pulls her heart right through her ribs, and she has to palm her chest to make sure everything's still in working order. Brittany could have worded it a thousand ways and Quinn could have heard it as anything and she didn't even do anything wrong, just slept, just slept and felt terrible about the world, but she's still clutching at her tank top like the pressure might shove something back into place.

"Yeah," she murmurs into her phone. "You know I fully support your weird art obsessions."

Part of her goes to ask about the crayon drawings, how long they lasted pinned to the fridge, but she's sure they're either immortalized as a sick reminder or torn up in some trash can right now at the hands of either one of them and if Quinn needs anything these days, it's the ability to let herself forget. Santana can't ruin what might finally be building itself; not when she's contributed so much to its absence in the first place.

"You bitch," Quinn says with a light laugh, a little more distant than before. "Brittany's dad volunteered to drop us off, so be ready for four, okay? And just- like, don't dress like a hooker for once. Please."

"Bitch," Santana tosses right back.

"Lima's seen more than enough thigh to last them the summer, Santana. No need to spoil them." Quinn pauses, then adds, quieter, "My mom said some of my dad's business associates might be there, for-"

"Don't worry about your streetwalking friend, Q," Santana cuts in. "I mean I'm sure they would've appreciated the show, but I'll do my best not to embarrass you in front of the mules."

"You're such a dork sometimes," Quinn tells her, voice free of the insecurity that dampened it only seconds ago.

Something in Santana is hurdled back to the very start of the summer, when the only thing she'd said to Quinn was some bitchy comment about stretch marks and bikinis and gotten the usual halfhearted claws in return. She'd been so happy to just let New York fizzle out between them; let it change nothing but the confirmation that they needed to get the hell out of Ohio.

It's always been her position – ignoring everything and anything until it goes away. She'd thought it was Quinn's too, but then Quinn had to go and decide they'd stop fucking each other over, and at some point this summer it became an actual friendship; the kind they'd always done their best to avoid, both having too many weaknesses to share them with anyone.

"I've always been a dork," Santana admits, triggering laughter on the other end of the phone.

"Yeah," Quinn says, the chuckle curling her voice. "And you always thought you hid it well."

She did. They both did. Maybe it's why they've always sort of come back to each other, something soft underneath all that poison.

 


 

Her first discernible thought in the mouth of the over air-conditioned gallery is that this is the last time Brittany agrees to plans for the both of them. Her second is that she's somehow managed to lose Quinn in the sea of polyester and questionably pressed suits, but then everything's swallowed up by the billboard-sized print near the entrance that she's guessing is meant to serve as the introductory image.

To a horror show apparently, judging by the twisted grimace of some sort of mummified monkey-fish.

"What the fuck," she hisses just as Quinn appears at her side, motioning both towards the giant print on the wall and the handful of uninterested white faces around them.

(She did hear something about refreshments, though, so it might explain why they seem to actually be filtering away from the gallery itself and not gaping in utter surprise at what was probably the most poorly-explained art installation on Quinn's part.)

"If you'd known enough to google beforehand," Quinn mutters as she tugs her along into the actual installation, "You wouldn't have come."

"You're damn right I wouldn't have," Santana says quiet enough for only Quinn to catch it.

She didn't even really believe there'd be people here, given that it's the middle of the week and despite the rumors a small part of Lima really does have a life, but it's somehow just as crowded as Family Video on a Friday night and it's only Cheerios training that stops her from hitting elbows at almost every turn.

And even Cheerios has nothing for the waterlogged assholes who just keep stopping in front of her. Fuck.

"But it's kind of interesting, right?" Quinn asks, letting go of Santana's arm to gesture at a collection of actual postcards from these weird old freak shows.

Santana can barely bring herself to look, catching only a brief glance of a little girl with joints bent in ways not humanly possible and a thumb-sized man in a top hat.

Interesting would be the last word she'd use for this. Disgusting, maybe, that people used to treat human beings like some sort of exhibit at the zoo, shelling out good money to line up and to what? To scare themselves shitless? To count their lucky stars it wasn't them? She has no idea.

And it feels too much like supporting all of it, averting her eyes from the framed prints in one of her pretty Sunday dresses.

"Are you-" fucking crazy, she goes to ask, but then Quinn's hovering in front of a photograph of some fucked up rat in a jar like she knows it all too well and then it kind of makes sense why Brittany agreed.

As far as distractions go, this might be the biggest they could find in all of Ohio.

It leaves a subtle trace of serenity on Quinn's face that Santana hasn't seen in months now, maybe longer, like that streak of calm waters in the wake of a powerboat, and just watching her drift from photograph to photograph has Santana a little less apprehensive; a little less afraid that the bomb's about to detonate.

She only realizes she's staring when Brittany's whisper at her ear nearly scares her out of her skin, and then the crowd reappears and the photographs are back on the walls and there's more to her vision than Quinn's small form at the other side of the room.

"You can let her go," Brittany whispers again, a chiding in her voice that seems to say she knows all too well why Santana was staring.

"Britt," she starts, turning to look at her.

But Brittany's face is the impenetrable mask it always is and all Santana can find as proof of anything other than the sweet oblivion is that sharp glint in Brittany's eyes; both a warning and an apology. Santana can't ask how much Brittany knows, when she knows it isn't an answer either of them wants to hear.

"Are you as creeped out by all of this as I am?" she asks instead, motioning towards the blown-up prints on the pristine white walls.

Brittany takes a minute to fully look around as if she hadn't actually noticed before, that they were standing in the middle of a gallery surrounded by some of the saddest artifacts of such a twisted time, and gives her chin a soft tap before just raising her shoulders.

"I think it depends which side you're looking at it from," she says, and Santana frowns.

"What, the pimps or the hoes?"

A man at the small display case next to them very pointedly clears his throat. Santana sends him a nice scowl.

"No, I mean like-" Brittany pauses to direct Santana's attention to a photograph on the wall behind them of a suitcase filled with a performer's few belongings – a hairbrush, an empty locket, a handful of brittle letters. "I mean it's obviously sad that they were people who weren't treated well, but wouldn't that be everywhere at that time? The kind of people they were?"

Santana's gaze drifts back over to the postcards where the little girl with the backwards legs smiled for some old camera. It does seem a little impossible that anyone would've even given her the time of day, had she been just walking down the street. Even now. Even with everything they've supposedly gained.

Brittany continues even quieter, her hand finding a place against Santana's wrist. "I just think it was good that they had somewhere, you know? They weren't really seen as people, but at least they weren't alone. So maybe it wasn't bad for them. Maybe that's just what we think, because everyone thinks we should want more than that. And I don't know, Santana. Maybe they liked not having to hide all the time."

Santana swallows hard and wills herself not to look up at Brittany, anchoring herself to a groove in the hardwood floors instead like it's possible Brittany can't feel her hands shaking.

If she'd been alive back then, how tempting would it have been to run away to join the circus? Plaster herself to painted billboards and earn a living doing the very thing that should have her burned alive?

She could be The Amazing Lady Lover. The husband trapped in a wife's body.

And people would pay to laugh, and they'd never stay in one town long enough for any of it to truly matter.

"You okay?" Brittany murmurs, gently grazing Santana's cheek.

Santana's skin burns at the touch and she turns her face until Brittany's hand is just floating there, tainting the space with all Santana hopes the empty faces around them can't see.

"Fine," she says. Brittany doesn't even have to translate to know what she really means.

There are suits and sensible heels all around them, filling the spaces of the gallery like their very presence is why the sun continues to shine. If it weren't for Quinn Santana could be at home right now, watching TV in anything other than this ridiculous church dress, not having to hold her breath in case the sound of it hitching draws everyone's attention to how impossible it is for her to breathe around either of her best friends.

It's this stupid town. And it's the stupid country. And she's not sure there's anywhere in the world, now or back then or years into the future, where she won't be so goddamn scared to just exist.

"Maybe it should be us in those photos," she whispers to Brittany.

Brittany's eyebrows raise and then her face settles into a teasing smile. "What, an elastic band dancer and the world's greatest singer? We could be their leading act."

"And what would Quinn be?" Santana asks, unable to stop herself from playing along. She knows Brittany won't let her quit anyway.

"Hmmm," Brittany hums, taking Santana's hand like they aren't standing in the middle of a public space. "Why don't we go ask her? Probably something beautiful, don't you think?"

The edge to Brittany's eyes is even harder now, slicing through something deep in Santana's chest.

It's ridiculous that anyone's ever thought Brittany wasn't smart. She's smart enough to hold them all suspended in this shitty diorama of why you should never fall for your best friend, having caught on long before Santana ever did, knowing just how dumb Santana must be to keep herself so tangled in the cords.

I'm sorry, Santana tries to say.

I love you.

But that's it. That's what it all comes down to; those five words.

And Brittany's already walking past her to something Santana hasn't yet seen and for a moment all she has is the giant puckered hole in her chest, the wound sucking in all air like a black hole that might actually be able to eat the entire world before she has to figure out what comes next, and she stands there for a full minute with people shuffling around her until the quiet noise registers and she understands why Brittany's over there in the corner with her arms around Quinn.

The two of them nearly disappearing under a photograph of a legless fetus in a glass jar, Quinn's gentle sobbing almost lost completely in the din of the gallery.

Santana wants to hit herself for not noticing sooner, too wrapped up in her own shit to pay attention to anything else. And then again for just standing here, frozen in place, because even if she knew how to move she still wouldn't be able to hug her best friend in front of so many pairs of eyes.

She's never been Brittany. She's only now realizing how much of a fault that is.

Brittany catches her eye over Quinn's shoulder and just holds here there for a beat, staring like she doesn't want to understand why Santana's so far away. Quinn needs us, she mouths.

Santana drops her gaze so she doesn't have to feel that sick hatred; that envy of the two of them for not having to give it a second thought, touching like that in public. It's pathetic and she wishes more than anything she could budge from her spot near the wall, stop noticing all the heads turned towards Quinn's wet cheeks, step out of herself for one fucking minute.

And then the minute passes and Quinn's adjusting her dress like it never happened and Brittany won't even look in Santana's direction and Santana just turns around and leaves.

Always the quitter.

She slips through the glass doors into the hot August sun like she's leaving nothing behind.

 


 

The walk home leaves her sunburnt and rotted through, having spent every step replaying the scene at the gallery in her head like a feverish nightmare.

Quinn needs us.

Quinn's falling apart here.

Why are you never strong enough for anyone, Santana.

She doesn't check her phone even after she locks the door behind her but she already knows, instinctively, that there won't be any messages or missed calls. Brittany will have seen Quinn home and stayed just long enough to make sure she's all right and they'll both pretend there's nothing else that needs to be said.

It shouldn't feel as comforting as it does, but Santana holds on to that thought until she's torn the dress from her skin and burrowed deep enough under her blankets to pretend she can't hear anything.

Not the frantic beat of her heart. Not the cautious knock on her door.

But Desi comes in anyway, because he'll always care more than he fears.

She can't even bring herself to pop her head out from the blankets when his weight dips the mattress. "Go away," she murmurs.

"You're not angry," he says, voice finding her through the fabric and scratching at her skin.

"I'm always angry."

He snorts and she loves him for it. "You try," he says. "I don't care. I just wanted to see if you wanted some coffee. I'm about to put on a pot, if you don't mind it strong."

"Like you've ever taken it stronger than flavored water," she throws out, rolling her eyes in her dark cocoon.

"Papi says-"

"Jack shit," she interrupts, then pushes up on her elbows until she's basically facing him, just the thin summer duvet between her face and his. "Drown that shit in cream if it's what makes you happy, Desi. It's not gonna make you any less of a man, owning up to how you really like your coffee."

There's enough afternoon light sneaking through the half-open curtains for her to see a shadow of his face; the consideration and gradual realization. It tugs on the lump in her throat, watching his expression change, catching that brief glimpse of that wobbly toddler who spent hour upon hour trying to figure out the latch on the baby gate at the top of the stairs. She'd been such a proud sister when he finally got it. Even when he went rolling down the wooden steps, she couldn't help the sense of fulfillment she had over this one small accomplishment.

Because he was finally learning to test the world around him and she'd hoped more than anything he never let that go.

"I like sugar," he says quietly, almost daring the words to be heard.

Santana pops her head through a gap in the blankets, grinning at him. "What's that?"

"I like sugar," he repeats, just as quiet, before catching on. The smile illuminates his voice. "I. Like. SUGAR IN MY COFFEE!"

"You like sugar!" Santana shouts, playfully smacking his leg.

"And I don't care," he says, pushing at the curls falling in his face, beaming right back at her like she's just unlocked some hidden chest. "I don't need to care."

"Good job," she says softly, reaching out just far enough to tug a single curl back onto his forehead.

He makes a face at her action but doesn't do anything to move the hair.

"But what if I still care a little?" he asks quietly, not meeting her eyes.

"Des," she starts, taking a moment to gather her words. "Man, if we ever had a choice about what we cared about…"

The curve of his mouth slips out of a frown and into the tiniest smile, like a little promise that he gets it before he's breaking the shape with a handful of careful words. "Did something else happen with Quinn, Sananana?"

She watches him for a moment, taking in everything from his soft, fearful eyes to the strengthening line of his jaw, different still from even four months ago when she could've sworn he was still a dumb kid with okay taste in action heroes. He's almost grown enough to pass for a puberty-stricken teen and it would terrify her if she couldn't still see his baby sweetness; the last remnants of a sticky childhood she isn't sure will ever truly leave him.

Not when he's still so full of love, heart swollen with what she can only imagine will hurt him in turn.

"I don't think I'll ever stop doing dumb things," she admits to the space between them, sinking into her blankets when he lets out a barely audible sigh.

"Just figure it out," he tells her, shoulders lifting in a shrug. "Figure it out and make it right."

His gaze lingers on her for another beat, face still caught in that weird mix of understanding and disappointment that always seems to plague him around her, before pushing off her bed completely and slipping quietly towards the door.

"I think you can do it," he says before leaving her, a tiny voice that carries down the hall and into her restless swamp-sick dreams.

 


 

It isn't her phone that wakes her, or the crunch of tires in the driveway, or more low murmurs from the hall. It might just be the glaring absence of all of this – of every last thing that's shaken her the past few weeks, all claws and razor teeth – and the heat that sinks to a chilling breeze and the tap of nothing against her open window.

She wakes with a start nonetheless, knowing only the darkness and the racing in her chest.

The blankets have long since abandoned her, now pooled in knots around her ankles, leaving her bare skin all goosebumps in the cold. She's in nothing but her underwear. Nothing but the bones of the day that won't let go.

And it's then that she notices the glowing red on her clock; late enough to still be called indecent, but too early for the birds to rise.

Witching Hour. And all she can think to do is slip out into the night, a black silk nightdress her only protection against the breeze.

But it isn't as if the sleeping town won't get her anyway, pricking her bare feet with glistening shards and sly, microscopic thorns just big enough to hurt. She walks tightrope-arms-out along the bank of the curb but it still takes her; still holds her feet to the asphalt in the passing beams of streetlights.

It's just her and the dark houses now. Her and the shadow of a swooping bat. Her and the hum of air-conditioning leaking streams into the starved grass below.

Through the park's edge, down another comatose street.

Heel-toe-heel-toe-heel-toe all the way to Quinn's dormant, gaping grey house.

If she knew how to put these things into words, she wouldn't need to throw the pebbles at Quinn's curtained windows, but there's a certain humor to the pathetic sitcom throwback that has her head tilted up hopefully, lips pressed together as if there's anything to spill.

"You're an idiot," Quinn whispers down from the crack of her window.

All gravel-voiced and tangled hair, the faintest smile on her pretty lips. Santana crooks a finger in her direction and waits as Quinn disappears.

A light flicks on over in a neighbor's backyard, too far away for Santana to really worry, but the creak of a screen door is a grounding enough sound for her to consider why exactly she came all the way here in the middle of the night. Sleepwalking, she could say. But her heart's still racing.

Quinn slips out through the sliding glass doors and takes a seat on the back step, waiting for Santana to join her before shifting close enough for their thighs to touch.

Her pale skin is warm against Santana's, fresh from her bed sheets. It's all Santana can do not to jerk away.

Quinn seems to know this, and inches closer.

"She fired the gardener," she says softly, staring out at the empty beds where the flowers used to be. "My mom. And now everything's dead."

Her fingers slowly track their way down her thigh, stopping at the knob of her knee and ghosting across Santana's, coming to rest against the chilled skin.

Santana sneaks a careful glance, just to be sure she isn't imagining it. Quinn presses her fingertips a little harder.

"I think I kind of like it like this," Quinn says.

Her palm is opening now, a soft bloom, curling up towards Santana's fearful hand just enough to lure it closer. Santana doesn't know how to do anything else but cover it with her own and thread their fingers together like it might somehow hold everything in place. Just for now. Just until the break of dawn.

"Sorry I left," Santana breathes out, her voice just as small as the veins of light in the sky.

Everything looks like a bruise. She can only stare at Quinn's legs, too afraid to find the colored skin of her cheek.

Quinn strokes the pad of her thumb across Santana's knuckle, eyes still fixed on the flowerbeds. "You know what my grandma first said to me, after the nose job and blonde hair dye?" She waits for Santana to hum a response before continuing, a slight desperate chuckle seeping into her words. "She said, well now you finally look like yourself."

"Fuck, Quinn," Santana murmurs, letting her eyes trace a path up from their hands to Quinn's broken smile.

"And, God, I just wanted to ask which self, you know? Because I've never really had a real one." Quinn's laugh comes out in a scratch, catching on both their breaths.

She finally breaks away from the flowerbeds and her gaze settles on Santana's, eyes the same heavy green-violet of the waking sky.

"I always hoped I might figure it out if I looked the part, but fuck, Santana, they never tell you how impossible it all is. All this pointless little shit, day after day." Quinn's chest hitches on the last word, but she still doesn't let go of Santana's gaze; still holds it like it's her gravitational pull. "I just don't understand… how people can keep living like they haven't already exploded into a million little pieces. Because I…"

It's the same pull of Sunday night, and something entirely different, and all Santana knows for sure is if she doesn't fill her mouth with words it'll be doing something much worse than kissing if she lets Quinn continue on like this.

All jagged edges and raspy desperation. A crater at the bottom of the sea.

"I think maybe some people haven't exploded, Quinn," she says honestly, hating herself for the shipwreck it leaves in Quinn's pretty eyes.

"Fuck them," Quinn exhales. "It isn't fair."

"I know," Santana says, partly in relief at how Quinn sort of shifts away, partly in her own quiet desperation, both thankful and terrified of how Quinn clutches her hand.

But Quinn's shaking her head with that aching look again, saying, "No, you can't, not when you're…"

"What?" Santana asks. "When I'm what?"

They're surrounded by the decaying stalks of what she can barely remember to be a garden and it seems the most appropriate place, somehow, for Quinn to hold the pause like this – it dies in her grasp and all Santana can feel is the quickening pulse under the skin of Quinn's palm before she turns her face to the shadows.

"Nothing," she lets out, mostly under her breath.

Her mouth pulls tight for the briefest second before curving in on itself in a mocking smile; something Santana's seen maybe a thousand times before, but there's a new sharpness to it now, a deeper ridge, that has her trying to cling to it even as it fades.

Maybe she doesn't really know. Maybe it's that she's always had a burning truth to try and smother, even when she wasn't sure there was anything under all that smoke.

Quinn inhales sharply and looks at her with those swampy eyes, lips settling into something just shy of acquiescent. "It's late," she says softly.

"It's actually kind of early," Santana counters, and Quinn gives her the tiniest crack of a laugh. "Think I'll make it home before the sunrise?"

She doesn't mean to drop her gaze, but when she brings it back up from that almost-smile Quinn's watching her with an echo of herself from Sunday night, tucked in deep with the softness and stone and exhaustion holding everything else together.

There's something burning in her too, Santana knows all at once. Maybe not a truth, but a question. She isn't sure they aren't the same things, now.

"I think you stand a good chance," Quinn replies, seeking out the amber glow of the horizon. Her hand curls smaller in Santana's, and then it's gone, back at Quinn's side like that's where it was all along.

"And you'll…" Santana presses her lips together, wondering how much of her truths keep spilling through while she's not paying attention. Quietly, she admits, "I didn't mean to leave, at the art gallery."

Quinn nods and runs the backs of her hands along her thighs, gently. "I know," she says. "Brittany took me home."

"I know," Santana says.

The steps are dewy where they weren't sitting, wet under her fingers as she steadies herself to stand. It isn't night. It isn't morning either, and it feels right like this. Like they've found the loophole and somehow the earth will keep turning without them. We fell off, she wants to tell Quinn, we're free, but they're still moving, the ground humming underfoot.

"We're okay," Quinn says, because Santana can't bring herself to ask. "Don't worry about it."

Don't kill yourself, she tries to reply.

Her voice is too knotted for desperation so she just nods instead, pulling her fingers through a loose curl of hair at her neck. "Your grandma's a bitch," she offers, finding that familiar scowl, latching on to the spark it ignites.

Quinn's laugh comes down like fireworks: all hot smoke and bits of sky.

"Guess I come by it naturally then," she says with a cool shrug, biting past the lingering grin. "You on the other hand…"

Santana rolls her eyes. They're either exactly where they were or on the opposite side of it, still straddling whatever line held them in place, and she can't tell if they're actually going anywhere but through; but on.

She knows only one thing for sure, and she holds onto it the whole walk home under the timid August sunrise: somehow, they'll figure it out.

Chapter Text

 

 

Her father is a stone in the stiff leather armchair when she eases the door shut behind her; it clicks into the lock and he remains frozen, eyes fixed on her dirty bare feet. There’s a dry smudge of blood on one of them, an ache she hadn’t before felt, and it’s as if he feels it as well the way he keeps his soft gaze stuck on that one little wound.

She curls her toes against the edge of the rug and it’s at this that he finally moves, face easing into something she hasn’t seen in a long while.

“Couldn’t sleep either?” he offers in a quiet voice, rising from the chair like steam.

If he’s at all curious as to why she’s only now returning home, just after dawn in a thin black nightgown, feet worn by the empty streets, he doesn’t show it. Just meets her in the doorway, eyes soft and hazy.

“Needed to clear my head,” she says, and he nods.

“Your mother did the same, when she was pregnant with you,” he says, not so much to her as to the slice of light between them from the streetlamp outside. “All hours of the night – just walking, never letting me join her. Said I had work in the morning, you know, needed the sleep, but I think she just needed to be alone.”

He falls quiet again and she wonders what he sees in her face, now, glancing down at her, lips pulled into something close to a smile. Is she another shadow of her mother? Does she look anything like the woman he fell in love with, or more the lines of grief that cut the woman’s face?

But then maybe she might just look like him, and the idea has her breath falter for a brief moment.

Maybe when he looks at her he can only find himself, and that’s why he always looks away, and it’s never been about what she did or didn’t do.

“Do you- do you want to join me? On a walk?” she finds herself asking, already bracing herself for the response.

Don’t be silly, Santana. It’s time we both put ourselves to bed.

Haven’t you walked enough for one night?

And she’s ready for him to decline, not even sure if she could manage it if he said yes, knowing all too well how her voice slips away when he’s around. But then there’s a smile and a careful nod, and neither of them are expecting him to reach for his shoes.

“I’d love to,” he murmurs, slipping into those beat up loafers reserved for lounging.

She can’t even remember the last time she saw him put those on. But she pulls on a pair of shoes as well, an old pair of sandals, and he holds the door, and the bluish-grey of the yawning sky swallows them both before either can go back on their word.

They keep the same steady pace, she finds; the same quiet footsteps.

He keeps his gaze on the same level spot in the distance, and at one time she knew these things about him but children grow up and let go of their fathers’ hands.

“We almost bought that house, before we had you,” he says to her now, of the house at the end of the block.

It’s cradled by a wraparound porch and a lawn edged in flowerbeds, and Santana knows it was her mother who wanted it, for the picturesque life it boasts. Children running through the grass. Rocking chairs overlooking the garden.

“Took us another couple of years to get into this neighborhood after we were outbid, but the house we got isn’t too shabby, is it?” He’s smiling at her, and she smiles back.

“It’ll do,” she says. And then, a few houses down, “Think it would’ve been different, had you got the first house?”

She can feel him glance over at her, calm and inquisitive. They’re nearing the crosswalk where Desi once rode his bike into an idling car, helmetless and determined to fly, and she’s struck with the memory of her mother’s jarring scream, dropping her bags to run after him.

Just a few stitches above his eye it got him, but their mother went on like he’d pierced a lung every time he even took a step near his bike.

Like hell you’ll be getting back on that any time soon, mister.

But he did, any time she wasn’t home, flying up and down the block with so much joy Santana didn’t have the heart to tattle. He was so free.

“The people make the house, and not the other way around,” her father says now, passing by the site of Desi’s accident without even flinching. He wasn’t there, but their mother brought it up so much she half expected him to absorb the memory by osmosis.

“But I don’t know,” he continues. “I’m sure the possibility exists for one small difference to alter everything. In any case, I’m glad we got the house that we did.”

“Me too,” she says, looking up at him for a brief moment, chancing eye contact.

He smiles at her with something she can’t quite place, but it’s warm and familiar and she looks away so she doesn’t have to see his expression change and can just hold on to that image as long as she wants.

Maybe it’s just a dad look. Just one of those things they do.

Because then he’s bringing up her birth, the same old story of the deal they had about baby names (he’d choose if it was a girl and her mother would choose for a boy), and how pleased he was to see her grouchy little face, screaming bloody murder.

“I just knew I’d picked the right name for you, Santana, after your grandfather and after the winds. Because you were definitely a force to be reckoned with. And still are,” he reminds her, placing a soft hand on her shoulder before remembering the years that have grown between them and quickly bringing it back to his side.

But the heat of his palm lingers, and she remembers when they were younger and he still felt like her whole world. The piggyback rides. How he’d let her dance on his toes to old songs in the living room.

It wasn’t a conscious choice, leaving all that behind. She just- grew up. And into herself. And she supposes he did the same, because she can barely see him anymore.

“Remember when Desi was born?” she says, as soft as the pink that warms the sky.

He chuckles, and she’s missed him.

“I remember how much you cried,” he says. “Didn’t want anyone else joining our little family, no matter how many presents you got for it. My stubborn little girl. But you came around, hm?”

“Didn’t really have a choice,” she mutters, just to make him laugh.

“You’ve been a good sister, though. And he loves you.” He goes quiet for a moment, watching a handful of leaves scatter down the street in a small gust of wind.

They aren’t the only ones awake at this hour, a few cars have driven down the main road up ahead, but it still feels that way; like they’re alone in this hazy sunrise, drifting down the sidewalk in a conversation too small for the things they should be saying.

“Were you the same when Uncle Roman was born?” she asks carefully, not daring to look at him.

He straightens up beside her and sort of clears his throat, startling a bird in a nearby tree. It disappears behind a house before he answers and Santana’s about to take it all back as he lets out a heavy breath.

“They were different times, Santana,” he says, eyes fixed on the cross street up ahead. “My parents were young, and there wasn’t much money… It was less like a new sibling and more like another worry, I suppose. Your uncle Mateo – I remember him telling me they wouldn’t need me anymore, our parents. And I think it really stuck with me. For a long time.”

It isn’t something he’s talked about before; this side of his past. She’s heard all about university and him meeting her mother, and the adventures that followed, but his childhood… his brothers…

They’re both like that – him and her mother. Not secretive, but just not entirely open, and maybe that’s why everything feels to her like a delicate glass figurine she needs to keep up on a high shelf.

“He was wrong though, wasn’t he?”

She doesn’t know much about Uncle Mateo other than his cult-ish missionary work and his disappearance to some part of Africa over a decade ago, but obsessive faith notwithstanding he seemed decent enough. Not the type to scar his brother for life.

“He was a child,” her father says. “He couldn’t have known any better. But, you know. It still felt like something I had to prove. If my parents were alive today…”

“They’d be proud,” Santana assures him. He gives her a doubtful look and she continues, “I mean, you made me, so obviously you did pretty well for yourself.”

It’s not the laugh she was aiming for, but the smile feels like enough.

“I don’t want you to be left wondering once I’m dead,” he says quietly, as they pause at the corner to wait for a car to pass.

“I won’t, Papi. Don’t worry.”

They’re closer to Brittany’s house than their own now, having reached the semi-busy street that prevented Santana from ever making the short walk on her own, just up until she was wearing training bras and basically begged her mother to take her head out of her ass.

They’d installed a crosswalk the year prior and as rebellious as she was she was never much for jaywalking so really, it was crazy it went on as long as it did, her mother driving her the eight and a half blocks to Brittany’s every day after school.

“I’m not so much the man I wanted to be,” her father admits, jolting her from the memory.

It’s totally not where she thought the conversation was heading, but by the look in his eyes it seems he’d been leading it here all along, inch by timid inch.

“You’re good,” she tries telling him, but he waves it away.

“There’s too much I don’t ever say; too much that stays quiet. I don’t want my children to feel like they never knew me at all, once I’m gone.” He runs a hand through his short dark curls, leaving it to rest at the back of his neck. “Everything with your grandmother, everything with your friend Quinn… I think it’s forced me to examine a lot of my life. Not in a bad way,” he says, just as she goes to ask.

She frowns. “You’re nothing like Quinn’s mom, Papi. You know that, right?”

He isn’t always there, but he’s never gone the way Judy is, leaving her daughter to clean up the pieces.

He lifts his shoulders, and- “She’s not a villain, Santana. Just- struggling. Something we’ll all do in our lifetime. And I… have definitely been struggling myself, these past few months. I know I’ve been away a lot, for work and other necessities,” he says, steering them into the park, his loafers trudging against the gravel path.

“Your conferences,” she says, nodding. “I don’t mind that much. Everyone pretty much looks after themselves, so…”

“But I only had one conference this year, at the start of July,” he confesses, waiting for her to process before continuing.

“So you’ve been…” Her eyebrows scrunch up, muddling the look she gives him.

Clearly not working, which he’s been all too happy to let everyone believe. All of a sudden she’s struck with the concern that she’s got another sibling somewhere, or entire set of siblings, in some love nest he’s set up for his other family far enough away for the worlds to never collide.

Does her mother know? Is it even an affair if it’s sanctioned?

“At the James Cancer Hospital, in Columbus,” he says, and suddenly she can see the deep bags under his eyes, and the years of exhaustion it brings to his face.

Papi,” she asks, not able to get the words out. There’s a brick in her stomach that only gets heavier.

“For your uncle Roman,” he tells her, motioning towards a nearby bench. She gladly takes the seat and exhales slowly as he goes on. “They found it earlier this year, in his liver. I don’t know, our father drank, and maybe it seemed like a thing to do, but I always feared it would catch up with him. And now, well.”
She desperately wants to be the kind of daughter who has the right words for this, but all she can think is how relieved she is that it wasn’t another family somewhere, and how utterly thrown she is by the truth, and how terribly glad she is it isn’t her own father.

Because they’re supposed to have years, and she’s supposed to make him a grandpa, and he’s supposed to be so proud and goddamnit this isn’t the time but she’s absolutely terrified of the confession that’s desperate to slip out.

The one that seems so small in the light of cancer, but still somehow feels like her own cancer, swallowing her whole before she can even give it a name.

“Is he… like, dying?” she asks in the tiniest voice.

Her father eases into the bench next to her, hand cautiously ghosting over to take hers. “It looks like it,” he says with a slow nod. “At this point, there isn’t much left to be done.”

She thinks of her cousin Sienna, always laughing and put together. Of the games they used to play in Sienna’s bedroom, making forts in her bunk bed, before her father left the church and Santana’s father refused to even see him.

How Sienna would still call sometimes, just wanting to make sure Santana was okay.

And Santana doesn’t even know what college she went to, or if she’s engaged, or how she’s going to cope with any of this.

“I’ve been going just to see him,” her father says. “After all these years… it just seemed like the right thing to do.”

“I’m sorry,” Santana murmurs.

His hand is nearly twice the size of hers, just like when she was little and used to make him hold it up to measure. Hands that could cradle the sun if she asked. Hands that somehow forgot to handle her, and she somehow forgot to hold.

“Maybe you could come with me next time?” he asks, gentle. Fearful.

The sort of voice she never wanted to associate with him.

“Of course,” she says. “Any time.”

“He’s been asking about you,” he tells her, slowly steadying his grip on her hand. “I’ve shown him a couple videos of your glee club, of you singing. You know he thinks you could be the next Beyoncé.”

It puts a small smile on his face, and she smiles back, softly.

“I could sing for him, if he wanted,” she offers.

“I think he’d like that,” he says, giving her hand a squeeze before releasing it.

Something about him feels lighter now, on the other end of his confession. The same kind of lightness she’s been chasing all summer with the words that just won’t come out and this obviously isn’t the time, sitting next to him in their pyjamas in the middle of the park, but holy sweet hell does she want to let go.

Just let it all out.

Come clean and not have to choke on it any longer.

Maybe then it wouldn’t feel so apocalyptic, sitting on her chest with the weight of every star in the galaxy. And she could watch the sun come up like her father’s doing now: eyes the color of a clear breaking day, mouth no longer pulling so hard.

“Thanks for telling me,” she just about whispers. He isn’t expecting it, and she can feel it rustle the air between them.

“I think I owed you that much,” he replies. “More, but that much of a start.”

 


 

 

Brittany stops by later that day, when the sun’s high in the sky and Santana’s still curled up in bed, skin sticking to the sheets.

The A/C isn’t even broken anymore but her mother’s on some unnecessary penny-pinching kick after the last set of bills came in and apparently the summer’s been bipolar enough in its temperatures for keeping cool on the hot days to no longer be a priority.

“We own fans, Santana,” her mother had said when she complained. “And you can always make use of Brittany’s hot tub if it comes down to it.”

Santana wasn’t going to bring up why that just wouldn’t happen again, but it was the end of the argument on her mother’s end and they’ve been forbidden to touch the A/C ever since.

It obviously hasn’t mattered much with the past few days feeling so close to Fall, but the Thursday sun’s brought with it a discernible heat and when Santana wakes to her hair damp with sweat and Brittany perched on the edge of her bed, all she wants is to slap her mother across the face. (A little. Not like enough to hurt or anything.)

“It’s almost two,” is the first thing Brittany says, with a roll of her eyes and sweet little smile.

Santana pushes up on her elbows and brushes a sweaty matt of hair from her neck, just blinking for a second before Brittany admits to Desi letting her in, the little shit.

“I brought popsicles,” she adds. “They’re downstairs, with Desi. So you should probably get dressed so we can have some before he eats them all. Unless you don’t want any – then I’ll just have to fight him for them and pretend he isn’t a kid so it’s a fair fight.”

Brittany’s rambling, and any other day Santana would find this adorable, but she knows it’s to cover up the way her voice trembles slightly at all the things she isn’t saying and everything at the gallery yesterday comes rushing back and Santana contemplates just pulling the covers over her head and calling it a day.

Like, she doesn’t even care that she’s practically naked and Brittany’s only a couple feet away, and this is how she knows what a wedge the summer’s driven between her now and who she was back in June.

And yet she still ran at the gallery, and Britt’s still looking at her like they’re back at their lockers and Santana’s heart is a bloody mess on the ground between them.

“You didn’t have to come check up on me,” she says, shifting the sheets to hide a little more of her cleavage.

Brittany shrugs. “Maybe I came to make strudel with your grandma.”

“She’s Dominican,” Santana says blankly, before catching Brittany’s sly grin. “I already talked to Quinn, Britt. Everything’s cool with us.”

“Well we’ve got like twenty popsicles to eat so put some clothes on and we’ll see what’s up then, okay? Because I came all this way and it wasn’t exactly so I could hang out with your brother.” Brittany slides off the bed with a look Santana’s sure she’s not supposed to see, this tired frustration, and then pauses in the doorway. “Anything Quinn says when you can’t see her face doesn’t mean a thing, Santana. You should know that by now.”

And then she’s heading downstairs without giving Santana time to reply, but she knows it’s futile to try and argue with that. Quinn will lie through her teeth. Quinn probably lies to Jesus.

At least sitting in the dark they could pretend it was sort of true. And even if you can see Quinn’s face it’ll still be the same story.

They were never supposed to call her on it.

But they were never supposed to call each other on anything, and look where that got them.

 


 

Desi’s face is a purple stain by the time Santana finds them, Brittany’s not that far off. The table is a sticky mess of popsicles sticks and maybe Brittany was actually serious about eating them all before she goes.

“You guys are gonna crash from all that sugar,” she says to the two of them, hopping up on the counter next to the fridge with slightly more effort than she’d like.

Brittany wordlessly hands her a cherry popsicle and falls into place beside her, back against the edge of the fridge, never even making eye contact. If Santana had any doubts as to how Brittany felt about her ditching at the gallery they’ve been cleared up for her now.

“They’re better than the ones Mami buys,” Desi says, eyeing the space between her and Brittany. “Don’t tell her that, obviously. But they’re good.”

“Kurt left some recipes,” Brittany replies.

She still isn’t looking at Santana and it almost makes up for the A/C being set so damn low.

Desi’s watching them like he might actually know what went down at the art gallery, or has at least caught on to the Everybody’s Disappointed in Santana vibe that seems to have taken over, maintaining some creepy passive-aggressive eye contact every time Santana goes to take a look at Brittany.

It’s like he’s willing her not to say anything stupid, like that might make a difference.

“You didn’t invite Quinn over,” he comments with a frown, catching a bright blue drip down the side of his hand.

Santana doesn’t miss the way Brittany straightens up slightly at the mention of Quinn’s name.

“Didn’t invite Britt over either,” she says, waiting for it to hit its target. But Brittany’s a stone wall and Santana nearly hurls her damn popsicle across the room just to illicit a reaction.

Desi eyes them both now, the panic growing. And yet still doesn’t seem to twig that he could leave at any point to let them hash this out, whatever it is, but chooses to hang around like a lame watch dog out of guilt or responsibility or whatever role he’s taken today.

And she knows. She knows it’s because of how she gets around Britt, and what he’s seen with her and Quinn. He’s just trying to keep her from breaking everything completely.

But if it truly is an inevitability she’d so rather not have her little brother be around to witness it.

Not when he’s chosen, God knows why, to believe in her.

She sighs and Brittany finally graces her with a look even more chilling than she expected. “Quinn’s apparently already had this conversation,” Brittany says with a small shrug. “Because Santana’s so responsible.”

“Seriously? We’re doing this?” Santana hops off the counter just to be able to properly stare Brittany down but all it does is provoke a laugh, Brittany opening the freezer as she does so.

“Doing what, Santana? Eating popsicles in your kitchen?”

It’s like they’re back to that dumb Lebanese shirt with the way Brittany’s words come out, all brittle and long overdue, and Santana barely has it in her to reply. She’s just standing lamely in the middle of the room, untouched popsicle melting quickly down her hand. Just letting the cherry droplets fall to the floor.

“I don’t know what you want me to say, Britt. I left and I’m sorry, okay? It was stupid,” she says, wincing as Brittany turns around and lets the freezer door swing shut behind her.

“You think that’s what this is about?” she says scathingly. “That you did what you’ve been doing for years now? Years, Santana. And you don’t ever seem to care.”

Santana flinches and steps back towards the counter, just to have something to hold onto. “I care,” she says quietly. Brittany snorts out a laugh.

“Sure you do, when someone calls you on it. But does that stop you from doing it again? Does it stop you from pretending no one’s hurting except you?”

Brittany still has popsicle stains around her lips and now is definitely not the time to be noticing, the little ring of bluish-purple like sloppy lipstick, but Santana fixates on it to try and steady herself, unable to focus on anything but Brittany’s verbal slap ringing through the air.

Out of the corner of her eye she catches Desi slowly backing out of the kitchen with a half-eaten popsicle, which if it stains anything will no doubt earn Santana a good talking to from her mother. But she can’t call him back. She can’t even apologize.

All she can do is take in a slow breath to fight the familiar sting of tears.

“If I’m so shitty why didn’t you give up on me ages ago?” she asks in a reed-thin voice.

Brittany softens a little, but it doesn’t change the resolution in her eyes. “Because you were trying,” she says. “Because I wanted to believe in you. When you said all that stuff at my locker – god, Santana, it was so brave. But you were so ashamed, to be saying those things, how you felt, and I just…”

She lifts her shoulders and lets out a tiny laugh, a little reminder of all that heartbreak, pulling all her hair to one side the way she does whenever she’s struggling to put her words together.

Santana knows these things about her. Up until a couple weeks ago, she thought she knew everything about her. And somehow she still managed to ignore so much and it’s a sick weight in the bottom of her gut. Guilt, but more than that.

“I knew I had to give you time,” Brittany continues, softer now. “Not just to accept your feelings, but be proud of them. To not run from them.”

“I’m trying,” Santana pleads.

It’s shame. She’s feeling shame.

Brittany nods and gives her a sympathetic frown, reaching out for her un-popsicled hand. There’s too far a distance between them for them to touch without either stepping forward, and this isn’t a test, but Santana knows it has to be her. She inches closer and folds her fingers around Brittany’s the way they’ve done it so many times before.

“It isn’t enough, Santana,” Brittany tells her. “Not when it isn’t getting you anywhere.”

“I know,” Santana says, lungs emptying as Brittany releases her hand.

“You’re doing the exact same thing to Quinn though. And she hasn’t had years to get used to it, or to figure out how to still be a person when you keep taking bits of her without ever giving back. Don’t you see that?” Brittany lets it hit her, stepping aside to put the space back between them.

Santana never wanted to think about it; why it felt so safe, so easy, stepping into that whatever with Quinn. Why there wasn’t the panic there should have been every time Quinn kissed her. Because… Because she’s been letting the same story play out, without ever considering how it might be affecting Quinn.

The girl who might as well be a paper doll with how well she stands up on her own.

And Santana was more than happy to be her secret spine, like she hasn’t just been adding to all that crap that never seems to let Quinn go.

“I’m sorry,” she murmurs, tears pricking her eyes before she can stop them.

“I know you wouldn’t have done it on purpose,” Britt tells her. “You’re not that kind of person, no matter what you let people say about you. But it’s still happening. And Quinn needs you now. And you need to figure out how you’re going to make it better.”

Santana wipes at the skin under her eyes, trying hard not to let the tears fall. “Is that still a possibility?” she asks with a sniff.

Brittany nods. “I think so.”

“And what about us?” Santana asks. She doesn’t really want to hear, but she needs to. She needs to know.

“We could be like, a thousand things,” Brittany says, glancing down at the melted popsicle at Santana’s feet, and then at the bare stick in her hand, and at the red streaks down her fingers. “I still love you. But I think we really need to be our own people right now, before it’s too late to figure out how.”

“I understand,” Santana says softly.

It’s basically what Brittany tried to tell her back in June, but she thinks she finally heard it.

“And this is just for now,” Brittany adds, a small smile on her bluish lips. “We have the rest of our lives, you know. And I don’t want to spend that alone.”

Santana lets out a laugh despite the substantial lump in her throat. “I love you, Britt-Britt. You’re my best friend.”

Brittany’s smile widens and she reaches out a crooked pinky, locking it with Santana’s. It feels like home. Like they’re a hundred years older, but still the same two girls who met over a library book and a shared love of pigtails.

“Me too,” Britt says, pulling her closer until their sides are touching. “Always. Even when you make the world’s biggest mess and have no idea how to clean it up.” There’s a very pointed look to the cherry puddle on the ground, and Santana snorts. “How ‘bout we go at it together and then we can eat the rest of these popsicles, okay? I made them myself so you’d better actually taste one.”

“Sounds good,” Santana agrees.

In a minute. She just wants to give herself another minute of linked pinkies and Brittany’s smile before the world has to keep turning.

 


 

 

Desi finds her on the back porch after Brittany’s gone, plugging his nose to evade the smoke from her cigarette and taking a seat far enough away, at the top of the steps, to not have to breathe it in.

She rocks the porch swing a little bit and exhales a long cloud of smoke before finally acknowledging him, and even then he barely looks at her. Just picks at flaking paint. Just sighs.

“You’re mad,” she says, flicking ash over the railing, and he shrugs. “Want to yell at me?”

He laughs a little and shifts so it seems almost accidental that he’s looking in her direction, and says, “Kind of. Kind of want to hit you, but you’re a girl. And, you know. Stronger than me.”

It’s not the cigarette that’s keeping him so far away from her, but she won’t admit to knowing that. And it’s deserved, anyway, and if she was in his position she’d feel the same, and it’s so shit that she doesn’t want to have to think about any of it.

But he came looking for her, even if he won’t come near her. And she’s supposed to be the grown up here.

“Look, Desi-” she starts, but then he really does look at her, those achingly dark eyes, cutting straight to the bone, and her voice falls flat and she has to take another drag of her cigarette before she can start again. “I’m sorry,” she finally mumbles.

“What happened with Quinn?” he asks, snapping off a large piece of paint.

She expects splinters, those alligator tears that plagued him as a little kid, but he just cracks it into smaller and smaller pieces, his palms red from the exertion.

It falls in steely-grey flakes over his bare legs and she stares too long.

“She was crying,” she says, “and I took off.”

He rubs his forehead and frowns at her. “Why? To both.”

It’s a valid enough question for her to want to work her way through the entire carton of cigarettes, or maybe pour herself a drink, or just take off again, into the streets, nothing on her but shame, for the words that just won’t come.

Why.

Because Quinn needed her. Because the room was full of people who didn’t know her. Because she should’ve stayed?

“People keep making dumb art about shit that no one needs to think about,” she bites out, stubbing the cigarette against the railing until it’s a pile of ash. “Dead babies and stuff.”

It puts a sobering look on his face and he’s quiet for a heavy pause.

She can see him working through it, Quinn’s tears and the weird fetus and Santana just walking out, and part of her wants to rip the thoughts from his head before they fully sink in but she also knows he kind of needs it, to see the worst parts of his sister.

To pick the scab until it’s bleeding again, because he used to look up to her, and growing up is swallowing truths.

“And- I just took off, because I’m a fucking coward,” she exhales.

He flinches at the curse but nods with her, hands stagnant in his lap. “I heard what Brittany said, Santana.”

There’s an apology there as well, but she doesn’t take it. Not when the whole block probably heard what Brittany said, with how much hurt filled those words, and she knows he did his best to disappear.

“This whole summer’s been people hurting Quinn, and I really thought you could… could help a little, even if you kissed her.” He shrugs at this, and shakes his head, and she knows.

“Desi,” she says, but he waves her off.

“Are you guys even friends? Is anybody friends when you’re older? Or do you all just hurt each other and apologize and then do it again? Because I don’t know! I want you to be nice, and know how to fix things, and you just can’t. And I don’t think anybody can. You all just… walk away.”

He’s on his feet now, hands balled into fists, a flush to his cheeks, and all she wants to do is hug him as tight as she possibly can and stroke his hair and let him cry and cry and cry until the world makes sense again.

Because she knows. She knows what’s just crashed down around him. All that pent up disenchantment.

But she’s a sweaty, cigarette-stink mess on the porch swing, and he’s a trembling fury six feet away, and the space between them grows bigger and bigger with each passing second.

He wouldn’t accept her hug anyway.

“It’s not all like this,” she tries, but he shakes his head and steps backwards until he’s leaning against the railing.

Is he taller? It’s like she blinked and he’s suddenly all grown up, staring her down with their mother’s disappointed eyes.

“I don’t even think I want to talk about it,” he says quietly. “I just want to be mad for a while.”

She nods and bites her bottom lip. “I think that’s fair. Can I apologize, at least?”

“I guess,” he says. “Yeah.”

“I’m scared, like all the time, Desi. And it ruins so much. I’m sorry.” It’s stupid, but she can feel a lump forming in her throat at just getting the words out, in their simplest form, in front of probably the only person who doesn’t need to hear them. “All I ever do is lie and push people away and everything’s- I mean, Brittany’s done with it, and I am too, but I don’t know how to stop it, or fix it, or…”

She barely holds back that first, ugly sob, but the tears are there regardless, and she kind of wishes Desi would just leave her to cry alone like she knows she deserves.

He’s too good to her, coming to sit next to her, taking her hand.

All those things she somehow never learned, in one sweet, eleven year-old package, rocking the swing just enough to stop her shuddering.

“I still want to be mad,” he half whispers, stroking the back of her hand with his thumb. “You make it really, really hard.”

She laughs wetly and wipes at her cheeks, apologizing. “I think I cry I more than all of Lima, sometimes.”

“Like all the time,” he says, and rolls his eyes. But then he’s soft again and sighing at her and murmuring a tired, “you can ask for help, you know. I don’t think it’ll kill you. Even… I mean, even the stuff you think you can’t really talk about, it doesn’t have to all be secrets.”

She won’t hug him, because right now he needs that gap between the two of them and she’s got to learn to do right by people she loves. But fuck, does she want to.

“You’re a really good kid, Desi.” She restrains herself to just squeezing his hand, but he gets it.

“You probably used to be too,” he offers in return, carefully withdrawing his hand from hers and sitting back into the swing.

Her head still hurts, but she isn’t really crying anymore. “Yeah,” she says. “Maybe.”

Brittany was always her better half, but surely there was some part of her, when she was still small and brave and wanted to know everything, that figured out how to retain decency. She can’t have always been so awful at handling herself around other people, right?

Maybe Mami could tell her stories, if she found it in her to ask.

Maybe her father remembers.

(Maybe she does too, but it feels too far away right now to really feel real. Like her hand would just fall right through if she tried to reach out and touch it.)

“Des,” she says, when they’ve been quiet for a while, and she’s almost sure he’s fallen asleep. It takes a moment but he hums something in reply. “D’you think you could help me with something, maybe? I need to find a song.”

 


 

Quinn calls the next morning. It isn’t like Santana slept much anyway, lying in bed listening to her mother come home late again and her father say nothing at all, but her phone rings not long after the sun comes up and she’s not even sure she wants to answer it.

It’s just been a summer of this; of listening to tiny worlds come crashing down through a crappy reception.

Like, they were fine yesterday morning after she left, but who knows what Brittany might have said in the interim and she’s so close to just pulling the sheets over her head to block out those repeating sixteen bars of Heads Will Roll.

It’s only the sudden thought that Quinn might leave another voicemail that jolts her out of bed and has her grasping for her phone on the cluttered side table.

(She still hasn’t even deleted the first voicemail. And that might not even be the worst part.)

“Hello?” she kind of breathes out, mostly hoping Quinn panics and hangs up on her. But then there’s a soft response and something clenches in Santana’s chest and, “it’s so early, Q.”

“I know,” Quinn says. “Can I come pick you up? It can’t really wait.”

Her first thought is Judy, but there’s no eerie calmness to Quinn’s voice, just a small pleading. Brittany then? Most likely, but she really doesn’t want to ask and she’s so sick of these sorts of conversations taking place over the phone.

Britt’s right about most things but almost especially about Quinn and how much bullshit they end up eating when she won’t talk to them face-to-face.

So. “Yeah, whatever. Just need to throw some clothes on.”

She can almost hear Quinn’s smile of relief.

“Thanks, Santana.”

“I kind of owe you,” Santana says, grimacing at the wall.

“Yeah,” Quinn replies. “A little.”

It’d be so easy to just crawl back into bed and pretend she never answered her phone. Quinn would knock and knock, and maybe the neighbor’s dog would start barking, but Santana could just bury herself under her blankets and put in headphones and wouldn’t have to think about anything.

“See you in a bit,” she says, and Quinn echoes it back to her.

Maybe if she’s lucky Quinn’s finally snapped and’ll drive her out to the middle of fucking nowhere to cut her up into pieces and feed her to some cows.

Or they’ll drive off a bridge into a river and no one will ever find their bloated remains.

Or maybe Quinn’s not even planning on showing at all and Santana will slowly decay into a pile of rancid rot waiting on her. Never having to find out what she wanted. Never having to speak to anyone again.

 


 

It comes close to the middle of nowhere. Some diner just off the highway, full of discolored vinyl and the acrid scent of brewing coffee.

Quinn doesn’t say anything about why they’re at this particular place but it’s so out of the way and far from anyone who could possibly know them that Santana doesn’t really have to ask. Whatever Quinn wants to talk about, they’ll be better off not being overheard.

They didn’t really speak the whole car ride, instead listening to some soft rock station, Santana biting the urge to comment on the crappy CD collection in the middle console and Quinn occasionally humming along to the radio. It was just their silence and the passing corn fields, which were almost sort of pretty in the golden morning sun.

“Coffee and a side of bacon,” Quinn tells the waitress, who doesn’t even seem fazed by two teenage girls sitting among a handful of greased-up truckers this humid Friday morning.

Not that she seems like the type to be fazed by anything, going on the tease of a chest tattoo peeking out the neckline of her blouse and the hardness of a face that obviously has to ignore whatever dirty hand lands on her ass.

It’s exactly the kind of life Santana’s always feared, seeing what happens to the kids who don’t get out of Lima. Babysitters and older cheerleaders and anyone she thought should’ve had a chance, slipping back down into the same sludge that trapped their parents.

“Santana,” Quinn urges, and Santana realizes the waitress is still there with her pad of paper, chewing on a hangnail.

“Uh, just a coffee, I guess,” she mumbles. “Two creams.”

The waitress doesn’t even bother writing it down, but leaves them with a curt smile and a faint cloud of some dirty perfume.

“You don’t want anything to eat?” Quinn asks, busying herself with procuring the least sketchy-looking sugar packets from the little tray next to the ketchups.

Santana hasn’t even really been trying to limit food this summer, with cheerleading no longer holding a noose around their necks, it’s just super fucking early, but she totally doesn’t want Quinn to feel like crap about eating either.

(It was kind of the team’s worst kept secret, how far Quinn took it. But she’s been looking so much better, and Santana just… doesn’t even want to mention it. Not on top of everything else.)

“I’d probably barf,” she says instead, making a face. “Didn’t really sleep, so.”

Quinn nods and her hands still, curling around some generic pink packet, and Santana has no clue how to move the conversation to anything else. Her eyes are probably still crusted together with sleep and she’s sure she’s still pillow-creased and god, this so could have waited another couple hours.

“I thought as much,” Quinn says, and Santana just hides her face between her hands and lets out a low groan.

“You know you could’ve picked any other fucking hour of the day to do this,” she chides.

Her hands are sticky from that weird mix of humidity and diner A/C and she reluctantly peels them away from her cheeks only to catch a flash of some unreadable expression in Quinn’s eyes.

“No I couldn’t,” Quinn says shortly. “It wouldn’t have- It just wouldn’t have happened otherwise. So, I’m sorry I dragged you from your bed, Santana, but this, is- important.”

Santana looks at her expectantly, waiting for her to finally reveal why they’re going through this whole charade, but she just waves her hand towards the kitchen and shakes her head.

“I’d like to have breakfast first, if that’s all right with you.”

That schoolmarm voice she’s putting on totally doesn’t match her face, but Santana’s not going to point that out when she seems three seconds away from bolting. And she was the one who brought them here, so Santana kind of doesn’t even mind waiting that much if it’s enough to have Quinn practically impersonating an anxious Chihuahua.

“Just don’t pee yourself,” she sort of mumbles, not really loud enough for Quinn to hear but enough to merit that patented eyebrow raise.

She strains to find something snarky to counter, but there’s basically nothing going on in her brain and damn, this is almost a ghost of their breakfasts at cheer camp. Minus Brittany’s vivid dream retellings and wandering hands, and those tiny, measured-out portions, and a couple hundred pairs of indestructible sweats across the dining hall. But it’s her and Quinn, batting the smallest fluff of an argument across the table, both too tired to put any effort into it. And the look Quinn keeps giving her – that you’re really gonna feel this tomorrow, Lopez.

Santana’s half expecting tasteless oatmeal when the food arrives.

Quinn dives right in to separating out the slices of bacon, moving the crispiest ones to the far side of the plate and picking around the ones with the most fat. Santana doesn’t want to watch, but she’s always been grotesquely fascinated with this routine; the napkin to soak up the grease and the tiny, tiny cutting, and the way Quinn’s face falls into something that could pass for serene.

It twists something inside her, that things haven’t really changed at all.

All this time, she thought she could run from herself, and it’s only just been in circles.

(Maybe this has happened every summer and she just never noticed.)

“Do you want a piece, or are you just going to stare at me?” Quinn asks her, fork hanging limply from her hand.

“Sorry,” Santana replies.

Quinn rolls her eyes and stabs at one of the cut up pieces, bringing it to her mouth, never breaking eye contact with Santana as she does so. It’s the same shit she’d pull with the newbies at camp and Santana considers applauding her, for bringing this back to something she can finally make sense of.

Like maybe this could be any other day of any other summer, and they’re not in a seafoam vinyl booth at some highway rest stop sipping coffee before Quinn’s vault finally cracks open.

“It wouldn’t kill you to actually tell me what’s so important,” Santana says, twirling the spoon around her cup of coffee. “You know, before we grow old and die here.”

Quinn smirks. “You’re grumpy today.”

“Yeah, well.” She shrugs, and debates continuing before tilting her head back and just going for it. “Brittany kind of dropped an A-bomb, yesterday, and my dad… his brother’s sick, so he’s been upset. And he just told me. And I don’t know.”

She’s not surprised to find Quinn frowning at her in that vaguely sympathetic tone of hers, but there’s also a twinge of guilt and Quinn puts down her fork before Santana can even ask.

“So she told you, then?” she says, pressing her lips together until she looks scarily similar to her mother.

Santana half-squints at Quinn in an attempt to figure out what part of the whole Brittany thing Quinn knows about, but it only seems to induce a wave of remorse from the girl and a quiet apology.

And shit, it would be so like Brittany to casually bring it up in some unrelated conversation, and it’s not like Santana hasn’t given them enough time alone to bitch about her. By the way Quinn, Santana’s using you so she doesn’t have to own up to how much she screwed up with me. Want a popsicle?

When Santana left at the gallery, when Brittany walked Quinn home, when she stayed to ease the sting of Santana taking off…

“I swear, I never meant to hurt you,” Santana breathes out, unable to take her eyes off her murky coffee. It isn’t another useless apology, but it isn’t like Quinn can do anything with it either, and she really just doesn’t want to have to watch it land.

“How would you-” She can almost feel Quinn’s confusion, and then the slow unraveling, and then, “Santana, I don’t think we’re talking about the same thing.”

Santana snaps her eyes to Quinn’s. “Did she… What was she supposed to have told me, then?”

Quinn sinks back into her seat, abandoning her fork in the middle of a sea of cut up bacon with the most indigent look. There’s a long, slow exhale, and then finally a strangled noise in the back of her throat.

“She walked me home, after- the gallery,” Quinn starts, wincing slightly at her own words like she’d gladly eat them up if she could.

Santana nods dully and tries not to think about it, but they’re both very much aware of her shortcomings right now.

Quinn takes in a long breath and presses her fingertips to her temple, speaking mostly towards the plate of bacon. “She stayed, and we were talking, and she just… kissed me. Santana, I’m sorry. I really thought she’d have told you first.”

It strangely isn’t a punch to the gut, but mostly because Santana isn’t even sure she’s felt it at all; like it’s still floating between them like some giant trash heap in the middle of the ocean, trailing swill behind it but not close enough to shore to really do any damage. And… and it sort of feels like she knows, like just seeing Brittany yesterday was a confession in itself, but then Quinn’s grabbing her hand and something just snaps.

“How could you?!” she bites out, snatching her hand away so hard she nearly knocks over her coffee.

Quinn reels back, but Santana can’t find it in her to care.

“Santana, it’s not like I-”

“You let her,” Santana continues, something sick and bitter rising in her throat. “You knew what she means to me and you still… what the fuck, Quinn!”

It’s involuntary, the flashes of Brittany’s lips on Quinn’s, like she’s seen countless times before at parties or with boys or Brittany’s goddamned boyfriend. But there’s something so pointedly personal about this – of it being Quinn, of all people. After everything Brittany said…

“I think I’m going to throw up,” Santana blurts, and then she’s elbowing her way out of the booth and dashing to the bathroom before Quinn can even react.

The tiled floor is just as sticky as everything else feels, but there’s a coolness that’s almost soothing as she heaves over the toilet bowl, her eyes stinging with tears. All that comes up is coffee and a bitter bile but she wipes her mouth with the back of her hand and continues to retch up air, trying so desperately to get that feeling out of her gut.

She’s mostly spitting into the toilet and letting the tears run down her cheeks when Quinn comes to check on her.

It’s not like she locked the stall door, so Quinn nudges it open and then is just there, gingerly rubbing circles into her back with shaking hands.

“I think the waitress would’ve killed me if I hadn’t come,” Quinn admits in a weak voice, and Santana laughs despite herself. “Santana, I…”

“You kissed my best friend,” Santana says before spitting again, not even caring how Quinn takes that.

Because honestly, they can’t say they were anywhere close to friends, with all the shit they keep pulling. Quinn can’t kiss her and wake up the next morning like nothing fucking happened, and she can’t go off and kiss Brittany like- like anything Santana’s ever felt meant nothing, and…

“I didn’t even kiss back,” Quinn protests, hand stilling against the back of Santana’s shirt. “And maybe it should say something that I’m the one who had to tell you, because she was too busy placating you to care about the truth, even when it was her stupid decision that put us all here.”

Santana’s so tempted to turn around and just slap her hand away, but she’s still all snotty and half crying and gagging on leftover bile and can hardly handle even thinking about moving.

“Don’t you care?” Quinn continues, voice creeping closer to that desperate shrillness that always manages to send shivers down Santana’s spine. “She doesn’t even care enough to admit to-”

“Why should she?! Why should she have to say anything?” Santana cries out, hating how pathetic her voice sounds, echoing around the toilet bowl. “It’s not like she owes me anything. She’s not mine, you know.”

Quinn scoffs and finally retracts her hand, hitting the side of the stall with a thud. “Yeah and neither am I, Santana. You’ve made that pretty damn clear.”

Another wave of nausea passes over her, and she’s so determined not to name the source.

(Brittany was right. Brittany’s always fucking right.)

She spits again into the bowl and finally latches on to her words. “You didn’t want to be,” she mumbles.

And that sharp breath is even harder to ignore, so acutely aware of Quinn’s closeness; of the shudder that passes through her body despite how hard she tries to fight it, and the sudden absence as Quinn shoots to her feet, stumbling backwards out of the stall.

“We’re not having this conversation,” Quinn says curtly, and Santana’s grateful she can’t see her face. “I just thought I’d do the mature thing and tell you, because you deserve to know.”

“Quinn,” Santana starts, but she mostly just wants to take back this whole morning, and there aren’t words for that.

She’s essentially drooling in a diner bathroom with Quinn shutting down behind her and no idea how to handle any of this.

This is still so much the gallery; Quinn quietly crumbling and Brittany’s voice in her ear reminding her that Quinn needs her – and she’s not running away this time, but being in the same space doesn’t seem to be any better, and Santana’s just awful. At all of this.

“Britt said I’ve been using you, because I couldn’t use her anymore,” she admits in a raspy voice, so tempted to stick her whole head in the toilet at this point.

“That’s fucking bullshit,” Quinn replies.

It’s verging on Ice Queen, how Quinn’s distancing herself now, and she must be at the wall with how much she’s been shifting backwards. Nowhere left to go but the door. Santana doesn’t know if she wants her to stay.

The tears are gone now, and that acidic bitterness isn’t hitting her gag reflex quite as much; the haze of having vomited slipping further and further away. She’s just a pathetic mass on the bathroom floor now. Just another sad girl in a diner.

“You can’t use me if I let you,” Quinn half murmurs, before taking in a gasping breath that sends a knife through Santana’s chest. “You guys keep acting like I need someone to hold my hand, like I can’t take care of myself like I’m some stupid child. I couldn’t possibly know what I’m doing! But you know, maybe if you took your head out of your goddamn ass for once, you’d realize hey! Quinn’s capable of making decisions! Quinn can kiss her best friend and it’s not anyone taking advantage of her! But no, everybody’s too busy getting off on my self-destruction, right?!”

“Quinn, you know that’s not true,” Santana starts, turning around, but Quinn’s already heading for the door, her cheeks glistening in the fluorescent lights.

It stops her for a second, though, by a ridiculously waxy fake plant, to wipe her eyes and let out that bitter little laugh that will never stop making Santana’s skin crawl. “I sent you a fucking postcard,” Quinn tells her, shaking her head with an unsettling smile. “Not that it matters now, huh? God. I can’t believe you.”

 

And then she’s running out, sniffling dissolving into full-on crying, but it’s those angry don’t you dare come after me tears Santana hasn’t actually seen since Babygate and it takes her a good ten minutes of just sitting on the floor to finally realize Quinn leaving means she has no way home.

And even if it was close enough to town for her to walk, she still reeks of vomit and could probably pass for roadkill with how puffy her face must be.

And- shit, she’s not even sure who to be mad at.

Herself, obviously, but maybe not as much anymore, and also so much more, for how none of this ever fails to lead back to her. She’s just such a fucking idiot. Again and again and again. And it’s costing her everything.

 


 

Her face has been scrubbed raw with that industrial pink soap by the time she resurfaces, washing away the brunt of the evidence of the past twenty minutes, but the waitress still makes a beeline for her before the bathroom door has even shut and it’s just so obvious Santana can’t even find it in her to care.

“You all right, hun?” the waitress asks with a frown, keeping her voice low despite not a single patron paying them any attention.

Santana shrugs lightly, mumbling a tiny “yeah”, just as she spots their booth by the window – Quinn’s bacon still cut into pieces, and Santana’s coffee cold and barely touched. It’s the fucking cherry on top, realizing there’s no way in hell Quinn paid the bill before she took off.

She’s fishing out her wallet from her back pocket when the waitress makes a little tutting noise, and then there’s a hand on her arm preventing her from completing her action.

“Don’t worry about it,” the waitress says, just as Santana’s about to say something. “It’s been taken care of.”

“By who?” Santana asks, looking around at the scattering of uncomfortably burly men and their equally abrasive facial hair.

Literally none of the options are at all inspiring.

“You seemed like you were having a tough time,” the waitress replies with a lift of her shoulders.

Santana’s cheeks heat up, and she’s fumbling for her wallet even quicker now. “At least let me tip you,” she says, unable to make eye contact. “That’s just- I mean, you didn’t have to do that.”

The waitress laughs and accepts the bill Santana hands her, but not before rubbing the small of her back. “Everyone’s been young and stupid, sweetheart. Just happy I’m not still making those mistakes. It’ll pass.”

The touch is the only thing that’s made her feel like there’s still ground beneath her, and as the waitress heads back behind the kitchen Santana can only exhale and grasp the edge of the counter, doing her best not to let out any more tears. Desi’s right; she cries enough for the entirety of Lima. And it isn’t even noon.

 


 

Out of everyone, Puck is the one who comes barreling down the highway in that old rusty truck of his.

Sure, Brittany probably would’ve grudgingly dragged her dad out here in their Honda, glancing at her across the backseat the entire ride home, and maybe even Kurt would’ve taken pity on her, but after puking in a diner bathroom there was only one person she really wanted to call.

“I don’t even want to know,” he’d said on the phone.

But she knew he’d ask anyway, finding her in the parking lot smoking a cigarette bummed from a biker in what probably counts for pyjamas. It’s just cheer sweats, but they feel the most like giving up these days.

“No lie,” he says when she’s buckling up, “You look like my sister after I burnt off all the faces on her Barbies. It’s kinda creeping me out.”

She can’t even be bothered to roll her eyes.

The sun’s no longer anywhere near gold, just the same basic oversaturated bullshit of every other morning now, and the corn fields outside her window look more like old pea soup than anything she could’ve ever called pretty.

“Seriously though. Did something happen?” Puck’s watching her watch the lack of scenery, and she doesn’t actually care that he won’t keep his eyes on the road. Maybe if they hit a tractor she’ll be left comatose and won’t have to think about anything.

“Quinn did,” she says, and watches Puck’s face fall from worried to exhausted.

His hand hovers over the radio for a second and she wouldn’t blame him for wanting to drown out this conversation. She hasn’t even told him yet and she’s already trying to move past it.

“Is it her mom, or you know-” There’s a vague hand gesture that she can kind of interpret as alcohol-related, but the look on his face tells her all she needs to know.

It’d be so easy, to let him dwell on that afternoon a few weeks ago, when they showed up soaked and Quinn could barely stand. Yeah, she’s totally the one at fault here. But you won’t blame her because you’re still in love with her so we can both just berate ourselves for caring so much.

But he’s done too much for both of them to deserve that sort of slap in the face so she can only hand him the match and her pile of kindling.

“It’s me, Puck. I fucked it all up, and now she hates me. She – I…”

And she just sort of shrugs helplessly, not even sure where to start with this entire fucking summer. But he knows. One look at her face and he knows all he needs to.

“God damn it, Santana.” His palm hits the steering wheel like a cartoon anvil. “She’s not a toy, you know? She’s a real, fucked up, broken thing, and you can’t just play with her like that! Did you even think about it? Did you even think about what it would do to her, to have the only person she cares about just drop her like everyone else?”

“I didn’t drop her,” she says, curling tighter around herself.

“No? Then what’d you do?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “Let her get too close? Let her use me?”

He glances over at her, and she’s slammed with a sick realization right as he seems to catch it as well.

This has a lot less to do with Brittany and a whole lot more to do with Santana’s traitor of a heart. And there just aren’t really words to tell a guy the damaged love of his life is a manipulative, emotionally volatile little bitch, and you may or may not have fallen for her. It. Something.

“Brittany kissed her,” Santana says, unable to stop that hiccupy panic swallowing up her chest. “Because she kissed me, and we’ve been playing a really shitty game.”

“No fucking way,” Puck retorts.

“All summer. I don’t know who started it, Puck. I thought I was just a good distraction, from, you know, but then it just… I don’t want to be involved in any of this anymore,” she admits to him, hating the way he won’t even look at her now.

“I’m sorry, you don’t- what? You think you get a choice in this?!” he erupts. “Well too goddamn bad, Lopez! This is your mess. You let Quinn take this much. If she breaks, it’s on you. And that’s nobody’s problem but yours.”

“I know,” she says, twisting so all she sees is a sliver of Lima creeping back into her peripheral out the backseat window.

“So what, you got a plan? Or were you just gonna run away again?” he asks, his voice one string away from entirely torn. “Because I don’t want to watch Quinn burn. That’s just not fair.”

The houses are getting incrementally bigger, the streets lengthening as they pull further into town, and she’s never been so thankful to come back to this crappy place. All she wants to do is disappear into the back of her closet and sleep until no one remembers her name. Just block it all out.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know what I’m doing, with anything.”

“Yeah, no shit,” he replies. But there’s a tired warmth creeping back into his voice, like maybe he’s remembering how many times they’ve both let circumstances paint them the devil no matter whose hand laid the cards.

They aren’t the villains everyone says they are. But they aren’t heroes either, and she has a full childhood of wishing it to be different riding on her next actions.

“She’s going to be a land mine either way,” she sighs, running a hand through her tangled hair. “I’m trying to figure out what’ll do the least amount of damage. You know I’d never deliberately hurt her, Puck. School crap aside I’m not that big a bitch.”

“I know,” he says. “But shit’s hitting the fan no matter how good your intentions were, so. They’re not really helping you much there.”

He isn’t telling her anything she doesn’t already know. But still, there’s something comforting in hearing someone else say it; like maybe with the two of them focused on it a solution might magically appear before them. Or at least a starting point. At least the first step.

“I have to ask you,” Puck starts, slowing at a stop sign not far from Santana’s street. “Promise you won’t be mad.”

“Just say it,” she says.

The speed limit’s low enough here for her to barrel roll out of the car if she needs to, so worst case scenario she limps home with a few scrapes and bruises and never speaks to Puck again. But he doesn’t seem angry, so maybe he already knows whatever he wants answered.

“This shit with Quinn… is she like your new Brittany?” He’s staring straight ahead but she doesn’t miss the way he steels his jaw, like maybe a dozen more questions are waiting to slip out if he isn’t careful.

She rubs at her neck, and says, “Are you asking if Brittany’s old news, or…”

It’s crap and they both know it. But he still humors her, letting the idea hang between them. Are you over the love of your life, Santana? I don’t know, Puck; are you?

They’re almost at her house, and she can see the same shiny windows that have glinted back at her since she was able to toddle down the street. The same lawns she and Brittany would offer to mow, just to have something to do on hazy afternoons, not at all expecting the bills they’d bashfully accept if only for the ice cream truck’s inevitable stop at the crosswalk.

He’s asking more than she’s been able to ask herself. More than she wants to think about. She wishes she was still small enough for her mother to appear on the front porch, calling her back for sandwiches and a tall glass of pink lemonade.

Or for her father to come home early, picking her up in a swinging hug in the driveway and twirling until she saw stars. Let’s say we go to the park before dinner, he’d whisper in her ear. Just the two of us.

“Santana,” he says in a tired voice.

“I know.” She could stop there; just get out and walk home. But he drove all this way for her and her knees would probably buckle out from underneath her if she tried. “She’s still Quinn, but… I guess I don’t know where I fit into it anymore.”

“Do you like her?” he asks quietly, chancing a glance over at her.

He’s the last person she wanted to talk to about any of this. Not that he has a say in anything in Quinn’s life anymore, if he ever did, but she knows how much still exists between them and she’d never want to try to sever that. There’s a baby out there that probably looks exactly like them. She couldn’t compete if she wanted to.

“It’s really, really complicated,” she tells him, turning so he can’t make eye contact.

“I’d punch you, if you were a guy,” he says. “I don’t know, Quinn’s feminist shit would probably want me to punch you regardless.”

“I think Quinn would punch you for saying that,” she says, which gets a chuckle out of him before his face settles back into that cross between anger and overall disappointment.

“I thought you were supposed to be all broken up over Brittany,” he mutters.

“Yeah, well. Brittany’s too busy kissing Quinn, I guess.” A wry smile slips out before she can stop it, but fuck if she’s going to let this swallow her too. “So this is full circle or something. I don’t know. Nothing’s going to happen, either way.”

He makes a face. “Pretty sure something’s happening. Otherwise you wouldn’t be in my truck looking like deep-fried crap.”

He stops just past the fire hydrant, lining the passenger’s side door with the start of the driveway so she can hop out and dash across the lawn to her front door whenever she wants. An easy exit from this conversation. An olive branch, if she really wanted to name it.

Who would’ve thought it would turn out to be him, after all this time?

(She should never have doubted him to begin with.)

She gathers all her hair in a low ponytail, just holding it there before letting it drop. “You know, Quinn had this ridiculous idea a while back that I could fix all this with a song. Like glee club’s suddenly been preparing us for real life all this time,” she tells him, releasing a small laugh.

He chuckles, shaking his head. “Quinn’s like the queen of hyperbolic ideals, especially when they all cancel each other out.”

“I know,” Santana says. “I just wanted to believe her.”

 


 

Abuela and Desi are watching a Spanish soap in the den when Santana comes in, although Desi’s more focused on the comic in his hands than whatever tragedy is playing out on the screen. He doesn’t smile when he sees her, but does pat the spot next to him on the scratchy orange couch, shifting closer to Abuela so she can join them.

“It’s Manuel,” Abuela says when Santana sits down, gesturing towards the TV. “Uno de sus hijos tenían un ataque epiléptico and they won’t let him in the hospital room.”

Desi looks over to her.

“His kid had a seizure,” she translates for him. “That’s awful, Abuela. Poor Manuel.”

“I want to learn Spanish,” Desi mumbles, flipping the page of his comic. It’s something dark and gritty and probably not at all appropriate for a kid but neither is half the shit he hears at recess so Santana’s not going to rat him out.

“I taught you, mi osito,” Abuela says with a pat to his head. “Before you were walking, you were singing. Remember? Doña Semama tiene siete hijitos… Unos sos blancos, otros son negritos…”

Santana grins, continuing, “Lunes, Martes, Miércoles, Jueves, Viernes, Sábado, y Domingo el fin, que no trabaja y es un bailarín! That was me, Abuela. I was in preschool though so I’m pretty sure I was already walking but-”

She stops, because it’s suddenly too clear and her stomach’s one giant knot. It’s pretty much always Maci now, so she doesn’t know why she assumed it would be different. Why would Abuela remember anything of Santana’s childhood when Maci was clearly so much bigger than any of it?

It’s an awful thought and her mother would probably hand her a bar of soap to chew if she dared say it out loud. None of this is Abuela’s fault. But she’s not the only one whose life it’s erasing either.

“You were such a clever little thing,” Abuela’s saying, but there’s that misty look in her eyes and Santana wants bolt.

It’s not fair. Not this, or her mother’s sister being dead, or Quinn being so sad, or Santana being so fucking bad at dealing with other people like she’s some sort of leper hell-bent on infecting everyone around her.

“I’m not clever,” she murmurs to no one.

Desi’s hand finds hers but he’s still staring down at those little cartoon superheroes, his heart too big for his own good.

She wonders how different his life would be if he’d never made the mistake of looking up to her.

“You are,” she tells him, as sirens go off on the screen. “You’ve got all the brains in this family, Des.”

He finally looks up just to give her an eye roll that could only come from years of watching his big sister. “Maybe if you actually tried you wouldn’t always be so disappointed in yourself,” he replies. “You could be Black Widow if you wanted, you know. But you’re just… just Loki.”

“I have no idea what that means,” she says, dropping her voice before Abuela can slap her thigh for talking over the soap.

Desi snorts. “Yeah you do.”

“Maybe. Fine.” She peers over at his page, where a building’s on fire and some ominous dark mass hangs in the sky. “Who’s gonna save them in this one?”

“Thor, obviously,” Desi says, shifting so she can see better. “He’d probably kill himself before he let any earth civilians suffer. He and his brother are kinda opposites like that. But, I don’t know. Sometimes not all the time. Want me to turn the page?”

She nods, her lips curling in a smile. “Yeah, let’s see that beautiful blond hair in action.”

“You’re such a dork,” he says with a laugh. Abuela shushes them both and Santana can’t help but laugh too.

 


 

“I’ve been snooping in your stuff,” Desi tells her later, after Abuela falls asleep and the two of them retreat to the kitchen to make something for lunch.

Santana’s in the middle of mixing up some tuna salad and kind of hopes she didn’t hear him right but he did not inherit her outstanding poker face and she just drops the fork into the bowl and puts her hands up.

“Desi, I swear to god…”

“It’s to help you though,” he insists, eyes like saucers. His feet still against the rung of his stool and she frowns at him over the island. “It was just your laptop. You left it open and I thought… you know, you asked me to find a song so I thought I’d look while you were out. Where’d you go, by the way? Mami was asking and I just said Brittany’s. But I know it wasn’t.”

Because of the fight they had, obviously, which seems so much smaller in light of Quinn’s admission. Brittany didn’t even tell her. Brittany didn’t even care to tell her.

“I’ve got stuff on my laptop I don’t want you seeing,” she warns him, ignoring the question and going back to the tuna salad. “Unless I’m with you I don’t really want you on there, okay?”

He nods, and she realizes how much older she’s sounding to her own ears these days.

“Mami thought you were probably with Quinn,” he says.

She grabs a few slices of bread from the bag and spreads them out on the island countertop, plates be damned. With how frequently their mother cleans this place she isn’t sure they could consume any germs even if they wanted to.

“I was,” she says. “And Puck.”

The butter’s nearly a pool of liquid in the dish but she uses it anyway, basically pouring it onto the bread. If she wasn’t so afraid of her mother’s superstitions she’d stick it in the fridge, not leave it out to melt on the counter, but this clearly isn’t a day for being brave.

Desi’s grown quiet enough for her to look up, and when she meets his eye he finally breathes out a question.

“Is she pregnant again?”

The worst part is that her first reaction is to laugh. She catches herself in time, albeit barely, thinking it’d somehow be so much easier if it was anything as simple as that. Just another Babygate. Judy probably wouldn’t even kick her out this time and maybe they could all help raise the little devil like some twisted commune family.

Another time around probably wouldn’t be nearly as traumatizing.

“No, Des. She’s just sad.”

She doesn’t even want the tuna salad. Maybe some cyanide, or a little bleach, but not these crappy sandwiches. She can’t blame Desi for the look he gives her when she drops one in front of him.

“Because of you?” he asks. He takes a bite, probably just to please her, and even manages to swallow. “This isn’t that awful,” he tells her.

She pulls a stool over to where she’s been standing and finally gets off her feet, gagging herself with a sandwich so she won’t have to answer. Of course it’s because of her. It’s always because of her. If Desi didn’t actually know the answer to that, he probably wouldn’t have asked.

“It’s terrible,” she replies after forcing herself to swallow. “Yeah. Because of me. Because I’m stupid and don’t know anything.”

He considers this, taking another tiny bite of his sandwich. “Did you apologize?”

She sighs. “I think so, yeah. It doesn’t really make a difference. Quinn’s… I mean it’s deserved, her anger. Is what I’m trying to say. An apology isn’t going to change that.”

Desi sighs too, elbows on the table, propping his chin up with a hand and staring at her. The kind of look she’d imagine she’d get from her mother if she was ever brave enough to ask for advice, which she supposes she’s kind of been doing with Desi all this time. Her little brother. Who hasn’t even hit puberty.

And yet somehow knows more than she does about her own life.

“Is there anyone who isn’t mad at you?” he asks, adding, “I’m counting me in that too. I’m still a little mad.”

She’s abandoning the idea of anything entering her stomach today. Maybe it isn’t the sandwich – maybe she’s just so full of poison there isn’t any room left for anything else. But the sandwich is pretty bad.

“I don’t know. Maybe Puck isn’t,” she offers.

He probably is, but it isn’t enough for him not to answer her calls or deny her existence or anything. If she hadn’t come out to him he’d probably still be hitting her up for blowjobs.

But then again, the only time he ever really stopped asking was a brief moment when Quinn was carrying his child, because he thought she might’ve been “the one” or something. And maybe Quinn’s blowjobs wouldn’t have had that tanginess of lesbianism to them.

“Why was Puck there?” Desi asks, frowning into his hand. “If it was a Quinn thing, and she isn’t pregnant, then I just don’t… It just doesn’t make sense. It’s not his space.”

How much should she tell him? Where does any of it even start?

“He loves her,” she says.

Desi waits a moment, and then quietly asks, “Like you do?”

It chills her blood. She stares hard at the sandwich abandoned on the counter, a depressing mound in a sea of crumbs.

“He’s in love with her,” she says. Of course there’s a difference. She just can’t really locate the line right now, with everything in her head. “She’s my friend. Either way we’re both worried about her.”

“Okay,” he says.

“And besides, he was only giving me a ride home. He didn’t even see her. They’re not- ah, totally chummy right now,” she goes on. “So. And he yelled at me a little, for being such a dumbass. But that’s still only because we both care about Quinn.”

Desi nods, following along. “So he knows you made her sad and angry then.”

“He does. He’s not exactly happy about that, but he’s known me long enough to expect it, I guess.” She rubs at her eye.

“Does he know you’ve kissed them both?” Desi asks it softly, like it’s a mug of boiling water in his hands. Ready to spill. Ready to burn.

“Yeah,” she mutters. “And… Yeah. He knows.”

And they’ve all sort of kissed each other now, and they’re all sort of mad at each other. Maybe all they need is for Brittany to have sex with Puck to top it all off. Everything even and the ball in no one’s court.

God, this is some messed up sitcom drama. They could probably give Manuel a run for his money.

“So where does that put you?” Desi asks. “Like what are you supposed to do next?”

“Des, if I knew, do you think I’d be sitting here doing nothing?” She’s so tired, a twelve-hour nap wouldn’t even cut it.

He snorts. “Probably. You don’t really like to do things.”

She flicks a crumb at him and gets up off her stool, needing to be anywhere but here in this apparent interrogation room with her little brother. So much for lunchtime. Maybe she’ll find a coffin and take a little snooze.

“Hey wait,” he says. “I’m trying to help you.”

“By what, making me feel awful about everything?” she says dryly.

“No, that’s all your doing. Sorry! I couldn’t help myself,” he rushes. “But I am trying to help. I was snooping through your stuff because I was trying to find that song you wanted. And I think I found one.”

Her stomach flips. “Really?”

“Well I don’t know, wanna see?” Desi grins at her. “I think I’m doing the most work to try to fix your problems. You probably owe me, you know.”

She rolls her eyes. “Yeah, I know. C’mon. Let’s go see.”

 


 

Despite already having more than enough time to snoop around on her laptop, Desi still isn’t sure what his sister doesn’t want him to see.

Obviously there are things on there she wouldn’t want their parents seeing (like, her desktop background’s a picture of Brittany, and Papi would figure things out super quick if he saw that), but could there even be anything left for him to find out? Because he’s pretty sure he knows everything now.

Or the important things at least. He knows why she’s scared.

And this is why it’s so hard to stay mad at her.

“You know how to operate iTunes?” she asks him, sitting cross-legged on the bed, chewing on the end of a pen. “Does Mami’s laptop even have iTunes?”

He feels like some sort of TV hacker, sitting here at her desk.

“No, but Tyler’s laptop has it, and he likes to listen to Jay-Z when I’m over there,” he says.

She gives him a look that says she shouldn’t approve but is secretly appreciative and he smiles to himself. It’s kind of nice, not having her hate him all the time. Actually being able to tell her things.

Not that he’s happy she got so hurt this summer, but at least she isn’t bothering him all the time anymore. Or worse- ignoring him. He’s glad he didn’t have to admit how lonely he was with her so unreachable.

“I know you like Amy Winehouse,” he says, the cursor hovering over the song. He needs her to be ready before he presses play. “You sing her in the shower a lot.”

Her cheeks redden, but he goes on.

“You kind of sound like her too, so that’s why I thought to look at her songs. Even though she’s kind of hard to understand sometimes,” he admits. “But obviously I can Google that.”

“So you found one,” she says. The pen’s still in her mouth and she has this absent look on her face, sort of like she forgot something.

He chuckles a little, reading the title. “Yeah. A Song For You.”

And it’s like she’s just realizing it, how perfect that cover is, and realizing she managed to overlook it. It’s her own music library and she never even thought about it. He could rub it in, but instead he clicks on the song and lets her listen.

If he shuts his eyes, he can almost hear her singing it.

I know your image of me is what I hope to be.
I’ve treated you unkindly but can’t you see,
there’s no one more important to me

“Des,” she breathes out.

He’s still picturing her on a big dark stage, glimmering curtains behind her, singing her broken heart out. Like her glee club competitions but she’s alone. And the only person who’s allowed to listen to it is-

He has no idea.

Wasn’t it supposed to be for Brittany? Wasn’t that what she said?

“Who’s it for?” he asks, just as she says, “It’s perfect, Desi.”

They stare at each other for a second before she realizes his question actually needs an answer.

We were alone
and I was singing this song for you.

“Brittany,” she says, sounding a little unsure. “Of course it’s for Brittany. Quinn thought… you know… it was supposed to fix it…”

“But what are you supposed to be fixing now?” he asks. “Like, isn’t Brittany-”

Des,” she stresses.

He shrugs. “Sorry. I just don’t really understand.”

The song ends and automatically starts playing again, and he wonders why she’d ever want to listen to the same song on repeat. Just over and over and over again. Wouldn’t she know it well enough the first few times?

Santana lets out a long breath, twisting her hair into a bun and sticking the pen through the middle. It holds everything in place and he wonders if she’s magic.

“The plan was to find a song for Brittany. So we did that. So thank-you.” She’s looking a lot less happy than she was a few minutes ago.

“So now you sing it to her, and everything gets fixed?”

She sighs. “I guess. I don’t know. I guess nobody really thought that far ahead.”

“But it could still work,” he prods, not sure if he should be looking at her or the glowing screen of the laptop. Neither one’s really making him feel any better.

“Look, it was a stupid plan to begin with,” she says. And then quieter, “and kinda my last shot, so I’ll just, like, shave my head and go befriend Rachel Berry or something now. I don’t know.”

He kind of remembers Rachel, mostly from seeing their glee club perform. She didn’t seem awful, but he knows how Santana gets with people who aren’t scared of her, so maybe Rachel’s her worst case scenario.

He knows she’s not popular. He knows they sort of used to be friends, a long time ago.

A horrible thought occurs to him and he knows she’d skin him alive if he ever asked her, so maybe he’ll never know. But maybe Rachel is what happens after the Brittanys and Quinns get all eaten up by Santana and have nowhere else to go. Maybe Santana liked Rachel too, a long time ago, and just destroyed everyone over it.

Looking at her now all sad on the bed he isn’t sure how anyone could ever be scared of her.

But maybe this is her most dangerous. She’s too soft to care what happens later. She’s just giving up.

“You can still sing it to her,” he tries to tell her, but she isn’t listening anymore. She’s just curled up on top of her covers, staring out the window. There’s nothing out there but sky.

It was so much easier when he was mad at her.

 


 

A storm finally breaks the heat that night. Lightning and heavy rolls of thunder, and Desi curls up in his bed wishing Quinn would find him under the kitchen table and make it seem funny again.

Make it seem beautiful.

He knows she’s not really his friend, but sometimes when he’s falling asleep he likes to pretend so, like they aren’t six years apart and she trusts him with things like her secrets and sadness. Like they’d meet somewhere for lunch and she’d know which comics he’s reading and he’d tell her silly jokes just to hear her laugh.

She could definitely use a friend like that. He isn’t even sure she has any friends, with everyone who’s supposed to be her friend going around kissing her and falling for her.

He wouldn’t let that get in the way. She’s beautiful, but she needs to be happy more than she needs someone to be in love with her, and even if they were the same age and hung out all the time he’d never try to kiss her or make her feel bad.

Maybe he’d think about it at night sometimes though like he’s doing now; pretend she was all healed and could be kissed without crying.

He doesn’t know if she cries, really, but it makes sense in his head that she would. And anyway, he doesn’t want to think about people kissing her. Or her kissing people. Or anything that isn’t her happy and in bright sunshine and glowing.

Pregnant people are supposed to glow, but somehow he knows she never did.

And he wonders a lot if the baby turned out sad, and if Quinn ever wonders if the baby turned out sad. Probably. If he’s thinking about it, and it’s not his baby, then she’s for sure thought about it before.

Every time it rains he thinks about her thinking about the baby now. Ever since she told him and all he could do was give her some of his chocolates.

She probably never wrote the baby a letter, but there’s been a lot going on this summer and she probably doesn’t know what to write about. If he were her he wouldn’t want to tell his baby about anything going on this summer either. But he’s sure there’s stuff he’ll never know about, little things that made her smile, all those days she wasn’t with Santana or anywhere he could check up on her, so maybe there’s something worth telling.

She could at least tell the baby she’s doing her best, right?

Another clap of thunder shakes the house and he bolts out of bed, grabbing a blanket to wrap around him.

Maybe Quinn’s in her bed right now, listening to the storm, thinking of him. Or maybe she’s sleeping. He thinks he’d rather her be asleep so at least he knows she isn’t thinking about the baby.

(And now he’s worried the baby’s awake and listening to the storm, and there’s no one around to sing her to sleep.)

(Obviously she has another mother. That’s what adoption means. But he can’t really picture a little baby being away from Quinn without feeling that aloneness. And as much as he wants the baby’s mother to be great, because everybody deserves it, he’s still kind of upset it didn’t get to be Quinn. Quinn would be so good.)

There’s a light on downstairs in the kitchen, so he heads there, pausing at the doorway when he hears voices.

Of course it won’t be Quinn in there, looking for him under the table. He doesn’t really think anything will ever feel like that moment again.

It’s Abuela, he picks up, hearing the soft lilt of her accent drifting between English and Spanish. Abuela and someone listening, and she talks about her babies like they’re still right there in front of her.

Mami’s sister. The one who died.

Maci, Abuela calls her, speaking to whoever’s sitting with her at the table. He can hear feet hitting the rung of a chair. See the shadows stretching across the tiles, all the way out to where he stands motionless in the hall. If either of them got up he’d probably look like a ghost.

They told me to straighten you out, before that girl got to you, Abuela’s saying.

And something soft in Spanish. Why did no one ever think to teach him? Isn’t it his language too?

I always thought Nicola was a good girl, you know. I always wanted to tell you.

He shouldn’t be listening in on this; it isn’t fair. If they knew he was here they’d probably chase him back upstairs, to where the lightning coats his room in a bright sheen and everything smells like rain.

Papi would yell at him for leaving his window open. Papi isn’t the one sitting with Abuela. He doesn’t ever listen to her like this.

Mami would try to talk Abuela back to reality, the way she does whenever Abuela starts mixing up her names. He doesn’t think pretending to be Abuela’s old cat is hurting anybody but Mami always gets mad at him for it anyway.

She’s not kicking the rung of her chair, making the shadows dance.

He knows who it is. He knows who listens all quiet like that.

He knows who looks just like Maci.

It must be awful, to be a walking ghost for someone you love. He’s trying to stop listening. It’s mostly Spanish now, but he’s still trying to stop.

Santana doesn’t want him to know anything about Maci.

He likes that, that she protects Mami like that. He’s sure if Mami wanted him to know she would’ve told him, so listening now is like going behind her back, and he’s always hated snooping in her stuff. Even when he’s on her laptop, he never goes looking through her folders. He even logs out of YouTube when she’s still signed in.

I still blame myself, mija. If I’d loved you more

“You loved me more than anything,” Santana’s saying. “You loved me more than the world.”

No one’s going to sit on the porch and watch the storm with him.

He doesn’t want to think about a thing.

The stairs don’t even creak when he sneaks back up to bed, and the stars on his ceiling have all lost their glow. If he buries himself deep under the blankets it almost feels like someone’s singing him to sleep.

 


 

Santana finds her mother in the den, curled up on the couch with her laptop perched on her knees. It’s still morning and her mother’s still soft and open, like she’s only recently surfaced from a dream, her hair down in curls around her face and still damp from the shower.

She loves her mother like this: makeupless and in pyjama bottoms and an old t-shirt, absolutely nowhere she needs to be.

Her mother’s days off are getting fewer and further between. She can’t even pinpoint when this started happening, the increase in work days, but it’s gotten to the point where she’s surprised to find her mother home and it always hits her in the same strange feeling. Some type of homesickness, maybe. A weird nostalgia.

Her mother was her whole world when she was little, and now they feel more like barges passing at sea. Maybe if she’d squint she could see her mother waving.

She dreamt about the two of them last night; about a long stretch of darkness and holding her mother’s hand. Only it kept slipping out and she kept stumbling and accidentally calling out for Maci instead, her dream self still aware Maci was long gone. Between the dream and the storm she’s not sure she even managed to get six hours sleep.

“You look a little tired, mija,” her mother says when she notices Santana in the doorway. “Did the storm keep you up too? I heard Desi padding around for a bit there.”

Santana joins her on the couch and tucks her knees up the same way her mother has them, the rough orange fabric scratching at her bare skin. She hates this couch. But her parents will die before they get rid of it, and even then she’s always had a feeling it would somehow find its way to her after that.

“I had some weird dreams too,” she says, resting her head against her mother’s shoulder, “so I don’t really know what kept me up. I just feel like a truck hit me or something.”

Her mother makes a sympathetic sound and wraps an arm around her, abandoning whatever she was doing on her laptop. Probably some online couponing, which, as Desi’s been reporting, is all she ever does for fun anymore.

“Seems like you’ve been having a pretty rough time lately,” she says.

Santana nods, relishing the warmth of being tucked into her mother like this.

She’s been so worried about losing her it feels like she’s been intentionally pushing her away, like she’s trying to get the upper hand in her potential abandonment. But god does she miss her. And her father as well, but she’s always had a special relationship with her mother; this dependency she’s given up on trying to shake.

She’ll always need her mother. But she’s been ready for her father to leave her for years now.

“Is it Brittany?” her mother asks, running her fingers through Santana’s hair. “You’ve been spending so much time with Quinn lately, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was a bit jealous.”

“It’s complicated,” Santana says. “I don’t know. I don’t think it’s jealousy. But she’s just… I think she’s moving on, Mami.”

Her mother presses a kiss to her head. “My baby. It’s never easy when your friends move at a different pace than you. But she’ll find her way back, you know. You two didn’t go through twelve years together to just let it slip away.”

No, but what if it’s just that Santana fucked it up and made it impossible for Brittany to stay? What if it was being with Santana all these years that turned Brittany toxic?

It’s not like it was a silly whim that had Brittany kissing Quinn. It was Santana not being ready to come out, and trying to keep everything the same between them, and then trying to make Quinn into a Brittany that would be content with never having to own up to what they were doing.

And she’s not even sure if that’s what happened but she’s knows it’s true on at least some level and maybe it’s only worse if there was something else as well.

(She’s trying so hard not to read into what Quinn said at the diner, right before she left. There just isn’t room in her life right now for it to mean anything more.)

“Santana,” her mother says, rousing her from her thoughts.

There’s a couponing website back up on her mother’s screen and she wonders how much of a silence she let grow between them.

“Abuela kept me up too last night,” she says, really not wanting to talk about Brittany anymore. There’s no saying how much she’ll reveal given how tired she is and now is definitely not the time for her mother to learn the truth.

Her mother sighs. “I’m sorry. I thought I heard her wandering too, but I didn’t want to say anything because your father would only bring up the padlock again. It just doesn’t feel right to lock her in her room. But then she’s all over the place, and I don’t know what I’d do if she got out of the house again, so it’s…”

She trails off, shaking her head. Santana knows where she was headed anyway.

“She was just in the kitchen this time,” Santana tells her. “I think she was lonely. She just wanted to talk to someone.”

It’s a subtle shift, but she sees the change in her mother’s eyes, realizing what Abuela could’ve been talking about. Like there’s ever anything else that slips out when Abuela’s in this foggy state.

(Santana’s been wondering lately if it works like ghosts – like Abuela has some unfinished business, some great regret, that needs taking care of before she can go. Like maybe Maci’s all that holds her back from the afterlife.)

(And it’s awful, but she’s not sure if she’s letting Abuela talk about it because she wants her to feel resolved, or if she’s just eager for it all to end.)

“It would’ve been nice if she wanted to talk thirty years ago,” her mother says wearily, pulling back slightly.

“She was apologizing,” Santana says.

Her mother nods, exhaling slowly. “You’d think she tied the noose herself, with how she goes on about it now. I’m sorry, Santana. I really wish she wouldn’t hound you with all that. You don’t need to hear it.”

“I don’t mind,” she says quietly, feeling the tenseness of her mother’s arm around her. “I mean, I look like Maci, right? So if it helps her…”

“She’s just trying to alleviate her guilt. It’s nothing more than that.” Her mother straightens up and leaves Santana limp at her side, now leaning against her hip.

It isn’t that Santana’s been seeking it out, but she hasn’t been avoiding it either, and she feels like her mother would only be more disappointed in her if she knew. Not that she’s dying to tell her. But keeping it from her feels almost the same; like by proxy she’s the one keeping it alive.

“Mami…” she starts, not really wanting to ask, but at the same time desperately needing to know.

“It’s not your fault,” her mother says, shifting so she can set her computer down beside her. “You and Maci – Desi looks nothing like the cat. She’d find a way to get it out no matter what.”

“It’s not that,” Santana says.

She has no idea how to ask her.

It’s not like there’s any basis for this type of conversation – no after school special has ever really delved into the world of parents’ dead siblings, let alone the reason for their suicide. Is this even something she’s allowed to ask?

“When Maci… Abuela keeps talking about Nicola,” Santana murmurs, staring down at her bare knees. “I just thought- I want to know if that-”

“Was why she killed herself?” her mother fills in.

Santana nods carefully, pressing her thumb into a bruise on her thigh. “I mean I don’t know, obviously. But Abuela keeps saying she wishes she never listened to anyone else, and it just… it just seems like that might be why. Like she and Nicola were… you know. Something.”

She can’t say the word; not to her mother. The very act of holding it on her tongue feels like releasing her confession and she can’t even believe she’s bringing this up now – bringing up Maci – because it’s way too close to everything she doesn’t want to say and this is the last light she’d want to dissect her secret in anyway. The noose, her mother said. Santana didn’t know.

“I’ve thought about it for a long time,” her mother says, nearly a foot of space between them now. She looks so small. So grief-ridden. “And I don’t know. I’ll never know for sure. You know, I never thought to ask her.”

There’s a flicker of something there, like maybe this would be the perfect time for her mother to ask, and Santana’s filled with the utter dread that it’s possible she’s been hiding nothing all along. But it passes as quick as it comes and Santana hugs her knees and her mother runs her palms along the rough fabric of the couch and neither will make eye contact. For different reasons. But for the same.

“It just wasn’t something that was talked about, back then. I wish it was. I wish I’d-” Her mother’s breath hitches, and Santana’s hand involuntarily reaches out to catch it.

“It’s okay,” she tells her.

“I just wish I’d tried to say something. To let her know she wasn’t alone. But that’s the thing when you’re young, I guess, and nothing seems like it could ever really disappear for good – you just assume there’ll always be time.”

The raw Brittany nerve chooses now to wake up, throbbing in Santana’s chest. She knows this so well.

“Maybe it was a lot of things,” she offers quietly, scooting a little closer.

Her mother reaches out and takes her hand. “I think it was. I think it was a lot no one really chose to notice. I loved my sister, Santana. More than anything. But how often did I tell her?”

“She knew, Mami,” she says. “She had to have known. That’s just how family is.”

Her words feel so flimsy, under everything her mother’s tossing out; like wet paper towel trying to catch falling rubble.

“I know,” her mother says, giving her hand a grateful squeeze. “I know. But if we’d ever sat down and talked about it… I don’t know. I don’t know that there was anything I could’ve done to save her. It was a lot of things, like you said, that led up to it. What people said about Nicola, about her; what our parents might think. She had a lot of burdens. And I think she felt it was the only way she could get out.”

“I’m scared it’s like that with Quinn,” Santana admits, and her mother cups her face, stroking her cheek with a soft thumb.

“Just keep talking to her,” she says. “Just keep letting her know she’s not alone. That there are people who will miss her very much, and won’t think any less of her for voicing her struggles. She’s so strong, mija. You’re both so strong.”

Santana’s heart feels swollen with all the burdens she’s let slither in. Like Brittany’s enlarged appendix, when they were twelve; swollen to the point of bursting, and she doesn’t know how to keep it all in her chest. There’s so much of it. Her mother keeps stroking her cheek.

“I’m scared it’s like that with me too,” she whispers, shutting her eyes.

She’s pulled into her mother’s chest before she can even exhale. “My baby, I know. I know. I’ve done so much praying for you.”

“I’m not strong like you are,” Santana mumbles, feeling the tears start to prick. “You and Desi are just- I don’t know how you handle everything. And I even look like Maci, and she-”

“No, nena, you’re nothing alike in those ways,” her mother promises, smoothing down her hair. “You’re so strong. And brave, and beautiful, and such a clever girl, just like Maci. I wish she could have met you, Santana. She would have been so proud of you, you know. So proud. Just like I am.”

Santana sniffles, trying to squeeze the tears back behind her eyelids before they stain her mother’s soft cotton shirt. “I don’t think you’ll always be proud of me, Mami. I’m not good, I’m not…”

“There’s nothing on this earth that could make me any less proud of you, my darling girl,” her mother insists, kissing the top of her head. “I swear on my grave. You’re perfect.”

“But I like girls,” Santana barely manages to get out, the last word disappearing under a rush of tears. “I’m so sorry, Mami. I’m so sorry. I’ve tried so hard to change it.”

She’s melting, a thick ooze of guilt and shame sinking into the couch cushions; sinking into her mother’s shirt. She’s a hot swell of lava. She can feel the world cracking beneath her.

And then her mother pulls back enough to look her in the eye, and presses the fiercest kiss to her forehead like absolutely everything will halt if she doesn’t do just this.

“You’re perfect,” her mother maintains. “Nothing will ever make me love you less.”

“But I’m not going to heaven,” Santana lets out in a sob, her chest caving in as she catches the sound of her mother holding back tears.

“Then we’ll build a new one, my baby. I don’t care. If they won’t let you in, they deserve to burn. Jesus would be lucky to walk beside you.” Her mother’s smothering her in kisses now, across her cheeks and over her eyelids and down to the corners of her lips and anywhere tears might have grazed as if she’s trying to take it all away.

“I thought you wouldn’t love me anymore,” Santana whimpers, and her mother nearly squeezes the life out of her.

Never. Not for this, not for anything,” she vows. “I will love you so long and so fierce they’ll power new worlds with it. Don’t you ever think I could love you any less, mija. It’s not possible.”

Her mother’s crying. Santana’s crying, but her mother’s a full out river of tears, and she’d so willingly drown in it. Submerge herself entirely so there’s nothing else in the world.

They’ve practically become one teary entity on the couch now, Santana so tucked into her mother she’s not sure where either one of them ends or begins. Everything hurts, but it’s the ache of a muscle that hasn’t been used in a long time, like a fiery bruise, and she keeps pushing down, trying to assure herself it won’t all fizzle out into misery if she takes her hands off it.

Because-

“Papi,” she croaks out in a whisper, despite everything inside her screaming not to.

And her mother’s gentle stroking stills.

His brother may be dying, but it’s still the brother he disowned for leaving the church, and Santana’s never wanted to find out what he’d do to his own daughter for so blatantly abandoning his beliefs like this.

“He’ll come around,” her mother says, but it’s hollow between them. “You don’t need to worry about that, Santana. Don’t think about it. Just let me handle it.”

“What if he leaves?” Santana asks, her face smooshed against her mother’s stomach. She can’t bear to untuck herself.

The hand on her back starts rubbing again, small circles spiraling out into apologies.

“He’s a very stubborn man, you know. Since the day I met him.”

The couch he wouldn’t leave behind; the town he forced them into calling home. It would take a second coming to change his mind once he has it set.

“I think you need to rest, mija. You need some sleep. Let me help you upstairs.”

The brother who called and called day after day until they finally had to disconnect the number, just because the man wouldn’t call his Sundays holy. The station wagon he kept until it fell apart around him. The wife he guilted into marriage.

She isn’t so sure anymore, if she wants him to believe in her.

She isn’t entirely sure it will even feel like abandonment.

“Will you stay with me?” she asks, when her mother’s sitting on the edge of her bed.

“Of course,” her mother says. “As long as you want.”

 


 

The sun’s gone down by the time Santana surfaces from her bed. Her room is as dark and chilled as she feels inside, numbing her bare feet as she steps off the rug to find something to wear.

Surely her father’s home by now. He came home so many times in her dreams it almost feels as if she’s done this already.

Watched him shut down. Watched him pack up and leave.

And every dream ended the exact same, with her mother pressed up against the window, begging him to turn around and come back. Promising she’d make it all better. Screaming so hard her voice came out in a shredded rasp.

Santana slips into an old sundress, something soft and faded. Her skin is covered in goosebumps. Someone has the A/C on high.

There are voices filtering up from downstairs, laughing, slipping through the crack of light where her door isn’t fully closed. She can’t remember when her mother left, but she knows there was a promise it would be okay.

As if her mother could predict the end of the storm in her father.

Santana pulls on a knitted cardigan for good measure.

Her dreams bled into each other, clinging to her even as she woke up gasping for air; some scummy film she couldn’t scrub off. Maybe it was watching her father walk away again and again. Or watching her mother finally turn away from the window, her eyes pinning Santana with blame.

What if she’s had enough time to change her mind? What if Santana goes downstairs, and the whole family’s gathered to tell her she needs to leave?

Would anyone even take her in?

The nausea’s rising again, and she takes a seat in the chair at her vanity to wait for it to pass. The last thing she needs is to throw up on everyone just before they kick her out.

A scrap of lace sticking out her jewellery box catches her eye and she wonders if she should tie her hair back or put on a necklace or something, the way this outfit’s starting to feel like she’s dressing for her funeral. Would her mother love her more with her hair out of her eyes? Would someone fight for her if she scrubbed her face clean?

She’s tugging at the lace before she can stop herself and a doily comes out with it, landing in her lap like some final omen.

Of course. She doesn’t know if she should laugh or cry. Or vomit.

Or tell Abuela she loves her, because this might be her last chance.

God, she doesn’t even know if Abuela would understand, with how much time she’s spending now in the past. Maybe if it sounded enough like Maci, but even then it might just sound like a message from beyond the grave, and the last thing Santana wants to do is play someone else’s ghost. She’s already so much her own.

No lace in her hair, she decides. Nothing that feels that thin.

She can barely look at herself in the mirror, carefully averting her eyes from having to take anything in, but she still manages to clasp a necklace around her neck – a gold chain that used to be her mother’s, but now holds a small rock with a hole straight through that Brittany brought back from some vacation years ago.

It’s a hag stone, she’d told her, pressing it into Santana’s palm. It’s for protection. Nothing bad can happen if you have it with you.

She’d slipped it on the chain and worn it for a couple months, but she was never really one for believing. Not when Brittany did so much for the both of them. Still- it’s something. And she’s so ready to be someone who has tangible faith.

The laughter’s stopped downstairs, but there’s still an even din filling the house. And music. Something slow. Jazzy.

She’s not brave.

But she’s spent far too long being afraid.

 


 

Her mother spots her before she’s even fully stepped into the kitchen, rising from the dining room table where they’ve all been doing what appears to be an actual jigsaw puzzle. Santana’s not even sure it was in this century the last time they tried one of those. But they all seem happy enough, hunched over their own small sections of the full picture, and no one else even looks up as her mother comes over to her.

“There’s a plate in the fridge if you’re feeling hungry,” she says, rubbing Santana’s arm.

Santana shakes her head and her mother nods.

“Have you said anything yet?” Santana asks in a low voice, as to not be heard by anyone else.

The radio probably does a good enough job of keeping their conversation secluded to the kitchen, but she doesn’t want to risk it. Her father’s smiling. She knew on some level the shitshow would wait for her but she was also sort of hoping she’d just wake up to a suitcase being thrown at her and clear directions to leave. At least it would be over with.

“I wanted to wait for you,” her mother says. “To see what you wanted to do. Do you want tea, maybe?”

Santana nods. “Yeah, all right.”

She follows her mother over to the kettle, the two of them crowded into one small corner of the kitchen like they’re huddling for warmth. It is colder than usual down here. Someone’s definitely been messing with the A/C.

She pulls herself up onto the counter while they wait for it to boil, and her mother leans against the sink, her hair haloed by the soft amber light from the dangling bulb above her.

She looks beautiful. The epitome of grace.

“Desi knows,” Santana finds herself telling her, in a voice just above a whisper.

Her mother doesn’t seem too phased by the idea of a child knowing about homosexuality, but with Desi parading around in Santana’s candy striper uniform a few weeks ago she’d probably have had time to get used to it if it was an issue.

“How does he feel about it?” is all she asks, looking up at her daughter with soft eyes.

Santana lifts her shoulders. “I think a little more positively than I do, actually.”

“Santana,” her mother says. It’s chastising, but it’s also sympathetic, and her mother’s lived in Ohio long enough to understand why.

The kettle’s making enough noise to soon be at its boiling point and the two of them turn to watch it despite knowing the old adage. It’s better than watching the other three members of their family sit unaware, still focused on trying to complete whatever colorful picture those pieces promise.

“Is it- was it Brittany?” her mother asks quietly, eyes still on the kettle.

Santana wants to swallow her tongue.

It could have been, or it could have been the other way around where the only reason Brittany even considered kissing her was because Santana so rashly dragged her into it. Trying to pinpoint its origins feels a lot like trying to find her way through the dark – it’s just a lot of jagged edges on familiar objects that she’s forgotten how to name.

“I’m sorry,” her mother says. “I don’t think I’m supposed to ask that.”

The kettle clicks and they both jump, somehow forgetting that’s why they’re waiting here. Her mother stares at it for a second longer before reaching into the cupboard for mugs and teabags.

“I just don’t know the answer,” Santana says honestly, curling her toes around the edge of a slightly open drawer.

Her mother nods sort of absentmindedly, dropping the teabags into the bottoms of the mugs. “Was Brittany ever- was she ever a thing, with you? Like a-”

Girlfriend? Could Santana even answer that if she wanted?

“I… I fell in love with her. I guess.” Her face is hot from the admission and she doesn’t dare meet her mother’s eye. “But it-”

“Okay,” her mother says. Her hands are steady while pouring the water, so maybe that’s a good sign.

“It didn’t work out,” Santana continues in a murmur, somehow unable to stop the words from leaving her mouth. “She wanted to tell everyone. And you know, she was with Artie, and chose him first, and I was just… I mean if I wasn’t even going to be a priority…But she’s nice, so of course I couldn’t- I don’t know.”

“It’s Ohio,” her mother says, putting a hand on her knee, and for the first time Santana thinks someone might get it.

Yeah,” she says with a dumb sniffle. “Maybe in a city somewhere, where people don’t care, but…”

Her mother’s lips pull slightly at this, and Santana hopes she hasn’t offended her. It may not have been her mother’s idea to stay in Ohio but she’s always supported her husband’s choice.

“You’re just a child,” her mother says in an apologetic tone, shaking her head. “You shouldn’t have to make these decisions. That’s not fair to either of you.”

“I really thought you’d kick me out,” Santana mumbles.

“You’re my home, Santana,” her mother says, and warmth floods her at the words. “Even if I tried my heart would still be there inside you.”

She pushes a mug of tea across the counter, towards Santana, and Santana takes it in her hands as she glances across the kitchen to her father. Despite the heat between her palms a chill still runs through her.

“Do you want me to tell him?” her mother asks, following her gaze.

“I don’t know,” Santana says. “I don’t know if it’d make a difference.”

She can sense her mother’s apprehension and somehow it’s kind of calming, knowing she’s not the only one dreading this conversation. Could he kick them both out? Probably, in theory. But he has a track record of walking away and she doesn’t really expect anything else from him. Maybe a couple choice passages from the bible and a reminder she’s going to hell.

As if she hasn’t known this since middle school.

“Together then?” her mother asks. “You know it doesn’t have to be tonight. I’m sure it could wait until…”

After church, and she’s sure the both of them are thinking about having to sit through mass with this secret heavy on their chests. Her mother gives her a look and she knows she’s thinking about how many Sundays Santana’s had to sit through on her own.

“No, it’s better this way. At least it gets it over with,” Santana says with a shrug.

She’s probably going to shit herself, but at least it’ll all be out in the open. No more secrets. No more Papi.

Her mother nods, taking a careful sip of her tea. “All right. Want to wait for us downstairs? I don’t want your brother hearing this.”

Santana slides off the counter, hopping backwards as she sloshes tea onto the kitchen tiles. If it goes the way she thinks it’s going to go he’ll hear the brunt of it anyway, but she appreciates her mother trying to make this easier for all of them. Desi knows too much already anyway. If she could take anything back it’d be dragging him into this.

“Mami? I love you,” Santana says as she pauses in the doorway, biting down on her lip.

Her mother’s face warms into a smile. “I love you more than the world, mija. It’s going to be okay.”

It’s a lie Santana’s more than happy to accept.

 


 

The last time she met with her parents down here, Quinn was asleep in her bed and she was sure the world was ending in an entirely different way. She’d wanted to fight, then. There was a drive inside her that could’ve moved mountains.

Now she’s waiting alone on a hard stool, too afraid to sit in her father’s desk chair lest he decide to yank it out from under her and send her packing, toying with the cold stone around her neck like maybe it’ll make any of this easier. Her whole body’s still trembling but maybe a little less with her hands preoccupied.

She can hear her mother voice from upstairs, calling to her father, and she’s trying so hard not to look at the screensaver on his computer; that slideshow of photos that seems to speak of another family entirely.

She was happy as a kid, right? She loved her parents, and she tolerated her brother, and she would’ve done anything for her best friend. Surely these are the marks of a kid who didn’t grow up lonely. But she keeps catching her own eye in the stupid photos and that tiny Santana keeps putting on the same fake smile and she doesn’t know anymore. She doesn’t know what was happiness and what was wanting to believe.

Her skin prickles as her mother appears on the stairs, and then her father. The two share the same look of apprehension and her father can’t know what exactly is about to happen but he has to sense something, because he eyes the scene like a cornered wild animal.

That desperation to flee. The need to be anywhere else that Santana knows all too well.

She wonders for a moment if he thinks this is about his brother and that Santana sold him out to her mom and they’re all about to have some big confrontation. But wouldn’t he want to come into that with the upper hand? Wouldn’t he at least put on a face that looked like he was in control?

“Sorry that took so long, mija,” her mother says as she takes a seat in the crappier desk chair.

The three seats that are arranged near the desk are the ones her father placed here to talk about Quinn and when Santana remembers how delicately he spoke to Judy and how willing he was to try and make things better she wants to cry. It feels like forever ago and like this is some sad, empty echo.

Her father stands for a moment beside the last chair and just watches his screensaver like it’s the first time he’s seen any of those photos. And then he looks to Santana, no doubt catching the way her whole body shakes, and finally sits down.

Her mother gives her a nod to begin but Santana just stares helplessly back at her.

“I don’t know how to start,” she whispers, feeling so much like the kid in the principal’s office, trying to prove her innocence with bloody knuckles.

She glances at her tea cooling on the desk beside her and can’t even begin to think of drinking any of it with the way her stomach roils. Even when she tried to imagine this conversation it didn’t feel anywhere near as awful as this.

“Well,” her mother says, looking back and forth between her daughter and husband. “Santana has something she’d like to tell you, Isaiah. And I think it’s important you do your best to listen, and to keep in mind how difficult it is for her to share this.”

“Of course,” he says, with a bit of a stricken expression.

Santana wonders if he’s imagining a pregnancy or her having committed crime or whatever fathers fear most for their daughters. Surely no dad pictures this kind of conversation ending in their kid coming out.

Her chest feels like it’s about to cave in, but she forces herself to look directly at him. To take in the harsh lines of his features and the soft way he looks right back at her. He has a small cut from shaving just along the edge of his jaw and she used to always kiss those better, when she was a kid, because she thought it must hurt more than anything, and she couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t just let those tiny hairs stay.

He used to be her hero. She wants more than anything to bring that feeling back, but she’s been afraid of him for so long it’s engraved in her bones. And it’s all come down to this conversation. To him finally knowing.

“Papi,” she says, and swallows. Her mother reaches over and takes her hand.

“Santana, whatever it is we’ll get through it,” he tells her, face creasing in concern.

She nods and wishes it to be true. “First of all I’m sorry,” she says.

Her mother gives her a sharp look to scold her for the apology but she wants it out there, because even in the best case scenario she knows he’ll replay the conversation over and over and she wants there to at least be an acknowledgement of her changing everything for him. She wants him to know she thought of him in this. That he’s all she’s thought about.

“Papi I like girls,” she blurts out, and she can already feel the tears pricking her eyes. “The way I should like boys. I’m-”

“Santana,” he interjects.

“I’m a lesbian,” she says, because she needs him to hear the word. Even with the way he’s frowning at her she needs him to know this isn’t some rash decision. “I’m sorry. I know this isn’t…”

He has a hand over his mouth, and it moves to rub his chin as he just frowns blankly ahead.

This isn’t the moment to notice the lines of grief around his eyes but again she remembers his brother and wishes so badly she could take it all back because she knows this is the last thing he needs right now. His brother’s dying and she has the audacity to ruin the rest of his life.

“Isaiah,” her mother says hesitantly, leaning forward to block the emptiness between him and Santana. “Tell your daughter you love her, Isaiah. Tell her how brave she is for-”

“She’s sick, Isobel.”

Santana’s stomach just drops.

“That’s nonsense,” her mother tries, but her father raises a hand in dismissal.

“In the eyes of the Lord, she’s sick,” he says. “And it’s our job as her parents-”

“No!” her mother says over him, accidentally spinning the chair but ends up facing him anyway. “Our baby is perfectly fine, Isaiah, she’s-”

He tunes her out, instead facing Santana and speaking only to her. “We’re going to get you help. There’s a center in Utah that specializes in-”

“You cannot send her away!” her mother erupts. She’s out of the chair now, angrier than Santana ever remembers seeing her. “Especially not to some kind of gay rehab?!”

Her father’s still sitting calmly in his chair, apparently unfazed by the flush of her mother’s face that usually signifies someone getting a good smacking or a dish getting thrown across the room. His stillness is the only thing Santana can focus on right now because literally everything else about this conversation has bile rising in her throat and she’s not sure she can handle acknowledging that it’s even happening.

“As her parents, Isobel, it’s our duty to ensure she gets the help she needs,” he’s saying, as her mother grows into the kind of fury that before now was limited to fairytale villains.

“And I am telling you that there is no way you’re sending her anywhere,” her mother hurls at him. “Not without me. Not without our son, who you will never see again if you so even try to condemn her to that hell!”

“So you’ll just let her rot like this?!” He’s on his feet now as well, the two of them only steps from each other, and yet they’re both shouting as if either one’s standing at the edge of a field.

Santana would scoot away if she could, but the old metal stool’s planted firmly in its place and scraping it backwards would only alert them both to her shivering presence and drag her into a conversation she’s not sure she could survive right now.

It feels worse than dying just listening to them. God knows what would happen if either of them asked her anything.

Her father continues angrily, “You’d rather her go to hell than have her out of your sight for less than a year? Is that the kind of mother you are?”

“Don’t you dare take it there, Isaiah,” her mother warns as she brings her knuckles to her lips. “And if you truly believe she’s sick then you are not the man I married. The only ‘sickness’ here is the idea that our Lord would love her any less for something she was born with, with or without your understanding. Whether you choose to accept that or not.”

“This has nothing to do with acceptance,” her father says. “And we aren’t talking about an extra limb or missing chromosome – this is about knowing what’s right as her parents and doing our best for her wellbeing.”

“Exactly,” her mother says, moving closer to Santana who feels like someone’s doused her in acid. “So I’m taking the kids to a motel for the night and if you’re still here in the morning it’d better be because you’ve changed your mind. Otherwise we’re gone for good.”

“Isobel, don’t be rash,” her father says, but he looks as if he’s just been slapped.

Santana waits for her mother to take it back, to apologize and just tell him to smarten up, but she’s grabbing Santana’s hand and pulling her off the stool towards the stairs like not even God Himself could make her back down.

“I’m doing right by our daughter,” she tells him, and then calls for Desi who must’ve been listening at the door with how quickly he appears at the top of the basement stairs. “Pack an overnight bag, my sweet. We’re going away for the night.”

Desi looks at Santana like she might be able to explain what the hell just happened but she can only look back helplessly, clutching Mami’s hand like a terrified child.

“Quickly now,” her mother says, leading Santana up the stairs and shooing Desi along.

“You don’t have to do this,” Santana tells her as they reach the top, but her mother just shakes her head.

“Don’t worry. This is about more than just you. Now go pack your bag, Santana. I have to go talk to Abuela.” Her mother releases her hand, but pulls her back for a second to give her a quick kiss on the forehead. “And I am so, so proud of you.”

 


 

The entire time Santana’s in her room, numbly tossing essentials into her Cheerios duffel bag, she can’t help picturing her father still standing there in the basement with that stricken look on his face. He doesn’t come upstairs as they’re heading to the car, not even when her mother pauses to ask Abuela again if she’s sure she’s fine alone, and that last image of him standing there is burned into Santana’s vision even after they get on the road. Because that look on his face is exactly what she was trying to evade—he will never be able to come back from this point.

Desi holds her hand in the car the way Brittany once held the paw of a dying stray they found in the middle of the road, watching her out the corner of his eye but still not asking what’s going on.

Their mother hasn’t said a word since leaving Abuela at the door but Desi’s a smart kid and Santana wishes he’d just say something so someone could acknowledge how fucked up this all is. That they’re running away in the middle of the night and it feels like a plan her mother’s had in place for a while now.

The passing streetlights bathe the car in swatches of light, running along Santana’s body like brief moments of salvation.

She doesn’t want to feel responsible. She doesn’t want any of them to be here. And still she doesn’t know if she’s even surprised – or awake, or breathing, or able to speak. From the moment she said the word lesbian to getting in the car feels like it happened in less than a minute and she’s only now able to begin to take in what happened.

Her father tried to send her to Utah. To be fixed?

Is he disappointed in her or just worried? Can she still call it love?

“Santana,” Desi whispers, and she’s suddenly so grateful for the way the seat seems to swallow him whole. He’s still a child. Nothing’s broken him yet.

She gives his hand a light squeeze and realizes she hasn’t even cried yet. She cries at everything, and somehow this has her numb.

“What is it, Des?” she whispers back.

He glances at their mother in the front seat who’s staring straight ahead at the empty road stretched out in front of her. “If Papi’s gone,” he says softly, “do you think that means we can get a cat?”

Her laughter surprises her and then suddenly there’s a lump in her throat and she’s willing tears not to spill over.

“Everything’s going to change,” she says.

“Well yeah,” he says in reply. “But it was gonna happen either way – they’ve been fighting for over a year.”

But this was because of me, she wants to say, wanting him to really understand. They have to sleep in a musty motel tonight because she just had to tell Papi. He’s going to disappear from their lives and they’ll have to move to some place a quarter of the size of the only home they’ve known because she couldn’t live with this stupid secret any longer, even though she knew it would ruin everything.

“Did you bring your phone?” Desi asks her, nudging her out of her thoughts.

“Of course,” she says. It was probably the first thing she grabbed from her room, even though she’s now realizing she forgot deodorant.

“Maybe you should text one of your friends,” he tells her. “I think it might help.”

She nods in agreement, reaching over into her purse for her phone before wondering who exactly she should be texting.

Logically it should be Brittany, because Brittany was the one who kept pushing for this moment to happen and is probably the only one who could see it as a positive. But she’s basically ended things, at least for however long it takes for Santana to grow up, and Santana’s not even sure she actually wants to talk to her – because everything Quinn said was true even if Santana wouldn’t let herself hear it.

Quinn shouldn’t have been the one to have to tell Santana about the kiss. Quinn isn’t supposed to be handling other people’s fuck ups at all, but it isn’t like any of them could stop her. And it isn’t like Quinn would even reply to Santana’s text as well. (Or worse- she would, and then they’d never deal with what she said at the diner and everything would get even more messed up.)

She knows Puck would show up at the motel with a stupid care package that’d most likely consist entirely of alcohol and a token bar of chocolate and as much as she loves him she just feels too much like overcooked pasta to be able to handle him right now.

“Des,” she whispers, nudging him even though he’s looking right at her. “What if I don’t have any friends anymore?”

He scrunches up his face as he think for a second and then says, “Didn’t you say you were gonna shave your hair and befriend Rachel Berry?”

She rolls her eyes. “Oh my god, that’s like the last person I’d ever want in my business. Definitely not.”

Desi gives her a look that basically says can you really afford to be picky right now and she resists the urge to roll her eyes again with how much they ache from all the tears she won’t let out because fuck if she’s going to resort to freaking Berry. (And besides, Rachel’s probably too busy sucking out the soul of that supersized potato. She wouldn’t reply even if Santana had her number.)

“Maybe I’ll just talk to you, if that’s okay,” she says quietly.

Desi looks up at her from where he’s slouched against the seat and just watches her for a minute. “Okay,” he says. “And I’m not mad at you anymore, in case you were wondering.”

“But I didn’t fix anything,” she mutters.

“I know,” he says, as their mother pulls off the highway and into an empty motel parking lot. “But everything’s changed, right?”

The whole parking lot’s washed in the flashing neon vacancy sign hanging on a giant signpost and Santana can’t remember the last time she ever saw this much deep blue. Maybe standing at the edge of the ocean, years ago when she was still convinced she began and ended with Brittany.

“Do you kids want to grab something at the vending machine while I get us a room?” Mami asks, unbuckling her seatbelt.

Desi looks to Santana and she shrugs. “I could go for a Kit Kat.”

Mami hands them her change purse, leaving the two of them to gather their things as she heads over to the motel lobby. Desi grabs his backpack and reaches over to open the door but whips back around to Santana instead.

“You forgot the best part about this though,” he says.

“What?” Santana asks as she slings her duffel over her shoulder.

He gives her a smile. “No more secrets. Everybody knows now. And the world didn’t end, did it?”

“I guess not, in the grand scheme of things,” she says with a shrug. “But we are spending the night at a motel in the middle of fucking nowhere. Shit, sorry.”

The apology’s a reflex at this point and now he’s the one rolling his eyes. Like she doesn’t do this basically every time she talks to him. He’d probably be more surprised if she didn’t swear.

She gets out of the car and slams the door behind her, and a second later Desi does the same, joining her to head over to the brightly-lit vending machine. He’s still smiling, seemingly content to just walk beside her awash in this dark blue neon light that fills every crack and crevice of the night.

“It feels like an adventure,” he admits as he bumps up against her.

She rolls her eyes and laughs and ruffles his hair.

“Desi,” she says, “you are the vessel of the entire family’s optimism. Please don’t ever lose that.”

He puts an arm around her middle and pulls her closer, and she loops her arm around his shoulder, and banging against each other every step of the way they continue like that the entire length of the parking lot until they reach the glowing white light of the vending machine.

Chapter Text

 


 

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.