“Simpatico, it’s Italian for ‘sympathetic.’ Hearts beating to the same pulse. That’s what music does for one, you know—I mean, for two. For more. It trains hearts to lean in the same direction. Sympathetically.” ― Gregory Maguire, Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker
When Santana accepted the job offer as production stage manager for The Nutcracker, a prestigious and professional production, she didn’t really think that she was going to be thrown right in the deep end; she assumed that the old production stage manager was taking a leave of absence and she would be able to shadow him for a couple days, not that he had been unexpectedly fired on Friday morning and that she would be shadowing the assistant stage manager for two shows on Saturday and running her first one by the Sunday matinee.
And yet, here she is, dodging half dressed dancers and props bigger than she is, only two hours before the matinee, trailing after two blonde women who are frantically talking on their phones, occasionally exchanging them before resuming their frantic conversations. Usually Santana thrives on the organized chaos of a production, but she can do little more than duck under stretching limbs and just try to keep track of the flashes of blonde ahead of her.
It’s not that she’s overwhelmed, per se, she’s done other ballets and she’s done Broadway, she’s done community theatre and she’s done a short stint for an opera, she’s done touring companies and she’s done Off-Broadway, she’s even done a couple other productions of The Nutcracker itself; she’s been working as a stage manager for years, and she’s damn good at her job. It’s just, usually she has weeks or months of rehearsals before a show begins; at the very least, she usually gets to meet the rest of the stage management team before she’s thrown in the deep-end for the first show.
Holly and Quinn, the director and the assistant stage manager, eventually make it to the call desk, a tiny little alcove just off stage right, with monitors on the front of the stage and the pit. There’s a man in a wheelchair already squished in the tiny space, his glasses slipping down his nose, staring intently at the screen and muttering into his headset.
“Artie,” Quinn greets, and the man offers her a half-hearted salute. “Artie,” Quinn repeats, waiting until the man finally glances up before she gestures to Santana, “This is Santana Lopez, the new production stage manager.”
Artie blinks and offers her a grin, reaching over to shake Santana’s hand, almost running over Holly’s foot in the tiny space. “Nice to meet you,” he says, “Your resume is a mile long.”
Santana shrugs as she shakes his hand; it’s a little clammy and she wipes her hand on her black jeans as subtly as she can as leans back. “It kinda has to be to land this job.”
Artie laughs and nods as Holly finally hangs up the phone. “I forgot how frantic this place is outside of rehearsals,” she groans. She rummages around on the tiny desk, much to Artie’s poorly-concealed annoyance as she displaces knickknacks and rearranges papers, until she produces Santana’s new prompt book. She passes it to Santana, who’s fingers are already itching to crack the spine of the binder and start writing her own notes in; Artie hands her a spare pen with a knowing grin. “Today’s show is going to be a little insane,” Holly explains, “But you’ll do fine, sweet cheeks. You have a steep learning curve.” Santana’s not really sure how Holly could possibly know that, seeing as the last time they worked together Santana was still in college and barely an assistant to the assistant stage manager, but she nods anyways. “I’m going to get Quinn to give you the tour while I get ready for the matinee, and then we’ll hole up in the stage manager’s office and go through the show from the screens in there. For the evening show—” Holly’s phone phone rings and cuts her off, and she groans as she answers it, waving Quinn and Santana off towards the vague direction of the rest of the theatre, and they take their cue to leave just as Holly starts getting heated with whatever poor soul is on the other end of the line.
Santana flips through the book as she trails after Quinn, half-listening to her explanations and introductions; it’s second nature to dodge props and racks of costumes and stretching dancers by this point, even in the dimmed lights of backstage, so she keeps most of her attention focused on reading through the calls even though she’s never actually seen the blocking. She inwardly groans, the next couple shows really are going to be absolutely insane.
When Quinn takes a breath in her explanation of the Christmas tree prop and the mechanical issues they’ve been having lately, Santana finally glances up from the prompt book. “So why didn’t they just promote you?” she asks, “Seems like it would have been easier that way.”
Quinn’s head whips around to glare at her. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she snaps.
Santana glances up at Quinn and frowns at the look on her face. “Wow, cool the fires there, Beelzebub. I meant why would they hire someone new when you obviously know the show already.”
“Oh,” Quinn says, and she has the grace to look a little sheepish, “This is only the second production I’ve worked on, and it’s my first big one too. They offered, since I’ve been working with the show since the very beginning, but I’m nowhere near ready to run a production myself, especially something as big as this.”
Santana nods and returns to flipping through the prompt book while Quinn returns to narrate what seems to be the entire history of the theatre. It’s not like Santana’s uninterested in learning about how old this production is, or how they use the original props, or what famous person happened to sneeze right where they’re standing, it’s just priorities; Santana’s supposed to be running this production by tomorrow and she hasn’t even skimmed through the second act in the prompt book. Holly warned her that it would be crazy during her interview, because Holly had to be across the country for a mandated meeting tomorrow morning and would be leaving Santana, who only knew the names of about five people in the entire building, to fend for herself.
It’s not that she doesn’t love a good challenge, it’s just frustrating when her pay-check and reputation hinges on said challenge.
She ducks under a large candy cane swinging towards her head and groans at the thought.
Quinn leads her to the principal hallway, squeezing between stray dancers wandering the tiny hallway. The walls are lined with racks of costumes and wigs, and Santana takes a moment to admire the care put into the costumes; Quinn said that this production has been reusing their costumes from the very first performance, all the way back in 1954, and despite the slightly musty smell clinging to the fabric, they’ve obviously been well cared for. Quinn knocks on a door halfway down the hallway, and Santana quickly snaps out of her admiration to catch up to her. The name on the door reads The Nutcracker/The Prince, and a man Santana already knows well opens the door.
“Santana!” he exclaims, “I didn’t realize you were actually starting already!” Quinn blinks and glances between them, her face a picture of confusion, as Mike pulls Santana into a tight hug.
“You two know each other?” she asks slowly.
Santana rolls her eyes and halfheartedly struggles to escape from Mike’s embrace. “Unfortunately he’s been dating my best friend since college,” she complains as Mike finally releases her, but not before giving her an obnoxious kiss on the crown of her head. Santana swats at him a little but he just continues to grin at her; dating my best friend is an understatement of their relationship, because Santana counts him as one of two people she truly trusts with everything and anything, but it’s not like she’s going to acknowledge that when he’s being irritatingly affectionate just to annoy her.
Quinn’s hazel eyes glow with amusement. “Oh, so you’re the infamous Santana that Tina’s always talking about.”
“All bad things, I promise,” Tina calls from the couch.
“Oh, shut up,” Santana snipes as she turns a withering glare on her. Tina just rolls her eyes, as unfazed by Santana’s snark as she was their first day of college, and continues reading her magazine, her feet propped up on the coffee table.
“Alright,” Quinn says slowly, “Uh, I guess we should go meet Brittany then.”
“She’s not in yet,” Mike says. “She had that appointment, remember?”
“She said she’d be here in time for half hour,” Tina adds.
“Right,” Quinn shrugs and glances at Santana, “I guess you’ll meet her between shows then.”
“I mean, I still don’t know half the stage management team,” Santana says dryly, “One more person won’t make a difference.”
Tina chuckles. “Brittany’s just lucky that she doesn’t have to see your annoying face for a couple hours yet.”
“Get me out of here before we have to send the understudy on,” Santana comments mildly, Quinn grins and leads them out the door.
“Love you, Santana,” Tina and Mike chorus.
“Yeah, whatever,” she grumbles as she pulls the door shut firmly so they don’t see her begrudgingly fond smile; of course, being her best friends, they don’t need to see it to know it’s there.
Quinn weaves through the theatre and points out people that Santana’s sure she’s going to forget about in roughly three seconds. Usually by this point Santana has all the company and crew members memorized, but she’s starting to realize that this entire experience is going to be one stumbling improvisation after another for the first little bit. She meets the conductor, Will Schuester, who Quinn introduces as Schue; Kurt Hummel is the head of costumes and he talks rapid fire as he explains some important quick changes while Santana scribbles down notes in her prompt book; Finn Hudson and Noah “Puck” Puckerman, who leers at her and Quinn while Santana resists the urge to make fun of his nickname, work in props and are running the department while the head, Emma Pillsbury, is out sick; Quinn rolls her eyes when she introduces her to the sound crew and its head, Blaine Anderson, and the sound his voice already sets Santana’s teeth on edge; Unique Adams explains some of the more complicated lighting calls from her booth and Santana adds some more notes into her prompt book; Quinn points out the head of the automaton department, Dave Karofsky, who is busy wrestling with some of the ropes on a fly; Lauren Zizes is the fourth and final member of the stage management team, and she gives Santana a wide smirk and a good luck before turning back to talking to Artie over her headset.
Quinn also introduces her to some of the corps dancers and kids, but she doesn’t pay much attention because she has more important people to memorize before the show starts, like the name of every department head that she’s pretty sure she’s already forgotten.
Quinn hands her a headset with an apologetic glance. “I know it’s pretty overwhelming—”
“I’m not overwhelmed,” Santana protests automatically. Quinn just keeps staring at her blankly. “I’m a little bit whelmed at the most,” Santana finally concedes, and Quinn snorts in amusement.
“This is going to be interesting,” she says as the announcement booms throughout the theatre for half hour.
Santana settles the headset over her ears, and it eases her instantly; there’s a crackle of static as Quinn stands too close, but she quickly takes a couple steps away and then she grins at Santana, her teeth flashing eerie blue in the dim backstage lights. “I usually run stage right while Zizes does stage left, and Artie runs the call desk,” she explains. “I’m not sure where Holly is but—”
“In the stage manager’s office, sweet cheeks,” drawls through their headsets.
Quinn glances at Santana to point her in the right direction, but Santana is already heading that way.
Holly barely pauses in her near constant stream of phone calls to talk to her. It’s been years since Santana last worked with Holly as a director, back when Santana was just an overtired and overworked college student, but if she knows one thing about the older woman it’s that Holly’s practically a professional at improvising on the fly.
Which means she’s barely surprised when Holly explains that her flight got moved up and that Santana will have to learn the entire show from backstage with Quinn instead of from the comfort of the office where Holly could teach her the blocking over the screen pointed at centre stage. Santana’s done The Nutcracker three different times in three different cities, so she knows the show, which only marginally helps her out because every single production has its quirks, and she has absolutely no clue what to expect with this one.
But she tries not to think of that, and instead nods at Holly and adjusts her headset, clutching her prompt book like it’s a life preserver that’s going to keep her from drowning, which, she realizes, is actually fairly apt. She heads out of the hallway of theatre offices to find Quinn backstage, absently listening to her have an argument with that Blaine guy from sound over the headsets until Zizes interrupts with a particularly harsh quip regarding Blaine’s mother and where, exactly, he can stick it, and the argument dies pretty quickly after that. Quinn is pinching her nose when Santana arrives, only a couple minutes before the five minute call. She seems grateful that Santana’s there and pushes her headset off her ear for a brief moment, tugging the mic away from her mouth and waiting until Santana does the same. “The dance captain for the flower corps just called and she’s stuck on the subway in Brooklyn.”
Santana glances around. “Okay?” she says slowly.
“What do we do?”
Santana blinks at Quinn. “I barely know who the fuck any of these people are, what exactly do you expect me to do?”
Quinn rolls her eyes. “This is a you problem, you’re the production stage manager.”
“For like a three minutes,” Santana mutters but flips through the prompt book anyways. “The flower corps don’t come in until the end of the second act,” Santana says slowly, “If she’s not here by intermission we’ll deal with it then.”
Quinn nods and pushes her headset back into place so she can relay the order to Zizes and Artie. Dancers have already started to gather in the wings, doing last minute stretches, and the team of stagehands Santana still hasn’t met yet dart between them for last minute checks. She spots the two lumbering guys from props heading towards the Christmas tree before they’re hidden behind the fly being lowered to the floor, and then the lights are dimming and the announcement to put cellphones away is booming, and the curtain rises as the first strains of the orchestra fill the theatre.
Santana’s thankful that she already has some experience with the show, because otherwise she would be making even less sense of the chaos backstage than she currently is. Santana mostly ignores Quinn, instead focusing on the blocking and comparing it to her prompt book in the dim, but somehow still harsh blue light backstage. Santana finds herself slipping easily into her position, and soon enough she’s adding her own voice to Quinn’s on the headset. Santana’s always had an instinct for stage management from her very first experience in a theatre, for the mechanical, repetitive, and yet still unpredictable nature of the job, and the instinct has served her well over the years, and before she knows it, intermission is starting and Quinn is clapping her on the shoulder with a grin.
Despite the chaos around them and the too warm weight of Quinn’s hand, Santana has a feeling she’s going to really like the challenge of this production; it will keep her busy and distracted, at the very least, which is something she always needs during the month of December.
Santana’s always found the second act of The Nutcracker to be a little boring without the frantic energy of the party and then the battle in the first act, and she feels almost lazy as Quinn helps herd children into place in the wings; they may be tiny professionals, but it’s only the eighth show so far, and the chaos of backstage can be a little overwhelming, especially for the younger dancers. It’s not until Quinn nudges her and points out the Sugar Plum Fairy, giggling and whispering with some kids, that Santana finally notices the presence of third principal. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is always the most interesting to Santana in the second act because the energy of the audience always changes and perks up as soon as that first pluck of the string section drifts through the theatre. Santana creeps closer to the front of the stage as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Brittany, leaves the safe darkness of backstage and emerges into the harsh onstage lights.
The strings pluck the first chord as Brittany enters the stage en pointe, her limbs long and poised with an easy grace, her stiff classic tutu moving easily with her waist as she makes her way to centre stage. On the first note of the celesta, Santana can see the exhilarated smile on Brittany’s face for a split second before she blinks and falls into character even before the second note is ringing out. She moves with the music as if the conductor is pulling on her puppet strings and Santana forgets to concentrate on the blocking and the musical cues in favour of just watching Brittany.
She looks like something off of a ballerina music box, beautiful and delicate, but as she spins across the stage Santana can see the strength and power in her legs, the certain grace and ease in her movements, the concentration and glow in her eyes. Santana’s seen a lot of dancers through her years of stage managing, enough to recognize that spark that differentiates people who dance for a living and for those who live to dance, and Santana can’t help the wide smile spreading across her face as Brittany draws to a stop and the crowd bursts into applause; having that spark in one of the principals is rare, and more than Santana could ever hope for in any production.
She manages to survive both shows with only a little bit of nausea at the thought that she’s supposed to be in charge of the entire production tomorrow; Holly left during intermission of the first show, but Quinn, Zizes, and Artie already work well together, and Santana just needs to find a way to fit herself among them without causing too much friction.
She wanders down the principal hallway, on her way to meet up with Tina before leaving the theatre, when she hears a persistent, loud banging against the wall right beside her. Santana jumps but manages to bite down on her shriek and glances wildly at the wall. The banging pauses for a second before resuming and Santana makes her way to the closest door, poking her head in without knocking; it’s not like anyone would hear her knock over the banging anyways.
She finds the Sugar Plum Fairy, her blonde hair still pinned up but dressed in loose sweats and a baggy sweater, smacking her ballet shoes against the wall with a focus Santana’s rarely seen in anyone, least of all in someone banging their shoe against a wall. Santana clears her throat and Brittany starts a little and quickly glances up.
“Hi,” she grins, giving the shoe one more firm smack against the wall, “You must be Santana.”
Santana swallows the retort on the tip of her tongue when the bluest eyes she’s ever seen land on hers, somehow sparkling even in the poor lighting of the dressing room. She manages a nod as Brittany bends her shoe a little before tossing it onto the coffee table where another shoe, a tiny sewing kit, a hot glue gun, an x-acto knife, and a small pile of resin are scattered. Santana glances at the wall, littered with tiny smudges of pink from Brittany’s banging, and laughs a little, finally realizing why Brittany’s beating the wall with her shoes so violently. “Who knew the Sugar Plum Fairy bangs her own shoes,” she says.
Brittany’s face creases in a smile, thin lips curling up a little lopsided on one side, her cheeks scrunching her blue eyes until they’re catlike and sparkling, and Santana’s chest does this weird spasming, fluttering thing that she tries to ignore. “Well, the Land of Sweets is pretty low on funds,” she says easily.
Santana laughs a little before she steps forward, holding out her hand. “Santana Lopez,” she formally introduces, “Mostly confused, new production stage manager.”
Brittany takes her hand, her fingers sure and strong as they wrap around Santana’s. “Brittany S. Pierce,” she says, “Sugar Plum Fairy and professional shoe banger.” Brittany’s nose wrinkles adorably as she realizes what she just said. “Ew, not like that.”
Santana giggles and only briefly wonders at how easily Brittany coaxed that sound out of her; usually it’s only Tina and Mike that make her comfortable enough to giggle instead of smirk, and that’s mostly because she’s known them for far too long, but there’s something easy about Brittany’s smile that already makes her drop her guard a little bit. “That wouldn’t even be the weirdest thing I’ve seen someone in the company bang,” Santana whispers.
Brittany’s eyes widen comically and she leans forwards eagerly. “Seen?” she exclaims.
Santana shudders, suddenly regretting that she brought it up when the image burned into her memory starts replaying for her. “Unfortunately.”
Brittany giggles and clasps her hands together, rocking backwards on her heels. “Like a train wreck, right?” she asks knowingly.
Santana blinks out of the memory, focusing on the much more pleasing image of Brittany’s sparkling eyes. “Definitely.”
Brittany laughs a little, relaxing again, and there’s a small lull that would normally make Santana fidget with her hands, but Brittany just smiles softly at her and Santana finds herself smiling in return. “So, are you ready for the shows tomorrow?” Brittany finally asks, her voice quiet and warm.
Santana shrugs. “They’re going to be,” she pauses and glances up at the ceiling as she thinks of the right word, “interesting, to say the least.”
The fingers of Brittany’s right hand twitch towards her arm, but freeze a moment later and drop back to her side. Santana wonders what it would feel like to have those clever fingers grazing over her skin, but manages to snap out of her daydreaming with only a little bit of heat in her checks when Brittany speaks again. “I’m sure you’ll do great,” she says easily, “I was talking to Quinn after the show and she was saying that you were a quick study.”
Santana blinks. “Really?” she wonders. It’s not that she thought Quinn would hate her or anything, but, in Santana’s experience, shoving a new person into the production this late always ends up having issues; when sometimes she covers for other stage managers there’s almost always a little bit of tension as everyone tries to adjust to each other.
Brittany nods easily, a small smile curling her lips. “She said that you fit in really well.”
“Well, that’s a relief. I was so worried that everyone would hate me or something,” Santana says, before blinking in surprise. She hadn’t meant to admit that, she’s barely talked about her reservations regarding this job with Tina or Mike, yet somehow Brittany is on the receiving end of Santana’s sudden lack of a filter. “Um, you were amazing tonight, by the way,” she redirects quickly.
Pink blooms in splotches across the peak of Brittany’s cheeks despite the fact that Santana knows that this can’t be the first compliment that Brittany’s ever got. “Thanks,” she mumbles bashfully, and something in Santana’s chest twists when she realizes she really wants to see that blush again, and she’s about to go about doing just that when a voice interrupts them from the door.
Brittany and Santana both turn to the door, finding Tina smirking from the doorway. Santana feels her face heat up for absolutely no reason as Tina’s eyes dart between her and Brittany. “I thought I heard you in here,” she explains, “I see you’ve finally met Brittany.”
Brittany brightens a little. “Your battle scene was great today,” she greets, “Sam said you actually nailed him in the eye.”
Tina laughs, her face opening and brightening at the compliment. “I threw it weird and didn’t even think I would hit him, but he slipped on his turn and instead of missing him I got him right in the face.”
Brittany grins. “Mike said it was glorious.”
Tina chuckles before glancing at Santana. “You coming? Mike’s already impatiently opened a bottle of wine at home to celebrate your first day.”
Santana hesitates. “There’s two shows tomorrow,” she protests weakly, “And I’ve gotta go through the prompt book a couple more times.”
“The matinee’s not until one,” Tina says easily, more than used to having to drag Santana away from her work.
Brittany glances back and forth between the two friends before settling her eyes on Santana, and the warmth in Brittany’s gaze makes that thing spasm in her chest again. “You only have one first day,” she says wisely.
Santana sighs and glances between the two. “Fine,” she mutters. Tina cheers from the doorway, but Brittany just gives her a quiet smile.
“Have fun,” Brittany says.
Santana sucks in a sharp breath through her nose before offering Brittany a small smile in return. “Thanks,” she murmurs, “See you tomorrow.”
Brittany waves her goodbyes to them as Tina drags her out of the dressing room, marching Santana to the stage manager’s office so they can collect Santana’s jacket and prompt book before she can change her mind and insist on going back to her apartment without celebratory drinks. Tina’s lucky enough to have a good parking space in the building’s parkade, being a principal and all, and they head to the elevators that will take them to the parking level in comfortable silence.
“So what do you think?” Tina says as she starts her car and backs out of her parking space. “How do you think it will go?”
“It’s going to be challenging,” Santana admits, “But, interesting, I think.”
“Yeah,” Santana bites her lip but once she realizes Tina is sufficiently distracted by watching traffic for her chance to pull out of the parkade her reluctance fades, “I have a good feeling about this show.”
Tina apparently wasn’t distracted as Santana thought she was and glances at Santana out of the corner of her eyes, her eyes curious and intrigued in the brightness of the streetlights and taillights around them. “Really? I haven’t heard you say that about a show in years,” she says carefully.
Blue eyes and a soft smile come unbidden to her mind, and Santana’s thankful for the darkness because it hides the blush she can feel creeping along her cheeks and the back of her neck. “Yeah,” she finally says, “I have a really good feeling about it.”