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Maybe it was the way Brittany said it: soft and matter-of-fact, as if she were commenting on the weather.

"I'll never get out of Lima."

Santana's head jerked up. She looked over her shoulder at Brittany. "What are you talking about? You've been out of Lima. We went to New York, remember?"

"I know." Brittany's hands lay limp in her lap, her fingers loosely threaded. The afternoon sunlight caught in her lowered lashes, making them almost blindingly bright. "It's just..." She hitched one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug.

"Just what?" Santana prompted. "Hey." Pushing her Cosmopolitan aside with her elbow, she reached across the quilted lavender bedspread and gave Brittany's bare knee a squeeze. "Just what, Britt?"

"Just … that was Glee. That was different."

"Different from what?"

Brittany tipped her head back and studied the ceiling for a moment. Not finding the answer there, she looked down at Santana and gave her a small, rueful smile. "You know what I mean." Reaching out, she smoothed a few stray hairs away from Santana's forehead. "Everyone's going away in the fall. I mean everyone in our class. You're going away. I'm not going anywhere. I didn't even graduate. I'm too stupid."

"Brittany," Santana began fiercely, "you are not--"

But Brittany was looking down at her knowingly. Santana kissed her knee. "So you're not book-smart. So what? There are all kinds of ways a person can be smart. You're an amazing dancer. And you're kind of a genius at being my girlfriend; I know that isn't easy."

Instead of denying it, Brittany shrugged again.

"You're going to graduate next year. I promise."

"And then what?"

"And then? I don't know," Santana said. "You'll go to college, I guess. You can come to Kentucky with me. We can be roomies. It'll be great." She gave Brittany's thigh a playful nudge, and Brittany's smile widened, but there was something off about it. It seemed brittle, the skin around the corners stretched just a little too tight. When Santana looked up into the dark blue eyes, they seemed shallow, as if the light behind them had been extinguished.

Santana sighed and looked down at her own upturned wrists. Bitterness curled in her stomach. Brittany wasn't stupid. Okay, you could never accuse her of being clever -- like Quinn, for instance -- but she was one of the most self-aware people that Santana had ever met. Considering how many people walked around Lima, totally deluded about their own loser-dom, Brit's acceptance of herself was kind of unusual. And refreshing. It was one of the things Santana really loved about her.

She lifted her head again. "Where do you wanna go? If you could go anywhere, where would you go?"

Brittany's brow crinkled, as if the answer were obvious and Santana was a dummy for even asking. "It's Wing's Night at Breadstix."

"No, no, no. Britt, if you could go anywhere in the country right now, where would you wanna go? You wanna go to LA? You wanna see the Grand Canyon or something?" It kind of broke her heart that Brittany needed prompting to think beyond Lima.

Brittany sat very still for a few moments. Her eyes never left Santana's face, but her gaze remained closed-off. Finally, in a soft voice she said, "I don't know."

Santana groaned and Brittany flinched -- like she thought she'd be punished for getting the answer wrong. Santana couldn't stand it anymore. She climbed clumsily to her knees and caught Brittany's face between her hands, bringing their foreheads close together. "I'm asking you where you wanna go. I wanna take you somewhere. Now. Before I have to leave."

"Now?"

"Now. We have like two weeks before I have to leave." Though the air that filled Brittany's bedroom was lush with summer scents, Santana felt a nip of autumn, and shivered. When she spoke again, the words came out huskily, like her throat was trying to close around them. "We have a car. We can go anywhere. Where do you wanna go? C'mon, Britt. Anywhere."

"Anywhere?"

Santana nodded.

For a few long seconds, Brittany was quiet again, and almost as still as the air. The only movement in the room was her not-so-steady heartbeat against Santana's chest, and the occasional ticklish flicker of her stubby lashes.

At length, sounding almost shy, Brittany said, "Can we go to the beach? 'Cause it's summer, and I've never been."

Santana closed her eyes and kissed Brittany's soft lips. "Yeah," she murmured. "Yeah, we can go to the beach. We'll go tomorrow, okay? First thing in the morning. So, pack tonight, 'cause I'm gonna come by early. Take a few sets of clothes." It seemed like a good idea; she had no idea how far the nearest beach was to Lima, Ohio, but she had a feeling they'd be gone at least a couple of nights. "I'm gonna go home and look stuff up."

"You're really serious."

"Of course I'm serious. Just tell your parents you’re gonna be with me for a couple days. Don't forget to pack your bathing suit.”

"Can Lord Tubbington come with us?"

"You can send him a postcard."

~*~

Next morning, when the sky was the color of strawberry ice cream, Santana pulled up in front of Brittany's house. She texted Brittany, who replied about thirty seconds later: bRt. Be right there. Santana waited.

She was re-applying her lip gloss in the rearview mirror when the front door swung open and Brittany came running out, one hand clutching the brim of a pink straw cowgirl hat, flip-flops slapping against the walkway -- like she thought Santana was going to leave without her if she didn't hurry. Shaking her head, Santana reached across and opened the front passenger door for her.

Brittany tossed her stuff -- a bulging pink duffel bag covered with Hello Kitty decals -- into the back seat and threw herself down beside Santana. Giving Santana's cheek a quick kiss, she said, "Lord Tubbington's sad he couldn't come with us. I promised I'd get him something."

"Okay." Santana buckled her seatbelt and turned the key in the ignition.

"I think he'd like one of those snow globes. You know the kind? Or a shot glass, but I don't want to encourage him. His drinking problem," she explained in a hushed, confidential tone, when Santana slid her a look.

"I thought your cat was a smoker."

Brittany clasped her hands in her lap and stared at them. "He doesn't mean to be bad."

"Okay, Britt. Whatever." Santana pulled away from the curb, and turned the car around so that they were heading east, toward I-75.

"Where are we going?"

"You said you wanted to go to the beach."

"I know, but--"

"You'll see."

~*~

Hey, Quinn

Sorry to skip out on you. I’ll try to explain when we get back. Wish you were here, to share the driving, haha. Just kidding. You’re with us in spirit. UNHOLY TRINITY FOREVER. Stopped for lunch in Louisville, which seems kind of cool. Not NYC cool, but better than Lima. Of course, the toilet at the last rest stop we were at is better than Lima.

XOXO,

Santana

Dear Lord Tubbington,

This is called Mammoth Cave National Park, but we didn’t see any mammoths. I was sad, but Santana says they only come out at night. Mammoths are elephants who don’t shave, so they’re like hippie elephants I guess.

B

~*~

The sky was a powdery blue, not quite dark, when Santana pulled into the Days Inn parking lot. Her head ached, her eyes burned into their sockets, and she was numb from her ass to the backs of her knees. She’d never driven for so long in her life and, at that moment, she never wanted to drive anywhere ever again. She’d live here. The hell with college. For a few minutes she sat there, slumped forward in her seat, her arms draped over the steering wheel.

But then Brittany started to stir in her sleep, to mumble incoherently, so Santana gave herself a little shake, scrubbed her eyes with the back of her hand, and sat up. “Britt, come on,” she said, elbowing her gently in the arm. “Wake up, we’re here.”

Brittany smiled but didn’t open her eyes. “We’re at the beach?”

“Not yet. We’re in Nashville. We’re staying here for the night. C’mon, get up. If I don’t get out of this car in like five seconds, I am going to start screaming.”

She didn’t wait for Brittany to unbuckle her seatbelt or even open her eyes; she pushed open the car door and all but stumbled onto the asphalt. The heat engulfed her immediately; even at twilight, it had to be almost 90. Santana started to lean against the car, but the metal was too hot, so she stood there, teetering, until Brittany appeared at her side and steadied her with an arm around her waist.

“Britt,” Santana muttered after a moment. “Don’t stand so close. We could get in trouble.” Though there weren’t many other cars in the parking lot, and no other people, at least as far as she could see. Shrugging away from Brittany, she added, “Anyway, it’s too hot.”

Brittany dropped her arm.

“Sorry,” Santana said. “It’s just—”

“No, I get it.”

Santana doubted that, but she bit her lip to stop herself from saying so. It wasn’t just that they could get into trouble if anyone found out they were girlfriends. It wasn’t even that she was hot, sore, and irritable from driving for more than six hours. It had struck her – finally – that she’d done something completely crazy. Which was in character, certainly, but she hadn’t done this alone; she’d dragged Brittany with her. She was in a strange city, over 400 miles from home, with only her Garmin and her dad’s AAA maps for guidance. She was sure she could take care of herself, but she had to take care of Brittany too. Wonderful, trusting, feather-brained Brittany, who would probably follow her blindly around the world.

She felt all wrong in her skin, like someone had unstrung her skeleton, and one wrong step would send her clattering to the ground. She hugged her arms, trying to suppress her shudder.

Don’t freak out, she told herself. Don’t fall apart. C’mon, you’re Santana Fucking Lopez. What lame, touchy-feely thing would Mister Schu say right now? He’d probably tell you to think of a song. Express your feelings through music.

She couldn’t think of anything. She could still feel the car engine’s low rumble in her blood.

She needed to lie down. Or eat something. The pang of hunger had just hit her when Brittany pointed and, sounding surprised and delighted, said, “Look, a Waffle House. They have waffles here! I think we should eat and then go swimming.”

Santana opened her mouth to say something negative – like, Of course they have waffles here or I’m not swimming in some gross motel pool that’s probably full of pee and dead bugs – but Brittany was beaming at her, and clutching her Hello Kitty duffel bag to her chest. She looked hopeful and almost proud – she’d come up with a plan! – so Santana sighed and said, “Sure, Britt. Good idea.”

Brittany looked like she wanted to kiss her, but that would have to wait.

~*~

The pool wasn’t gross. It would never be the highlight of anyone’s vacation – unless their lives were just really pathetic – but there were no dead bugs, or leaves, or mysterious warm spots. Floating on her back in the lukewarm water, her hair spread around her like an aureole, Santana felt exhausted but oddly refreshed.

They’d been smart to go to Waffle House for supper; Nashville’s hash browns were the same as Lima’s, which should have annoyed her, but instead the familiar taste had helped her feel a little less freaked out. So had the sight of Brittany, poring studiously over the brochures they’d grabbed from the motel lobby after checking in. Her pale bangs hid her eyes, but Santana had seen the upturned corner of her mouth.

They were going to be all right, probably. They’d gotten about halfway to their destination, they’d seen some pretty cool things along the way, and nothing really shitty had happened. They hadn’t blown all their money, or broken down on the highway, or been followed by creepy, scary guys. They had a plan for tomorrow. What else did they need?

Santana glanced across the gleaming turquoise water at Brittany, who was still standing at the shallow end. “C’mon, Britt, what’re you doing?” she called. “You’re the one who wanted to come here.”

“I know.”

“Did you forget how to swim?” She said it half-jokingly, but it was a distinct possibility.

“I don’t…” Brittany began hesitantly. Then she tossed her hair, lifted her chin, and flung her arms wide, as if she were about to take a swan dive. Since she was already in the pool up to her pelvis, it ended up being more of a belly flop, but she stayed underwater long enough to miss Santana’s affectionate eye-roll, and when she came up, she was beaming. Her strokes were sure as she made her way over to the deep end. When she got there, she flipped over onto her back, and then she and Santana floated together in silence for a few moments.

Finally, Brittany said in a dreamy tone, “Do you remember when we were mermaids?”

“Huh?”

“When we were six. I wanted to be a mermaid, so I tried swimming with my ankles crossed.”

Santana frowned up at the glass ceiling; she could see her reflection, a dark smudge against a shining surface. “You can’t swim like that.”

“I know. I couldn’t. But I wanted to be a mermaid, so you held me up in the water. Remember?”

“No.”

“Oh.”

Santana almost apologized – although, how was she supposed to remember something that had happened more than ten years ago? Then she felt Brittany’s pinkie link with hers under the water. She almost shouted; they could get in so much trouble—

But then Brittany said, “It’s okay if you don’t remember. It’s still true.” She unlinked her pinkie from Santana’s, and for a few wild seconds afterward, Santana wished that she hadn’t.

~*~

Mercedes!

We went to this karaoke bar last night – Miss Kelly’s or something – and it was pretty cool. Why didn’t we do more country in Glee??? Some of it’s pretty lame, but Britt and me did “That Don’t Impress Me Much” and “Fancy” and “This One’s For the Girls.” WE BROUGHT THE HOUSE DOWN!!!! Dedicated everything to the Troubletones. Nobody got it, but who cares? TROUBLETONES FOREVER!!!!

– Santana

Dear Lord Tubbington,

I’m writing this in code, in case it falls into the wrong hands.

VPERH RH ZOREV!!!! R hzd srn zg gsv Xlfmgib Nfhrx Szoo ly Yznv!!!!!

Santana doesn’t believe me, but I know you will.

DON’T TELL ANYONE.

IT’S A SECRET.

Having a great time!!!!!

I don’t know where we’re going, but I trust Santana. (She invented the code.)

XOXO, Brittany

~*~

After two nights in Nashville, Santana felt ready to hit the road again. This time they only went as far as Birmingham, which Santana picked because she’d actually heard of it. It was even hotter in Alabama, and Santana felt herself starting to wilt the second she stepped out of the car. But Brittany seemed excited. She’d started keeping a list of states they’d been to, and after they checked into their motel, Santana watched her eagerly scribble Alabama onto her notepad with a pink gel pen, muttering the syllables as she wrote.

After she’d finished, she capped her pen and turned to Santana, who was lying on her side in the middle of the king-sized bed. “What now?” she asked.

Santana shrugged. “I dunno. I didn’t really think about what we’d do here. I guess we could try to get on the Wi-Fi and see what’s here. There’s probably a lot of history stuff, but maybe there’s a good place to hang out. And food. We should ask around, see what’s good. I wanna eat something Southern.”

Brittany kicked off her flip-flops and joined Santana on the bed. “Like what?” she asked, wrapping her arms around one of the pillows and hugging it to her chest.

“I dunno. Grits? Okra?”

Brittany made a face.

Santana thought for a moment; she was trying to remember things she’d heard of in movies. She really hadn’t planned this very well. “Fried green tomatoes. In Gone With the Wind, everyone’s all excited about a barbecue.”

“We have barbecues in Lima.”

“I know, but… Maybe it’s different here? I’m just thinking.”

“It’s okay. Whatever you decide to do will be awesome. This trip is already awesome.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re not just saying that ‘cause—?”

“No, I mean it.”

Of course she did; Brittany probably didn’t even know how to tell a lie. In that, she was very different from Santana.

“Hey, Britt?”

“Yeah?”

Santana was quiet for a moment. Brittany watched her patiently. Seconds went by, and Santana felt every one of them like a little kick in the chest. Finally, she exhaled and said, “Nothing.”

Which Brittany accepted without question, although a line appeared between her eyebrows.

“Seriously, it’s nothing.”

“Okay.” Brittany gave her a little closed-mouth smile, and the worry-line disappeared.

“Wanna make out for a while?”

The smile widened, revealing the tips of Brittany’s teeth. “Yeah, okay.”

Santana tugged the pillow away from her gently and dropped it over the side of the bed. When she turned back, Brittany caught her face between her hands and brought their lips together. Her kisses were sweet and unhurried; Santana tasted her warm breath and the remnants of her strawberry lip gloss. She closed her eyes and tried to just be in this moment; she didn’t want to think about anything else.

~*~

For supper, they had pulled pork sandwiches at Dreamland Bar-B-Que, which they washed down with sweet tea. They were almost too full for dessert, but their waiter – who was kind of cute and who said “y’all” a lot, to Brittany’s obvious delight – talked them into sharing a cup of banana pudding, which turned out to be delicious. Afterward, they got into their car and drove about nine miles southwest to Moonlight on the Mountain, for some live music.

The sun was setting when they got there. It had already dropped behind the trees, though shafts of light still pierced through the branches, throwing bars of gold across the asphalt.

“See, I knew you’d think of something awesome,” Brittany said as she walked around the car to join Santana. “You’re awesome.”

Her voice was low, like it was a secret between them, and once again Santana felt that little kick inside her chest. Don’t think about it, she thought. Just have fun. Smile.

She made herself smile. “C’mon.”

~*~

“Welcome to Florida,” Santana said as they drove past the blue-and-white highway sign and crossed the border. Brittany, who’d been waiting, poised, with her notepad open on her knee, quickly uncapped her gel pen and scribbled the name of the state. Santana shook her head and bit her lip to keep from smiling.

After that, they lapsed into silence again, and Santana's smile slowly faded, though she kept nibbling on her bottom lip. As the miles and yellow and white highway lines slipped by, that feeling of unease came back to her. It squirmed inside her. She hunched in her seat, curling and uncurling her fingers around the steering wheel.

Fortunately, Brittany seemed too engrossed in the scenery to notice. There wasn’t much to see – certainly nothing to get excited about – but they were in Florida, so they couldn’t be too far from the ocean, and Britt couldn’t wait for her first glimpse.

She squealed when it finally flashed into view, and clapped her hands like a little girl. “Santana, look! Santana!”

“Yeah, I see it.”

“We’re really here.”

“We’re almost there.”

They turned onto Bayfront Parkway, which curved into the Pensacola Bay Bridge, and Santana heard Brittany choke on a gasp. There was nothing really special about the bridge – it was actually kind of ugly – but the water all around them was a deep, mysterious blue, gold-flecked in the afternoon sunlight.

“Do you think there are sharks? What if we fall in?”

“We’re not going to fall in,” Santana assured her. She wasn’t sure about the sharks.

“Is that where we’re going?” Brittany was pointing at a ribbon of dark green, far ahead.

Santana tried to remember the map, which she’d studied before leaving Birmingham. “Uh, kind of. I mean, yeah, we’re going there, but I think the beach is farther. I think there’s another bridge.”

“Okay.” Brittany sat back and crossed her arms over her chest. “You know,” she said with a sly, sideways glance at Santana, “this has better be good.”

Santana knew she was joking, but she felt something hard and cold roll down her throat and plop into her belly. “What if it isn’t?” She managed to sound teasing, but she was genuinely curious, and worried. What if this turned out to be a colossal fuck-up?

“I don’t know. You’ll make it up to me.”

“Yeah? How?”

Shrug. “I’ll think of something.”

The hard, cold thing moved inside Santana. She swallowed and grasped the steering wheel. “Listen,” she said, then stopped. She’d been about to say, If this doesn’t turn out to be what you’ve been picturing since we left Lima, I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. But she couldn’t, even when Brittany cocked an eyebrow at her.

“Never mind,” Santana said, and kept driving.

~*~

The sand was almost white, and blinding in the late afternoon sun. Turquoise waves fanned the beach, casting tangles of purple seaweed, shell fragments, and tiny pebbles onto the shore. The air smelled like sunscreen and hotdogs. Seagulls screamed and wheeled in the sky overhead. There were people everywhere: sunbathing, eating sandwiches, playing Frisbee, building sandcastles, strutting around in really skimpy bathing suits, bodysurfing…

Santana felt a little overwhelmed – much more so than she’d felt in New York City. But Brittany looked rapturous. There was really no other word for it; Santana could practically see the stars dancing in her dark blue eyes.

“We’re really here.”

“Duh,” Santana said.

“Santana, I—”

But Santana cut her off. “We should find a spot. Maybe near some hot college guys, so they’ll share their beer.”

“Okay.” Brittany sounded ambivalent.

“We don’t have to. We can just, you know, find a spot and … it can be just us. I was just thinking—”

“I like just us,” Brittany said, her voice low and so soft that Santana could barely hear her. “If that’s okay.”

Santana was quiet for a moment. She looked at Brittany, who raised her eyebrows questioningly; then she looked out at the shining water. The foaming crests of the waves were so bright, they hurt her eyes. “Course it’s okay,” she said finally.

~*~

Later, Santana would remember that afternoon as a kaleidoscope whirl of colors and sensations, though certain moments stood out sharply, like black ink on a page: Brittany kneeling in the wet sand and touching the ocean for the first time; clutching Brittany’s arms and feeling Brittany clinging back as a big wave picked them up and tossed them toward shore; Brittany rescuing a white clamshell from the surf, brushing it off with her fingertips, and then handing it to Santana, instructing her to take it with her to college, so she could always hear the ocean when she needed to…

As the sun went down, the sounds of the beach became oddly muted, as if they too were going out with the tide. Santana lay on her side on her beach towel, her cheek resting on her palm, watching the waves and the surfers silhouetted against the coppery light. A breeze slid across her shoulders, making her shiver, but she didn’t reach for her sweatshirt. She didn’t want to move.

Beside her, Brittany was doodling in the sand with a piece of driftwood. Suddenly she turned to Santana and said, “This was the best trip ever. Thank you.”

All of Santana’s doubts roared up inside her and broke, like a wave dashed against some rocks. She looked down at her other hand, resting idly on the towel, sighed, and said heavily, “Britt, I need to tell you something. This … wasn’t just for you. I mean, it was at first, but then … I don’t know.” She stared at her hand. “I wanted it to be all about you, but it kind of became about me. I had to get away. I wanted to put off … leaving.”

“We left.”

“Yeah, that’s not what I meant. I don’t mean Lima. Lima’s pretty much the lamest city in the world and I’m not gonna miss it, except for a few things. Like Glee,” she said with some reluctance. “Mister Schu’s stupid assignments and his stupid words of wisdom. I’ll kind of miss Coach Sylvester. She’s a bitch and all, but so’m I.”

“You’re—”

Santana cut her off. “The Cheerios,” she continued, ticking off each one with a flick of her fingers. “The Troubletones. The Unholy Trinity. My folks. You. Mostly you. I don’t know how to say it. I guess I’m kind of scared.”

Sounding puzzled, Brittany said, “Didn’t you just say it?”

“No. Ugh.” With a groan, Santana rolled onto her belly. Pressing the heels of her palms to her forehead, she grabbed fistfuls of her hair. “It’s like … I’m scared to leave. But this whole thing, this trip, it’s like it hasn’t been real. It’s been great, even the parts where I was kind of crazy, but it’s not real. It’s hiding. It’s pretend. It’s – I don’t even know. You get it, right?”

“I get it,” Brittany said, very softly.

“See, that’s the thing,” Santana wailed. “What am I gonna do, when I’m at college, and I’m going through this crazy, stupid shit, and you’re not there to understand me?”

Brittany was quiet. Santana stared at the sand; through the shadow of her lashes, even miniscule grain seemed to stand out. She was starting to wonder if she should start counting them – just to have something to do – when Brittany spoke. Her voice was still low and neutral, but she spoke with conviction:

“It’ll be okay.”

Santana shook her head and the grains of sand blurred.

“No, it will. You’re going to college and I don’t know what I’m going to do after next year, but it’ll be okay. ‘Cause, whatever happens, we did something cool. We took this trip. We’ll always have it.”

“It won’t be the same.”

“I know. But different is sometimes good. Not always, but sometimes. Anyway, nothing goes away. We’ll always have this.” She kissed Santana’s shoulder.

“Don’t,” Santana muttered. “Someone’ll see.”

“So what? Anyway, no one’s paying attention to us.”

Santana sniffled and forced her head up. “Well, that’s stupid,” she said, shaking out her hair. “We’re like the hottest girls here.”

“I know.”

Santana smiled at her wanly. Then she pushed herself up and gave Brittany’s forehead a quick kiss. “I remember, by the way,” she whispered, her lips so close to Brittany’s face that her breath stirred the pale lashes. “That time when we were mermaids. Of course I remember. Nothing goes away.”

Brittany’s smile was dazzling. Still a little wary, but too warm and tired to care, Santana dropped her head to Brittany’s shoulder. After a few seconds, she felt the familiar weight of Brittany’s head resting against hers.

They lay like that as the sun melted into the sea. Then Brittany said something Santana didn’t quite catch.

“Huh?”

“I said, what are we going to do now?”

Thinking required effort. “Oh, I don’t know. I mean, eventually we should probably find somewhere to eat. And we should find a place to stay.” Eventually. Just then, she didn’t want to move at all.

“No, I mean … tomorrow, do we have to turn around and go back to Lima? I know we got to the end, but I kind of don’t want to.”

“Me neither. Wait, the end of what, Britt?”

“America.”

Santana’s breath hitched, and she felt the burn of tears behind her eyes. But she shook her head and said warmly, “No, we don’t have to turn around and go back. Not yet. There’s time.”

~*~

Hi, Quinn

We might be back before you get this card, but we might not. I don’t know. We’re having fun. Miss you.

XOXOXO, Santana

Dear Lord Tubbington,

If you ever find a Lady Tubbington, I hope she takes you to nice places, and I hope she’s as good to you as Santana is to me.

Love, Brittany

PS. If you find a Lady Tubbington and decide to get married, can I be your Maid of Honor?

 

10/6/2013