Chapter 9 (continued): Full Moon on a Sunday Night, Part II
Sunday, July 3rd, 1898: Storm Lake, Iowa
When the warning bell rings for the morning fair, Brittany and Santana take their time saying goodbye to each other, lingering at the corner of the first tent beyond the mess pit, swinging their clasped hands between them, unseen by the rest of the circus though they stand in plain sight.
To the outside observer, Brittany and Santana's mood might appear merry, but Santana can feel a special kind of aching sweetness between them, like they can't quite hold fast enough to each other or long enough, and, secretly, she knows it has something to do with what she and Brittany watched happen to Quinn Fabray back at the mess pit.
Every now and again, Brittany dips her face close to Santana's, but then she inevitably pulls back and hovers, waiting, suspended like a bee above a flower petal, almost but just not exactly there, her breath impossibly shallow and light.
Her gaze darts back and forth between Santana's eyes, like she can't settle upon how to see Santana best, and her flightiness somehow reminds Santana of the way that sunlight will catch upon moving water, glinting over the edges of it, brilliant and fleeting but with nowhere to take hold.
Neither girl has the words to explain quite what she feels, so Santana says instead, "I should really go put my shoes away before the fair, BrittBritt," mapping out the palms of Brittany's hands with her thumbs, biting her own lips into her mouth, not really wanting to step away from Brittany at all, even for a minute.
Brittany tugs Santana in the direction of her own tent. "You should just put your shoes in my trunk," she suggests, the ghost of a smile on her face.
"I should?" Santana quirks an eyebrow. "But then what would I do the next time I needed them?"
"You would have to come see me to get them, I guess," Brittany says, and though she should sound sly, she doesn't—she just sounds thoughtful or wishful, even. Artless. After a second, she draws a breath, steeling herself, and adds, "Or you could just stay with me all the time... and then you wouldn't have to leave your shoes behind."
(There's a twinge in her words, just on the brink of something—)
Normally, Santana might hate the height and eagerness to her own voice in a moment such as this one, but today she finds that she doesn't much mind it at all. She's only barely keeping a secret from Brittany anyway, and Brittany's not doing a much better job of keeping a secret of her own. For the first time since Mr. Adams made his announcement, both girls grin at each other, though they know that Brittany's suggestion is an impossible one and silly, at that.
Brittany leans in toward Santana again, wonderfully and terribly close, and Santana's eyelids flutter shut, as delicate as moth's wings, in response. Santana waits, breathless, and tilts her face, without thinking, towards Brittany's lips. The stoked feeling flares low in Santana's belly. Brittany thumbs over Santana's palms.
"You'd better go put your shoes away, darlin'," Brittany says carefully, pressing her forehead up against Santana's but withholding her kiss. "And I'd better go change into my costume for the matinee."
Though Santana wants to feel cross with Brittany for teasing her, she can't. Her mouth lifts into a smile, and she opens her eyes to see Brittany staring at her, wily, though only for a half-second before Brittany peels back.
(It seems such a pity that they should ever have to part from each other, and especially in such a world where a girl can have the thing she wants most—in secret—torn away from her at an instant.)
"I just want to stay here with you," Santana admits, still holding onto Brittany by the wrists, leaning into her. Her voice sounds scratchy and full of longing to her own ears; she can only imagine what it sounds like to Brittany.
"I know," Brittany says, giving her hand a little squeeze, just a hint of circus loneliness lacing her pretty primrose lips and visible behind her eyes.
It's such a simple thing to say, but somehow it feels like so, so much.
(Early in the morning, on the wagon ride into camp, Brittany almost said—)
(And Santana almost said it, too.)
They both take steps away from each other, still holding hands between them. Brittany's thumb brushes over Santana's palm, soft.
"I'll find you during the knight sketch," Brittany says.
"I'll give you my favor today," Santana blurts out, before she can stop herself.
Brittany wears a soft, queer smile. "I'd like that," she says. She gives Santana's palm another stroke before finally letting go from it. Then, "I'll see you soon." She disappears around the bend in the way she always does—like the last quaver of a note fading from the air after a symphony.
Santana watches after Brittany until she can no longer see Brittany's shadow on the grass or upon the sides of the tents in the distance, and every little trace of Brittany goes away.
"I love you," Santana whispers, a second later than she might have liked to do it.
(In such a world where a girl can have the thing she wants most—in secret—torn away from her in an instant, Santana vows to keep close to Brittany forever and ever, no matter what.)
(Santana gave herself away to someone once without thinking; when she gives herself to Brittany, she thinks of nothing else.)
After tucking her shoes away and gathering up her tambourine for the matinee back at her tent, Santana jogs to the midway, a minute behind the warning bell, slipping into her gazebo just as the first patrons step onto the circus grounds.
By the time Santana takes her seat, Ken already stands at his post beside her gazebo, scowling like an ugly old bulldog against the sun and at her. The sign announcing her act still bears his late-made editions from last week: "MADAME ROSSETTI, GYPSY FORTUNETELLER: Reader of Both Palms," a wooden board blocking out certain dangerous words underneath the byline, keeping them a secret from any patrons who might try Santana's hand otherwise.
For the most part, the crowds at the fair today seem far sparser than it usually might, likely on account of the heat. Only about a dozen persons gather in queue at Santana's gazebo altogether, and, among them, only about three customers actually want Santana to read their palms.
Santana rejoices in having less attention on her than usual during the fair, and especially because she knows that today she won't have to deal Death to anyone.
Maybe because of the temperature, maybe because of Brittany, maybe because she knows that she won't have to spread her tarot deck at all, Santana starts off her readings somewhat giddy and speaks more bravely than she has all day, promising futures she has no authority to give and wearing a cat smile as she leans across her table.
"You'll meet a woman," she says to a young man, tracing out a crease at random upon his palm with her pointer finger as if following a long road upon a map, like Marco Polo all the way to the Orient. "A beautiful woman. And she will change your fate."
"Change it how?" the young man says, glancing from the grass to his own palm to Santana's face.
"Ah," Santana pauses. "She will, um, how do you say it? She will lead you down new paths?"
Her smile shines, surprisingly genuine. The few patrons surrounding her table all mutter, intrigued that Santana would predict such a bold and even salacious thing, and she feels a flare of self-consciousness but also a secret thrill.
She'll never know if her prophecy will hold true for the man or not, after all.
Mr. Adams doesn't mean to talk over Santana's reading, but with such a lion's roar as his, his voice carries even when he speaks softly. Santana cannot see Mr. Adams from where she sits, but she can hear him, standing somewhere behind her patrons, just beyond her gazebo, talking in a furious whisper.
"—the other half of the damn sign, Ken! I can't have a fortuneteller who only reads palms—even if she does read both of them! For Christ's sake, Ken!"
"Someone stole her cards from her!"
"In Correctionville, or thereabouts—"
"And I haven't heard of the theft until now?"
"The thief made off before anyone could catch him—"
"Hang the thief, Ken! He was probably only a schoolboy on a dare! My fortuneteller needs cards to carry her act, but I can't order her new cards if I don't know the old ones have gone missing, confound you!"
"Yes, sir. Pardon, sir."
"Bring that magician's apparel catalogue to my tent after the show, Ken. I'll have to send by pony for a fresh deck and put it on rush order."
"Yes, sir. Of course, sir."
Santana's fingernail stills over her patron's palm, as does her breath behind her lips. Somehow, she hadn't realized that Mr. Adams could buy her new cards to replace the ones she had hidden. An uneasy feeling settles in the pit of her stomach, a rock sunk to the bottom of a lake.
"Madame?" says her patron, suddenly wary of her expression.
How long before the new cards arrive for her at the circus?
No se puede eludir la Muerte, Santana. Viene para todos.
No matter how much Santana dislikes the idea that Mr. Adams will order new cards to replace the ones hidden away in her valise, she can't help but quickly forget about tarot cards altogether once she reaches the backstage area, where one of Mrs. Schuester's girls sets a sprig of pink trefoil in her hand, and another one of Mrs. Schuester's girls costumes her with a red kerchief veil.
Santana promised her favor to Brittany today, and she feels aflutter with anticipation, thinking on how she might get that favor into Brittany's possession and also about just Brittany, Brittany, Brittany.
"Go line up," Mrs. Schuester snips at Santana, eyeing Santana's smile with equal parts distaste and wariness, like she thinks that no good will come from Santana feeling happy.
Santana does as Mrs. Schuester instructs, finding a place amongst the other veiled girls queued up to enter the big top. Though on another day Santana might sue for the company of her fellow gypsy, today Santana doesn't bother to search for Rachel at all, for she knows that Rachel won't want to see her after the incident on this morning's train. She also doesn't sue for Rachel because there is only has one person whom she longs to see in all the world, and Rachel isn't her.
Going into the big top, Santana closes her eyes, opening them again only after she emerges under the stage lights. She finds Brittany wearing a veil of powdered blue and facing directly away from her. Despite the goings on in the ring and the roar of the crowd, Brittany keeps her eyes trained to her own slippered toes, which she points as gracefully as might a ballerina, playing like she walks along a raised beam though in actuality she stands firmly upon the ground. Her arms spread out on either side of her like wings to help her keep her balance. She holds a belled blue flower of a type that Santana doesn't recognize and pays no attention to anything outside her game, focusing instead on each step she takes forward.
(Immediately, Santana thinks that Brittany looks like an angel.)
Brittany is quiet and perfect and when Santana sees her, Santana takes in the full aspect of Brittany's body, remembering it from yesterday, naked, pink, and open. The stoked sensation flares in Santana's belly. She feels fond and heated all at once, and she instantly wonders if she will ever find enough ways in which to adore Brittany Pierce.
The band has already begun to play lively music for the sketch, but rather than joining in with the cavorting of the other girls, Santana walks quickly and silently over to Brittany, coming up just behind her.
For a split instant, Santana holds her breath, but then she wraps her arms around the slimmest part of Brittany's waist and sets her chin down on Brittany's shoulder, leaning into her with a sigh, standing just a bit on tiptoe to do it.
Santana feels Brittany flinch at the touch, Santana's heat against her heat catching her by surprise. Brittany gasps as Santana's lips brush over the sinews in her neck, not precisely in a kiss but in a closeness.
Despite the fact that the girls stand at center stage, they're invisible to the crowd; no one watches them in particular amidst so much other motion and color, though they occupy the very heart of all the pinwheel circus brilliance.
"Hey, you," Santana says beside Brittany's ear, so that Brittany can hear her over the roar. She gives Brittany's waist a little squeeze, locking her fingers together directly above Brittany's navel, and breathes in Brittany's scent, brighter than usual under the sweltering big top lights.
"You surprised me," Brittany says, not at all displeased. She relaxes to Santana's touch.
"Well, that makes one time when I surprised you and one-hundred-thousand times when you surprised me," Santana says, only mostly joking. She shrugs, her body shifting against Brittany's back, and stands up taller on her tiptoes, so that she can hold Brittany faster.
(Brittany feels so good.)
Brittany laughs and leans back against Santana, allowing Santana to become her balance. "You've surprised me more than once," she assures her. Then, "Do you think we ought to dance for the sketch?"
"Yes," Santana says, loosening her hold on Brittany's waist. When she spins Brittany to face her, their eyes meet, and they grin, oblivious to the action going on around them, holding to each other by the hands. Santana's heart flutters. "Will you accept this favor, milady?" she asks, bowing slightly and extending the trefoil to Brittany with a flourish.
Even though Santana promised Brittany the favor beforehand, Brittany flushes all the same, mouth falling open in shock and delight. She presses a hand to her heart. "Of course," she says, recovering enough to curtsy to Santana, fanning out her pretty white show-skirts like bleached flower petals, stooping at one knee.
Santana grins, filled with warmth that has nothing to do with big top heat. If she doesn't mind herself, she'll kiss Brittany in the next moment in front of a full audience.
"Here," she says, stepping forward and tucking the trefoil under the sash at Brittany's waist, hiding it away like a bookmark between pages. "Now you have to defend my honor," she smirks.
"Okay," Brittany says, wearing a smile that's both faraway and very close all at once. Then, "Thank you." Her hand stills over Santana's for a second, playing over the thread ring at Santana's finger, and Santana shivers all the way to her quick.
I love you, she thinks under the music and the lights and the tumult of the crowd.
(You love me back, she thinks again as Brittany leads her into dancing.)
Brittany and Santana scarcely take two steps into their dance before the knights commence to war, the villains clad in black charging forward to frighten the maidens with a single, deep-voiced shout. Santana shrieks, Brittany doesn't, and both girls scurry away from the boys, linked at the pinky fingers, Brittany keeping just behind Santana, setting a barrier between her and the knights.
When the blue knights rally to fight back the black, the circus crowd roars, and Santana latches onto Brittany's arm, holding it fast, so silly with happiness that she can't help but giggle and smile and sway where she stands. As before, Brittany remains between Santana and the fracas, grinning herself, though she also wears a stalwart sort of look in her eyes.
(Maybe most girls couldn't be dashing, but Brittany Pierce is dashing, and beautiful, too.)
When Santana shoots Brittany a questioning look, Brittany gestures to the trefoil tucked at her sash, strikes a heroic pose, and wags her eyebrows at Santana, silly for a brief instant before turning serious again all at once.
Santana's heart squeezes in her chest.
(Why would she ever need a gallant knight when she can have a gallant Brittany instead?)
In their turn, the blue knights push back the black, until the black knights offer up surrender, yielding to their knees. The audience cheers, and Santana clutches at Brittany's elbow, dizzied with how much the crowd seems to like the sketch and also from adoring Brittany so much.
When the knights all line up, both black and blue, to receive their favors from the ladies, Santana frets for a half a second about what might happen if someone notices that she gave her flower to Brittany rather than to one of the boys, but she scarcely has time to register her concern before suddenly the knights all shout and raise their wooden weapons again, running forward toward the women as a one.
This isn't a usual part of the sketch.
Santana starts with surprise, and Brittany steps in front of her, but then the boys run straight to them, and, all at once, Santana feels the strong press of a body around her, hard and heavy. She smells spice and heat and sour.
Puck's arms seal over her arms and around her waist, and Santana yelps as her feet lift from the ground. Her stomach flops, and, in a dizzy instant, Santana spins, Puck flipping her up and over one of his broad shoulders, holding her as if she were a sack of grain that he meant to carry from the wagon bay to the mess pit upon his back.
Santana's face hangs down toward the ground, and her hips hinge over Puck's collarbone. Her hair spills in her face, catching at her wet lips, a cascade of silken dark. Through the splay of black and color in motion, she sees that Brittany has suffered her same fate; Sam carries Brittany slung over his back, as well, like so many of the well-mannered American girls spirited away by Indians in Mr. Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking tales.
All around them, more girls let up shrieks and laughs as the knights "kidnap" them to the back of the ring. Santana feels a swoop in her stomach and grabs a handful of Puck's shift so that she won't fall.
"I've got you, ladybird," Puck promises, devil smirk in his voice though Santana can't see his face.
"Brittany, help!" Santana calls, laughing though it almost hurts to do so with her belly pressed up against Puck's shoulder and bones.
Puck half-walks and half-jogs toward the back of the big top, and though Santana can see nothing but her own hair and the flashes of light that filter through it, she can hear the audience whooping and applauding with more enthusiasm than might another group double or even triple its size. Blood rushes to Santana's head and ears, and she counts her pulse, loud, in her temples and at the sides of her neck. Her fingers slip against Puck's shift.
For a second, she feels afraid.
"I got you, ladybird," Puck promises, but it isn't until Brittany reaches out to grab Santana's free hand—Brittany still slung over Sam's back, Santana still slung over Puck's—that Santana actually feels safe.
The knights and the ladies exit the big top through its back flaps to the thunder of one-thousand hands clapping in delight. Santana's hand slips from Brittany's, and she whimpers in complaint.
Once Puck passes from the indoors to the outside, white afternoon light floods Santana's eyes, even from behind her hair. Slowly, Puck lets her down to the ground, and Sam does the same for Brittany. Immediately, Santana's head whirls with dizziness for having hung upside-down for so long.
Though Santana does still feel giddy from the recent rush and also for the most part droll about it, something in her doesn't like that Puck—or any boy, really—could just scoop her up and carry her away, though she would resist him doing it. She can still feel the ghost pressure of Puck's shoulder bone against her belly, and it wears into her like a bruise. Puck didn't hurt her, of course, and he made his move all in good fun, but, all the same, Santana knows she won't altogether forgive him for his stunt today or even tomorrow or perhaps ever, really.
(In such a world where a girl can have the thing she wants most—in secret—torn away from her in an instant, Santana vows to keep close to Brittany forever and ever, no matter what.)
For the second time in very few minutes, arms wrap over Santana's arms. Then, a hand strokes the hair from Santana's face, tucking it gently behind Santana's ear so that Santana can see again. Santana blinks against the light and discovers herself looking into the purest, softest blue.
Immediately, Santana warms to Brittany's touch, following it like a morning glory will the sun in its daily path across the sky. Brittany holds Santana, rapt in an embrace, for a long while before letting her go again.
"You all right, darlin'?" Brittany asks, herself rosy-cheeked, breathless, and wobbly on her feet.
Santana nods, "Sure thing."
(She knows that Brittany won't ever let her fall.)
The rest of the matinee passes in a rush for Santana, a whirl of rainbow colors, lively music, and fleeting glances of Brittany, resplendent, under the stage lights. Santana's heartstrings coil, tight, like thread about a spool—straw spun into gold thread—or red thread, maybe, around her finger—as she stands at her usual aperture, watching men and beasts and her true love, feeling ever closer to some inexplicable something that evades all words and even conscious thought.
She dances with Puck and Rachel during the gypsy act, relearning how much she adores the good graces of a friendly crowd, and then waits with a heartbeat that skips like a stone over water to see if Brittany will make it safely though the knife throwing act.
When at last the final processional draws to its end and the circus company empties from the big top all in a flood—like grain spilled from a torn sack—Santana feels somehow like she can't catch her breath under the brightness of the sun.
She allows Puck to lead her away from the big top, though she checks behind and in front of herself, as always, for Brittany. Puck prattles on about how he expects that, smallish turnout notwithstanding, Mr. Adams won't feel too particularly disappointed with the outcome to the matinee, given the audience's most favorable reaction to the knights' improvisation during the opening sketch.
As he and Santana cross under the billboard border separating the midway from the white city, he mentions something about how he hopes the late show will prove just as charming to the people of Storm Lake as the early one did, without the moon jinxing anything. Santana doesn't listen to him at all, though.
(She only waits for Brittany.)
Puck parts from Santana once they reach their tent, saying that he needs to speak with Finn about something or other that Ken would like them to do together before the evening fair, and not long after he disappears down the tent row, Brittany arrives, just as Santana somehow knew that she would, changed back into her tatty blue and so beautiful that Santana can hardly do anything for it.
"Hola, bonita," Santana says, knowing that Brittany will hear the compliment in her voice, even if she doesn't understand it in words.
Brittany smiles in response but in a quiet way. She wears her soft, queer expression and seems unusually still. At first, Brittany's reserve surprises Santana—and particularly considering that Brittany just helped to put on such a lively circus—but then Brittany sidles right up beside her, their elbows brushing together, and Santana forgets about anything else except how good Brittany's skin feels against her skin, even in small doses.
(She gasps and knows exactly why.)
"Stevie Evans wanted me to tell you that you danced really pretty during the gypsy act today, darlin'," Brittany says, foregoing a hello.
With anyone else, Santana might feel too self-conscious to make a reply, but with Brittany, Santana revels in the teasing and teases back in kind. "Oh, did he now?" she smirks, brushing her elbow against Brittany's again, this time purposefully.
Brittany flushes. "Yup," she says. "I snuck over to your backstage area so that he and I could watch you together from the hole in the tent."
Santana laughs, low in her throat. "I'll bet he couldn't take his eyes off me, could he?"
Brittany shrugs and bites her lip, her ears turning even pinker than before. "I wouldn't know," she says artlessly, staring at Santana like she couldn't look away for anything.
(Her eyes burn like the blue heart of a flame, intensely bright and so, so rare.)
(The stoked feeling kindles again low in Santana's belly and she remembers yesterday, the ghost imprint of Brittany's touch hot upon her skin.)
Brittany's attention proves so intense Santana can't help but squirm under it. Santana had felt silly and wound up until this moment, but now she takes her cues from Brittany, who, despite her jokes about Stevie Evans' sudden interest in Santana's performance, seems decidedly serious or even reverent, like a girl about to pray for her fondest desire in church, lighting votive candles to illuminate her faith.
Santana watches Brittany's eyes shift between her and the tent and then watches again as Brittany wets her bottom lip with her tongue and then swallows, hard. Brittany's reverence changes into nervousness.
(Like she's just made a decision about something, but she isn't sure if it's the right one.)
"Britt, are you all right?" Santana asks, her own gaze jumping back and forth between Brittany's eyes. She reaches out for Brittany's hand, not sure whether she means to soothe Brittany or herself in taking it.
Brittany nods and swallows like she did before. "Can we go inside?" she asks suddenly. "Or maybe to somewhere else? Somewhere—?"
"Private?" Santana supplies.
Brittany nods. "Do you want to take a walk, maybe?" she says, extending her elbow to Santana.
Santana links their arms together. "Of course," she says, wondering if it's her own pulse or Brittany's that beats so wildly through the skin at the crook of her arm.
Brittany walks like a girl late to a very important appointment, tugging Santana along beside her quickly and purposefully down this tent row and then that one. She checks around corners, making sure they don't happen upon anyone who might interrupt their time together or hassle them to work. The faster Brittany walks, the more obvious it becomes to Santana that Brittany doesn't just want privacy—she wants privacy for a reason.
Eventually, Brittany leads Santana beyond the white city to the edge of the forest separating the camp from Storm Lake itself, and Santana turns to ask Brittany if she wants to disappear into the woods for a while—maybe to become "forest people," like they did yesterday in Onawa. She doesn't get the chance to ask her question before Brittany says something first, though.
"Can I tell you a secret?"
There are so many secrets that a Brittany could tell, but Santana can only think of one, at the moment—a secret she hopes so much that she and Brittany share, one that should be the same, word for word, between them. Her heart skips in her chest, fluttery as bird's wings, and her pulse pounds in her ears. She prepares herself to hear anything that Brittany has to say, trying not to want too much all at once.
"Yeah, BrittBritt?" Santana reaches for Brittany's hands just to have something to hold.
"I've—I've wanted to tell you this for a long time," Brittany stammers. "For a really, really long time, actually."
The invisible string in Santana pulls taut. "Yeah?"
Brittany starts to work over the knuckles on Santana's hands, thumbing the bones and the supple spaces between them. She nods again, maybe more to herself than to Santana. "Since that day when Mrs. Schuester made you count costumes in the dressing tent and you told me I needed a hat if I wanted to keep giving flowers to pretty ladies," she rambles.
All at once, Santana realizes her mistake.
There are so many secrets that a Brittany could tell; Santana had forgotten that, once upon a time, back before she ever realized that she loved Brittany at all, a certain one of Brittany's secrets preoccupied her almost as much as another one of Brittany's secrets preoccupies her now.
("Where do you always disappear to all the time?")
("I promise that if you can just be patient, I'll tell you the secret someday soon. Can you wait?")
For her realization, Santana decides to spare Brittany more nervousness. "You mean you want to tell me where you disappear to all the time?" she guesses.
Brittany looks up, her eyes so wide and blue that Santana thinks she could swim in them. Briefly, Brittany seems like she might not understand Santana's reference—her eyebrows knit together, and her mouth opens just a bit—but then something changes in her expression.
"Oh," Brittany says simply. She blinks like a person might do upon waking, chasing after the last few scenes of a dream behind her eyes, unfocused and somehow disoriented. It takes her eyes a second to clear. "Oh, sure, darlin'. Do you still want to know about that?" she asks seriously, quirking her head to one side, looking at Santana on a slant.
(Santana wonders if she just missed something.)
Of course Santana wants to know whatever secrets Brittany would tell her.
"If you want to tell me, BrittBritt."
"Anything, darlin'," Brittany says and she gives Santana's hand a squeeze. "Come with me?" she says, nodding toward the woods.
Santana offers Brittany a small smile—of course, anywhere, I love you—and laces their fingers together more carefully. Pleased, Brittany gives Santana's hand a little squeeze and leads her from the searing sunlight of the open prairie to the patchwork shade of the forest.
The woods in Storm Lake smell dryer than the ones in Onawa, less musty and more like desiccated leaves and summer scorch and clay dirt. They're also sparser than the Onawan woods, with the trees spaced far apart from one another and sunlight streaming through the canopy.
In the distance, Santana can smell the waters of Storm Lake, though she cannot yet see them, fishy and stewing on such a hot day. Though the vegetation in the forest offers some relief from the heat, the forest still mostly feels like a tinderbox. If someone were to even say the word "fire" close to the trees, Santana thinks they might ignite.
Brittany leads Santana in a circuitous route, helping her to step over snagging tree stumps and duck beneath low-hanging creepers, holding aside Santana's long skirts where necessary, before stopping abruptly just under a tall oak tree.
"I've never shown anyone else this before," she admits.
"Shown anyone what?" Santana asks, confused, seeing nothing around them but Iowa flora, none of it in itself remarkable.
Brittany says simply, "This," and kicks at some dried leaves on the forest floor, brushing them aside with the edge of her foot, revealing an object underneath them.
Santana watches in wonderment as Brittany stoops to sweep away the rest of the leaves with her hands, unearthing a broad, flat surface laid out flat upon the forest floor. Santana can't hold back a gasp as she recognizes a human outline drawn over painted wood—the backboard from the Pierce's knife throwing act.
Brittany slides her fingers beneath the backboard, propping it up on an angle upon her knee, and then retrieves a second buried object from where the backboard once lay: her father's leather bandolier, complete with all its throwing knives.
"Brittany!" Santana yelps, as shocked as if she were Jim Hawkins watching Ben Gunn reveal his stolen treasure.
At first, Brittany doesn't register Santana's surprise. She stands, brushing forest detritus from her skirt, keeping hold to the backboard with one hand, clutching the bandolier by its straps with the other. Once she has herself upright, she rights the board, as well, cleaning dirt and leaves from it, her actions practiced and methodical.
Brittany doesn't meet Santana's eyes when she says, "Daddy never used to miss his mark."
Santana furrows her brow, not certain as to what type of secret Brittany tells her now, and Brittany perceives her confusion, clarifying, continuing on, still looking more at the board than at Santana.
"He used to have a perfect aim, back when Mama was his assistant, and even when I was first started out. But then a few years ago, he got a spot."
"A spot?" Santana repeats.
Brittany nods, and though she finally meets Santana's eyes, she somehow still acts guilty. "He says it's black and blurry. It's right here"—she squints, extending her right arm at a thirty degree angle from her shoulder, holding her hand out and away from her body—"and it won't go away. It covers up his vision so he can't see anything behind it or in front of it. It started out small, but it keeps getting bigger. It's the size of a Liberty Head nickel now."
"So he's going blind?"
Immediately, Santana hates herself for asking such an indelicate question, but Brittany doesn't seem to mind the indelicacy one whit.
(She never does.)
Instead, Brittany just nods. "If Mr. Adams finds out about it, he'll have to ask Daddy to retire, except that Daddy says there's really no asking about it. You can't have a blind knife thrower at the circus, or even a blind supe, and Mr. Adams sure won't keep me on just to peel carrots, even if Ma Jones put a good word in for me because Sam asked her to do it. Mrs. Schuester wouldn't want me for a seamstress, either. They'd have me and Daddy off the lists, whether any of us liked it or not, because business is business."
Santana glances between Brittany and the backboard and feels, for a moment, what she at first supposes must be a flutter of belated fear for Brittany's life.
But then Santana's gaze settles on the gouges burrowed deep into the wood grain, and suddenly she realizes that her fear that Brittany might come to harm is not in fact belated at all.
There will be another show tonight and another two shows tomorrow, and a dozen shows within just this one single week, and Mr. Pierce's vision will only deteriorate further with every passing one. If Brittany manages to survive all the shows without getting any more wounds than the ones she has got already or worse, it will be the kind of miracle that Santana's grandmother always swore could only come from praying to the most pious of saints for intercession.
All at once, Santana's heart pinches in her chest. She thinks of Mr. Pierce's many near misses during the last week and of Brittany's scar from his not-at-all-a-miss from earlier this year and fears for Brittany today and for every day yet to come, as long as the Pierce's still have an act at the J.P. Adams & Son Traveling Circus.
Only then does it occur to Santana why Mr. Pierce seems so pained all the time.
(For the man who must risk his daughter's life in order to save her livelihood, each day must bring with it some new agony.)
("Didn't your daddy leave you anything?")
"That's why I've been practicing," Brittany says helpfully, nodding toward the backboard.
"You mean with the knives? Britt, where did you—? When did you bring all this here?" she asks, her thoughts still muddled with confusion and heartache and worry concerning everything Brittany just revealed to her.
"It hurts Daddy's head, straining to see all the time, so he takes naps before the first show and after the second one," Brittany says. "He goes straight to our tent after the matinee and leaves the gear to me. I bring it out here before I even change out of my costume."
Santana's eyes widen. "You mean your father doesn't know you have this here?" she gapes.
(Brittany's bravery always both impresses Santana and startles her, too.)
(Santana's heart gives a firm tug in her chest when she realizes that Brittany must have skipped the last several days at knife throwing practice to spend time helping her with chores.)
"He can't know," Brittany says quietly. "Not him or Mr. Adams—not yet. Not until I get good enough to convince Mr. Adams to let me take over the act."
Brittany's expression is a pleading one, not directed at Santana but at the absent Mr. Adams and maybe even at the absent Mr. Pierce, as well. Brittany grips the edge of the backboard tightly and wets her lips, looking both young and old at once all of a sudden.
It seems that even the girl who breaks the rules at every turn can still feel the weight of them—that she also knows that time has become her solemn enemy.
(Somehow, Brittany's entrapment hurts Santana more than her own ever has.)
"Mr. Adams won't like the idea of a lady throwing knives, even if it's me, and Ken and Daddy won't like it, either," Brittany explains, "but once they see me throw, they'll let me on the lists—they'll have to."
"So you've taught yourself to throw?" Santana says, taking a step toward Brittany.
Without thinking about it, Santana reaches for the backboard, fingers brushing over the wood and the wounds in the wood, tracing over the deep series of gouges around the human outline, stopping just before they touch the few gouges imbedded, dangerous, within the outline's borders.
Now that Santana stands close to her, Brittany watches Santana carefully, searching for something in Santana's face that she seems to find almost immediately.
"Two-hundred and twenty-four clean throws in a row now," Brittany says matter-of-factly. "Two-hundred and twenty-four clean throws, and I just keep telling myself that once I reach two-fifty or maybe three hundred, I'll finally get the courage to ask Sam for his help."
"Get the courage to ask Sam for his help with—?"
"To ask him if he'll stand against the board for me," Brittany clarifies. When Santana meets Brittany's eyes, Brittany shrugs one shoulder. "I just don't want to make a mistake. Sam's my friend, and—," her statement trails away.
Santana speaks right away and without thinking.
"I'll stand against the board for you."
Her statement hangs like a flag without wind, and both she and Brittany stare at each other, equally surprised at the boldness of it.
Santana's hand still lingers upon the backboard, fingers fanned out, star-like, just above a deadly gouge along the human figure's throat. A tremble runs through Santana's body, and, for a second, she wonders if being in love can somehow make a person fatally insensible.
Brittany gawps at Santana like she has never seen anything like Santana before. Her look is startled and concerned but also hopeful, in spite of itself.
Part of Santana expects Brittany to demur the offer—to say something like You don't have to do that, darlin' or even You can't or I won't let you—and, indeed, Brittany appears as if everything in her wants to do just that. She bites her lip and shifts her weight between her two feet on the ground, anxious.
But then she doesn't say what Santana had expected.
(She never does.)
Instead, Brittany quirks her head to one side, eyes tracing over Santana's face again and again, like no matter how much Brittany sees Santana, she still won't ever be able to fully puzzle her out. Though Brittany stands up straight, she suddenly seems very small.
"Why?" Brittany asks.
She speaks in the same small, forlorn voice she uses whenever she talks about her supposedly clumsy stitches or answers to one of Mrs. Schuester's sharp-tongued reprimands.
Santana's heart clenches in her chest.
(It makes a decision before her head can fill with too many worries otherwise.)
She returns Brittany's deep look, finding the bluest part of Brittany's eyes and fixing in on it, mooring herself there, ship to pier. Her hand moves down the backboard.
"Because I trust you," Santana says, and the surety in her words should maybe surprise her, but it doesn't. "And because I want to." She reaches for Brittany's hand, curled over the edge of the backboard, and slides their fingers together so that both of them hold the board upright as one. She can feel the pulse beating through the thin, pale skin between Brittany's knuckles. "I need you to stay here at the circus with me," she admits.
"Me, too," Brittany says, barely above a whisper, "but, Santana—"
"I want to," Santana repeats, more firmly this time. She squeezes Brittany's hand. "Please."
Brittany glances between the bandolier, strung with knives, still dangling from her grasp, and Santana's sure expression. Her mouth hangs slightly ajar, and Santana can hear the shortness in her breath. When Brittany next speaks, she does so in a very small voice.
"Nobody ever trusts me with important things."
Santana's heart clenches in her chest again.
Brittany almost looks away from Santana then, filled with self-doubt and the kind of shame that only comes from never precisely fulfilling the expectations others hold for you, however low or high they may be, but Santana fights to keep Brittany's gaze, standing on tiptoe to put their faces more closely together until she gains Brittany's full attention.
"Britt," she says seriously, "do you remember what you told me yesterday in the tent?"
Without breaking their eye contact, Brittany shakes her head no, a lock of hair falling down over her face. She still wears a pout, one that Santana would kiss from her lips if not for the fact that Santana still had something incredibly urgent yet to say.
Santana doesn't waver. "You promised you would die before you hurt me," she reminds Brittany, "and you've never broken a promise to me yet. I don't think you'll ever break a promise to me. I trust you."
Brittany turns even stiller than she has yet. A worshipful something else lights in her eyes.
"Okay," she says, letting out the breath she'd held.
"Okay," Santana says back.
Brittany thumbs over Santana's knuckle, memorizing the feel of it anew. "I promise I won't hurt you," she says reverently, and, even though Santana knows that Brittany speaks almost more to herself than to her, she feels compelled to reply.
"I know you won't," she agrees.
Somehow, it feels like the most important thing Santana will say to Brittany all day, even as important as I love you, if it ever comes to that.
Briefly, Santana and Brittany stand still, holding each other's hands, and Santana thinks back, for a moment, on how gently Brittany touched her yesterday in the tent, and supposes that it is a rare and precious thing that two people should trust each other as much as she and Brittany do—and especially considering that they have known each other for only such a very short time so far. Gratitude spreads, warm, through Santana's chest. Brittany gives Santana's thumb one last stroke before speaking.
"All right," she says, shifting Santana's hand away so that she can prop the backboard against the oak tree. "You'll have to stand perfectly still and not even move a little bit."
She adjusts the board where it stands, fixing it to one spot, and gestures for Santana to take a place in front of it. Nerves jitter in Santana's belly, but she ignores them, focusing instead upon following Brittany's instructions in absolute, situating herself in front of the human outline, planting her feet firmly upon the forest floor.
Once Santana stills, Brittany sets the bandolier down at her and Santana's feet. Brittany reaches for Santana and readjusts Santana's position, piloting Santana by the shoulders until Santana stands just at the perfect angle, arms fanned out at her sides and feet set slightly apart.
"Right," Santana says.
"Right," Brittany repeats. She keeps her hands set upon Santana's shoulders, holding Santana in place. "Now you have two other jobs, besides just holding still. First, you have to count throws. There are six knives in all, and you want to make sure that I throw all of them before you move from your place. Second, you've got to watch me, your eyes on my eyes the whole time, because that's the trick—that's how I'll know that I can throw and that you're ready to be not-a-target, and how I'll figure where not to aim. As long as I can see your eyes and you can see mine, I'll throw clean. It's simple."
At Brittany's word, Santana remembers the strange exchange between Mr. Pierce and Brittany today before he left her and Santana to roam the streets in Storm Lake, suddenly understanding it better than she did before.
(You ready, baby girl?)
(Sure, I'm ready, Daddy.)
"Britt," Santana says suddenly, her mind catching on something, "if your father can only throw clean when he sees your eyes, how does the blindfold trick at the end of your act work?"
For the first time since Santana caught up with her after the show, Brittany truly grins, mouth lifting into a pleased cat-smile, as if Santana's curiosity couldn't delight her more. She shifts one of her hands from Santana's shoulders and gives the backboard several sharp raps with her knuckles, banging out a quick, steady rhythm, like the drum cadence for a very lively military march.
"By sound," she says simply, pleased to share her secret.
Of course, the instant Brittany reveals the trick, Santana immediately wonders how she never noticed Brittany rapping at the board before while watching the show. Does Santana really focus so much attention on willing Mr. Pierce's throws away from Brittany that she fails to hear Brittany's signal to him?
Santana's thoughts snag again. "So why can't your father use sound to do the rest of the act, without the blindfold, then? Why does it matter if he has a spot? Couldn't you just knock on the board through the whole act?"
For Santana's question, Brittany's smile turns a bit sad. She bites her lips into her mouth and shakes her head. "The crowd goes quiet for William Tell," she explains, "but they're fluttery through the rest of the act before it—they clap and holler. We couldn't make them stay quiet for the whole thing, even if Will Schuester told them to do it."
"How have I never heard you knocking on the board before?" Santana asks.
Brittany's cat-smile returns, just a bit: "Circus magic, darlin'—you never knew to listen for it."
"Brittany—," Santana starts.
Brittany gives Santana's shoulder a little squeeze. "We won't try the blindfold today," she says, and she would be teasing if she hadn't suddenly turned so still.
Santana hasn't anymore questions, and Brittany hasn't anymore answers.
They've only the equipped bandolier and Brittany's promise between them.
I'd die first.
Brittany draws a shaky breath, and Santana nods, urging her back. Slowly, Brittany's free hand slips from Santana's shoulder. She stoops to retrieve the bandolier from the ground and steps away from the backboard, taking five long paces until she stands fifteen feet from Santana.
With another shaking breath, Brittany slithers into the bandolier so that it hangs across her shoulder, dwarfing her with its size, strange with its rough leather against the cobalt calico of her dress. She shakes her hair back from her face, smoothing it behind her ears to clear her field of vision and then fixing Santana with an unflinching stare.
"Give me a wave when you're ready," Brittany says. Then, "No rush."
Santana checks herself.
Is she ready?
The practical part of Santana can't think of anything more foolish than what she is about to do. Even though she does trust Brittany with her very life, she also knows better than to think that even love or Brittany's practice regimen could save her from sheer fateful accident.
The part of Santana that doesn't speak but only feels wants to give Brittany this gift more than anything, though.
It trusts Brittany wholly and completely.
Santana draws a deep breath, filling her lungs and expanding her ribcage. She looks around the forest, watching the way white light streams through the gaps in the trees, finding prisms hidden in the foliage. A squirrel darts across a branch and Santana loves to watch it. A bird warbles from the brush and Santana loves its song. Brittany stands before Santana, her expression solemn and drawn, her whole self beautiful with a kind of united purpose, and Santana loves her more than she ever thought it was possible to love anything or anyone before.
Santana fixes her gaze upon Brittany, finding that deepest part of Brittany's eyes—the black quick against the blue, like midnight and midday in a single sky—and holds her breath. Brittany returns her look. Santana counts out one, two, three, nods her head, and raises her hand.
It happens in an instant.
Santana would think she might fixate upon the knife—the shape of it, its trajectory, the way it glints upon the light—the same as she does while watching the Pierce's act in the big top, but she doesn't. She only notices how Brittany's pupils dilate in the split second before Brittany releases her knife, eclipsing everything else.
Brittany steps forward with one foot, lobbing the knife with the full force of her body. She moves in a blur, a blear of strength and blue. Her gaze never once breaks from Santana's and her eyes are sharp and sure and piercing.
Santana stops breathing.
Her insides seize.
She wonders if she feels pain, but the knife hasn't hit yet.
She wonders if she feels pain and the knife has hit.
Her eyelids flitter, two seconds too late.
She remains still.
She feels no pain at all.
The knife's hilt protrudes from the backboard just beside Santana's right ear, a few inches of the blade still visible beyond the wood. Santana sees metal in her peripheral vision, lodged into the board so near to her face that if she were to turn her head, she could kiss steel. Both board and blade reverberate, a dull drone against the forest quiet.
Though Santana feels compelled to move, she doesn't. Instead, she checks herself from the insides over, wonderfully aware of her own pulse, a hard throb over her skin and between her joints and around her bones; and her breath and the thoughts in her head; and always of Brittany, Brittany, Brittany, above all else. Santana remains impossibly still and holds her breath as Brittany's pupils expand again, just as they do when Brittany tells Santana secrets.
It happens so quickly, almost before Santana feels ready for it.
Brittany doesn't take another step, but she still lunges forward at an angle, her hips and arm moving in sync as she heaves a second throw toward the board.
Again, Santana holds her breath.
Again, her insides seize.
The knife rushes by her and drives, hard, into the wood just above her right shoulder, so close that if she were to stand on tiptoe, her skin would touch the blade. A jolt runs through her body, and she shudders, eyelashes fluttering, though she wills herself to not fully blink. Something deep inside her trembles, the smallest flame in the hardest wind. She presses her palms flat against the board at her back, pulse hard and lively upon the pads of her fingers.
Animal fear writhes in the pit of her belly. Her body lists to run or toss itself upon the ground for cover, but she calms herself in Brittany's eyes, catching hold of careworn blue and wishing star gold and clinging to it, breathless.
Brittany's brow furrows with concentration as Brittany throws again, the knife spinning on a full rotation and landing fierce against the backboard just beside Santana's left ear.
Santana swallows and stills herself.
The knife lands just over Santana's left shoulder. Before Santana can swallow again, Brittany takes another lunge and releases her fifth quick blade, lodging it deep beside Santana's left elbow. Santana's whole body trembles, quickened with her heartbeat.
The knife actually wobbles from the force of Brittany's arm, its flat slapping at Santana's skin, harmless though unexpected. Santana shudders and her jaw trembles as though it were winter and frigid and not July and one-hundred degrees outside.
One more knife.
If Santana were a girl accustomed to enjoying good fortune, Brittany's successes so far might comfort her. As it is, she can't help but wonder if this next throw will be the one where her luck runs out. She looks to Brittany and trusts her, though she can trust nothing else, and Brittany meets Santana with perfect evenness.
Santana wets her lips.
I trust you.
Brittany throws, this time in a high, bold arc, the knife tumbling hilt over blade in a complete round until Santana loses sight of it passing overhead of her. For an instant, Santana's heart ceases to beat in her chest, and her insides thrum. She startles, caught up in the brightness and closeness and tightness of the moment. Brittany's pupils flare so wide that they nearly blot out the blue of her irises.
Santana feels the impact just above the crown of her head, though she cannot see the knife. She feels the board reverberate at her back and through the palms of her hands. She feels the strength in Brittany's arm, even from so far away.
She feels no pain.
"Santana," Brittany says her name, an invocation.
And at her word, Santana crumbles, sinking against the backboard so that it supports her weight, rather than her knees. Santana's heart jumpstarts in her breast and a wave of heat and belated nerves washes through her, quick.
For a long moment, Brittany and Santana stare at one another, forgetting the space between them. To Santana, Brittany's eyes look wild, even more so than the bracken wood. Santana loses herself in them, feeling for an instant what Brittany feels, so connected to Brittany that she doesn't breathe her own breath.
Brittany doesn't move her eyes from Santana's face. Instead, she steps forward, her footfalls almost silent upon the forest floor except for the shush of dried leaves rustling at her ankles. Her fingertips find Santana first, brushing, feather-light, over Santana's wrists and forearms, tracing upward until they hover just above Santana's face, so close that Santana can almost feel them.
"I didn't hurt you, did I?" Brittany whispers, so quietly that Santana can scarcely hear her speak.
Santana can't find her own voice yet, so she only nods in reply.
Her signal seems to break the spell.
All at once, Brittany lets out a voiced breath and her hand finds Santana's face. She thumbs over Santana's cheek and around the shell of Santana's ear, trusting touch to prove Santana's answer more so than sight.
Even from such little contact, Santana feels Brittany quaking, shivering all the way up from her bones. Santana wonders if the tremors started before or after Brittany made her throws. She also wonders if they might ever stop again.
For an instant, Santana suspects that Brittany either wants to give her a kiss or wants to receive one from her. "BrittBritt," Santana says, and that's all it takes.
It happens in an instant.
Brittany probably means to laugh, but instead the sound comes out jagged and choked—a single sob against the forest quiet. Her face crumples, her mouth falling open and her eyes welling suddenly with tears. She draws a hand up over lips, perhaps in an effort to restrain herself from crying, but it's no use; all of Brittany's stoicism shatters like crystal dropped upon hard, stone ground.
Santana jolts. "Brittany!" she squeaks, reaching out to gather Brittany into her arms, eager to quell Brittany's distress before she even knows what's caused it.
For Santana's invitation, Brittany collapses against her, allowing Santana to catch her up, pushing her head against Santana's breast and wrapping her arms tightly about Santana's waist. Her tears wet Santana's skin just at Santana's collarbone, and she trembles, as vulnerable and wrecked as a girl tossed overboard.
"I'm sorry," she cries. "I'm sorry."
The suddenness with which Brittany throws herself against Santana catches Santana off balance, and she stumbles backward into the backboard, slumping against it, tugging Brittany down with her, slowly, until they both sit, tangled, in the leaves on the forest floor, their skirts and legs folded haphazardly beneath them. Santana still holds Brittany fast and immediately begins to press kisses into Brittany's hair.
Brittany's knives protrude from the backboard.
(A steel halo overhead.)
"It's all right," Santana promises. "Brittany, I'm fine. You didn't hurt me. I'm fine."
"Are you sure?" Brittany asks, looking up at Santana through red eyes, clinging to her so tightly that Santana wonders if she ever intends to let go.
It's clear to Santana that Brittany doesn't cry from sorrow but rather for the same reason that Santana herself cried once she realized that she loved Brittany just a few days ago—namely, because she feels caught up in something so much bigger and deeper and vaster than herself.
Santana shares Brittany's feeling, for it occurs to her that now that Brittany has looked into her eyes to throw, Brittany shall never have another person stand before the board for her except Santana—she can't, and she won't.
Something of Santana has nestled itself deep inside Brittany and made its home there, connecting the two girls in a way that has something to do with invisible strings and thread rings and, above all, their sweet, sacred, shared something else.
If Brittany will be a knife thrower, then Santana will be her girl.
Were Santana to believe in a good kind of fate, she might believe that she had even arrived at the circus especially to help Brittany, though she hadn't known it until now.
As it is, Santana realizes that it isn't the right time to speak to Brittany concerning this new inevitability between them—not with Brittany so shaken and hating herself for putting Santana in danger.
(During Santana's first days at the circus, she believed that Brittany was fearless.)
(Now she knows better: Brittany is brave.)
Santana holds Brittany tighter, stilling her tremors. She kisses Brittany's head again, soft. "You don't have anything to feel sorry about," she promises. "You were perfect, Brittany. You threw perfectly. Please don't cry or else I'll cry, too."
"Okay," Brittany agrees, her voice still thick with tears. She sniffs. "But only because the squirrels might laugh at us if we both start bawling."
Santana's heart squeezes in her chest, tight with so much love for the girl lying in her arms.
"Brittany," Santana coos and kisses Brittany's hair again, reveling in the slip of it upon her lips and how it carries Brittany's scent, the campfire, sweet, sleep, apple, and wind-wear of it. "You're okay," she says firmly and it isn't a question. "You're better than okay, actually. Let me tell you: I thought that I'd seen a knife thrower whose precision went unmatched in these fine United States, but then I just saw this other knife thrower—a lady—and she threw just as well as he did or better even. And if I had a nickel, I'd pay to see her throw again, any night of the week."
"Really?" Brittany asks, her voice suddenly small once more.
"Really, really," Santana assures her.
Brittany sniffs back the last of her tears and wipes her eyes with the back of her wrist, sloppy. "Okay," she says simply, leaning down to rest her head against Santana's chest again. She sighs, and Santana does, too.
The two girls remain tangled up in each other for a very long time. Eventually, Brittany's breathing turns even, and her muscles relax. She sinks into Santana, and Santana kisses her head again. The thing in Santana that usually runs mouse-quick and skittish slows and calms. Peace spreads through her to match the quiet of the woods.
"Brittany," she says, testing her voice against the silence. "Brittany, I—," she chooses her words carefully, selecting each one individually as a shopper might select the best, ripest apples to buy from a bushel. "I have a secret I want to tell you, but I—I don't think I can tell it to you yet—b-because it's something hard to say. I want to tell it to you, though. A lot."
She stiffens, waiting for Brittany's reply, and thinks Oh God.
(When Santana first arrived at the circus, Puck told her that the truth didn't matter anymore, but Santana knows he was wrong; it matters so, so much.)
(Santana always wants to give Brittany things.)
Brittany shifts in her arms. Her pulse quickens again, beating hard and fast at the curve of Brittany's neck and where Brittany's chest leans against Santana's. Even so, when Brittany next speaks, she does so evenly.
"Okay," she says.
"Okay?" Santana repeats, in love with the sweetness of Brittany's voice.
(Something inside Santana perks up, a flower under a healthful sun.)
"Yup," Brittany says surely. Her lips shift into what must be her cat-smile against Santana's skin. Then, "I'm good at waiting for things."
"Oh. Okay," says Santana, surprised in the pleasantest way.
A bright, grateful feeling flutters in her chest, and she adores everything about Brittany perhaps more than she has ever before. She kisses Brittany's head again, pressing butterfly-lips to Brittany's hair wherever she can.
Brittany giggles, "That tickles, darlin'."
"Really?" Santana smirks, kissing Brittany's head for what must be the twelfth time in a minute, moving closer to Brittany's ear. Brittany giggles again and squirms in Santana's arms, and Santana likes her reaction so well that she kisses Brittany just at the shell of her ear in a way that she knows will cause Brittany to squirm again.
"Not fair!" Brittany protests, wriggling in Santana's arms and laughing now outright. Santana tries to kiss Brittany again but only manages to graze her lips against the top of Brittany's head. Santana laughs, just like Brittany does, her Brittany-smile wide and bright. Brittany whines, "If you're gonna kiss like that, you've got to kiss on the lips, too!"
"Do I?" Santana teases, planting another peck just at the back of Brittany's neck, at the top of her spine, through a slippery curtain of Brittany's hair. The stoked feeling flares in the pit of Santana's stomach and between her legs.
(She would like very much to kiss Brittany all over, she thinks.)
"Yup!" Brittany says gamely, suddenly moving her hands across Santana's back and wiggling her fingers against Santana's sides through Santana's shirt, pressing into Santana's ribs, all in one quick move.
Santana squirms, squeaks, and laughs louder than she did before. Though she tries to flinch away from Brittany, Brittany holds her tight around the torso. "Britt!" Santana yelps, attempting to flatten herself against the forest floor to escape from Brittany's tickling. She laughs from the back of her throat and pushes at Brittany's shoulders, silly in her skin and so, so giddy. "Help!"
Brittany presses a kiss to the underside of Santana's jaw just against her neck but doesn't relent from her tickling. No one has teased Santana like this since Santana was a small child and her father liked to make her giggle to tire her out before bedtime. Santana tries to tickle Brittany back, but to no avail. She can't stop from laughing or dodge Brittany's touch.
"You're a menace, Brittany Pierce!" she shrieks.
In the next second, Brittany attempts to press herself over Santana, and Santana's knee slips under Brittany's back. Seizing the opportunity, Santana rocks her body, and, using all her strength, rolls over, flipping Brittany onto her back so that Brittany lies upon a bed of leaves with Santana hovering above her, their hips bracketed together.
Santana had intended to retaliate against Brittany's tickling once she gained her advantage, but now she finds herself stalled, suddenly stupid for the awesomeness of having Brittany underneath her. Though Santana so often associates Brittany with sunlight, Brittany breathes beauty beneath the forest shade, her cheeks and chest flushed, her seashell-pink lips slightly ajar, a long shadow cast over her face.
It immediately occurs to Santana that she has never straddled Brittany like this before.
The heat in Santana's belly turns urgent. Wet ribbons swim in Santana's quick as she attunes to the way Brittany breathes beneath her, Brittany's breast rising and falling, a beat running everywhere over Brittany's skin where Santana can feel it.
Santana and Brittany stare at each other, their tomfoolery forgotten in an instant.
"Hi," Brittany says, her pupils turning wider and blacker than before.
"Hi," Santana says back, dumb with wanting.
Both girls jump, and Brittany gives a violent twitch beneath Santana's legs. Santana's pulse leaps from where it had settled deep in her belly all the way back up to her throat in an instant. Everything inside her turns fleet and readies itself to run. She scrambles from atop Brittany, finding her feet, and Brittany stands, too, flustered.
Both girls search the forest clearing, their eyes darting over every tree and bush for some sign of an intruder. They check in the direction of the camp.
They see no one.
The backboard lies against the ground, fallen over. It rests at an angle, propped up against the six knife hilts near the top. Two or three knife tips poke all the way through its back like little, fanged cat teeth.
Both Brittany and Santana realize what must have happened at once and soften, letting out the breaths they held, swallowing, hard, gulping down their nerves. Santana gives a flighty laugh. Her insides still rings like an alarm bell, though she doesn't actually feel frightened anymore. Brittany laughs, too, bashful all of a sudden.
"Damn thing," she mutters, and both she and Santana laugh.
For a second, Santana hovers, not sure what she and Brittany ought to do and unused to feeling scared then safe then scared again so quickly in succession. Brittany smiles and shakes her head, laughing her silent laugh. "We should probably get going, darlin'," she says, a peculiar expression written across her face. "I need to put these things away before Daddy wakes up from his nap anyway."
"Right," Santana agrees, suddenly remembering that such a thing as a circus exists outside herself and Brittany.
Brittany offers her a smile. "Thank you," she says softly.
(It feels like something else again.)
Santana smiles back. "You're welcome," she replies. Then, "You have a leaf in your hair."
Brittany grins and straightens up so that she looks quite as dashing as she did at during the knight sketch at the matinee. "All the best forest people wear leaves, Santana," she says thoughtfully, making no effort to remove the offending leaf from her head. "They're very fashionable."
I love you.
"I'll bet they are."
The girls flip the backboard over and pry Brittany's father's knives from its face, one by one. It takes a strong arm to wrench them up, and Santana feels embarrassed that she often has to winch them free using two hands and several tugs while Brittany seems able to pluck each blade up as quickly and easily as if it were a weak weed in soft garden soil.
"Por supuesto, debes impresionarla. Muestrale tu debilidad. Bien," Santana mutters to herself.
She looks up to find Brittany biting back a smile, her eyes wonderfully bright and soft. Brittany smiles in full when Santana quirks an eyebrow at her.
"Wiggling the hilt back and forth before you pull it up helps a bit," she says.
"You're going to keep that leaf in your hair all day, aren't you?" Santana says back.
After the girls extricate all six knives from the backboard and sheaf them in Brittany's father's bandolier, Brittany gathers up the target, and they start back towards the white city, making plans for Santana to scout ahead for Brittany to make sure no one sees her with the gear once they step beyond the tree line, back onto the prairie.
As they draw closer to the edge of the wood, Brittany's expression turns contemplative.
"I think I know why it's so easy for people to find us all the time," she announces.
Santana perks up, interested. "Why?"
Brittany smiles but then looks down at her toes, retiring. "Because whenever I'm with you, my heart beats so loud that I'm pretty sure that everyone at the whole circus can hear it," she says artlessly, her cheeks and ears flooding pink.
(Santana's heart flitters in her chest, as if on bird's wings.)
For a second, she flusters, but then she knows just what to say. "Mine, too," she admits, leaning over to peck Brittany on the cheek as they walk.
(She can tell that she'll be able to say her secret to Brittany soon.)
When the girls emerge from the forest, Santana notices how much the sun has moved in the sky; it no longer hangs centrally but veers toward the western horizon. The air still swelters, almost abuzz with heat, but the shadows falling after the tents and trees stretch longer than they did before.
Just before she and Brittany step out into the open, Santana suddenly remembers something that she wanted to say to Brittany before but didn't. She takes her opportunity now: "Britt, you really should talk to Mr. Adams about your act soon. I think you're ready to show him, and I—I'll help you do it, if you like."
Brittany glances at Santana in her peripheral vision. Though Santana had expected her to flinch at the suggestion, she doesn't. Instead, she says simply, "Soon," and nods. After a minute, she adds, "We should probably practice more first, though."
She doesn't necessarily sound pleased at the idea that she'll have to lob more knives at Santana's head, but she does seem resigned to it. She shifts the board and bandolier in her arms, getting a better grip on them.
Santana nods, then adds, "Maybe we could have Sam steal us an apple out of the chuck so we can practice William Tell without the blindfold for a while."
For some reason, her suggestion makes Brittany smile, and widely. "Good idea," Brittany says, tucking the thought away for later as she and Santana finally make it to the camp.
Brittany waits just beyond the white city while Santana runs ahead to check that no potential obstacles or intrusions will obstruct their path. Once Santana returns to give Brittany the go-ahead, the girls heft the board along together, coming right up against the back flaps of the Pierce family tent, which Brittany parts, opening them just widely enough that she'll have room to take the board and bandolier back inside.
Santana refrains from breathing as Brittany pokes her head through the aperture, checking to see if her father has remained asleep in her absence. After several seconds, Brittany withdraws from the tent and turns to Santana.
All clear, she mouths, gathering up the board under one arm while carrying the bandolier slung across the other.
For a second, Santana feels terribly eager to glimpse the inside of Brittany's tent, but then she imagines what might happen if she were to poke her head inside after Brittany only to have Mr. Pierce suddenly awaken and discover her and Brittany together, toting his gear between them. Thankfully, Brittany doesn't motion for Santana to accompany her when she slips through the tent flaps, and neither does she leave the gap open wide enough after her for Santana to properly see inside. She goes alone, quick and silent, and Santana watches from without.
(The Pierce's tent remains a mystery—one that Santana doesn't feel certain she would want to solve, even if given the chance.)
For as long as Santana can't see Brittany, she frets, wondering what might happen if Brittany's father ever were to catch Brittany practicing knife throws while he slept. Santana's heart beats in syncopation, and she glances around the tents neighboring the Pierce's, wringing her hands together and waiting some sign that Brittany might need her help because something's turned out wrong.
Just when it seems to Santana that Brittany has taken too long at her task, Brittany emerges from the back flaps, head and shoulders first, and Santana startles at the sight of her. After checking down the row, Brittany steps into the sun, drawing the canvas closed behind her.
"Good and done," Brittany whispers, sidling up beside Santana, a cat-grin curling her lips. She begins to say something else, but doesn't get the chance.
"There you are!"
It takes Santana a half-second to realize that the voice saying "There you are!" belongs to a woman and another half-second after that to realize that that woman is none other than Mrs. Schuester, who appears from around the far side of the tent with Ken waddling after her like a very obedient trained toad.
In her arms, Mrs. Schuester carries what Santana immediately recognizes as the three velveteen elephant blankets that she and Brittany hid in the ladies' dressing tent before the matinee. Rather unsurprisingly, Mrs. Schuester appears as unpleased as a cat caught out-of-doors in a rainstorm, for Brittany and Santana never finished their chore.
"So you two have another day off, do you? Funny that Mr. Adams forgot to mention it to me or to Ken!" Mrs. Schuester snips. Just then, she spies the leaf still laced in Brittany's hair. "I see you've been off to play in the woods again, have you?" It isn't really a question. "We had our down day yesterday!"
Mrs. Schuester's every furious word echoes against the first partitions of the white city, loud and scathing, and Santana can't help but cower for her volume, knowing that Mr. Pierce sleeps just a few feet away from them inside the Pierce tent. Santana shuffles where she stands, unspeakably worried about what might happen if Mr. Pierce were to wake and hear that Brittany had sloughed work again.
(Santana would gladly bear Mrs. Schuester's scolding if only Mrs. Schuester would lower her voice.)
"It was lunchtime—," Brittany starts to explain, but Mrs. Schuester won't hear any excuses.
"Finn Hudson could have done more embroidery than the two of you did if I had given him those blankets, a sewing kit, and an hour to do the work!" she snaps. "Did you even lift a needle?"
Before she can stop herself, Santana blurts out, "Calm down!"
Mrs. Schuester's mouth falls open.
She probably couldn't feel more offended if Santana were to slap her.
Just at that moment, the back flaps on the Pierce's tent part, and Mr. Pierce emerges from behind the canvas, wearing the heaviest, meanest scowl that Santana thinks she's ever seen. He stumbles outside, taking in the whom and what of the small party situated just behind his tent: the head foreman and the ringmaster's wife shouting abuse at the impertinent gypsy girl, and, to what must be his great consternation, his own daughter.
His brow furrows, deeply worn, gullies through a fresh-ploughed field.
"Britt?" Mr. Pierce says questioningly, his voice even dryer than usual. He seems at a loss as to what to make of the scene before him. "What's going on?"
"I'll tell you what's going on!" Ken thunders, puffing himself up and pointing a stubby, accusatory finger at Brittany and Santana. "What's going on is that your girl keeps running off with her little nigger friend when there's work to be done, without a thought to the welfare of this company for it! Today marks the second time this week that Missus Schuester and I have had to mount up a search for these two wastrels! And it's not just that they shirk their chores—they even hid their mending job so ain't nobody else in this camp that could finish it for them, either!"
Mr. Pierce blinks, perhaps against the harsh sunlight, perhaps against Ken's harsh words. He peers at Brittany and Santana from under his heavy brow, searching them up and down. "That true, baby girl?" he asks.
(Santana shrinks at his question.)
(Somehow, she feels the same way that she always did when her own father felt disappointed in her, knowing that Mr. Pierce feels disappointed in Brittany.)
Brittany shuffles her feet in the grass and gives a lame shrug. "We didn't mean to hide the blankets, Daddy," she mumbles, stopping at that because there isn't anything else to say.
"There! You see?" Ken crows, as triumphant as if he were lawyer who had proven his case in a court of law. "She don't deny that they've been in the woods today!"
Mr. Pierce remains unsettlingly calm. "You been in the woods instead of doing your work?" he asks.
Brittany shuffles her feet again. She nods.
Briefly, Santana considers the injustice of the situation. If Mr. Pierce knew that Brittany had only gone into the woods because she wanted to save their family act and if he realized her bravery in so doing, he would most certainly defend Brittany's absence from camp life to Ken, rather than fix her with such a dissatisfied frown as he does now.
For a moment, Santana hates the circus because it is a place where so many secrets pile on top of one another that a person can hardly tell the truth about one thing without compromising something or someone else.
Santana wants very badly to clear Brittany's name to Mr. Pierce and to tell him how Brittany isn't lazy or wayward or out to shame him—all the opposite, in fact—but, of course, Santana knows that she can't do so, and especially not considering that the rules say she oughtn't to speak in this conversation unless someone asks something directly of her to start.
"Brittany clearly doesn't understand the importance of a hard day's work," Mrs. Schuester interjects, folding her arms over her apron and shaking her head at Brittany and Santana, disgusted with them.
"Spending time with the likes of this one can't help," Ken mutters, side-eyeing Santana. Then, he says, in a louder voice, "I think they ought to have some punishment, don't you?"
At Ken's suggestion, Mr. Pierce appears taken aback, and Santana doesn't know if it's because he hadn't thought to punish Brittany himself or because he dislikes Ken and Mrs. Schuester imposing themselves in his decision. He stokes over his unshaven face with a tired hand, clearing the sweat from it, and squints.
"Oh," he says. "Sure thing."
"Since they've already had their fun today, I think they oughtn't to have any spirits tonight with the rest of the company, wouldn't you say, Mr. Pierce?" Mrs. Schuester says smugly, looking very pleased with herself for her idea.
Mr. Pierce surveys Brittany and Santana up and down. If possible, he seems somehow even more haggard and pained than usual. He bites his lower lip into his mouth, and, after a second's deliberation with himself, nods.
"I suppose they oughtn't to," he says slowly.
"Serves 'em right," Ken gruffs.
Mrs. Schuester smirks, delighted with Mr. Pierce's verdict. "Very well," she says brightly. "Then I'll tell Ma Jones not to let them have any beer or cider with their supper. Let's just hope that this teaches them a lesson."
Mr. Pierce neither concurs nor disagrees with what Ken and Mrs. Schuester have said. Instead, he wipes his face again and turns to reenter his tent. As he goes, Santana can't help but notice how he ambles, unsteady on his feet and with a peculiar heaviness to his gait. Momentarily, she wonders if he might feel ill, but then she realizes that she doesn't know Mr. Pierce well enough to know one way or the other whether he truly seemed sickly or not.
Once Mr. Pierce disappears through the tent flaps, Mrs. Schuester shoots Brittany and Santana a positively evil look. "I'd have you finish the blankets now," she informs them, "but the show bell will ring soon, so there isn't time for it."
"If it were up to me, I'd have Mr. Adams cut you from the list," Ken growls. "You ain't worth half your pay." He points a stubby finger specifically at Santana: "I'll have words with your mister about you, you mark."
Both Brittany and Santana know better than to say anything in reply to Ken and Mrs. Schuester's admonishments; they nod in deference, shifting uncomfortably on the grass.
Mrs. Schuester shakes her head. "I have to go round up my girls to gather supplies for the knight sketch," she says, more to herself than to anyone. "Come on, Ken!" she snaps, gesturing for him to follow her back toward the midway side of the circus, beyond the billboards.
Santana can't say that she feels especially sorry to see either Mrs. Schuester or Ken go. She also can't say that she feels especially distraught concerning the punishment that they heaped upon her, either. After all, Santana doesn't even know what spirits taste like, never having drunk any before in her life. Who's to say she even would have even liked to drink beer and cider anyway?
Admittedly, the fact that Ken threatened to tell Puck concerning Santana's misconduct unnerves Santana somewhat but only because she fears what Puck might have to say about her spending every waking hour at Brittany's side. The less Puck knows about what Santana and Brittany get up to together during the day, the better things will be for them—and especially now that the girls must make time to practice knife throwing together.
Santana rolls her eyes at Mrs. Schuester and Ken as they go. Once they disappear from sight, she turns to face Brittany, who scarcely looks as indignant as Santana might have expected and instead actually seems somehow glum.
"I'm sorry I got you in trouble again," Brittany pouts.
(No one should look as precious as Brittany does wearing a sad face, Santana thinks. The people who make the rules simply shouldn't allow it.)
Santana flashes Brittany a consoling smile and reaches for her hand. "Britt," she says loftily, "I don't believe that you and I can go a day without getting into trouble together, so we might as well just resign ourselves to it."
Brittany's pout changes to a cat-smile. "We are trouble, darlin'," she says wisely.
Santana laughs, "And don't they know it!"
(Somewhere in the distance, the warning bell rings, but the girls pay it no mind.)
Santana notices it as soon as she arrives upon the midway: a nervous, niggling energy which snakes around the booths and through the acts and all up and down the pitch, hearable in so many tight, high voices, seeable in so many wringing hands, and readable written over so many concerned faces, in swallowing throats and in blinking eyes.
After feeling so many things with and for Brittany over the last few hours, it takes her a half-moment to realize why anyone might feel anxious right now at the evening fair, but then she remembers.
In spite of herself and the sun still shining bright over Storm Lake, Santana glances up at the sky before ducking into her gazebo. She can't decide if it feels like a bad omen day or not, considering everything that's happened to her and Brittany since sunup.
Whatever Santana thinks about the moon, Ken seems to have already fixed his ideas about it; he stands at his usual post outside Santana's booth, muttering to himself about "hocus pocus" and checking his pocket watch over and over again, too frazzled to even properly harass Santana before the bell rings and patrons begin pouring onto the midway through the gates.
For the first time since the morning fair, Santana recalls that Mr. Adams discovered her "missing" cards and that she'll soon have a new tarot deck. Her heart sinks as the first patrons form a queue outside her gazebo.
In a few days' time, she'll have more than palms to read again.
(Maybe the moon does mean bad news after all.)
Santana tends to her first two patrons easily, promising the first man that his crop may perhaps fare well if he waters it diligently to counteract the extreme Iowa heat and the second that he will have many friends if he always treats his neighbors kindly and according to the Golden Rule. When Santana's third patron sits down in the chair, Santana doesn't expect to have any difficulty telling her fortune, either. She gestures for the woman to extend her hand.
The woman doesn't comply.
"May I—?" Santana starts, her words cloaked thick in her grandmother's accent.
But the woman doesn't allow Santana to finish her question. Instead, she opens the small handbill that she carries and produces from it a folded sheet of paper, which she then offers to Santana.
"Do you read?" the woman asks.
The question affronts Santana so much that her mouth actually falls open for it.
She stares at the woman, taking in the primness of the woman's clothes and the austerity of her demeanor for the first time. The woman reminds Santana of her grandmother and looks like someone who will not take kindly to any sort of dalliance or what she perceives as such.
"I—," Santana falters, not certain if it would be best to tell the truth in order to please the woman or to lie in order to maintain her façade as the mystical Madame Rossetti, gypsy vagabond.
The woman moves the paper closer to Santana's fingers, encouraging her to take it, and it's only as she does so that Santana realizes that the paper is actually a pamphlet with letters printed over the front in thick, black ink.
THE WAY TO SALVATION IS CLEAR:
Sermon Preach'd by Rev. V. Templeton
of United Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
"Reverend Templeton says that we ought to spread the gospel to the heathens, as well as amongst our own number," the woman says seriously. "You're very young, dear. It's not too late for you to forsake the Devil and give up the wicked itinerant lifestyle you've come to live, if you'll just accept Jesus into your heart."
There are probably one-thousand things that Santana ought to say in response to the woman's words, but Santana can't think of any of them. Instead, Santana looks at the woman, dumbfounded, and blurts out the first thing that comes to mind.
"So you don't want me to read your palm, ma'am?"
(If Ken weren't so fussed about the bad news moon, Santana thinks that he might kill her.)
When Santana wraps her pinky finger around Brittany's without first saying hello, sliding in beside Brittany to take a flower and a kerchief from Mrs. Schuester's girls, Brittany gives a little gasp, surprised that Santana would appear so suddenly behind her. Once they both have their favors and veils, she allows Santana to lead her away, following Santana from the backstage area toward the two dressing tents.
Without saying anything to each other, the two girls tuck into the narrow alleyway between the canvas walls, hiding themselves from the rest of the company before the show, if only for a moment.
A timpani trill beats in Santana's chest.
She rises up on tiptoe. Her left hand holds Brittany's right, but her right hand traces over Brittany's neck and finds a place just at the hinge of Brittany's jaw. Brittany sinks into her touch and allows Santana to move her.
"I want to kiss you," Santana confides in a whisper, conspiratorial, tilting Brittany's head toward her.
Brittany inhales, sharp, and nods. "Okay," she says, waiting.
(Santana does just exactly what she wants.)
Everything about the kiss surprises Santana, despite the fact that she's the one to give it, from the way that even its first light press sends a shock down to her bones to how it makes her dizzy once it turns deeper, like dancing. It catches her up, though she had known what to expect, until she feels, for a moment, outside herself and somehow like she's managed to fit something infinitely great into a very slight space.
Though everything else in the day seethes with an almost unbearable heat, the inside of Brittany's mouth feels cool and still tastes of sarsaparilla, the lingering herbal-sweet of it.
At first, Brittany passively allows Santana to kiss her, but then she starts to kiss back and moves her lips upon Santana's in little nips and nudges. Her movements surprise Santana, too—and in the best way possible.
(Santana hadn't realized that she liked surprises until she met Brittany.)
After what must be several moments, Santana breaks the kiss, pulling back from Brittany's face, but still keeping her hand at Brittany's jaw, gentling the both of them. She opens her eyes to find Brittany flushed and wild, looking like she did when Santana straddled her in the woods.
"'On the lips,'" Santana explains, anticipating Brittany's question before Brittany can ask it. When Brittany quirks an eyebrow, not quite sure what Santana means, Santana elaborates, "In the woods, you told me I had to kiss you on the lips, so I did."
Recognition lights Brittany's face, and a dopey grin blooms at the corners of Brittany's mouth. At her expression, a surge of adoration swells in Santana's breast. She adds one last peck to Brittany's lips for good measure before her hands slip down to link around Brittany's waist. Brittany mirrors her motion so that she and Santana stand flush against each other, swaying on the spot, as if rocked by the wind.
"You can kiss me like that whenever you want," Brittany says artlessly.
Santana wears her Brittany smile. "Okay," she agrees.
After another moment, the girls peel apart, and Santana takes the two kerchiefs Brittany had held for them, arranging the lighter lavender-colored one over Brittany's hair, folding it carefully into a veil, before fitting the darker purple-colored one over her own head and allowing Brittany to do the same for her in reverse. Brittany offers Santana a small cut of clover flower and keeps a second one for herself.
"We look swell," Brittany says brightly.
"You do," Santana tells her, giving Brittany's knuckles a kiss.
Brittany meets Santana with a queer, soft look, like she has a guess about Santana but doesn't dare to hazard it. She links their pinky fingers together, snug.
(It doesn't feel like a bad omen day at all.)
It is a bad omen day.
Everything goes well through the knight sketch and the grand parade, but then it comes time for the Flying Dragon Changs to mount the trapeze, and the whole show turns wrong.
The male acrobat grabs his swing to sail out over the floor, taking a great leap to situate his body upon the bar. But just as his feet leave the safety of the platform, the lights in the big top flicker and then go dark.
Everything under the tent turns to black in an instant.
Immediately, a great scream goes up from the crowd, and even Santana standing at her usual tent aperture lets out a startled yelp. She immediately fears for the male acrobat, her stomach wrenching in a knot as she imagines his fate. The children playing in the dirt behind her look up, confused at the commotion, and crane their necks to see inside the big top. Santana hears the circus audience shrieking and groaning.
"What's going on?" someone shouts from the backstage area.
She envisions busted bones and pandemonium, and the same coroner who came to take her grandmother's body away from the bachelor cottage somehow arriving at the circus, though it's nowhere near New York, bringing his neat little leather bag with him.
The other company members in the backstage area start to stir and crowd behind her, curious, all jostling to see through the hole at the back of the big top.
A weird buzzing noise pervades the air.
The big top lights again.
The audience shrieks like it did before, and someone shouts a crass word, but Santana pays no mind, too caught up in checking on the acrobat to heed anything else. She scans the floor first and then the air, and when her eyes finally find him, she gasps.
He sways, suspended from his bar by his left armpit, the rest of his body dangling out in space like grotesque, human mistletoe hanging down from a door lintel. Though he faces away from Santana, she catches a glimpse of his expression while he swings; pain contorts his mouth and brow into a hard grimace, screwing up his features so that he almost seems angry. He caught the trapeze bar by his arm rather than his hand. His every marbled muscle flexes, rigid. It clearly takes all his strength to cling to the trapeze bar and keep from falling from the swing to the ground fifty feet below.
The rest of the audience sees the acrobat at the same time as Santana does. Ladies scream, men curse, and everything feels too much, too fast. People pour from the bleachers onto the circus floor, leaping the partitions at the same time as Ken and a half-dozen supes storm through the back flaps of the big top, beating the crowd back with a flurry of arms and what look like willow switches of the same sort one would use to drive livestock from one pen to another.
Santana doesn't know where to go or how to move. She remains frozen at the aperture, still staring at the acrobat, her heart pounding somewhere high in her throat.
(Though Santana doesn't know the acrobat by anything more than his looks, she couldn't stand it if she were to see him fall.)
With Ken and his men so embroiled in their efforts to control the rioting crowd, Santana wonders if anyone will do anything to help the male acrobat. Anxiety flutters in her chest as she watches him strain to keep his arm clamped over the bar. She wants to shout for someone to fetch a ladder, but she knows that no one will hear her do it, even if she uses her loudest voice.
Just then, something moves at the same height as the male acrobat.
Santana gasps as a swing swoops away from the second platform, this one with the older female acrobat—the one who is either the male acrobat's sister or his wife—hanging from it by both hands, just as she normally does during the first pass of her act.
Whereas the female acrobat would typically release the trapeze bar just as she reached the apex of her swing, now she allows herself to go through the full range of the swing's motion, passing back and forth like the pendulum on a grandfather clock until she finally slows to a halt, stilling alongside the other stranded Chang after several moments.
Santana watches, transfixed, as the female acrobat extends an arm to the male acrobat, coaxing him to reach for her from where he hangs. He does so, wincing, wrapping his right arm around her shoulders. Once he has a secure hold, the female acrobat guides him to slide his legs around her waist, as if he were a great sleepy child whom she meant to carry to bed.
Though the male acrobat is both much taller and much more massive than the female one, she holds him sure, waiting until he has a firm grip on her before she urges him to release his own trapeze bar, transferring his wounded arm to embrace her around the back.
In her nearly nineteen years, Santana has never seen such a feat of strength.
The woman supports the man, though he must weigh almost double what she does, her body perfectly still as he envelops her from all sides. She steadies her grip against the bar, and then, very tenderly, tilts her head down to press a kiss to the side of her partner's face. She whispers something in his ear.
(It's such a familiar motion.)
(Even just watching it feels like so many different things.)
After the female acrobat retracts from her kiss, she starts to rock her hips back and forth, building momentum to move the swing. It isn't until the male acrobat begins to swivel his hips as well that the trapeze actually budges, though.
With the circus floor still in chaos, the Flying Dragon Changs of Peking gain in altitude and motion until they finally hit an arc high enough to bring them back toward the platform where the youngest acrobat waits for them, ready to catch her cohorts up and pilot them to safety. Santana doesn't breathe until all three acrobats stand firmly on deck, the women huddling around their man, checking the extent of his injuries.
Santana wants to applaud them and cheer, but she doesn't have the chance before someone grabs her elbow.
"You all right, ladybird?"
Puck stands at her shoulder, his gypsy gear already packed and slung over his back. He glances between Santana and the aperture in the tent, reading the concern on her face. His eyes find the Changs high on their platform.
Without looking away from them, he says, "Don't worry. Mr. Adams spares no expense when he hires docs to take care of his boys. He only buys the best—you ought to know that, ladybird, what with your pa fixing up my leg and all." Puck offers Santana small smile. "Chang'll be okay."
"What about the circus?" Santana blurts out before she can stop herself.
Puck shrugs. "We'll be one-hundred miles away from here by tomorrow. No one in the next town will give a damn about what happened in Storm Lake—they won't even know about it. We'll put on another show. It'll be okay, ladybird."
(Santana doesn't know if she either loves or hates the fact that the circus never slows down or stops for anything.)
(Somehow she feels swept away in it.)
Santana glances up at the sky to find the white saucer moon full over the scorched horizon. Though she hadn't known what to think about the moon at breakfast, now she knows exactly what she thinks.
Es un mal presagio, Santana.
She shivers where she stands.
Despite what Puck says, the circus isn't okay—not really, anyway.
Mr. Adams' pocketbook takes a hit to the price of $1200 after he dispenses refunds to every single member of the evening audience. It takes another hit to the price of $150 when Mr. Adams hires the best physician in Storm Lake to set the male acrobat's shoulder bones and another $50 after that when Mr. Adams must provide the physician with the proper incentive to do work on a "yellow China man."
Ken says that both the copper wires connected to the big top's steam generator and the glass on the arc lamps melted due to the high temperature—that's why the power went out—but most people in the company seem to blame the bad news moon for the catastrophe and grumble about how the evening show was doomed right from the start.
The company agrees that the male acrobat was lucky, given the circumstances. He's lucky, they say, even on such a night as this one, with so much hocus pocus about it.
For her part, Santana wonders how a person can both be lucky and have bad things happen to him all at once.
(When she considers her own secret, unbounded thankfulness that the lights went out during the acrobat routine rather than during the knife throwing act, she knows she ought to feel ashamed of herself.)
Santana will say one thing to defend the full moon: Brittany looks so beautiful under its light.
Following the show, Santana waits at the end of the family tent row while the rest of the company treks to the mess pit for supper. Eagerness titters in her heart as she watches for Brittany to emerge from the Pierce's tent.
After not too long, canvas rustles and Brittany appears upon the grass, already changed back from her circus costume into her blue sundress. Moonbeams weave strands of silver through Brittany's hair and bathe her skin in lustrous white, and a backdrop of ink blue and diamonds fans out behind her. Santana can't quite reason out how Brittany seems more beautiful at their every meeting, but she doesn't mind not knowing.
(Sometimes mysteries are beautiful just in themselves, she supposes.)
With the setting of the sun, the air has cooled considerably and the earth with it, though the night still feels abundantly warm—at least as much so as a usual summer afternoon. The moon shines bright over the circus, so great and luminous that it renders every detail on Brittany's face visible to Santana, right down to the blue of her eyes.
Brittany treads lightly over the grass, and when she reaches Santana, she stands up on tiptoe to press a kiss at the top of Santana's head.
"I had to put Daddy to bed for the night," Brittany explains. She shoots a glance over her shoulder, back toward the midway. "It's been a long time since we only put on one and a half circuses on a traveling day," she says, totally serious.
"It scared me tonight, when the lights went out," Santana confesses.
Brittany nods. "Me, too," she agrees.
(Just then, it occurs to Santana that one week ago, she had no one to whom she could admit her fears. It also occurs to her what a great thing it is to have a person in her life—to have Brittany—who will not only listen to her fears but will also never fault her for having them.)
(What a great thing it is to have a person—Brittany—to love her back.)
Brittany and Santana walk to the mess pit, pinky-fingers linked together and arms swinging between them. When Ma Jones sees them step up to the serving table to get their plates, she shoots them a very stern look, warning the girls without words that they oughtn't to try to get themselves any beer or cider or she'll wring them out for it.
Despite the fact that Misters Adams and Fabray declared that the company should make themselves merry tonight and celebrate Arthur and Quinn's engagement, most of the circus folk seem subdued or even in a foul mood, given the outcome of tonight's show, with the major exception being Puck and his friends, who revel in the "gift" that Mr. Adams bought for them, filling cup after tin cup with spirits, almost to the neglect of their food.
Though Santana would never say as much aloud, inwardly, she must admit that she does wonder what beer and cider taste like and how they affect one's thinking, watching the boys drink.
Santana's father occasionally enjoyed hard liquors with his physician friends and said that drinking brandy, bourbon, and scotch would avail the constitution of any gentleman who imbibed such drinks in moderation. However, Santana's grandmother was an abstemia and would take no drink save for milk or water and who forbade Santana from partaking of alcohol, as well. Although the old woman had not set foot in Catholic church for many years since moving from San Juan to America, she clung to an old pamphlet, written in Spanish, that the padre at her former parish had given to her, which decried the evils of alcohol.
"Esto convierte a los hombres en tontos, Santana," she said firmly, settling the matter.
(Now Santana wonders if alcohol would have the same effect on a gypsy girl as it would a man, if she were to drink it.)
Santana must watch the boys throw back their cups with a bit too much interest because, eventually, Sam seems to notice Santana's attention on him and looks down from his bench to where she and Brittany sit upon the ground, quirking a curious eyebrow at her.
"Would you ladies like me to get you some cups?" he asks, gesturing to the kegs lined up alongside the chuck wagon.
Brittany shakes her head. "You'd better not," she says flatly.
Sam's brow furrows in confusion. "Why not?"
"Well, for one thing, I think Ma Jones might never feed you supper again, if you did—," Brittany starts.
"—and, for another, I think Mrs. Schuester might murder you," Santana finishes.
For a second, Sam looks genuinely concerned, but then the corners of his mouth turn up into a knowing smirk. He chuckles. "All right," he says, "what did you two do now?"
Brittany answers without blinking: "We robbed a bank while we were in town today."
"And then we held up a stagecoach like Mr. Jesse James," Santana adds.
Sam's smile turns goofy, and he shakes his head, feigning that he can't believe Brittany and Santana's nerve. "Now I know that last part isn't true," he says, "because if it were, Kenny would have already locked both of you in the lion cage by now."
"You don't know that. We could have escaped," Brittany says seriously.
Santana decides to confess their real crime: "Mrs. Schuester gave Britt and me some sewing to do, and we didn't finish it before the shows, so she and Ken said that we couldn't have any beer or cider to drink with our supper tonight."
Sam's jaw drops and his eyes turn wide. "They don't have the right!" he says, perhaps a bit too loudly, pounding his tin cup down upon the tabletop so that some of his cider sloshes over the side of it. "Mr. Adams got that stuff to celebrate Arthur's engagement! He said it was for everyone."
(Santana would almost laugh at Sam's level of consternation, except that she can't help but find it so very, very kind.)
"It's all right," she says automatically. "I've never even tasted beer or cider anyway, so I don't even know what I'm missing."
If Sam seemed shocked before, he now appears positively flabbergasted. "You've never tasted beer or cider at all?" he asks. Sam reaches across the table to nudge Puck into the conversation. "Noah, did you know your wife has never tasted beer or cider before?" he says loudly.
Puck screws up his face. "She hasn't?" he says, glancing at Santana seated on the ground. His lips twist into his devil smirk. "Well, if she hasn't tasted beer, how can she ever know that God loves her?"
Sam chuckles, "I wondered the same thing!"
(It must be some joke that Santana doesn't understand.)
Santana glances away from the boys, suddenly immensely nervous, and reaches out for Brittany's hand upon the grass without thinking before she does so. "It's all right," she says again. "I'm not even sure if I'd like it all that much, really."
"Well, do you like wine?" Sam asks.
Santana hesitates to tell the truth, knowing that if she does so, the boys will likely only shout even more and even louder than they have so far. "I—I've never drunk wine before, either," she admits in a small voice.
Just as Santana expected, at her word, Puck curses loudly, and Sam nearly falls off his bench in astonishment. Santana shuffles where she sits, wanting for words, but before she can think up any to say, Brittany's hand wraps around her wrist.
"It doesn't matter if Santana's never had wine or beer or cider before," Brittany says firmly, "because she and I aren't supposed to drink anything but water tonight anyway."
"Says who? Bullshit!" Puck shouts, waving Brittany's assertion away as if it were a pesky swarm of gnats. He smacks the boy sitting across to him—Rory—meanly on shoulder with the back of his knuckles. "Waiter, go get my wife some beer!" he says, offering up his own empty tin cup as a receptacle.
Rory blinks in confusion, not having followed the conversation to this point.
"Puck, no!" Brittany says. "We're being punished for not doing our chores earlier! Mrs. Schuester and Ken said that Santana and I can't have any beer or cider to drink with our supper, and Ma Jones will probably hogtie anyone who tries to sneak it to us!"
Puck frowns. "Well, why'd you go and skive off on your chores, ladybird?" he says, clearly annoyed that he won't enjoy the opportunity to introduce Santana to the pleasures of drinking alcohol tonight.
Sam interjects. "Doesn't matter," he says.
"Try telling that to Theresa Schuester," Puck says sourly.
Sam rolls his eyes and ducks his head down, gesturing for Puck, Rory, Santana, and Brittany to all lean in closer to him, which they do. "Doesn't matter," he repeats, this time in a serious whisper, "because we're going to get Santana and Brittany a little something to drink tonight anyway, never mind what Mrs. Schuester and Ken have to say about it."
"Hey, what's going on?"
At first, Santana worries that someone in authority may have noticed Sam's clandestine conference, but when she looks up to find the source of the question, she sees that it's only Finn Hudson, seated at the end of the table, with Blaine the trilby tramp and Kurt the juggler at his elbows. Finn, Blaine, and Kurt peer interestedly at the patchwork colloquium before them.
"They're up to something," Kurt observes, taking in the five guilty faces staring up at him, using his fork to gesture at Puck, Rory, Sam, Brittany, and Santana as a group.
(Until now, Santana had never heard Kurt speak.)
(The height and shrillness of his voice surprises Santana very much.)
Sam flusters under Finn, Kurt, and Blaine's attention, but Puck just rolls his eyes and waves them over to join the conversation.
By the time they finish their supper, the group has a plan.
They'll meet after midnight. Puck and Santana will stay in their tent while the other boys steal the spirits. Kurt volunteers to keep a lookout while Sam, Finn, Rory, and Blaine sneak into the mess pit to rustle up whatever full kegs they can find at the back of the chuck. Finn offers to bring a wheelbarrow to help them move the goods, and Blaine donates a length of rope to tie the kegs down in the wheelbarrow so they don't roll around in transit.
Following the heist, Puck and Santana will rendezvous with the others, and then they'll have only to retrieve Brittany from the Pierce tent for the night. The boys elect Santana as the fittest person to do that job, noting that she is not only the smallest and also the lightest on her feet amongst their number, and also that Mr. Pierce would probably take less unkindly to finding Santana crouched at his daughter's bedside than he would to finding Sam or Puck or Finn in the same position.
Though Puck says that their band of merry thieves ought to make the most of what they have and drink the kegs dry once they pilfer them, Sam thinks it better to drink in moderation and return the rest of the stores to the mess pit before the gang goes to sleep. For the most part, the others agree with him.
("Ma Jones will appreciate that," Brittany says knowingly.)
Of course, Santana protests that the group really oughtn't to break so many rules, and particularly not when she and Brittany have already so displeased Ken and Mrs. Schuester and Mr. Pierce earlier in the day, but the boys seem to have made up their minds about everything and won't heed Santana's concerns.
"Don't worry so much, ladybird," Puck admonishes her. "If anything goes wrong, I'll take the punishment on my head. I won't let ol' Kenny lay a finger on you."
As everyone finishes eating, the boys synchronize their pocket watches and wish each other luck. Santana's heart flutters like book pages in the wind, and she suddenly feels hot again, like she did before the sun set. Brittany's hand moves against Santana's wrist.
"Come put these plates away with me, darlin'?" Brittany says, taking up her and Santana's dirty dishes and nodding toward the chuck. A knowing something glints in her eyes under the moonlight. "I'll bring her right back," Brittany promises Puck, who responds to both Brittany's statement and Santana's exit with naught but a disinterested grunt.
As soon as Brittany and Santana step out of earshot from the table, Brittany offers Santana a sympathetic pout.
"I can take one of those plates," Santana says lamely, reaching over to lighten Brittany's load, but Brittany dodges Santana's proffered help and pouts her lip out further.
"Are you okay?" she asks. "Because we don't have to go along with their plan, if you don't want to. You could pretend you couldn't find me when you went looking inside my tent because maybe I went out sleepwalking or something or maybe you could just fall asleep in my tent with me and forget to go back to the boys. We could just stay inside. Beer and cider don't taste that good anyway. Well, at least beer doesn't."
Santana smiles in spite of her nerves, allowing herself to imagine, for the briefest instant, what it might be like to fall asleep with Brittany in Brittany's bed, with Brittany's body curled around her, warm, soft, and dreaming.
(But then she imagines what Mr. Pierce might say upon discovering her and Brittany together in the morning and shudders.)
"I think if anybody finds out about this, Ken will let the lions have me for breakfast," Santana replies, only mostly joking.
Brittany offers her a sweet, lopsided smile. "No, he wouldn't," she says seriously. "You'd never fill them up, and they'd be hungry all day. He hates it when they yowl on the train."
Santana laughs. "Oh, that makes me feel much better, then."
"It should," Brittany says smugly just as she and Santana round the corner of the chuck. "You're way too tiny to make good lion chow—"
"I know you're planning something fell."
Rachel Berry stands between Brittany and Santana and the washtubs, arms folded over her chest and expression impossibly stern. Under the bright moonlight, Santana sees the brown in Rachel's eyes, as well as the consternated crease in her brow.
(A few feet away, Ma Jones' girls look up from their work at the washtubs, interested, and watch the confrontation before them as if it were a play.)
"Oh, no, see, don't worry, nobody was really going to feed Santana to the lions. We were just talking about how—," Brittany starts to cover.
"I'm not stupid," Rachel says firmly, still rooted to her spot. "I know you're planning something—you and Puck and Sam and Finn—and I know that you mean mischief."
"Oh, you mean at the table?" Brittany says, playing daffy. "No, Puck was just telling us one of his saloon jokes, and he didn't want Ma Jones to overhear because she doesn't like cussing in her kitchen so—"
"You know, I don't expect Santana to care much about this circus, being so new to it and all," Rachel says, talking over the top of Brittany words, "but I would have thought that you might care, Brittany. After the loss we took today, Mr. Adams can't afford to deal with any more problems! You should know that!"
A real desperation rings through Rachel's words, and, with it, Santana realizes that Rachel doesn't just speak for the sake of being contrary but rather because she actually feels worried.
(Rachel Berry is the girl who cares too much about everything.)
(Santana knows just the type.)
Rachel goes on, "And you can't keep skipping out on your work and playing games, either! We all have jobs to do around camp. You never used to get in so much trouble, Brittany, but ever since you've befriended Santana, it seems like you don't do anything but cross Mrs. Schuester and leave your father alone when he needs your help! What would your mother think if she—?"
With Rachel's every new word, Santana's heartbeat grows louder in her ears, and guilt gnaws at her stomach because Rachel is right, Santana knows that she is—Santana and Brittany do get into more than their fair share of trouble around camp, and they break all sorts of rules together.
Even so, when Rachel says the part about Brittany's mother and Brittany draws a startled breath—of the same sort that she might draw if someone were to suddenly slap her—Santana doesn't feel apt to agree with what Rachel says at all, no matter how right Rachel may be concerning everything else. Santana's guilt turns to something sharp and ironclad, hardening in the pit of her belly.
"You really don't get it, do you?" Santana snaps. "There's a reason why you don't have any friends around here, and it's because you boss everyone who might be your friend away and make everything your business, even when it's not. Maybe if you learned to shut your giant, freak show-mouth every once in a while and stopped making such a pest of yourself, people would invite you to tell jokes or play games or plan things with them for a change, and I wouldn't have more friends than you do, even though I've only been here a week."
A chorus of ooh's goes up from Ma Jones' girls, seated along the edges of the washtubs, and one of them even bangs her hand against the side of the tub in surprise, clanging it like a cymbal.
To her credit, Rachel doesn't cry, and her eyes don't even well with tears. She swallows once, hard, and grimaces, regaining her composure.
After several seconds of silence, she says, in a small, clipped voice, "Please just don't do anything that Mr. Adams will regret in the morning," before turning on her heel and walking away, disappearing into the shadows beyond the mess pit.
(Of course, it had been too long since Santana shouted at someone and made a villain of herself before an audience.)
Brittany has never seen Santana shout at anyone before, not in person, and, for a moment, Santana dreads to think that Brittany might suddenly think less of her because of it. Her heart snags in her chest. Before she checks Brittany's reaction, Santana prepares herself to see shock or disgust.
Instead, she finds Brittany wearing another one of her unreadable expressions, full of so many somethings that Santana hardly knows what to make of them all. This expression seems vaguely gracious but also faraway, wistful, and quietly sad.
"Rachel talks too much sometimes," Brittany says simply, looking off into the darkness.
"She does," Santana agrees.
Santana will despise herself for savaging Rachel again at some later point, but, at the moment, she can't find it in her to care about anything except the way the Brittany leads her along to the washtubs, depositing their dirtied dishes there, taking Santana's pinky finger in her own and giving it a little squeeze.
Thank you for understanding.
(The truth is that Santana would shout at Rachel Berry again in front of the whole circus in a heartbeat, and would even do so a thousand times over, if only it would keep Brittany's precious heart from hurting.)
Puck tells Santana to sleep as much as she can before midnight and promises that he'll keep watch until it's time for her to wake. Santana doesn't remember falling to sleep, but she must do so because eventually she feels one of Puck's big, rough hands jostling her shoulder, shaking her from dreams that she'll never remember later.
"Come on, ladybird. It's time for us to go have some fun," Puck says.
Santana can't see Puck's face through the tent darkness, but his voice sounds boyish, clearer and more honest than usual. When he opens the tent flaps to let in the moonlight, Santana exhales, hiding her nerves beneath his noise. She doesn't share his enthusiasm for the night's activities, to say the least. She sits on the edge of her cot and removes the bangle bracelets at her wrists and ankle, setting them down on the cloth sling of the bed.
"Good thinking, ladybird," Puck commends her.
Santana nods, tense.
Getting up to follow Puck outside to the mess, Santana feels a high pitch of nerves ringing through her breast, as if she's caught in that one split instant when the train first starts moving down its morning tracks though her body has yet to realize the motion. Santana washes her face in the steel basin and works her fingers through her hair before following Puck outdoors.
She had forgotten the brightness of the moon while she slept, and part of her wonders if the boys wouldn't have been smarter to plan this heist for a darker night when they could fully conceal themselves in shadow.
As it is, Santana finds that she can see every inch of the circus almost as well as if it were daytime. Silvery light pours out over the white city like the mercury that once bled from one of her father's glass thermometers when she accidentally shattered it upon the floor, playing as a child.
She and Puck meet up with Sam, Finn, Rory, Blaine, and Kurt just beside the small neighborhood of tents bordering the mess pit. The boys already have Finn's wheelbarrow packed and fitted up with two kegs, one presumably filled with cider, the other with beer, and both of them tied down with cotton rope so that they won't jostle even an inch when the wheelbarrow rolls.
Kurt wears what Santana recognizes as his bag of juggler's equipment slung over his shoulder. Momentarily, she wonders why Kurt bothered to bring his gear along on an adventure in thievery, but she doesn't get the chance to ask Kurt or anyone else about his decision before Puck pipes up.
"How did it go?" Puck whispers, though the success of the heist seems obvious, given the spoils.
Sam smiles his goofy smile. "Ken was keeping guard," he says, "almost like he expected us to come, only—"
"—he was drunk and fast asleep," Rory finishes, grinning. He talks with a thick accent that Santana doesn't recognize and almost can't understand.
(Santana hadn't realized that Rory was perhaps less American than herself until he opened his mouth.)
"So he didn't see you?" Puck checks.
"No," Finn says. "He won't even know the barrels are gone."
"We could probably dance a hoedown right beside him without him noticing it," Blaine smirks.
"Good," Puck says, pleased with his friends' work and also their good fortune.
Santana feels less enthused for the boys' success. As she sees it, something about this plan must unavoidably go wrong, and if it wasn't the boys' heist, then it will surely be her own adventures in whisking Brittany out of her family tent in the dead of night. After all, Santana so seldom enjoys good luck; Mr. Pierce will undoubtedly wake, and then he'll skin Santana alive or—worse yet—do something to punish Brittany for making mischief with the little gypsy girl.
"Let's go get Britt," Sam says happily, gesturing for the party to follow him back toward the neighborhood with the family tents.
"Get ready to make like a cat, ladybird," Puck counsels Santana. "You've got to be light on your feet and move quick. No dawdling, and keep quiet. We'll all wait outside for you. If something goes sour, just holler, and we'll come get you."
Despite Puck's assurance that the boys will protect her should something go wrong, Santana still feels nauseous as she imagines what might happen should she make a mistake. One misstep on her part could end this night in a brawl between her fake husband and Brittany's mountain man father—the latter of whom carries a Bowie knife at his belt—and ultimately lead to her or Brittany's or everyone's dismissal from the circus.
Stepping up to the Pierce's door, Santana realizes that she's never actually seen the inside of Brittany's tent and so doesn't know the layout of it. What if she blunders into Mr. Pierce's bed by mistake or knocks something over in the dark? Any clumsiness on her part tonight could awaken not just Brittany and her father but also everyone else in the whole circus in an instant.
"All right," Sam breathes, reaching forward to peel back the tent flaps.
Santana flinches and grabs his wrist. "No!" she hisses, perhaps a bit more loudly than she had intended to do.
Everyone cringes all at once, halting where they stand, and, for a full minute, no one dares to move or breathe. Only after Santana's voice fades from the air does everyone shift again and Sam speak.
"What?" he asks, fixing Santana with a concerned look.
"Don't open the tent flaps," Santana whispers, much more quiet than before. "You'll let moonlight inside the tent and wake Mr. Pierce."
Understanding dawns upon Sam's face, and he moves his hand away from the canvas doors quickly, as if they were a dog about to bite his fingers. Sam draws back, showing Santana that he won't move again unless she instructs him to do so. The other boys wait alongside him, all of them looking to Santana, silently questioning her as to how she intends to get inside the tent, if not through its doors.
If Santana didn't feel so impossibly nervous, she might smile in response.
Her answer to their unspoken query is a simple one.
Without a word, Santana drops to her knees and lies down on her belly. The boys watch her in wonderment, and she even hears Puck breathe out a blasphemy in surprise. Santana tries her best to ignore her audience, focusing instead on steeling herself to perform her trick—one she learned just less than one week ago on a day when she sat inside her own tent, sewing felt knight shifts together with red string.
Santana crawls forward along the grass by her elbows until she reaches the place where the tent canvas rests upon the ground. Drawing a quick breath—her heart beats in syncopation—she slithers into the tent from the outside, crawling under the wall in one sleek, musteline motion.
The tent canvas weighs heavier than Santana had imagined that it would, but, all the same, after just a split instant, Santana emerges into the Pierce's tent as a diver would emerge from beneath a cresting wave back to breathable air.
No moonlight permeates the inside of the tent. Everything is black and deep, almost as if it were in the depths of Solomon's Mines. Santana hears breath and sees shadows, at first formless but then in some detail.
For a long while, she remains motionless, waiting for her eyesight to return to her. Her heartbeat never stops its syncopation. If Brittany and her father were awake, they would surely hear the fear pulsing, hard, beneath Santana's skin. Heat latent in the earth seeps into Santana's palms and knees and bugs hop through the grass around her wrists and against her skirt. Gradually, she begins to discern the landscape of the space before her.
While Santana's own tent only runs about eight feet in length, four feet in breadth, and stands just a little bit taller than Puck in height, the Pierce's tent must be nearly twelve feet by ten feet in dimension and stretches at least tall enough for Mr. Pierce to stand up straight at the apex of it, perhaps even on his tiptoes.
Just beyond the small "foyer" where Santana crouches, a thin cloth partition runs down the center of the tent along the main frame almost like a shower curtain, dividing the tent into two "rooms." Beyond the two rooms exists another foyer at the back of the tent, filled up with large, murky shadows, the exact shapes of which Santana can't discern through the dark.
(Mr. Pierce's backboard for the knife throwing act, maybe, along with some other furniture.)
From her place on the ground, Santana can see that each room houses a cot and a toilette set perched on a modest end table. She can also see that each cot supports a sleeping person. Her heartbeat speeds in her breast.
Santana takes a long while deciding which cot belongs to Brittany, tracing out the shapes of the two sleeping people carefully, over and over again, and listening to their breathing until she feels certain that Brittany sleeps on the cot to her left and Mr. Pierce on the cot to her right. Only a few feet of space and a cloth partition separate the girl Santana means to wake from the girl's very dangerous father, and Santana feels helpless in the darkness considering the situation.
Of course, it would be foolish for Santana to stand.
From a crouching position, she'll be less likely to run into anything when she moves. She'll also be less visible, should Mr. Pierce open his eyes to search the room. The lower Santana remains to the ground, the better off she'll be.
So she crawls.
Only about four or five feet of space separate Santana from Brittany's bedside, but it may as well be all the distance that Santana has traveled with the circus since leaving New York City, considering her trepidation in traversing it.
Santana crawls forward at a molasses pace, pausing at every loud breath and motion. When a moth flutters against Santana's cheek, her heart all but stops in her chest. When Mr. Pierce sighs in his sleep, she nearly dies upon the grass.
After maybe ten minutes or perhaps forever, Santana arrives at Brittany's bedside. Vaguely, she wonders if the boys outside have started to fret because she hasn't emerged from the tent yet, but even in so wondering, she can't force herself to rush—not with so much at stake.
(Not when Brittany's sleeping.)
Santana rests her fingertips at the edge of Brittany's cot and shifts into a kneeling position, hovering just above Brittany though she takes care not to touch Brittany just yet. Through the darkness, Santana can hear Brittany's breathing and feel the life in her, the warmth and the gentle being of it. She senses Brittany's shape, Brittany's graceful falls and curves, and a vast sense of knowing fills her.
With the greatest reverence, Santana shifts so that she can see Brittany's face through the darkness. Santana had, of course, expected to find Brittany beautiful cloaked in shadow. All the same, Santana lets out a little astonished gasp at finding Brittany so fiercely beautiful, even without light.
(Brittany is the best surprise.)
Brittany's hair fans out across her pillow as if she were a heroine enthroned in one of Mr. Waterhouse's portraits, and her body flows like a river down the cot, angled here at her shoulders and there at her hips in wending turns and traces. She wears a blank expression, her lips slightly parted, and sleeps with one hand pressed over her heart, the other half-open at her side, easy.
The gloom brings out the blanche in Brittany's skin and the soft peace in her sleeping features, but even more than that it, brings out something in Santana—and particularly when Santana sees what Brittany holds in her half-opened hand as she sleeps.
In the darkness, the flower appears much less pink and much more wilted than it did tucked into Brittany's sash at the matinee show. Even so, Santana recognizes the favor at once, as much by the way that Brittany cradles it like a good luck charm in her hand as by the delicacy of its dragon-faced petals.
(Santana Lopez isn't the only girl at the circus with flipped copper pennies, pulled strings, so many low, sweet somethings.)
When Santana recognizes the flower, her heart turns in her chest, tumbling over with that same falling feeling that sometimes suddenly awakens her when she's just begun to dream. It's giddy and wonderful and overwhelming, so much so that Santana almost startles for it.
She hadn't imagined that she could somehow love Brittany more than she already did.
All at once, Santana knows exactly why Mr. Perrault's princes so often deign to kiss sleeping maidens. Still, Santana hesitates to kiss Brittany while Brittany sleeps, remembering how much it panicked her to awaken to Puck's kisses on her second day at the circus. She doesn't want to jolt Brittany or cause Brittany to cry out, and neither does she want to kiss Brittany if Brittany doesn't want to kiss her back.
(She's never felt as careful about anything as she does about Brittany.)
Santana lingers just above Brittany's face, so close that she can feel Brittany's eyelids flutter as Brittany dreams. Slowly, Santana reaches up from the edge of the cot and strokes her thumb along Brittany's jaw.
Brittany, she breathes, voiceless, her lips not quite touching Brittany's skin.
Brittany's eyes open to the dark.
"San—?" she starts.
Santana doesn't allow Brittany to finish the name.
Instead, Santana hushes Brittany with another stroke to Brittany's jaw, this one bidding Brittany to move to her. In silence, Santana coaxes Brittany's lips against her own, holding still so as not to give Brittany a fright and also so as to allow Brittany to find the kiss for herself, inviting Brittany to take the lead, which is something that Brittany does readily and with remarkable quickness, catching Santana's bottom lip between her own before fully fitting their mouths together.
Brittany's tongue slips against Santana's, and, all of a sudden, this may just be Santana's favorite kiss that she and Brittany have shared to date—so sleepy, artless, and sloppy. It's a new sensation to Santana, kissing Brittany in such fathomless darkness, not being able to see anything, only to hear and to feel and to know. Brittany shifts, and Santana follows her, helpless. Brittany shifts again and Santana falls even more deeply in love.
She could stay in the darkness kissing a dreamy Brittany forever.
Brittany lets out a pitched sigh against Santana's lips, and Santana turns rigid.
They're not alone.
Mr. Pierce could awaken at any instant—and especially if Brittany and Santana make noises in the dark. Never mind what the boys say about Mr. Pierce taking less unkindly to finding Santana hovered at his daughter's bedside than one of them; Mr. Pierce would hate the girl kissing his daughter awake, if he were to see her. Santana's heartbeat speeds, thumping hard against her breastbone, as she imagines every possible poor outcome to her adventure in the Pierce's tent.
Brittany notices Santana's new caution; she stills against Santana's lips.
Slowly, soundlessly, she and Santana break apart.
Though it's too dark inside the tent to see colors or deep relief, the girls find each other's eyes and check each other, recalling their plan to each other without words. Brittany nods, signaling to Santana that she's fully awake now, and Santana offers Brittany a hand, helping her to sit up off the bed. Brittany sets the trefoil down on the end table beside her cot, wearing a bashful look as Santana watches her do it.
For a full minute, Brittany and Santana wait, receding into the stillness of the night and hoping that Brittany's father hasn't noticed their small rustlings. They listen for the steady rhythm of Mr. Pierce's breathing, counting it out as though his every exhalation were one his daggers finding the backboard during the act.
Brittany moves like liquid, melting from her cot to the grass beside Santana in a single, deft motion. Once she steadies herself on the ground, Brittany smiles at Santana through the blackness and leans in to press a peck to Santana's cheek, misaiming to kiss Santana's eyebrow instead. Santana must make a silly face at Brittany's mistake because Brittany's expression all but brims over with adoration for it, and, in the next second, Brittany leans in again, kissing Santana properly—though quickly—on the lips.
(Santana wants to spend every night kissing Brittany to sleep and every morning kissing Brittany awake for more reasons than there are numbers.)
Brittany pulls back, still wearing her soppy, adoring smile. She gestures toward the door and nods, indicating that she and Santana ought to make their exit.
Just then, it occurs to Santana that, so far, nothing has gone wrong with the plan tonight.
(Is there really such thing as good luck kisses?)
As it turns out, Brittany leaves the tent much more quickly than Santana entered it, making it from her bedside to the door in less than a single minute and moving with such aplomb that Santana can't help but wonder if Brittany hasn't snuck out of bed before in the middle of the night.
Not wanting Brittany to leave her behind, Santana adopts Brittany's swift pace, following at Brittany's ankles.
When the girls reach the canvas tent flaps, Santana doesn't even have to instruct Brittany not to open them, lest she let in the moonlight; Brittany offers Santana a wily look, and, without any formal adieu, she slithers gamely under the door, knowing that Santana won't be long behind her.
(Whoever would have thought that quiet, well-behaved Santana from the bachelor cottage would fall in love with Brittany, the bravest, most adventuresome girl in the entire world?)
Puck takes Santana under the arm the instant she emerges from the tent and drags her roughly to her feet. To Santana's side, Brittany stands near Sam, both of them looking pink-cheeked and eager. For the most part, the boys seem glad to see Brittany and Santana well and safely returned after their adventure inside the Pierce's tent, but Puck wears a cross expression.
"We thought you'd forgotten that the party's out here, not in there," he hisses at Santana, dusting her skirt of stray grass with the backs of his knuckles.
Santana flinches, not sure of what to say. She can't explain the reason for her delay to Puck—not now or ever, really. Her mouth hangs open.
"Sorry," Brittany apologizes, though Puck hadn't addressed her.
"Shh," Kurt reminds them, sharp.
"Let's just go so that we can drink some beer," Sam mouths.
Santana had almost forgotten the full object of their plan.
The truth is that Santana dreads to drink alcohol more than she even dreaded to steal it. Santana knows from her grandmother's Spanish pamphlet that alcohol lowers one's inhibitions, encourages licentious behavior, and loosens the tongue—and to the girl with secrets already threatening to spill from her lips at every passing moment, that last prospect in particular seems especially worrisome.
Santana already has to check herself from blurting out her love for Brittany every time Brittany smiles at her or calls her "darlin'" or looks particularly sweet; she can only imagine how difficult it will be to mind her words after she's tasted some beer and cider and given herself over to strong drink.
Of course, it's not that Santana doesn't want to confess her love to Brittany—she just doesn't want to do so in a drunken rush, and especially not with Puck, Sam, Finn, Kurt, Rory, and Blaine all listening in when she does so.
If Santana is going to tell Brittany the truth, she wants it to be in the perfect moment and with the perfect words.
Brittany is Santana's most special thing, after all.
Their small rabble of thieves escapes the white city without incident and makes it safely beyond the tree line, stopping upon the shores of Storm Lake, where they decide to stage their revelries. With no one around to hear them, the boys take to whooping and crowing, celebrating their successful larceny with a special kind of rapscallion abandon.
"This is the tops!" Finn shouts, stooping over to scoop up a handful of beach sand, which he promptly throws in Puck's eyes.
Puck snarls "Watch it, jackass!" and retaliates by shoving Finn harshly into Rory, elbowing Finn with such force that Santana hears him do it, even from several feet away.
Both Finn and Rory topple over, but Blaine immediately rears up to avenge them, tackling Puck around the waist so that they both hit the ground, too. After a few more yelps and thrown punches, Sam also somehow enters the brawl. Amongst the boys, only Kurt hangs back, squeaking and dodging out of the way when the other wrestlers try to drag him into their fracas.
For their parts, Brittany and Santana take to watching the boys as they tussle, marveling to see all of these alleged friends beating one another so savagely. Eventually, Santana takes a seat upon the sand. She doesn't realize her own quietness until Brittany sits down next to her.
"You know we can talk now, right?" Brittany reminds Santana gently, reaching for Santana's hand and working over the soft space between Santana's thumb and forefinger, rubbing at something below the skin.
The air coming up off the lake smells fishy, though the lake water itself appears dark as ink and entirely clean. Moonlight reflects over the small disturbances along the lake's surface, catching on this ripple and that small wave, and also illuminating the whole beachfront as brightly as if it were afternoon and not already long past midnight. The lake laps gently at its own shoreline, spurred on, Santana knows, by the gravity of the great bad omen hanging in the sky above it.
Santana had never walked on a beach until today and finds that she very much enjoys the feeling of the fine, powdered sand on her skin. She buries her toes in the beach and runs the hand that Brittany doesn't hold through its piles, straining out rocks and odd bits between her fingers, absentminded.
"Abuela would probably send me off to become a nun if she knew what I was doing tonight," Santana says, trying to make a joke, though her voice comes out much too small for it.
Brittany spares Santana a knowing look. "Rachel told me it's not ladylike to drink alcohol," she says, "but sometimes I think that when Rachel tells me things are unladylike, she really just means that they're too much fun."
Santana's brow furrows. "You mean you like drinking alcohol?"
Brittany offers Santana a sheepish shrug and pulls a comic guilty face. "The first time I drank beer, I stole Sam's clown shoes and threw them up a tree, and the Flying Dragon Changs had to climb up there to get them down," she reveals. She frowns. "I actually don't remember too much about that. I've only drank beer twice and cider once, but I like cider heaps. It tastes good and makes everything feel wobbly but in a good way—kind of like dancing without knowing the steps first."
"Does cider taste as good as sarsaparilla?" Santana asks gingerly.
Brittany smiles. "Almost," she replies, and when she laughs, some of the nervousness goes out of Santana.
"I just—," Santana starts but then trails off.
(Santana doesn't know how to tell Brittany that she's afraid to confess her love when neither one of them will remember it clearly and it might just seem like a joke in the moment.)
After Santana stays quiet for a while, Brittany pipes up again.
"We can't have too much to drink tonight anyway," she says wisely, "—not when we have a show tomorrow and not when Sam wants to leave the barrels mostly full so he can return them to somebody's kitchen."
Santana laughs, feeling more at ease by the moment. "That's very true," she says happily, registering that the boys have disengaged from their grappling and begun to set up the kegs upon some handy rocks located a ways back from the lakeshore.
After a few moments and some organized efforts, the boys manage to fit the keg stoppers with spigots and to do so mostly without spilling any beer into the sand.
"Come on over, ladies!" Sam calls, gesturing to the newly outfitted kegs and offering Brittany and Santana his best bow, as though he were a purveyor of some fine merchandise and he wished to attract them as customers to it.
Brittany scrabbles to her feet and offers a hand to Santana. "Hup, hup," she says, helping Santana to stand. A flutter of nerves runs through Santana's body; she tries to remind herself that if she can just manage to mind her tongue, she might actually have some fun tonight.
As the girls sidle up alongside the kegs, Kurt opens the satchel that Santana noticed him carrying earlier in the evening, revealing not juggling equipment but rather over one half-dozen tin cups—enough for every member of their band of thieves to have one for him or herself.
"I took them out of the chuck after supper," he explains, smirking at the group's dumbfounded reaction to his cleverness. "You know what they say: 'An ounce of preparation.'" He giggles, smug as the cat with the prettiest paws.
(Santana can't yet tell whether she likes Kurt or not.)
Instead of thanking Kurt for the cups, Puck smacks Finn hard in the bicep. "Good thing Hummel did your job for you, woodenhead," he says meanly, and Santana recoils.
(The truth is that for as much as Santana sometimes likes the small boy in Puck, she equally dislikes the big man in him.)
The group huddles around the kegs while Sam and Puck fill up cups for everyone, passing them out indiscriminately until it comes time to serve Brittany and Santana. Puck's devil smirk curls his lips as he twists the valve on the spigot, opening it to pour Santana's drink.
"You ready to find out that God loves you, ladybird?" he says gamely, extending her the cup.
Santana rolls her eyes. "He can't love me that much if he stuck me with you," she snaps, surprising herself with her own sharpness.
(The boys let up a chorus of whistles, and Brittany shifts at Santana's side.)
Puck laughs. "You say that now," he says slyly, "but you just wait, ladybird. You'll see."
Santana doesn't know that she will see, though. She can already smell the alcohol from where she stands, and it doesn't appeal to her by its scent at all. Fleetingly, she wonders if Puck will make her drink lots of alcohol, even if she finds that she doesn't like it from the start. She also wonders if the boys will measure their own drinking habits as judiciously as Brittany supposes that they will, never mind the show tomorrow.
Trepidations notwithstanding, Santana accepts the cup that Puck offers to her, wondering if he's given her beer or cider to begin with. Puck and Sam procure themselves cups, last of all. As they do so, Rory and Finn make moves as if to draw their first tastes, though their lips scarcely touch tin before Sam interrupts them.
"Hold up!" Sam says, waving his hand. "We ought to make a toast, considering that this is a special occasion and all."
He smiles his wide, goofy clown grin and raises his own cup in Brittany and Santana's direction. The others boys follow his lead, some of them more grudgingly than others. Sam nods.
"To Ms. Santana," he says brightly, "who is the best gypsy fortuneteller our circus has ever known and who has become such a fast friend to us all, and especially to Miss Brittany. We're so happy to enjoy their most agreeable feminine company here tonight. May they both savor these spirits, though Ken and Mrs. Schuester would keep them from having any! Hear, hear!"
"Hear, hear!" the other boys agree, clinking their tin cups together and nodding their concordance.
"That's very elegant, Sammy," Puck smirks.
For her part, Santana doesn't know quite what to say and feels, for a moment, guilty. Of course, she knows that not everyone gathered on the beachfront likes her quite as well as Sam seems to think they do. All the same, it suddenly strikes her that, just over one week ago, she had no one in the world who cared for her at all, but now she has someone who actually loves her, and at least a few people who, whatever their reasons, seem to like her somewhat, as well. Her throat turns thick, and she bites her lips into her mouth, overcome with quiet, happy gratitude.
Sam makes certain to reach his cup all the way across the circle to tap it against Santana's, and Brittany does the same.
"Drink up!" Blaine says, grinning, and the boys all begin to throw back their ciders and beers.
Santana meets Brittany's eyes and finds them alight with a certain type of lively daring—a catching type which causes Santana herself to feel momentarily brave. The practical part of Santana's mind tells her that one sip of beer or cider won't be enough to make her drunk anyway and that she can drink in moderation without saying anything that she would rather keep secret aloud, if only she remains vigilant.
In a flurry of nerves, Santana draws her own tin cup to her lips and drinks, Brittany mirroring her actions at her side.
The drink—whether it be beer or cider, Santana doesn't yet know—tastes almost exactly how it smells, which is to say overwhelmingly bitter and pungent. The flavor bites at Santana's tongue, and she must make a sour face for it because the boys start to laugh at her almost immediately, and especially when she chokes on some of the drink's foam.
"What do you think, ladybird?" Puck asks, nudging her.
Santana forces herself to swallow. "It's like drinking your aftershave," she complains, and the boys all laugh at her cheek again.
Brittany rolls her eyes at them and offers her own cup to Santana, switching their drinks before Santana can protest her action. "You should have given her cider to drink," Brittany reproves Puck, taking what must be Santana's beer for herself. "Try this instead. You'll like it better."
Brittany's promise rings true.
Whereas beer tastes sour, cider tastes sweet and crisp like apples, the alcohol flavor buried under so many pleasant masks that Santana scarcely notices it. Indeed, Santana finds the cider so agreeable that she allows herself a second sip before attempting to return the drink to its original owner.
Brittany immediately shakes her head. "You keep it," she insists. "I like beer."
(She takes a long pull from Santana's former cup to prove her bluff.)
(Why would Santana ever need a gallant knight when she can have a gallant Brittany instead?)
"Have you learned that God loves you yet, ladybird?" Puck asks, wagging his eyebrows.
(But Brittany does.)
As the night wears on, Santana wonders when she'll start to feel uninhibited or inclined toward licentious behavior or even sloppy with her words because, so far, she doesn't feel much different from how she usually does—only perhaps just a little bit clumsier, as far as she can tell.
By now, Santana has finished two cups of cider and nurses a third. Brittany takes a seat beside her, sipping from a tin cup of her own.
"You're a very quiet drunk, darlin'," Brittany teases.
Santana smiles. "I don't think I am drunk," she shrugs. "And I'm just quiet because I want to say the right things to you."
(She only trips over just a few of her words.)
Brittany nods and takes a sip from her cider, watching down the beach to where Sam and Blaine turn ungraceful cartwheels in the sand with Puck, Finn, Rory, and Kurt dancing around them like Mr. Defoe's savages on their island.
"I think the boys are drunk," Brittany observes. Then, "I wish that they weren't here right now because I think that you'd talk more if they weren't. You're really pretty, Santana."
Immediately, Santana's face heats, and she shakes her head to hide her blush behind her hair. Her lips buzz, and she suddenly finds that she wants very much for Brittany to kiss her in the same way that Brittany kissed her in the tent.
A minute passes, and Santana knows that she needs to say something, but she can't think of anything to say that isn't just exactly what she means to keep quiet about tonight. She gathers herself against the words threatening to spill from her lips and leans down to rest her cheek upon her kneecap, looking at Brittany from behind her curtain of hair, marveling at the way the backdrop of stars over Brittany's shoulder seems to dance somehow and feeling senseless, without an anchor.
She asks Brittany, "Are you drunk?" very suddenly and without meaning to do it.
(The loudness of her own voice surprises her.)
Brittany shakes her head. "Nope," she says, smiling. "Not yet."
Santana nods, feeling more and more contented the longer she talks to Brittany. She sets her cup down in the sand and wraps her arms around her legs, curling herself into a tighter ball.
"That's good," she says earnestly, "because it would be lonely if one of us were drunk but the other one weren't. I like doing new things with you. I hadn't really done new things until I got to the circus and I met you. Now everything I do with you seems new—even the laundry."
(Has she said too much? She doesn't think so. Not yet.)
Brittany's smile turns queerer than before. She looks like a girl with a secret—which, of course, she is.
"Maybe you're not so quiet," she notes thoughtfully.
(If Santana weren't so dizzy and in love, she would ask Brittany to explain what she means.)
They try playing hand games again, choosing a much simpler rhyme than the one they practiced on the train into Cherokee.
Pease porridge hot
Pease porridge cold
Pease porridge in the pot,
nine days old
Simplification notwithstanding, Santana still only manages to clap Brittany's hand once throughout the whole game, partially on account of her own raucous laughter, and partially because she feels just one half-beat behind everything, no matter how carefully she counts.
"It's because I'm left-handed," she pouts.
"If you say so, darlin'," Brittany teases.
Both girls laugh as Santana swats at Brittany's open palm and misses it spectacularly, nearly falling forward in her attempt to reach it. Everything feels dizzy and wonderful, and Santana's thoughts run close to the surface. She snatches at Brittany's hand again, not bothering to clap it, instead grabbing onto Brittany's wrist, stilling her motion.
"Got it," she says happily, taking Brittany's hand into her lap.
"That's not how the game works," Brittany reminds her, though Brittany couldn't look more pleased to see Santana breaking the rules.
"I have your hand," Santana notes happily.
"You do," Brittany says, her eyes deep with something that seems both familiar and unnamable to Santana all at once.
After tuckering themselves out performing so many acrobatic tricks, the boys eventually return to sit with Brittany and Santana at the head of the beach, collapsing around them like a litter of sleepy puppies on a mat.
By the time they turn up, Santana sits with her head in Brittany's lap, Brittany stroking through her hair with careful, gentling fingers. Santana feels herself just on the verge of sleep and so, so comfortable. Something hovers on the edge of her consciousness. If she can only remember what it is, she'll be fine.
"We should go bathing," Sam announces, his eyes both bright and dim at the same time.
"But we don't have bathing costumes!" Kurt protests. "No towels or shorts or caleçons."
Sam shrugs. "Does it matter? We've got this whole nice lake to ourselves, and the moon is out, and it's such a warm night. We can swim just as natural as the good Lord made us. It would be a shame if we didn't."
Kurt startles, eyes turning wide. He stammers for a second before seizing onto just one suitable objection to make, though he probably has many objections in mind. "But we're in the company of ladies!" he squeaks, gesturing to Brittany and Santana.
Santana had started to feel calm concerning the evening's activities, but now her heartbeat quickens in her breast. She doesn't like the direction this conversation has taken any more than Kurt does. After some struggling, she sits up from Brittany's lap.
"Kurt's right," she says sharply. "It wouldn't be modest."
"Not if nobody peeks," Puck argues.
Blaine nods approvingly at Puck's words, turning his trilby hat over in his hands. His hair looks much less slick than usual, tussled and messy from all his wrestling on the beach. "You ladies could change out of your clothes with your backs turned to us, and we with our backs turned to you. You could get into the water first, and then we could get into the water after you, and no one would have to see anything untoward," he says mildly.
Sam offers Santana a sympathetic look. "We don't have to if you don't want to," he offers, extending her an out.
Of course, Santana knows exactly what her grandmother would say about Sam's idea—but, then again, Santana also knows exactly what her grandmother would say about so many of the things that she's done since arriving at the J.P. Adams & Son Traveling Circus & Menagerie. Santana glances from the boys to the water and finally to Brittany, whom she finds wearing an even expression, waiting patiently to hear her verdict.
"No peeking?" Santana checks with Sam.
"No peeking," he promises.
"And may any man who does peek be struck blind upon the spot," Blaine adds loftily.
"Aye!" the rest of the boys agree, as if Blaine's words were a pirate's oath in Treasure Island.
"No peeking," Santana repeats, this time as a command, and the boys all cheer, happy at her decision, though it isn't their reaction Santana most cares to see.
Brittany offers Santana a cat smile and wags her eyebrows at her. "You'd make a terrible nun, darlin'," she whispers.
(Somehow, what she says sounds suspiciously like a compliment.)
Five minutes later, the boys stand nearly thirty paces removed from Brittany and Santana, so far away down the beachfront from them that the two parties must shout to hear each other. To a one, the boys make a great show of turning their backs to the girls and covering their eyes with their hands, as if their actions were part of a clowning routine.
"Anyone who peeks at my wife better settle up his euchre debts because I'll fix him," Puck threatens, and the rest of the boys make no complaint against his words.
"Give us a shout when you're safe in the water!" Sam instructs. "We won't start changing until you have your eyes covered."
Despite the fact that Santana has had two showers at the circus so far, she still doesn't quite feel accustomed to doffing her clothes out-of-doors, and particularly not when she knows that she has an audience—and such a beautiful, wonderful, interesting audience, in particular. She offers Brittany a sheepish smile.
"This is ridiculous," she mumbles.
"Entirely," Brittany agrees.
Undressing proves far more difficult a task than Santana had anticipated that it would, first off, because Santana can't quite seem to make her fingers cooperate with what she wants them to do, and, secondly, because Santana also can't keep from staring at Brittany, though she knows she really oughtn't to do so. Santana fumbles with her own belt buckle and can scarcely manage to extract her arms from her sleeves. The more skin Brittany shows, the more Santana trips.
Eventually, her two problems come to a head.
(She feels so stupid and useless.)
"Need some help with that, darlin'?" Brittany asks, watching Santana struggle with the same several buttons on her corset for what must be the dozenth time.
Santana makes one last attempt at the buttons but finds them even more resistant than they seemed to her at the first. Before she can do anything for it, frustrated tears spring to her eyes, and heat prickles at the back of her throat.
Damn buttons. Damn corset.
Tears blur Santana's vision until she finds that she can no longer even properly see her own fingers to work them. She sighs, defeated, and nods in response to Brittany's question, ashamed of herself both for her own ineptitude and also for crying because of it. Brittany must think that Santana is the biggest idiot. Brittany steps around behind her.
"Sorry," Santana sniffs, wiping at her eyes.
Brittany shakes her head, eyes smiling but mouth not, probably in an effort to spare Santana's feelings. "Don't worry," she says sweetly, setting to work unfastening Santana from her corset. Her thumbs brush over Santana's bare back. "It's okay," she whispers, and she leans down, pressing a kiss to the top of Santana's neck through the veil of Santana's hair.
"I wish I had told you my secret earlier when we were in the woods," Santana pouts.
"You can tell me tomorrow," Brittany says wisely, managing to pop open the last button on the line. Then, "There you go."
Santana almost doesn't register it when the corset falls away from her body, exposing her skin to the night air, and neither does she know what to do when Brittany stoops down in front of her and helps to free her from her knickers, pulling them down so Santana can step out of them.
In the next second, Brittany moves away from Santana and peels her own shift up over her head so that she stands before Santana entirely naked. Their clothing fans out around them like pressed flower petals strewn over the sand, and Santana doesn't think that anyone has ever seen anything as wonderful as what she sees now—which is to say, Brittany's body unclothed under the moonlight.
For a full minute, Santana remains silent and can do no more than stare, taking in the sharp angles of Brittany's hipbones and the beautiful rounds of Brittany's breasts, feeling breathless and stupider than ever before. When Brittany starts laughing, Santana doesn't know what to say except for, "I don't know how to swim," both helpless and honest at once.
Brittany just reaches for Santana's hand. "Hold on to me, then," she instructs.
(The imprint of Brittany's kiss still burns against Santana's skin.)
(Santana accepts Brittany's hand, helpless, helpless, hopeless.)
Walking down to the water with Brittany, it vaguely occurs to Santana that she might be just a little drunk. She doesn't have much time to process the thought before she and Brittany reach the waterline, though. Brittany gives her fingers a squeeze.
"We'll stay where you can touch the bottom," Brittany assures her, stepping into the lake up to her ankles.
"Okay," Santana says lamely, still too caught up in Brittany's beauty and in the surreal experience of standing naked on an Iowa beachfront after midnight to say anything else. She toes the water and finds it surprisingly warm and inviting. After another second of hesitation, she steps fully into the seiche.
Brittany extends two hands to Santana, guiding her deeper into the lake. The sand between Santana's toes feels slimy to the touch, and small rocks poke at the soles of her feet. She makes it in all the way to her knees before Brittany gives her a tug and pulls her forward, all in a rush. Both girls scream, falling into the water to their waists.
"You ready?" Sam calls down the beach.
"Not yet!" Brittany says quickly, wearing a wide, giddy grin, spitting out water and scrambling to find her feet again, though she was the one to knock herself over. She tugs Santana to where the waterline lingers just below their collarbones, covering their bodies so that only their heads and necks remain visible over the light waves. "Okay," she calls, "We're covering our eyes now!" and both girls do.
For several minutes, Santana sees nothing but the darkness of her own palm. She doesn't move and hardly breathes. One of her feet remains planted on the lake bottom; the other one floats out to the side, balancing her against the waves. In the distance, she can hear the boys laughing and prattling, though she can't make out their words. Her spare hand hooks around Brittany's elbow under the water, making it her moor.
After what seems like a long while, the boys start to whoop, and Santana hears splashing. The water around her pitches, disturbed from where the boys have entered the lake. Briefly, the waves rise, slapping the underside of Santana's chin and threatening to overrun her. For a second, both Santana's feet leave the ground, and Santana startles, clinging tighter to Brittany.
Blaine calls out, "You can open your eyes now!"
Santana's feet touch bottom again.
She removes her hand from over her eyes and discovers the boys submerged up to their chins, bobbing several yards away and deeper out from where she stands with Brittany. Most of the boys tread water, actually swimming to keep themselves afloat, though Finn Hudson stands flatfooted. The boys wave to her and Brittany, wearing dopey smiles.
(Santana can't help but notice how Kurt stands apart from the other boys and won't look anyone in the eyes. She somehow feels sad for him without really knowing why.)
After Finn splashes Puck in the face—"This is tops!"—the boys spend the next several moments trying to drown one another while Brittany and Santana shout instructions to them, advising them on where to dodge and whom to dunk, their voices all echoing over the water and into the moon-bright sky.
The boys' wrestling goes on in good fun for a long time until Rory takes a particularly hard elbow to the nose, and the game suddenly loses its appeal. From then on, each man takes to exploring his own area of the water, none of them touching one another—a development which seems to be for the best.
Eventually, Blaine pipes up, "Hey, guys, the moon's so bright that you can see underwater!" and everyone immediately begins to investigate.
"Do you want to see?" Brittany asks Santana, glancing between Santana's face and the water.
Though Santana has never been underwater before except in the bathtub when she was a child, she doesn't hesitate to nod her head yes and offer Brittany a smile.
"Hold your breath," Brittany tells her, "and hang on tight to me. We'll go on three, okay? Just watch my eyes. One, two, three!"
Santana breathes in deeply and grabs onto Brittany by both elbows, following Brittany as she bobs up onto her tiptoes and then sinks down under the waves. At first, water burns Santana's eyes and fills up her nose, and she balks, sharp pain shooting through her sinuses, but then she exhales slightly and the pressure eases. She forces her eyelids open to see Brittany staring her in the face.
Just as Blaine promised, the moonlight illuminates the water enough so that Santana can see Brittany almost as well as if they were above the surface. Loose tendrils of Brittany's golden hair wave around her face like May ribbons in a wavering wind, and Brittany's skin reflects white like porcelain against the dark water. Amongst all her other beauties, Brittany's eyes still manage to catch Santana, less tiger and blue than moon and night under so many shadows.
All at once, Santana remembers a story she once read as a child about a fisherman who fell in love with a mermaid and sold his soul just to be with her and instantly knows that if she weren't herself already damned, she would do the same for Brittany in a trice.
Before Santana can do anything for how she feels, Brittany's eyes turn reverent and deep, and she leans forward through the water, pressing a kiss to Santana's lips like none Santana has ever felt before. Underwater, Brittany's mouth feels otherworldly and pliant, wet and soft all over and hot and cold at once. It's only a peck, but Santana closes her eyes to it all the same, sinking into the touch.
When Brittany peels back, Santana keeps her eyes closed, allowing Brittany to guide her back to the surface, blind.
Though Santana had only held her breath for a few seconds, it feels like one hundred years. She breathes in deeply as soon as she finds air, and her eyelids flutter open as though she were waking from a dream.
Brittany grins at her and presses a finger to her lips.
"Secret," she says as the boys begin to shout at them from across the way.
"Secret," Santana agrees.
When Brittany's fingers brush Santana's hipbone for the first time under the water, Santana thinks it must be an accident.
The two girls stand watching the boys make waves to splash each other, laughing as Sam dodges a swell come from Blaine only to run into one come from Finn in the next second. What must be Brittany's thumb sweeps over Santana's skin, and Santana stiffens at the touch, momentarily mesmerized by it.
"Britt," she says stupidly, but Brittany doesn't answer.
In the next second, Brittany's thumb finds Santana's hipbone again. This time, it definitely isn't an accident; Brittany's touch lingers, and Brittany pets over Santana's skin, smoothing it. All of a sudden, Santana's whole body feels rung like a bell and livened to the core. She's never warmed to Brittany so quickly before. Her insides throb, and she suddenly wishes more than anything that Brittany's fingers would slide just a bit further down and more to the right.
She meets Brittany's eyes and finds them wild under the moonlight.
(Maybe Brittany is a mermaid out to lead Santana to the depths after all.)
"No fair," Santana says blearily, and Brittany grins at her.
"No fair what?" Brittany says, feigning perfect innocence, even as she gives Santana's skin another long, slow stroke under the water. She looks somehow both silly and wicked at once, her hair wet and pushed back from her face, her mouth curled into a most precocious smirk.
Just then, the boys seem to take notice of Brittany and Santana's conference.
"They're planning something!" Rory cries, as concerned as if he were a scout who happened upon traitors in league.
"Are not!" Brittany protests.
But she speaks too late.
In the next second, the boys all work together to push a wave in the girls' direction, building it up behind their arms and flinging it out as though they were Greek or Roman gods loosing forth a storm. The water crests behind their push only to diminish as it travels. By the time the wave reaches Brittany and Santana, it hardly splashes them at all.
"Well done, fellas," Santana smirks, and Brittany gives a triumphant whoop.
At that exact moment, Kurt Hummel lets out the shrillest shriek Santana has ever heard, hitting an octave that would shatter Rachel Berry's glass goblet without any electric coils or circus magic at all. He jolts in the water, jetting back a full five feet from where he stood, moving to where the lake covers him only up to his waist.
"Kurt, what the hell?" Puck shouts, rubbing his ears.
"Something brushed my leg!" Kurt screams, pointing at the water. "Something living!"
"Kurt, calm down! It was probably just a fish," Sam soothes.
But no matter how much anyone tries to reassure him, Kurt refuses to trust the lake and insists on getting out of it, becoming increasingly hysterical with every passing moment. Once Kurt makes his demands, Blaine notes the late hour, and the other boys begin to grumble about how they'll hate themselves for their poor decisions in the morning.
"My fingers are getting all wrinkly," Brittany observes, scrunching up her nose.
Begrudgingly, the group agrees to turn in for the night.
They exit the water in reverse order from how they got into it, with the boys leaving the lake first and then the girls after them. They follow the same procedure as before, with the one group turning its back and closing its eyes while the other dresses and vice-versa. It takes a long while for everyone to fit on their clothes over their wet skin and even longer for them to brush the sand which clings to their feet and hands away so that it doesn't follow them all the way back to the white city and into their waiting beds.
Brittany and Santana clothe themselves in silence, watching each other with wide smiles and sparks of warm something in their eyes. Out of the water, Santana's head feels clearer than it did before, though her body still thrums so strongly to Brittany's tune that she wonders if she'll be able to sleep tonight or even ever again really.
Santana doesn't even have to ask for Brittany's help buttoning her corset or latching her belt, for Brittany steps forward to perform both tasks automatically, as if she had known Santana's need before Santana herself even registered it.
She stands in front of Santana wearing her queer, thoughtful smile.
"Tomorrow?" she says quietly.
It takes a full second for Santana to catch her meaning, but then.
"Tomorrow," Santana agrees, returning Brittany's smile.
After everyone finishes dressing, the boys reequip the wheelbarrow, tying down the kegs, before setting off to return their stolen goods to the mess pit. Only Sam and Puck hang back for the purpose of escorting Brittany and Santana to their respective beds.
"Can we walk with Sam and Brittany before we go back to our tent?" Santana asks Puck in a small voice, not ready to say goodbye to Brittany for the night.
(Never ready to say goodbye to Brittany, really.)
To her surprise, Puck nods his consent. "Sure thing, ladybird," he says, looping her arm through his and offering what from him is a soft smile. He starts to lead the group along. "It's safer that way anyway," he adds, and, for a minute, Santana puzzles over what his words.
Only after a few more paces does Santana remember that Brittany may well return home tonight to find a very angry father waiting up for her.
(All the giddiness she felt before drains out of her.)
Puck walks at Santana's right side and Brittany at Santana's left. Though Santana goes arm-in-arm with Puck, she feels more connected to Brittany, though Brittany doesn't touch her at all. Their group passes from the beach to the forest in silence, stepping through many brachiated shadows and treading over innumerable dried leaves. Santana wishes very much that Brittany didn't have to go home tonight—or rather that she and Brittany could go home together, to just one place.
When their party stops outside the Pierce tent, it feels much too soon for them to part.
Everything inside Santana longs to kiss Brittany goodnight and to thank her for their day spent together—for liking her kisses and for telling her secrets and for trusting her and for making her laugh and most of all for loving her, though no one else had ever done it before.
As it is, Santana can only take Brittany's hand in her own and kiss her knuckles, friendly, with Sam and Puck watching.
"Goodnight," she whispers.
"Goodnight," Brittany whispers back.
They stand and stare at each other for a long moment. Santana can't see Brittany's eyes under the shadow of the tent, but she can see her expression, fervent as an ember peeking out from beneath a flame. Brittany peels her fingers back and offers Sam and Puck a nod, though her gaze never leaves Santana.
Without a word, she drops to the grass and crawls under the tent flaps, disappearing beyond the canvas. Sam, Puck, and Santana listen, dreading to hear Mr. Pierce's voice, hoping for silence instead.
(They get their wish.)
Author's Note: A special thanks to my dear friend Dr. Ruth at doctoruth on tumblr for providing such astute commentary on the story. Also, all my gratitude to my homegirl Lu at ididntmeanyou for her help with the Spanish translations. As always, I could not have done this without my flawless beta Han at socallmedaisy, who is basically the best human in the world, in case y'all wondered about it.
No se puede eludir la Muerte, Santana. Viene para todos : You can't evade Death, Santana. It comes for us all
"Por supuesto, debes impresionarla. Muestrale tu debilidad. Bien" : "Of course, you must impress her. Show her your weakness. Good"
Es un mal presagio, Santana : It's a bad omen, Santana
abstemia : teetotaler
"Esto convierte a los hombres en tontos, Santana" : "It makes men into fools, Santana"
Haznos silenciosos. (Secreto.) : Make us silent. (Secret.)