A strong hand shaking her shoulder brought Rachel out of a deep sleep filled with panthers with dark flashing eyes and sharp white teeth, large bright swatches of red dripping from a continuously bleeding Santana, and a stark dangling, glowing star necklace. "Nngg," she protested, burying her head back into her pillow. If she didn't move too much, maybe she could fall back asleep. Have a nicer dream.
"Rachel," another voice joined the first, "The kitchen's on fire."
"What?" Panic flared in Rachel's chest, and her eyes shot open. Her legs tangling in the bed sheets, she realized Santana and Brittany weren't freaking out when the blonde reached forward to steady her, Santana smirking and shaking her head behind her. "C'mon," she turned before Rachel could get a good look at her, "It's time for breakfast."
Watching the girl's receding back, Rachel groaned, shoulders dropping at Brittany's amused grin. "Do I have time to freshen up?"
"Of course!" Letting Rachel go, Brittany followed her roommate out, calling back, "Though you don't need to do a lot. It's not like you're disgusting."
That was actually kind of sweet… Somehow. "Thank you," Rachel replied, then sighed once she was alone, looking down at the dark black sheets wrapped around her legs. Running her hand through her hair, pushing it out of her mouth, she yawned.
Once situated, doing her best to duplicate her normal morning routine with the toiletries in Brittany and Santana's bathroom – and not feeling too bad when she used something that looked extremely expensive – Rachel padded into the kitchen, following the low tones of conversation. In the middle of stifling a yawn, Rachel's eyes widened, a gasp bisecting the yawn as she hurried to Santana's side. "Oh no!" she set her hand onto Santana's forearm without thinking about it, turning the taller girl so she could get a better look at her, "That looks horrible. I told you I wasn't qualified to administer first aid!"
Santana, who had been in the process of eating a slice of toast, sported a spectacularly green and yellow whole left side of her face, streaks of red and purple radiating from the highest point of her cheekbone. Her eye, which had been in the process of swelling shut last night, was at least completely open, if still bruised and swollen as well. It still looked very painful. "Relax, Berry," she rolled her eyes, moving away from Rachel's instinctual reach for her cheek, "I barely feel it. You were adequate."
"Adequate, in this case, does not make me feel better," Rachel huffed, insistently taking a step closer to close the gap, "Here, have you put something else on it to help the bruise? Oh! And should we replace the butterfly closures above your eyebrow?" She shook her hands in front of her chest, stuck between reaching out again and expecting that, if she did, Santana would only slap her away, "Maybe some more Neosporin? Ohh, I didn't hurt you more, did I?" That was her worst nightmare. She was only a slightly well off college student, after all, and if Santana chose to sue her for somehow inflicting her worse than when she had come home, she was sure her dads would punish her for making them cover her bill by, at the very least, downgrading her apartment to the dorms – or heaven forbid, call her home and make her give up her Broadway dreams for as long as it took her to work back the money she owned them in some sort of menial, less than minimum wage, job.
Santana's fingers snapping in front of her eyes shocked her back into focus, and she blinked, her mouth open in dread closing as she met Santana's dark, serious gaze.
"God. No. Chill." Sighing, and rolling her eyes again, Santana shook her head, turning to set her toast down onto a plate on the counter; turning back around, she dipped her chin, finger pushing up to point at the two thin bandages tight above her eyebrow. "Look. Already knitting back together." She looked up at Rachel from under her bangs. "It's all good."
Rachel finished her step forward, peering at the – yes, healthier looking cut. Good. The anxiety inside her loosened, and she exhaled, smiling, nodding to herself at the knowledge she wasn't going to have to take an entry level position at one of Lima's unappetizing businesses. Feeling buoyed with relief, she continued her perusal down Santana's eyebrow to her cheekbone, just about to reach out and cup her face to push her back up so she could see better…
When Brittany, sliding behind her, poked her finger into her side.
With an unglamorous, high pitched exhale, Rachel whirled around, a flush rising up her neck both with embarrassment at the sound that had escaped her, but also at her inability to pay attention to her surroundings again.
"Brittany!" she protested, drawing herself up straight.
Behind her, Santana laughed as she straightened as well, smoothly moving past Rachel with her plate of toast in her hand to take a seat at the breakfast bar. She quirked her eyebrows and kicked the stool next to her towards Rachel.
Momentarily choosing to ignore the invitation, Rachel set her hands onto her hips, frowning at Brittany. The blonde was pulling two bowls of something from the refrigerator, infuriatingly looking completely unapologetic as she grinned at Rachel as she set the bowls down and used her foot to close the refrigerator door.
Just as Rachel wondered what was it with the inhabitants of this apartment using their feet to close and move things, Brittany reached up to grab two, then three glasses. "What do you want to drink?" she asked.
Opening her mouth to demand an explanation, or at least an apology for startling her, Rachel sighed, deciding to diplomatically drop it and walk up to her instead. Knowing the blonde, she would either answer in flirt, or some other sort of innocuous way that made it clear she was, as Rachel was truly beginning to learn again as she hung out with her more, almost scarily attentive. With a sexual slant more often than not, but attentive. And it was too early in the morning for double entendres.
Though, on second thought, going back to Brittany's observation, did that mean there was a reason Brittany had made it possible for Rachel to draw back and Santana to escape? Surely the other girl wasn't nervous around her, Rachel scoffed to herself, eyes flitting over to take in Santana on the stool as she watched Brittany fill glasses with water. That made no sense. Santana was… Confident. All that energy that swirled around her. Even now, as she was finishing up her slice of toast. And before. Rachel had tried to ignore it as she'd practically stepped into her to get a better look at her, but it had been there. Muted. But there.
As if feeling Rachel's gaze on her, Santana's attention switched to her. She smirked, eyebrow rising, and Rachel blinked, snapping her eyes back to Brittany just in time to accept three glasses handed to her. How could Santana bear with all the pain her bruised cheekbone and injured forehead to insist on being so… Smug?
Directing her to lead the way to the breakfast bar, Brittany fell into step behind her. "So what time do you need to leave?" she asked curiously, setting down the two bowls she'd been carrying as Rachel carefully set her glasses down as well.
"I…Mmm," Rachel started, glancing at the clock over the oven, "I'd say I have a good forty-five minutes."
"So you'll be there an hour early, right?" Santana grinned over her water glass, and Rachel pointedly ignored her, telling herself it wasn't a loss to take a seat on the stool Santana had kicked out for her – it was in between her and Brittany, that's all.
"Oh that's good," Brittany continued as if Santana hadn't spoken, and Rachel felt such affection for her in that moment, "When you do need to leave, I'll send Santana with you. She gets the cabs to stop almost instantly."
Rachel frowned. "Oh, I was thinking of taking the subway." She accepted a bowl from Brittany, pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be a fresh fruit and lettuce salad. "Oh, this is amazing, thank you."
Brittany nodded. "Yeah, Santana got up early to make it."
"She said it was practically the only thing in the apartment you could eat for breakfast as we finished up dinner last night." Smiling, Brittany shrugged, sliding some hair behind her ear as she reached for a container of utensils in front of them and tilting it towards her, waiting for her to take some.
Santana shifted behind her, and Rachel paused, hand wavering before she wrapped her fingers around a salad fork, pulling it out. "That was nice of you," she started, turning her chin to look at Santana, but couldn't help frowning, as well. "But that means you barely got any sleep!" That wasn't healthy! Rachel's eyes swept up and down Santana's face and body again, eyebrows furrowing as she tried to see if looked like she was going to fall at any moment. And how was her stiff, sore waist?
Reaching out to tap Rachel's bowl, making it skip slightly towards her, Santana shook her head. "I'm fine. I'll sleep when you leave. So, eat. Be your disgusting rabbit self." She stood. "I's gonna make myself some more toast. Any takers?"
With both Brittany and Rachel declining, she nodded and walked to the other side of the kitchen. Not appeased in any way, Rachel continued frowning even as she started eating her salad, watching her fork spear pieces of lettuce and strawberry. Hearing Brittany making similar sounds, she turned, surprised to see Brittany was eating her own salad. Oh. Santana hadn't made it just for her.
…Unless Santana had made both for her? But no, that didn't make sense, so Rachel pushed the useless thought away.
Seeing her look, Brittany smiled at her. Finishing her bite, she asked, "Are you sure you don't want to take a cab? You can just pay us back."
"Oh, no, that isn't the issue." Yes it was. "I would have enough." No she didn't. Not in cash, at least, and she was loathe to use her card. "I just already have my subway pass on me, and you're not too terribly far from a station."
Brittany nodded. "That's how you got here yesterday, right? Santana guessed you were going to walk, or something."
"W-walk? Across the city?"
Behind her, Santana snorted, and Rachel whipped around, glaring at her back with wide, scandalized eyes. "Excuse me, Santana, but who do you think I am?"
Waving her hand in the air dismissively, Santana didn't bother to turn away from the toaster. "I don't know. Someone who walked into Brittany when she was right in front of her."
That was true. But -
"And someone, I bet, who insisted on walking along Broadway the day she moved into her apartment."
Rachel flushed. Still –
"Followed by walking and mapping out her whole neighborhood as the dusk fell."
It had only happened once! Before she'd realized just how dangerous her neighborhood was after dark.
"As well as probably picks a new place each weekend to stroll and explore and try so desperately not to be a tourist anymore – "
And, "Okay," Rachel snapped out, over the sound of Brittany and then Santana snickering, "Enough!"
In the end, to her embarrassment, Rachel let Santana hail a cab for her. Having already wished her a good day, and hugged her for a long, almost inappropriate amount of time, Brittany had vanished into her bedroom with a promise to hang out with Rachel again soon, which had left Rachel alone with Santana in the hallway of their apartment. Eyes twinkling at her before being hidden behind dark shades, Santana had motioned for Rachel to precede her, and Rachel had been able to feel her self-satisfied, amused gaze on her the whole walk down to the street.
It had been aggravating (and somehow familiar, if Rachel was honest, and certainly not from their shared time in high school), if not… Ill-meant? and Rachel could only willfully ignore it, pulling her coat tighter around herself in surprise as, indeed, Santana's efforts almost instantly had a cab pulling up in front of them. Her jaw dropped open, and she dramatically turned to Santana. "How did you do that?"
Her eyebrows quirking over her sunglasses, Santana only smirked at her and moved past her, effortlessly opening the cab's door for her. Waiting for Rachel to step inside and start buckling up, she grinned, inclining her head. "See ya, hobbit," she drawled, barely waiting for Rachel to respond, "Don't be a stranger."
And, shutting the door with an almost louder than normal clump, Rachel, barely remembering to tell the driver where to go, watched Santana watch her as the taxi pulled off and made its way down the road.
A week later, Panther practically ambushed her on her way to an evening showing of Cats in the Park.
"Well, well, well," the costumed hero drawled, detaching from the shadows behind her to match her stride, "B.G. In the flesh."
Rachel closed her eyes, inhaling. "Must you stalk me?" she asked loftily, shaking her head and continuing forward. Honestly, some part of her was relieved and happy to see her, at least for the (assumed) guaranteed protection, but she still somehow had the ability to… Irk her. Naughty pleasure at having a bodyguard notwithstanding. And maybe there was something to her stalking theory… Rachel would be lying if she said her stomach didn't at least lightly flip at that idea, but if anyone asked her in what emotion, she knew she wouldn't be able to say. So it was probably better to let that thought lie for a while.
Detouring sideways to walk around a sandwich board left out in front of a closed deli, Panther meandered back, hands shoving into the pockets of her jacket. "Stalking you?" she asked, teeth flashing white under her mask, "You must think much of yourself."
"Oh for - !" Rachel's jaw snapped shut, and she shook her head, turning away. She inhaled. "Since you are the one who insists on seeking me out, it should be you who thinks much of me."
Irritatingly, Panther only hummed. "Either way, wouldn't common sense dictate that you should be grateful for an escort? Even if you insist on ignoring it, these streets are dangerous."
Unable to refute that last statement, Rachel pushed hair behind her ear, feeling the sharp cold nip at the newly uncovered skin. "I can take care of myself!"
"Are you sure?"
Before she knew it, Rachel was stamping her foot, cheeks burning when Panther automatically reached out to catch her if her foot slipped on the ice underneath, and she instinctively jerked her arm away. Even as Panther held up her gloved hands in the universal 'hands off', Rachel bristled.
"That. Is. Not. Fair," she snapped. "Sure – you found me at my lowest point, but do you know how long I've been in New York? Or even how old I am and how long I've gone taking care of myself? I can, I have, I will, and I do take care of myself! I have my rape whistle, a speed dial to 911 on my phone, and I never go anywhere without letting someone know where I'm going and how long I should be!"
It came out more hurt and defensive than Rachel meant it to, and Panther seemed to actually take it in, head slightly tilting away, lips parting. Then, she shook her head and sighed, shoulders rolling in a large shrug under her leather jacket. "Yeah, you can. You might be more foolish than your own good, and insist on tempting fate more often than not, but yes. You seem like you take care of yourself."
Surprised, her chest warming a little, Rachel looked at her. Studying serious dark eyes behind her mask, she let out a quiet, "Thank you." It wasn't perfect, but it also wasn't reasonable having someone who didn't know her make that kind of character judgment.
They lapsed into silence. Concentrating on avoiding pockets of muddy, kicked up snow and ice and listening to the wind and the sound of their footsteps, it was like Rachel was walking with an acquaintance, not a costumed vigilante. Even if the people they passed every so often looked at Panther weirdly or stared too long; Rachel honestly found herself watching them more than she watched how Panther responded.
It almost felt too easy. Like a confirmation that she was not and had not been imagining her encounters with the girl, but also... It almost normalized her, and that…
Somehow, that was disappointing. Took, if she continued to be honest, some of the "mystique" away.
Rachel frowned. But wasn't that what she had wanted? Uncompromising confirmation that Panther was real, proof that wasn't just Rachel's unique interactions with her? It wasn't often Rachel didn't trust her own empirical evidence, but with Panther, it was starting to become clear she had.
When they reached an empty area in front of an apartment building that had fire escapes snaked around it, Panther turned her head to look at her. "Anyway. Listen. I came to tell you that you need to exercise the part of your brain that does not want to die an early death for a while. I'm going to be gone, so you won't be able to depend on me rescuing you every five seconds."
That was short lived. Rachel stopped, turning to face her companion.
And Panther grinned at her almost ruefully, honestly amused. "I had that already planned out. Couldn't not use it." Again, that spark of recognition frissoned and faded in Rachel's mind. Did it have to do with the shape of her lips and that smile…? Her teasing…?
Still frustrated at herself for not being able to connect the dots, Rachel rolled her eyes, shaking her head. "Fine. As a dramatic person myself, I understand the need to express practiced lines. However." Rachel shifted, her gaze flickering up and down Panther's face, "Why are you bothering to tell me?" She had to fight not to inflect the me. But she was serious. Why her? Again, she tried to tamp down on the exaggerated excitement inside of her that insisted to not forget her awkward and stumbled Superman/Lois Lane dynamic comment. Why hadn't she have said Superman/Jimmy Olsen dynamic instead?
Panther surveyed her, head tilting, and Rachel found her eyes skittering away from her dark gaze to wander over her mask instead. Maybe if she could see her hair…?
Then, Panther chuckled, and Rachel's attention snapped back to her face.
"Oh, I'm telling everyone I routinely run into during my patrols. Disappointed?"
Disa… Disappointed? Of course Rachel wasn't disappoi-
But to her mortification, Rachel realized she was.
It truly did not make sense. She did not know this woman. This was only her third interaction with her, if she counted their first interactions within the same day as one.
Maybe it was because she had dedicated so much mental energy to trying to puzzle her out. Maybe it was because her heart beat to the siren song of drama. Goodness, maybe it was because Panther had given her back her important necklace.
And this woman had saved her. Rachel didn't know where she would be now if she hadn't.
Countless words bubbled up in her mind, and she blinked widely at Panther.
But all that came out of her mouth was, "Oh."
Panther's lips quirked.
No… Maybe this was good. Maybe Rachel would better be able to live her evenings without wondering if her shadow was going to come around. No more heart attacks. Surprise ambushes. Stress.
…Less time spent researching the vigilante online and trying to figure her out, too.
So Rachel nodded. "Okay."
And, Panther giving her an impressed look before disappearing up into the darkness of the fire escapes, Rachel took a deep breath, nodded to herself, and told herself it really was okay.
Finding out from Brittany a week later that Santana had been called home to Lima and wouldn't be able to hang out for a while, Rachel found herself disappointed. When Brittany didn't give her a reason, and not wanting to pry and seem too interested, Rachel was left feeling unsatisfied and curious. At least, if Santana had told her she was going back to Ohio, Rachel could have asked her to say hi to her dads for her.
A day later, she gave in. How's Lima?
Putting her Blackberry down and looking outside her apartment window where slow but steady, wet clumps of snow trickled down, Rachel could only laugh and shake her head.