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It’s her father who cries.

Santana’s not sure why she’s surprised--she is, after all, her mother’s daughter, and her tendency to jump to anger is certainly inherited. In the terrified montage of possibilities that flickered through her mind in the passenger seat of Coach Sylvester’s car, she’d imagined the weeping as her mother’s job, stoic silence for her father; she can see, now, how stupid that was. Her father watches the tape with his eyes wide and over-bright, and her mother snarls at the screen, fingers clenching to fists against her thighs.

“We’ll sue,” she says, “libel, of course, and--”

“It’s not libel,” Santana says, whispers, curled as tight as she can around herself, knees held to her chest, and no one looks at her; no one even tries. She doesn’t realize til later what a luxury that is--the absence of the eyes of others, weighing her out, sizing her up. In that moment it’s just rejection, sharp and cold, and she trains her own eyes to the floor, doesn’t say anything else.

(Her mother does cry, eventually, after the ad airs, after the phone starts ringing and doesn’t stop, after Burt Hummel’s paused on his way out the door and put a hand on her shoulder, said, “Don’t let anyone else tell you who to be,” like that’s so easy, like she’s got any choice. Santana hides in her room and can hear the sobs cut into her mother’s voice, mixed with the rapid-fire Spanish she suddenly wishes she herself didn’t speak; it might be better, she thinks, if she’d been spared understanding the words that mean guilt and blame and fault.)

--

The worst part, as it turns out, isn’t the fact that everyone knows; the worst part is the fact that everyone cares. The Columbus Dispatch runs an op-ed piece on dirty campaign tactics, Santana’s photo front and center; a columnist for the Plain Dealer picks up the story and runs with it, talks about the violation and the invasion of privacy in the same breath that it mentions her name. It’s a human interest angle, a story with legs, and even the voices of support are deafening, demanding, want her front and center, and it rages like a wildfire, sparks a debate on campaign tactics, on how far is too far, shows up briefly on the national news. Santana’s three weeks past eighteen, no longer a minor, so she’s got no way to stop them running with it, no legal recourse to turn to for some form of anonymity.

She fingers the newspaper clippings with shaking fingers, locked in her bedroom for the third night running, and thinks about fierce pride she’d felt at being old enough to buy her own cigars. It, too, feels like betrayal.

--

“Santana,” Finn says, a week afterwards, slack-jawed and shell-shocked in the middle of the hallway, and Santana hates him, she hates him, she hates him. “I’m so--”

“Let me break this down for you,” Santana says, aware that the whole school has stopped to stare, beginning to recognize that from now on, someone will always be staring. “Since I know your higher brain functions aren’t always good at engaging, I’m gonna talk slow, make it real clear: speak to me again, ever, and I will sew your mouth shut.”

Finn blinks, takes a step back, and Santana would wish harm on him, would burn to see him suffer as she’s suffering, but she can’t. She can’t, because Finn Hudson will always be the stupid straight boy who didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, but she will always be the lesbian cheerleader from Lima Heights; there’s not comparable punishment, nothing she can do or say to make him go through it, too.

“Good boy,” she sneers, when he doesn’t speak. She relishes the victory as she turns, feels it go cold and hollow when the crowd around them hastily attempts to disperse.

She stalks away and her back’s as straight as it’s ever been, head held high, and she hears the whispers but she doesn’t stop, doesn’t turn around. There’s a sad, dilapidated news van sitting out in front of the school, just the one, hoping to get a spot of her to fill in the gaps between Sue’s Corner and whatever else is passing for news in this town this week; she goes up to the roof instead of dealing with it, pulls a pack of Black & Milds out of her backpack, lights up.

It’s Blaine Anderson who finds her, buttoned up and groomed to the nines, an expression on his face that’s too familiar for comfort. He doesn’t say a word, just sits down next to her and bows his head, and when Santana’s eyes start to sting, she knows it’s not from the smoke.

--

Three weeks later, she gets off the bus on the way back from an away game, slips into the bathroom of a Speedway in Galion to wash her face. When she comes out, Brittany’s in the candy aisle, trying to decide between a Twix bar and a bag of Skittles; Santana lets herself smile, encourages her to pick Junior Mints instead. They’re both still in uniform, since they never bother to change after their games, and, for a second, things feel normal.

They’re in line to check out when another customer--white guy, maybe 35, Bengal’s t-shirt, a six-pack in his hand--looks her up and down and grins.

“You’re her,” he says, “aren’t you? That dyke cheerleader, oh, man, you’re even hotter in person--hey, is this your little lesbo friend? C’mon, give us a show.”

And Santana’s traded on viciousness her whole life, knows it inside and out, has built a good half of herself on it, if she’s honest; there are a thousand things she could say here, and not one of them would erase the uncomprehending shock on Brittany’s face, the fear and shame burning in her own stomach. There’s nothing she can do to erase the reality of this, and this is her reality now: an hour’s drive west of Lima and she’s still the dyke at the top of the pyramid. She runs for the bus, Brittany’s hand in hers, candy abandoned on the counter.

She drops her uniform on Coach Sylvester’s desk the next morning, tries to pretend it’s a choice.

--

Brittany comes with her to the salon, holds her hand as the hairdresser, a short, tattooed woman with closely cropped curls, shears the ponytail from the back of her head. Santana knows it’s stupid, the way her mouth quivers when the woman hands her the hair she’s been growing out since she was twelve, but she can’t help it; she doesn’t want to do this, but she can’t think of a more effective way to hide. She looks at Brittany’s face instead of the mirror as she’s given a choppy sort of bob, granted heavy bangs that cover her eyes.

“Oh, honey, it’s not always like this,” the hairdresser says, when Santana breaks and makes a humiliating little sound under her breath. There’s pity in the woman’s voice, but something else, too, a solidarity that smarts and stings.

Santana wants to believe her, but can’t; the way she lowers her voice, looks over her shoulder as she says it, is more telling than words could ever be.

--

She sits for the SATs a second time, wearing a heavy sweatshirt that conceals the shape of her body, hopes the combination of the haircut and the fabric will save her from recognition. It almost works; the other students ignore her, but the proctor who hands over her scantron looks shocked, just for a second, before he schools his expression into something more neutral.

“The testing period is three hours,” he says, and Santana nods at him and finds an empty desk.

Her scores had been fine the first time, good enough that she hadn’t worried about it; she’d figured she’d go to whichever school accepted her, or not, whatever. It hadn’t been at the front of her mind--worst case scenario, it wasn’t like she couldn’t work for a year and then figure it out. She’s never shared Quinn’s desperate need for escape or Rachel Berry’s blind ambition; Santana has always operated as best she could in the moment presented to her, figured out her next move on the fly.

But now...now she needs to leave this town like she needs to breathe, can’t imagine a minute longer in this godforsaken place, where everyone knows her name, her face, who and what she likes. She needs scholarships and acceptance letters, the kind of scores that will make her a wanted commodity--because, as it turns out, everything’s a commodity, and Santana needs something to trade on.

She takes the full three hours, agonizes over each question, tries like she’s never tried in her life. When the proctor comes to collect her work, she doesn’t meet his eyes.

--

She gets offered a full ride to Ohio University, the same full ride they offer every in-state resident with a high enough test score. NYU offers her room and board, and UCLA doesn’t offer her shit, puts her on the waiting list and tells her they’ll let her know. She argues about it with her parents over leftovers, the same dark tone hanging over the discussion that hangs over everything, now; Santana has an earlier curfew than she did freshman year, can’t have friends over without leaving her door open, has screaming fights with her mother over things that don’t matter at all. Her father won’t speak to Brittany when she comes by, jaw tightening when she says hello, and Santana burns with humiliation every time at the hurt on her face.

“Well, obviously you’ll go to OU,” her father says, like it’s a foregone conclusion. “You can’t turn down that kind of money.”

“I want to get out of the state,” Santana says, and her mother sighs.

“Yes, we know,” she says, “but it’s not practical, so that’s the end of it. We can’t afford the tuition at NYU, you know that.”

“I could get loans,” Santana says, and her mother narrows her eyes, stabs at her pasta salad a little too hard.

“If you think I’m going to co-sign a loan for you to move to New York City,” she says, “and do god knows what with god knows who--”

“Theresa,” her father says, and her mother visibly bites back the rest of that sentence, takes a pointed sip of her water. It doesn’t matter, not really; Santana knows what she would have said, the same way she knows the discussion is over.

--

She and Brittany find Kurt and Blaine at senior prom, sit awkwardly around one of the empty tables together, all of them staring at their hands. Santana remembers what happened to Kurt last year, remembers herself weeping for her own loss in an abandoned classroom; she wonders, now, if she wasn’t crying at the violence of it, a premonition or something like it.

“You guys wanna get out of here?” Brittany says, and they all agree so readily that they drown one another out.

They go to Blaine’s house, because Blaine’s parents are oddly checked out in regards to what goes on behind closed adolescent doors. Santana makes Kurt pull off at the seedy Shell station on Washington Street, where the guy behind the counter never cards. She buys Colonial Club vodka and a four dollar bottle of white zin, and she, Brittany and Blaine get quietly trashed in Blaine’s bedroom while Kurt sips at a glass of Coke.

“Why don’t you drink, Kurt?” Brittany says, a couple shots in. The vodka tastes like nail polish remover, but it’s doing the job; Santana’s world is already going fuzzy around the edges. “It’s, like, the most fun ever.”

Kurt shrugs and rolls his eyes a little, offers her a sliver of a grin. “I’m a control freak?”

“No you’re not,” Blaine says, head in Kurt’s lap, grinning up at him like the sun shines out of his painfully sober ass, and yeah, maybe Santana’s a little drunk. “You’re just, uh--”

“Neurotic?”

“I was gonna say ‘particular,’” Blaine says. “Neurotic sounds all mean and bad and...stuff.”

“Maybe I’ve just got an appalling lightweight for a boyfriend,” Kurt says, teasing, hand skittering up to stroke through Blaine’s hair. “Did you consider that?”

“Yes,” Blaine says happily. “Yes I did.”

And Santana wants to cry, suddenly, because Brittany’s head is warm on her shoulder and she’s always been a weepy drunk, because everything’s going to change and nothing is, because it’s her prom night and she’s hiding from it and yet, somehow, she feels more like herself than she has in months. She runs a hand over Brittany’s thigh and thinks about sweet lady kisses, the way they haven’t been sweet this year but stolen, and doesn’t know what to do or say at all.

It’s another few minutes or so before Kurt and Blaine go downstairs to get something, before Brittany sits up and runs her fingers through Santana’s shorter hair, presses their mouths together like she’s looking for something. And Santana doesn’t know how to give it to her, but she kisses back with a desperation the burns in her chest, cups one of Brittany’s impossible, perfect breasts with one hand and doesn’t, doesn’t fall apart.

--

They break up in August, because Britt’s going to Arizona and Santana’s going to Athens, because they can’t go out and they can’t stay in, because it’s not fair and it’s never been fair, because there aren’t really other options. They both cry--Brittany during, Santana after--and it feels like the end of the world, even though, of course, it’s not.

Santana’s been to the end of the world, after all. She knows it when she sees it, black and white on the op-ed pages of the newspaper, still sitting caught on tape in her parent’s living room, a beacon of everything that’s happened that no one can bear to touch.

--

Santana’s housing assignment is based entirely on her scholarship; in a stroke of luck, her randomly assigned roommate is from Baltimore, has never heard of her before. Her name is Judy and she’s here for the Scripps School, consented to Ohio in exchange for one of the best journalism programs in the country. Santana comes out to her on the third day, because she might as well get it over with--she’s surprised at how powerful she feels, doing it on her own terms.

She’s even more surprised when Judy says, “Yeah, okay, that’s cool. You want to watch Law and Order?”

She’s not so lucky elsewhere. There’s a boy in her freshman comp class who leers at her, throws her the shocker, a girl who stops dead in her tracks in the middle of Court Street and stares. Santana has long since learned to duck her head and ignore it; in a new city, brick roads rough under the soles of her shoes, she relearns to narrow her eyes and stare back. She tells the boy in her comp class to grow a pair or die trying, flips the girl on Court her middle finger and walks on.

It’s the middle of fall quarter when she’s approached by a boy in her Statistics course, broad shoulders and a bar piercing in his left ear, a little bit of a belly protruding from the front of his sweatshirt. She’s caught him looking at her a couple of times, hasn’t ever been able to tell the intent behind it; she squares herself for a fight when he stops her outside Ellis Hall and offers her a smile.

“What do you want?” she says, and his smile doesn’t flicker at all.

“I’m Terry,” he says, “and I, uh, I’m from Westerville? And, well, I know what happened last year, and I just wanted to...there’s a group that meets on Wednesdays, sort of an gay straight alliance type thing, only a little heavier on the gay.”

“Do you want a medal or what?” Santana says, and Terry’s smile’s still there, just a little sadder, more knowing.

“I wanted to invite you,” he says. “To come, if you want to.”

“Is this what you do, then?” Santana says, raising her eyebrows. “Stop people on the street and try to recruit them? Who says I even want to join your little club?”

“Uh,” Terry says, looking a little taken aback, “no one, I just thought--”

“Well, think again,” Santana snarls, and she walks away from him, doesn’t feel safe until she’s in her dorm room, door shut behind her.

She tells Judy about it, later; they’re friends now, bound by the kind of closeness that springs up when you’ve spent a month and a half sharing a mini-fridge and fighting over the thermostat. Judy cocks her head, considering, before she puts down the textbook she’s reading and sighs.

“Yeah, well, that was kind of a dick thing of him to do out of nowhere like that, no question,” she says, “but, I mean, maybe you go and check it out? Worst case scenario, you don’t like it, you leave.”

“Or someone tars and feathers me,” Santana says, a joke that comes out a little too harsh. “Or, look, I’m not saying the idea of meeting some girls doesn’t appeal, but--”

“Do you want me to come with you?” Judy says. “As like, I don’t know, the token straight friend or whatever? Someone to shout ‘No, wait, I totally suck dick’ in the event of a structural collapse? Because I’m not doing anything Wednesday night.”

“Except stealing my Sun Chips,” Santana says, and Judy rolls her eyes.

“I can steal your Sun Chips whenever. It’s not like you hide them or anything. Seriously, I think you should do this! If it sucks, we’ll go scare the stoners behind the art building again, that was fun last time.”

“I do like the way they cough,” Santana agrees, and somehow that becomes her and Judy on a street corner Wednesday night, staring at the crowd of smokers hanging around a small, unassuming building that’s lit up from the inside out. Santana’s palms are sweating, which is ridiculous; it’s not like this is anything to be nervous about, not compared to some of the shit she’s weathered.

“It’ll be fine,” Judy says, soothing. “Seriously. And if it’s not, we’ve got a foolproof plan.”

“Shouting out the rules from the ALA Handbook and running isn’t a foolproof plan, Judes,” Santana says. “It’s not even really a plan.”

“Yeah, but it might get me extra credit,” Judy says. “A for effort or whatever, now come on.”

She grabs Santana’s arm and tugs a little, just enough to pull her out into the road; then she lets go, lets Santana set the pace. It’s maybe the hardest walk of her life, across the street that switches from asphalt to brick as she jaywalks, through the crowd of smokers and up the stairs; she steels herself for...for something, some reaction, but there’s nothing. No one even gives her a second glance, and when she gets inside there are people standing in clusters, sprawled across the armchairs and couches and pillows that fill the room. She’s surprised, a little, by how...balanced, she guesses, a crowd it is. There are a few guys who remind her of Kurt, fashion-wise, a few girls that look like Shane from that show Blaine told her to watch, but everyone else looks like--well, like anyone else, really. It occurs to her, camped out on the couch next to Judy, that this one room contains ten times as many queer people as she’s met in her whole life.

She feels herself relax a little, and then a little more; by the time introductions are done she’s smiling, laughing. She goes every Wednesday, after that.

--

Her mother sets her up on a date over winter break, and she goes to avoid the fight; the guy winces when he picks her up, is silent on the drive to Breadstix.

“So you know, then,” she says, when they pull into the parking lot.

“Yeah,” he says. “Uh, sorry.”

“Oh, save it,” Santana says. “It’s not like it’s your fault.”

They eat dinner together anyway, because they might as well. When she gets home, Santana marches up to her parent’s bedroom, flings the door open, and snaps, “You can’t fucking cure me, how long is it going to take you to get that?”

She spends the rest of the break sleeping on the Hummel’s couch, utterly without options. Finn’s only home for three of the days she’s staying there, and he looks horrified when they cross paths; she smiles at him, sharp-edged, and bats her eyelashes.

“Are you proud of yourself?” she says. “Are you, Finn?”

“No,” he says, and he sounds wrecked by it. “Of course not.”

Good,” she snarls, and if she takes a little pleasure in the way he winces away from her, well, so what. She’s earned it.

--

Santana...well. Santana lives her life.

She takes the first film class by accident, a humanities credit more appealing than creative writing or the sociology class her advisor suggested absently. She takes the second film class to see if it was a fluke, the white-hot spark of passion in her chest; when she discovers it wasn’t, she declares it as major, signs up for everything she can, sucks up to the right professors and talks down to anyone who gets in her way. She falls in with a group of kids whose commitment reminds her of her own, starts working with them in her spare time; the first time she sees the words “Director of Photography: Santana Lopez,” scrawled into the credits at the end of a four minute film, she feels something slot into place in her chest, solid and more real than anything she’s experienced in years.

“You’re great,” Judy says, in their sophomore year dorm room, bigger and better located than the closet they’d lived in as freshmen. “Seriously, you’re really talented.”

“I know,” Santana says, and finds it’s not an empty boast. She is, in fact, good at this--startling good, even. She’s got an eye for aesthetics, always has; she’s got a flair for the dramatic, even if she’d rather be behind the scenes, now. There’s something peaceful and perfect and...not easy, exactly, but certainly instinctive, in shooting a scene exactly as it wants to be shot, and Santana’s addicted, doesn’t ever intend to stop.

She dates, on and off, tumbles in and out of relationships, of friendships, of confusing combinations of the two that she can’t quite follow. She falls in love once, her junior year, a funny, blond girl who leaves her for Stanford Law; she almost falls in love twice more, once as a sophomore and once as a senior, with wildly different women whose only common trait is their lack of interest in commitment. Santana, as it turns out, doesn’t really like casual sex after all--it doesn’t stop her from having it, of course, but it leaves her unfulfilled, aching, every time.

She and Judy live together for two years, bound, in the end, by far more than just a random housing assignment. When junior year rolls around and they’re allowed to move off-campus, Santana rents a house with half of her film group, and Judy moves in with her boyfriend and two of their friends. It becomes increasingly clear, over coffee and late-night movie marathons, over split bottles of wine and their respective 21st birthday parties, that Judy and Jeff are the real thing, will probably be married within the next few years. It becomes impossibly clear when Jeff comes to her senior year and asks her help with his proposal, says that Santana’s the best friend Judy’s ever had and he wouldn’t dream of planning this without her.

It’s strange, watching it happen, the surprise on Judy’s face melting away to honest, genuine joy. Santana is...happy for her, startlingly so, full-up with it, hugs her with tears in her eyes when Judy whoops out the words “Maid of Honor.” She’s happy for her, but there’s something else, too; not quite jealously, but resignation, maybe, or something like it.

“Well, yeah, duh,” Luce, a dark-eyed, punk-rock sophomore, tells her that Wednesday night. “Wedding shit’s kind of a drag if you can’t, like, have your own or whatever.”

“Shut up and smoke, Luce, god,” Santana says, rolling here eyes, but she knows there’s truth in that, buried somewhere deep down.

--

They graduate; Santana’s father cries, pride this time, and her mother parades her around Athens like she’s some kind of celebrity. Her grandmother, as expected, doesn’t come down, doesn’t even call, and for all Santana knew that would happen, it still smarts. She swallows it, lets herself enjoy the day, the night, a barcrawl with Judy and Jeff and her film crew, the Wednesday night gang, these people who have become family in their own right. Always a weepy drunk, she hangs over Judy’s shoulder and promises, tearfully, that they’ll be friends forever, and Judy laughs, rolls her eyes, says Of course we will like it’s a foregone conclusion.

The weight of it all doesn’t hit her until a week later, in her old bedroom in Lima Heights, packing boxes with a glass of wine at two in the morning. She’s moving to Los Angeles in three days, an internship she clawed and scratched her way into getting, and she feels the finality of it all crashing over her, sick-sharp and breathtaking. There’s dust everywhere in this room, crusting over the pieces of her life that had seemed so important to her at eighteen; at the back of a drawer, she finds a photograph of the New Directions before everything went wrong, and surprises herself by sobbing over it, choking on air.

She calls Brittany that night, the first time in months, dials the number without even thinking about it. Britt answers, sounding sleep-mussed but concerned, and there’s a man’s voice in the background; Santana grits her teeth at that, closes her eyes, takes a breath.

“I just,” she says, “I was cleaning out my old bedroom, and I wanted to...say hi.”

“Hi,” Brittany says, her voice soft and sad, because Brittany’s never been brilliant, but she’s never been stupid, either. She knows a goodbye when she stumbles on one.

--

Los Angeles is incredible and awful and terrifying by turns; Santana lives in a shitty apartment with three absolute strangers, one of whom is, very clearly, trying to sleep with her. Santana tells him no once, twice, three times before she snaps and snarls at him--“I’m a lesbian, you fuckhead, how much clearer do I have to make it? You want me to tattoo it on your forehead or what?”

“Just trying to have a little fun, Jesus,” he says, rolling his eyes, still standing too close, “you don’t have to be such a bitch about it,” and Santana knees him in the balls, moves out the next week.

She’s good at her job, gets better with every week, impresses her superiors, gets hired on properly when her internship is over. It’s not Director of Photography, but Santana knows it will be, eventually, if she’s willing to put in the effort; she minds the cues and the lighting, does her job and thinks about how she’d do everyone else’s besides, throws herself into it with the same vivacious viciousness she’s always traded on. She calls home once a week, gossiping with her mother in rapid-fire Spanish and rolling her eyes at her father’s lame jokes; six months in, Theresa takes a deep breath and says, “So, have you met any nice girls, corazon?”

“I almost cried, how fucking stupid is that,” Santana tells Mercedes over lunch the next day. It’s nice, getting to spend time with her again; Mercedes has been in LA three years, transferred to UCLA from the Conservatory of Music at UC when she was offered a record deal. She’s not huge, yet, the kind of underground name that keeps getting bigger, and Santana knows that one of these days, she’ll be too big a deal for this sort of thing.

Not yet, though; now, she spears a chunk of apple on her fork and brandishes it at Santana, rolls her eyes. “How long have I known you? Don’t play that shit with me--you know it’s not stupid, I know it’s not stupid. If we’re here to talk about your feelings, you’d better get on with it, I don’t have all day.”

“Jeez, once a diva, always a diva,” Santana says, a deflection as much as anything else, and Mercedes glares at her for a second before she gives in and laughs.

“At least I own it,” she says. “Did you hear Rachel Berry’s going to be in an off-Broadway show?”

“You mean, did I get the Facebook invite, the Twitter message, and the embossed printed invite with her face plastered all over it, yeah, I heard,” Santana says, rolling her eyes. “Do you think she even knows she’s ridiculous?”

“Hey, power to her,” Mercedes says, shrugging a shoulder. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, girl is crazy, but she owns who she is, you know? I can get behind that.”

“Is that like your message today or something?” Santana says. “Lunch, brought to you by the letter A and the number ‘Own it’?”

Mercedes laughs, even as she raises her hand in the air and snaps her fingers for the check. At a table a few rows over, people are whispering, casting furtive glances in their direction, and Santana knows Mercedes knows; she seems pleased with the attention, for all it makes Santana herself a little uncomfortable, even now. She’s long since fallen out of the public’s memory, has ceased, through the aid of time and age and distance, to be the dyke at the top of the pyramid, but some days she can’t help but get nervous, skittish, all too aware that the world can fall in without any warning at all.

“So,” Mercedes says, “have you met any nice girls?” and Santana pulls herself out of it, shakes her head, smiles.

--

Santana meets her nice girl three years later, entirely by mistake. She’s on location for a shoot in New York, her first time DPing for a big budget film, and it’s exhausting and exhilarating and utterly, incandescently brilliant. She knows she’s ridiculously lucky, that no one her age is getting these kinds of opportunities, that the stars have aligned or some shit like that; she doesn’t intend to let it go to waste. She works her ass off, tries like she’s never tried in her life, and when the producer sidles up to her and says, “I want to work with you again, Lopez; if you’re willing to talk moving to the east coast, I’m willing to talk some big numbers,” she has to lock herself in a bathroom stall and breathe through the ecstasy until it’s manageable.

She lets Kurt and Blaine--still together despite ridiculous odds, living in a refurbished firehouse in Brooklyn, kept in touch with her mostly out of a fierce, unwavering determination on Blaine’s part--drag her out to a karaoke bar in celebration. She swears that she isn’t going to sing, and Kurt rolls his eyes and orders her another martini; three drinks later she’s onstage, belting out “Material Girl,” like she’s seventeen all over again. It’s a rush, getting attention she actually wants, the hoots and hollers, the way Blaine screams out “Encore!” with all the drunken grace he can muster.

At least, it’s a rush until she steps off of the stage, and is met with a guy who reminds her far too much of high school.

“Pretty good song,” he says, eyeing her up and down. “You wanna get out of here?”

Seriously,” Santana says, eyebrows going up, “that’s the best you can do? Really? Honey, that is just sad, I mean, I know it’s not your fault that you look like you were dropped on your nose as a baby, but you’d think you’d’ve at least learned to compensate a little with basic manners--hey, jackass, my face is up here.”

“Spicy, aren’t you?” the guy says, and Santana narrows her eyes, feels her blood boil, says, “Gay, actually, thanks, but I could see how you’d think a little racism would seal the deal for you, you brain-dead ignorant shit stain,” and turns to walk away.

When he grabs her by the arm...well. That’s where it all goes a little wrong. Santana is, as an adult, far more in control of her tendency towards rage than she had been as a teenager; she’d tried to walk away because she’d known the alternative would be unpleasant. But this asshole is sneering at her like he owns her, and his grip on her arm makes her skin crawl, and she’s never been stupid--she’s been fighting since she was old enough to walk, taking self-defense classes since she was old enough to watch the world fall apart, and this fuckwit is asking for it.

She elbows him twice, once in the solar plexus and once in tender spot above his ribcage, wrenches her arm from his grip and punches him in the nose for good measure. She knows she’s saying something, is pretty sure it’s Spanish, which--she thinks distantly--is probably for the best; god only knows how much whatever it is would egg him on, assuming he could understand it.

“You fucking cunt,” he snarls, blood on his lip, and Santana smiles prettily at him, spreads her arms in a wordless What are you going to do?

Which is stupid, she knows. She knows it’s stupid. He’s got ten inches and a hundred pounds on her, and one of these days, she’s going to get angry enough to get herself killed, or worse.

“Is there a problem here?” someone says; Santana turns and there’s a woman standing next to her, arms crossed, with a huge bouncer at her shoulder. “Because if there is, my friend here is going to make it worse very quickly. Move along, asshole.”

The man’s eyes flick from Santana to the stranger and then land, nervously, on the bouncer; after a second he swallows and swears under his breath, grabs his coat and heads for the door. Santana lets out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding, becomes suddenly, sharply aware of all the eyes on her. It’s not a comfortable feeling--it’s a feeling she knows all too well--and she waves a dismissal to Kurt and Blaine’s horrified expressions, wanting nothing more than to avoid talking about it.

“Thank you,” she says, voice low, sincere, to the woman who’d interrupted. “I’d like to say I could’ve handled that, but....”

“You looked like you were handling it pretty well, actually,” the woman says; she’s got dark hair, glossy and cut short, one huge bang sweeping over the left side of her face. Her skin is a few shades darker than Santana’s own, a warm, rich tone that pulls the breath from her lungs, and when she smiles Santana’s almost bowled over by the urge to lean over and taste the curve of her lips, see if they feel as strikingly gorgeous as the expression. “Sounded like it, too--haven’t heard anyone work that kind of abuse in my native tongue in years, very impressive. You want a drink? You look like you could use one.”

“I,” Santana says, and then, “right, uh. A drink. Yeah, that’d be...perfect. Thank you.”

Her name is Tai and she’s an artist, points ruefully to the charcoal stains on her palms as she explains; it’s her sister’s bar, but she works here sometimes when they’re short a shift, says “The things you do for family,” but her tone is warm. Her mother’s Colombian--the Spanish explained--and her father was born and raised in Brooklyn, though they’re both professors at the University of Michigan, now, teaching Statistics and African-American literature, respectively. This prompts a two minute Ohio State/Michigan argument without any heat behind it, which slides into how Santana ended up in New York via Lima Heights and Los Angeles, and the conversation flows so naturally that Santana doesn’t realize an hour’s passed until Blaine taps her on the shoulder.

“Hi!” he says brightly, and Santana bites down on a smile at the clear He’s trashed, I’m sorry, written on Kurt’s face. “We’re going to another bar! Because bars are awesome, and I just want to see all the bars, you know, like, I want to know all the best places, because it’s New York City, and so we should like. Live it! Kurt says living here is living it but I think he’s wrong because you have to like. Effort! Oh, you made a friend, hello! We’re going to a new place, you should come.”

“Oh my god, honey, stop,” Kurt says, mortified. “Hello, I’m Kurt, this is Blaine, we’re both very sorry.”

“I’m not sorry!” Blaine says, croons, really, leaning back against Kurt. “I sang a song, so not sorry.”

“Oh my god, Blaine, shut up,” Santana says, laughing on it; she casts a glance at Tai, whose eyebrows are up in amusement, whose hand is still tracing absent patterns on the bar, and feels herself blush. “This, um. This is Tai.”

“Nice to meet you,” Tai says, smiling, holding out a hand; Kurt takes it, levels a loaded glance between her and Santana, and then makes an upsettingly knowing face.

“Riiiiight,” he says, “okay, well, then, great to meet you, we’re just going to go now--”

“But Santana should come with us to everywhere!” Blaine says, even as Kurt starts to drag him away. “Santana is awesome, hey, Tai, you should come too, because Santana is. Is. Um. Awesome, she’s awesome and you’re awesome, everything is so awesome--”

“You two have fun, now,” Kurt says, winking over his shoulder, and Santana feels her blush deepen, which is so fucking childish, really, and actually kind of embarrassing, but also, as it happens, entirely out of her control.

“I swear to god I’m sometimes smooth,” she says, wincing, and Tai grins at her, big and warm and honest, runs two fingers along the surface of Santana’s upturned palm.

“You wanna get out of here?” she says, and from her it’s not an affront, not a presumptuous, bitterly aggressive demand; from her it’s an invitation, and Santana smiles at her, takes her hand, follows her outside.

--

That first night they don’t do much, just grab a late dinner and make out on the cab ride to Santana’s hotel; Santana’s a little drunker than she’d like to be and Tai’s a lady about it, scrawls her number in lilting script across Santana’s hand, kisses her goodbye with regret and promise both. Santana calls her the next night, can’t help it, and they go for an early dinner, and then a drink, and then back to Tai’s apartment. Santana’s not paying attention to much other than the curve of Tai’s hips under her hands, Tai’s breath coming sharp and sweet in her mouth, but she’s with it enough to recognize that this is not the apartment of a starving artist by any stretch of the imagination; she files that away, is led into the bedroom, finds better things to focus on.

Tai’s hands slide up under Santana’s shirt, palms flat against her stomach, her ribcage, callouses on her fingers, and it’s not like Santana’s been celibate since college, just too busy to hunt for something that feels right; she licks an invective into Tai’s mouth, and then another along her jawline, gets both of their shirts off and rubs the pad of one finger against the soft skin under Tai’s left breast. Tai shudders and Santana moves, lowers her mouth over the nipple, pulls it up between her teeth as gently as she can and flicks it, once, twice, with her tongue, and then Tai’s gasping and bucking and rolling them both over, the kind of breathless race to undress that Santana hasn’t engaged in since...god, since she was a teenager, probably.

Tai’s fingers are inside her two minutes later, her nipples rock-hard as she presses their bodies together, and she pants open-mouthed into Santana’s neck when Santana snakes a hand up between them and catches that left one again, rolls it between her fingers even as Tai brushes a thumb against her clit. She makes a noise she’s never heard herself make before, something low and gutteral, something that pours out of her mouth without her even thinking about it, and Tai groans, says, “Oh, fuck, yeah, god, that’s--Jesus, you’re beautiful,” and slips a third finger in, fans them out.

Santana comes, hard, fucking hard, three times before she slides clear, slides down, spreads Tai’s legs and licks her way inside. She leaves kisses along the inside of her thighs, first, wet and messy, and when she flicks her tongue against Tai’s clit Tai’s whole body jerks up, up. She tastes incredible, tastes like something Santana’s been craving for years, and she fists her hands in Santana’s longer hair and doesn’t quite scream as she comes, and fuck, fuck if this isn’t the best sex Santana’s ever had.

“You’re getting breakfast,” Tai says, pants, a moment later, when Santana’s collapsed onto the pillow next to her. “For that, I mean. In the morning.”

“Mmm,” Santana says, pressing a kiss to the expanse of shoulder available to her, and falls asleep before she can think of a proper reply.

When she wakes up, she’s alone; she can hear movement outside the bedroom, so she doesn’t worry about it, just stretches out and yawns herself awake. When she’s blinked a few times, she can take in the room around her--exposed brick, prints on the walls, high ceilings, a clear eye for aesthetics. They’re in New York City, and Santana has no illusions about the pricetag for an apartment like this; she smiles, gets out of bed, goes to get a closer look at the artwork.

“So you’re a famous artist, then,” Santana says, when she walks into the kitchen stark-naked, because she’s more than aware that her milkshake brings all the girls to the yard and has no intention of pretending otherwise. “Talented, too. I think I could get used to finding charcoal stains a turn-on.”

Tai--in boxers and a threadbare t-shirt that’s tugged tight across her breasts, standing over a pan of eggs--has huffed out half a laugh before she’s turned around. Then she sees Santana and her eyes widen, flick up and down her body as the spatula falls from her hand; Santana smirks, spreads her hands, cocks a hip.

“Like what you see?” she says, and then Tai’s got her pressed up against the counter, kissing her like she’s air, hands skating over her hips with a frenetic sort of hunger.

“Where did you come from, fucking hell,” Tai breathes, and there are so many answers to that question that Santana doesn’t know where to start, so she just smiles, bites down, kisses back until the eggs are burnt black, forgotten.

--

Things fall into place, because that, as it turns out, is what things do. Santana wishes, sometimes--as she moves from one coast to the other, falls in and out of restaurants, film sets, bed--that she could go back in time and tell herself that, that she could sit down with the terrified girl she once was and advise her that it does, in fact, get better. Other time, she’s glad of the restriction of reality, because god forbid she change anything; god forbid she make a mistake and grow up to be anywhere, anyone, else.

Tai’s perfect, except when she isn’t, and Santana’s perfect, except when she isn’t, and they’re perfect, except when they’re not. They fight, not often but enough, and it’s wrenching and horrible every time, and then, every time, it’s over; Santana’s not sure what she’s done right, but it must be something, because this feels unbroken, unbreakable, as solid as the ground beneath her feet. She meets Tai’s family and Tai meets hers, and their friends mingle until it’s impossible to tell who’s closer to whom, and one day Santana wakes up in an apartment that’s been theirs for a year and knows that she’s home.

They end up in a coffeeshop that morning, a lazy sort of Saturday, and Santana takes a work call that she just can’t ignore, drifts on the details for a minute or two. When she focuses again, Tai’s grinning down at a napkin, a felt-tip pen in her hand; she’s sketched Santana in sharp relief, easy lines knitting together, the curve of her neck accented by a faintly defined shadow. Santana smiles, and then she laughs, and then she holds her phone away from her ear and leans across the table, pressing their mouths together. There was a time, not even that long ago, where she would have been doing this to remind herself that she didn’t care who was looking; today, she knows she’s in love in the adult way, in the way that sings without being deafening.

She kisses Tai because she loves her, because she wants to and she can. It feels, she realizes distantly, like freedom.

--

They’re in Ohio for Christmas--it’s the Lopez’s year for them, which is fine, which is good. Santana’s thirty, getting closer to thirty-one with every passing day, and being in Lima no longer feels like a death sentence. Tai, of course, loathes Ohio, far too used to city life to find a small town like this comfortable, but Santana gets a little bit of pleasure out of these trips, can’t help it. It’s nice, really, to be here on her own terms; it’s a nice place to visit, for all she never wants to live here again.

They’re in the mall, killing time before they meet up with Puckerman, of all people, for dinner, and Santana leaves Tai in a half-assed mall art gallery, muttering under her breath about the quality of the prints of her work they’re selling. She wanders for a minute, thinking vaguely about taking a picture of the GAP store and sending it to Kurt and Blaine--everyone knows that story--and so it’s own fault that she almost walks directly into Finn Hudson.

“Oh, crap, sorry,” he says, and then his eyes widen when he realizes who it is he’s speaking to. Santana imagines she’s probably making the same face at him, but for different reasons; there’s a wedding band on his hand, a toddler sitting high on his hip. The little boy has dark hair and bright eyes, Finn’s weird chin-cleft, and Santana knew from Facebook and Kurt that Finn was married and spawing, but it’s a little weird to see it in person. In her mind, he’s been eighteen and an asshole for over a decade, and switching gears is kind of confusing.

Well, Santana comforts herself, he’s probably still an asshole, and that helps a little.

“Uh, Santana,” he says, “I...hi, you’re. Here! In...Ohio! Uh. Welcome!”

“Don’t hurt yourself, Tubs, there’s a kid here,” Santana says, and proceeds to ignore Finn entirely, crouching down to wave hello to the boy. She and Tai have been...dancing around the kid thing for a couple of months, are only going to get closer to it, so she might as well. It’s easier, smiling at this child, then it would be to smile at his father; there are things flaring to life in her chest, in the pit of her stomach, that she’d thought she’d learned to bury.

And then the kid smiles and reaches out, grabs her finger, and just like that it’s...not gone, exactly, but quieted, settled like everything else. Finn Hudson will always have done a terrible thing, but Santana’s long past eighteen, long past hating him; it’s not worth the effort, it’s energy she’s not bothered with expending, and anyway, this is adulthood. Quinn Fabray had told her, once, that growing up was about losing things, and she’d meant it, but she’d been young and fucked up and misinformed. Growing up is about finding things, about letting go of things to make room.

“Right,” Santana says, straightening up, biting down on a laugh when she sees the expression on Finn’s face. He’s terrified, and that’s...gratifying, honestly, for all it’s unnecessary. She doesn’t smile at him, because letting go and forgiving are not the same, but she doesn’t snarl either. “Kid’s cute. You’re doing well?”

“I, uh, yeah,” Finn starts, “yeah, I took over Burt’s shop and we’re--”

“That was courtesy, Hudson, I don’t actually want to know,” Santana says. “But, uh, good for you or whatever. Merry Christmas.”

“You too,” Finn says, and Santana’s turned to go when he clears his throat and adds, “And...and you? You’re doing well?”

Santana stops; Finn’s asking her because he feels guilty, because he’s selfish, and she knows that. Finn Hudson, she reflects, will never stop being the stupid straight boy who ruined her life, and she doesn’t owe him shit, and she never did, either.

On the other hand...on the other hand, Tai’s walking towards her from the other side of the mall, her hand raised in greeting. Her hair’s getting long again, and in a minute she’ll walk up and kiss Santana hello because she just does things like that, affection for affection’s sake, and, well. Santana’s got a life now that’s got nothing to do with Lima, Ohio, and nothing to do with Finn Hudson, a job she loves, a woman she loves, a home she built for herself.

“Yeah,” she hears herself say, already walking away, “and you know what, I always was.”