The names echoed over the loudspeaker system.
Christopher Paul Lankford.
Rebecca Jane Leonard.
Santana stood on the steps of the stage, her eyes darting over the crowd. They had to be here. They’d said they’d try. Today, of all days, they had to be here.
Michael Allen Lockwood.
A loud burst of applause and cheers as a football player crossed the stage and screamed “Titans rule!” before grabbing his diploma. She took advantage of the distraction to keep looking. They should be easy to spot. After all, her parents stood out in this town.
But they weren’t here. In the back of her mind, she’d known they wouldn’t be. They weren’t out there at all.
Santana Maria Lopez.
She forced herself to look away from the audience on the football field. Holding her head up and managing a superior smile, she crossed the stage. Principal Figgins handed her the diploma and shook her hand, and there was a smattering of applause and cheers from the members of New Directions, the only people who even bothered to pretend they cared about her. The rest of the vast crowd was already bored and waiting for the next person they recognized.
She kept the strained smile, because she wouldn’t dream of letting anyone see she was upset. On the top of the steps leading down from the other side of the stage, she paused to check one more time. Maybe she just hadn’t spotted them yet.
And that was when she saw Brittany, standing in the aisle, watching her.
In the most redundant of clichés, she felt as if her heart actually skipped a beat. She hadn’t expected her to be here at all. Because in the end, Brittany hadn’t gotten the required credits to graduate. She’d said, just this morning, that she wasn’t coming to the ceremony. It was too hard to watch everyone move ahead without her.
Santana forced herself to continue down the steps as the name after hers was called. She moved toward the seating area for graduates, but instead of sliding into her row, she continued on toward Brittany, ignoring the stares.
"You changed your mind," she said.
"Yeah." Brittany smiled a little and looked down, sheepish. "I wanted to be here for you. And… I brought you something."
Santana watched as she produced a simple rose corsage. She swallowed hard.
"It’s kind of small for a headband," Brittany went on. "But I thought you could wear it on your wrist."
She smiled and bit her lip, nodding. “Good idea.”
Brittany slid the corsage over her hand. They were now the center of a small cluster of interest. Somebody took a picture, and Santana thought about grabbing the camera to destroy it, but decided not to. Let them look.
"It’s beautiful," she said, tears stinging her eyes. She turned her wrist from side to side to display it. They stared at each other, time seeming to stop. Did Brittany have any idea what this meant to her?
"Sit down!" hissed the chemistry teacher, leaning toward them from her aisle.
"How about you sit down, Saddlebags,” Santana told her, irritated by the interruption. “Or I’ll tell everyone about the lipo my dad did on your thighs last week.”
The woman fell back in her seat, stunned and intimidated.
"I’d better go," Brittany said.
"Wait." Santana took a deep breath. And before she could stop herself or talk herself out of it, she reached up and kissed her, cupping her face in her hands. The rose brushed against her cheek. Brittany, surprised at first, kissed her back. There were a few gasps from the people seated nearby, but they ignored them. It was getting easier.
She lowered herself back onto the ground from her tiptoes, watching Brittany smile down at her. Her expression was both touched and proud. That was all that mattered. It didn’t matter anymore what anyone else thought.
"Come and sit with me," Santana told her, not wanting to let her go.
She seemed hesitant. “I don’t want to get you in trouble.”
"I’ve already got my diploma. What are they gonna do?"
Seeing the logic in this, Brittany said, “Okay.”
Santana pulled her over to the aisle she was supposed to be seated in, and they worked their way down the row past the other kids in caps and gowns in the J and K section. Mercedes grinned at them as they passed. In the L section, she gave a pointed look to the band geek in the seat next to hers, and though he seemed to consider protesting, he thought better of it and moved down without a word.
She slid into her folding chair and tugged Brittany down beside her. They smiled at each other again.
Then, at the same time, their smiles faded a little as they both seemed to realize this was quite possibly the last time they would ever sit next to each other at McKinley High School. The very last time.
Santana held out her pinky. Brittany glanced down at it. Seeming to blink back tears, she held out her own. They linked them, squeezed them tight, and then regretfully turned their attention back to the stage.