Chapter 10: Fireworks
Monday, July 4th, 1898: Ackley, Iowa
Santana feels like a stranger to herself when she awakens, like her mind and body are far away from her, and her memories from last night belong to someone else. It takes her a full half-minute to realize that she didn't fall asleep alone: Puck lies underneath her, sprawled out like a great, lazy dog, his face buried in her shirtsleeve.
Through her haze, Santana vaguely remembers that Puck couldn't manage to untie his rolled sleeping mat after returning to their tent for the night. She also remembers that she took pity on Puck's clumsiness, offering to share her cot with him in exchange for his promise to comport himself as a gentleman and stay on his best behavior until morning.
As far as Santana can tell, Puck kept his word; both he and Santana are fully clothed, and Santana can't taste his lips on her anywhere.
(Just apples and alcohol and Brittany's mermaid kiss.)
Puck stirs in the dark.
"It's time to get up, ladybird," he groans, stretching his shoulders.
His chest rises at Santana's back, puffing out like a robin's breast as he unfurls. Every place where his body touches Santana's feels sweat-damp and fever-hot. Darkness pervades the tent, and it doesn't seem to Santana as if she even slept at all. Her head swims.
"Can't we just catch a later train?" she complains, only mostly joking.
She feels sunburned and achy all over, her throat parched from laughing and crying and speaking too loudly, her eyes dry and lips cracked from yesterday's intense heat. Her skin stinks of lake water and perspiration, and her hair curls around her face and at her collarbones, still wet from bathing. The longer she wakes, the more she realizes her own sorry state.
Puck seems equally unwell. He wipes the sweat from his face and clears his throat noisily.
"The circus don't wait for nobody," he says in a thick voice, "and neither does Ma Jones' coffee."
Both Puck and Santana move sluggishly and fumble through their morning routines.
Santana devotes a quarter hour to combing through the knots in her hair and feels close to tears the whole time she's at it, battling with more tangles and kinks than she can count. Puck cuts himself shaving his face and curses so vociferously that Santana wonders if Mr. Adams won't learn some new blasphemies even all the way from his hotel in downtown Storm Lake.
By the time Santana and Puck stumble out of their tent together into the moonlight, neither one of them feels kindly disposed toward anything. Puck scowls while taking down their tent, and Santana scowls watching him do it.
(Puck doesn't even bother to take Santana's arm as he leads her to the mess.)
Their accomplices from last night's heist fare no better than they do.
Finn Hudson's eyes have swelled up so much that they hardly seem open at all. Blaine looks positively green, red firelight notwithstanding. Rory holds his head in his hands and groans and Kurt pokes at his eggs as if he's never seen anything so repulsive on a plate before. Even the usually sunny Sam seems sullen and sleepy. He yawns widely and buries his face at the crook of his elbow against the table.
Brittany is nowhere in sight.
Santana whines and flops down on the grass while Puck goes to fetch coffee, curling her knees up to her chest and watching in the direction of the Pierce's tent, hoping that Brittany is well, if not still soundly sleeping.
When Puck returns to Santana with her drink, she nods her thanks to him but says nothing. Puck takes a seat beside her, and they both sigh, impossibly tired though they've only just begun the day.
Santana and the boys breakfast in silence, none of them talking to one another or to anyone else around them. They eat with downcast eyes and heavy heads, already put upon though the sun has yet to rise. When the departure bell rings above them, the lot of them winces, and Rory moans. They peel themselves from their places, shuffling toward the wagon bay.
Only once they reach the vehicles does Brittany appear amidst the hubbub, sidling up beside Santana as if from nowhere, hair wet and her eyes tired, but her whole self beautiful as ever. She yawns into her hand and then wraps her arms around Santana's waist, settling her chin onto Santana's shoulder, nuzzling against Santana's skin.
Santana gasps a little at the contact, still not accustomed to having so much Brittany everywhere around her, though she finds herself in such situations often enough nowadays and though she loves it whenever she does so. She folds her arms over Brittany's, binding Brittany to her.
"Are you going to sit with me on the train?" she asks, trying not to sound too hopeful that Brittany will say yes, in case Brittany would rather not sit with her, whatever the reason.
Brittany doesn't speak. She only nods, her nose and lips rubbing over the crook of Santana's neck in not-quite-a-kiss.
Santana shivers at the touch. "Well, that's the first good thing about today," she says honestly.
Brittany's lips lift into a smile on her skin.
Santana smiles, too. "You don't talk much when you're sleepy, do you?" she teases, rubbing her thumbs over Brittany's wrists.
Brittany settles even further into her, shaking her head no. Her lips pout against Santana's skin, and Santana's heart all but melts for Brittany's preciousness.
"That's okay," Santana says, reaching up to stroke Brittany's hair. "I never talk much in the mornings, either. We can sleep on the train."
Brittany sighs, contented, and Santana loves her.
Puck parts from Brittany and Santana at the depot without saying a word to them, going away sleepy, sulky, or both ways at once. In any case, Santana can't help but feel a smidge grateful to see him go.
After Puck disappears from sight, Brittany and Santana clamber into a mostly empty boxcar together and take up residence in a corner, Santana tucking in first, and Brittany curling up beside her, head nestled against the crook of Santana's neck. Brittany hasn't really woken up since she first hugged Santana back at the camp, and neither has she said a word aloud to anyone all morning.
Almost immediately, Brittany's breathing turns deep and rhythmic, like the waves on Storm Lake last night under the full moon, and Santana wonders if she's fallen to sleep. But then Santana feels Brittany's mouth shift into a cat-smile against her skin.
"What is it, Britt?" she asks, stroking through Brittany's hair with her fingers, absentminded.
Brittany's smile blooms into a full grin that Santana can feel but not see. "Today isn't tomorrow anymore," Brittany says dreamily. "Today's today."
And suddenly Santana remembers.
Last night after they swam in the lake, Santana promised to tell Brittany her secret.
For a moment, Santana's hand stills in Brittany's hair, and Santana hesitates, wondering if she didn't make the sort of grave, drunken mistake about which one reads in books, promising to reveal her love to Brittany in a moment when everything seemed so easy.
But then Brittany exhales against Santana's skin, and then Brittany wraps her arms tighter around Santana's middle, sinking into her, and suddenly Santana finds that she made no mistake at all.
After everything that happened between her and Brittany yesterday—their scare on the promenade in town, the knife throwing in the woods, Brittany's secret kisses to Santana on the beach—Santana knows that she loves Brittany so much that she couldn't keep from saying so for another day even if she had made no promise to Brittany yesterday at all.
She also knows that Brittany loves her back so much.
Brittany shifts against Santana, nuzzling deeper into her, and, when she does, Santana sets her resolve: She'll tell Brittany her secret once they get to camp. She'll wait until they're alone together and set to their chores before lunchtime, and then she'll do it.
(When Santana first arrived at the circus, Puck told her that the truth didn't matter anymore, but Santana knows now that he was wrong.)
(It matters more than anything.)
Just a few days ago, Santana dreaded to confess her love to Brittany, but now she almost can't wait to do so because she knows how much Brittany longs to hear the words, and Santana loves to give Brittany things.
She kisses some of the sweetness she feels for Brittany into Brittany's hair. "Soon," she promises, though Brittany is already asleep and doesn't hear her say so.
When the train's whistle sounds over the rail yard, Santana shivers and hunkers down, closing her eyes. As the train starts to roll along its tracks, she continues to comb through Brittany's hair, sinking into its silk, into Brittany's warmth upon her warmth, into Brittany's metered breaths, poems on her skin.
(When Santana dreams, she finds herself and Brittany by the seashore in the Carolinas, though she's never visited such a place before in her waking hours.)
(The sky overhead is overcast and the sea looks like Storm Lake. Brittany skips along the shoreline, dropping coins in the sand behind her as if they were breadcrumbs and she and Santana were in a fairytale. When Santana stoops to retrieve the coins, she realizes that they're actually tarot cards instead.)
(Though she tries, she cannot read them.)
"It would serve you right if the train left you both behind, you know."
A shrill voice cuts Santana from her dreams. It sounds nothing like Brittany's sleepy mumble and nothing like what Santana wants to hear.
Santana stirs and feels Brittany do the same against her breast. The train has stopped, but Santana still feels as if she's in motion—from riding rails and waves and always going away to somewhere new, never resting for long. Santana opens her eyes to find Rachel Berry hovering above her, arms crossed over a white pinafore. Rachel doesn't seem at all pleased.
As soon as she sees that she has Santana's attention, Rachel continues.
"I know you got up to mischief last night, and I'm determined to find out what it is. Don't think I didn't notice that you and Sam and Puck and Finn all arrived at breakfast looking as poor for sleep as if you were paupers of it."
Just then, Brittany rights herself in Santana's arms. "But Santana and I don't go to church, Rachel. Neither do the boys. No one in the circus does," she says, just so, without missing a beat. Her voice sounds scratchy from too little sleep.
It takes Rachel a half second to react.
Her mouth falls open and an emotion that looks strangely like hurt passes over her eyes, there and then gone in an instant. She closes her mouth and gives her head a little shake, clearing whatever confusion Brittany caused her. She fixes Brittany with an unreadable expression.
"My father says that Mr. Adams might have to start dismissing members of the company if Mr. Fabray doesn't sign the papers soon," Rachel says, low and serious. "Brittany, whatever you're up to, you really ought to consider your role at this circus and how much it means to you to stay on the lists." After a second's pause, Rachel adds, "You, too, Santana," before turning toward the door to the boxcar, leaving Brittany and Santana behind without another word.
Mr. Berry and the quadroon manservant wait for Rachel outside the train, standing close to each other, their elbows knocked together. If Santana didn't know better, she'd say they look sad. They help Rachel onto the grass beside them, holding her steady as she jumps down from the flatbed.
Brittany shifts, peeling herself from Santana to stand, but Santana remains tucked into the boxcar corner, a nervous knot at the pit of her stomach. What if Rachel finds out that Santana, Brittany, and the boys stole spirits from the mess pit last night? Worse yet, what if Mr. Adams does? If Mr. Adams has it in his mind to fire someone from the circus, Santana will be the first to go, and then what? Santana might never see Brittany again. She gulps.
"Come on, darlin'," Brittany says, reaching for Santana's hand to help Santana up from the floor.
Santana remains rooted to her spot. She wets her lips. When she looks up at Brittany, she can feel the wideness of her own eyes and hear the fear in her own voice, "Brittany, do you think—is the circus really in trouble?"
Brittany fixes Santana with one of her long, searching looks, peering down deep like a child trying to see to the bottom of a well. She frowns as she thinks through the question. "Quinn's daddy will sign the papers," she says slowly. "The wedding's on Saturday."
She doesn't sound just so, though.
(Santana feels a twinge.)
(One ought not to deal Death to the man who wants to buy the circus.)
The station whistle tolls, and both Brittany and Santana flinch. Brittany offers her hand to Santana again and this time Santana accepts it, allowing Brittany to tug her to her feet. After righting their skirts, the two girls hurry from the train, leaping to the ground, their hands still linked between them. For the split instant they hang suspended in the air, Santana's belly flips over. This new town feels different to her than Storm Lake already—like a place where everything happens all in a rush.
Whereas normally the circus company mills about the depot in the mornings, aimless, while the supes equip the wagons for the parade into town, today everyone assembles on the lawn, rank and file. At first, Santana doesn't understand why, but then she spots Ken hopping onto an overturned box, positioning himself to address the crowd.
Brittany leads Santana by the pinky finger in amongst the throng; they take places beside the family of midgets and the Famed Giantess of Akron from the freak show. Brittany quirks an eyebrow at Santana, obviously no savvier than she as to the nature of this impromptu convocation.
"All right, you lot!" Ken bellows, waving to catch everyone's attention so he can speak. "Last night was a bust, so today we've got to recuperate the loss! Mr. Adams wants everybody in top form, with no slip ups! He says that any man who missteps will forfeit his next paycheck. He says that any man who busts the show will be put on probation, and may have his name struck plumb from the lists."
At Ken's word, Santana shudders, suddenly more nervous than she could say. She glances at Brittany out of the corner of her eye. She watches as Brittany shuffles her feet, anxious, against grass and knows why.
"Now," Ken goes on, "since today is Independence Day—"
Santana hadn't realized the date. She's lost track of the calendar since joining the circus.
(All her days revolve around Brittany now.)
"—we're gonna stage an American spectacular for the good folks of Ackley. Mr. Adams ordered an hun'erd and fifty bags of ticker tape for our parade today, and we'll pass 'em out to the ladies to throw while you fellas keep to the clowning and sport. We want to keep the parade extra lively today, you hear? If any of the gillies wish you a happy Glorious Fourth, you say, 'God bless America!'"
"Yes, sir," the company choruses.
Ken smirks. "Good," he says. "Now, you ladies best ration your ticker tape. The road through Ackley ain't that long, but we don't want you to waste all the fun before we make it into camp. Keep a lookout down the road."
"Yes, sir," chorus the ladies.
After Ken hops down from his perch, he and a handful of supes distribute small, cloth bags to the ladies in the crowd, each bag only big enough to hold a handful or two of ticker tape. When Brittany opens her bag to check its contents, Ken spots her doing so from across the way and yells at her that she ought to stop, as if looking were the same as wasting. Both Brittany and Santana turn their backs on Ken and roll their eyes at him at once.
"He's just jealous that he won't get to throw any ticker tape," Santana grouses.
"Well, he should be," Brittany grins. "This'll be fun, darlin'."
True to Brittany's word, the parade into town proves very droll.
Brittany and Santana sit on the back of a bray, tossing pinches of ticker tape to the wind and waving to the townsfolk.
Ackley looks sparse compared to other towns that Santana has visited with the circus, with just a few whitewashed shops and two stone churches standing along the main street, and a handful of scattered mills and houses located just beyond the railway. Somehow none of the buildings seems to fill much space.
The biggest structure in sight is a four-story hotel that rises up in the distance; it somehow strikes Santana as lonely, with no other tall buildings around to match its great stature.
(Santana supposes that the Adams and Fabray families will stay there for the night.)
Ackley's small size notwithstanding, a goodly crowd turns out for the parade, filling up the promenades along the street and waving little flags on sticks. The circus band plays "Huzza! 'Tis the Fourth of July!" and "Up with the Flag" in lively measures and the townsfolk sing along in proud, brave voices.
Oh! Come, boys, come, with a merry heart and will
Up with the flag
Up with the flag
And bear it onward to victory still
Up with the flag and away!
Some of the little children on the street corners clutch whistles and tin kazoos. When they play the instruments to greet the circus processional, Santana feels keenly grateful to them.
Though Ken cautioned the circus women that their ticker tape would perhaps run low, really, there seems to be no shortage of it. White strips of confetti paper pitter down from above like snow without the cold, blotting the air and sticking to the wets of people's lips and in ladies' hair, collecting along the brims of men's hats.
Briefly, Santana remembers a long ago day when her father took her to Fifth Avenue to watch a parade celebrating the construction of Lady Liberty in the harbor. Her recollections of the occasion are sparse ones—more flashes than anything. It was one of the few times when Papa allowed her out of the bachelor cottage. They arrived too late for the ticker tape but too early to see any important persons. Papa carried her on his hip so that she could see over the hats and bonnets. She recalls the scent of strong cologne clinging to his coat collar perhaps better than any of the sights.
Even brushing over the memory causes Santana's heart a twinge beneath her breast.
She fights the feeling down, focusing on the present moment instead, on the parade she can actually see, on a memory that will always stay a good one for her and never rust over, obscured by other things.
Sunlight filters through the tape, and Santana swims her hand through it in the air, laughing. At first, she can't figure out why it seems like an especial amount of ticker tape seems to fall onto her compared to the other people nearby her, but then she catches Brittany purposefully letting pinches of it go just behind her head.
"Hey!" she yelps, diving to grab Brittany's bag away.
"Santana!" Brittany shrieks, ticker tape spilling onto her skirt as she tries and fails to dodge Santana's advance. She laughs, golden, and twists away from Santana's touch. "No fair! Ken said we had to ration it!"
Seeing Brittany smile, so wily and effulgent under the morning sun, turns something over in Santana's chest, and her invisible string gives a tug. For the first time since riding the train, it occurs to Santana that in just a quarter or half hour's time, she'll confess her love to Brittany. Once they arrive at the camp and have a moment alone together, she'll do it.
She laughs, wide, and digs her fingers into Brittany's sides, tickling her. Brittany shrieks again and falls over against the bed of the bray. She laughs and laughs, and Santana, too.
"Happy—Glorious—Fourth—Santana!" Brittany giggles, unable to escape Santana's touch.
Santana grins and redoubles her tickling efforts. "God bless America!" she says.
Brittany spends the rest of the parade combing the ticker tape from Santana's hair and apologizing for making such a mess. "I didn't know it would stick so much, darlin'," she pouts.
Santana just shrugs. "If it means that you'll keep running your fingers through my hair, I don't mind it at all," she says honestly, leaning back into Brittany's touch, closing her eyes and enjoying Brittany's gentleness.
She starts to add, "Besides, it's not your fault that my hair is so flossy" at the same time that Brittany says, "Your hair is so pretty."
Both girls trip over their words and grin at each other, bashful, grateful, and in love.
A vivid blush blooms over Santana's skin. She wants to say something else, too—Thank you, for starters—but doesn't get the chance to do so before the bray rambles to a halt just beyond the white city and Shane motions for Brittany and Santana to disembark from the bed.
As she hops down from the bray, it occurs to Santana how very close she is to telling Brittany the truth. Within just minutes, they'll be alone together, and then Santana can say it. She offers Brittany a glance and Brittany catches her doing so out of the corner of her eye.
"What?" Brittany says, wearing her cat-smile.
Santana shrugs. "Can we go someplace private, maybe?"
They don't get the chance.
"Gather 'round, everyone!"
This time, the call comes from Mr. Adams himself. He stands on the back of a flatbed cart as though it were payday, looking smart in a long, navy frock coat with silk lapels, a handsome blue-and-green striped bowtie, gold cufflinks and a gold tiepin, and a felt bowler hat. His apparel wouldn't be out of place at a Rockefeller or Vanderbilt luncheon.
(Something about it seems wrong for the moment, though.)
(He hasn't made good on any notes payable yet.)
The fineness of Mr. Adams' dress so interests Santana that it takes her a full minute to realize that he doesn't stand atop the flatbed cart alone: a tall man with a broad chin, styled hair, and condescending smirk flanks him. The man seems to wear a perpetual squint. His clothing is nowhere near as fine as Mr. Adams'—he dons a gray sack coat and four-in-hand tie with no hat—and he carries with him two familiar implements.
A small ledger and a pencil.
When Santana looks to Brittany for an explanation as to the strange man's identity, she finds Brittany with her brow furrowed, obviously no savvier than she. Santana mirrors Brittany's frown, and the two girls join the throng assembled before Mr. Adams' cart. They stand beside Rory and some of his clown friends. Mr. Adams beams at his employees.
"Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce to you Mr. Roderick Remington of the Associated Press!" he booms. "Mr. Remington is a most estimable journalist who's come to us from the great city of Chicago. He intends to write up an article on our big Independence Day spectacular.
Now, I've given Mr. Remington full access to our camp for the day in order to allow him to get a real idea about the high caliber operation that we run here at the J.P. Adams & Son Traveling Circus & Menagerie. Mr. Remington intends to gather material for his article throughout the day and attend both our matinee and evening shows, to boot. His story will be a true exclusive! Just excellent stuff.
I ask you all to help me make Mr. Remington feel at home in our outfit. Please treat him with our best hospitality and be forthcoming in your interactions with him. If Mr. Remington asks you for an interview, please provide him with whatever answers he seeks. We're an open book to our good friends at the A.P.
It's our great pleasure to have Mr. Remington as our guest today. Please join me in welcoming him to the circus!"
Though Mr. Adams himself applauds loudly and encourages his employees to do the same, Santana notices that the company members around her seem less than enthusiastic about the prospect of hosting Mr. Remington at the camp. Those who do clap in his honor do so only halfheartedly. Everyone else turns downright cold.
"So we're supposed to mollycoddle the gilly, eh?" Rory mumbles to the clown beside him.
The second clown responds with a sneer and directs an obscene gesture at Misters Adams and Remington. The other clowns all laugh, and Santana recoils, suddenly nervous for their meanness. She shoots a glance at Brittany, who still wears a furrowed brow.
"Thank you kindly!" Mr. Remington says, in response to what meager applause he receives.
His voice is just as loud as Mr. Adams' and sounds decidedly boastful. He appears oblivious to the fact that no one acts especially glad to have him in camp save Mr. Adams. He gestures for the company to quiet down, which they do almost immediately.
"Thank you for your warm welcome! I look forward to speaking with you today. You may not be aware, but an operation such as yours holds some degree of mystery to uninitiated outsiders. I consider it quite the journalistic opportunity to get a firsthand glimpse at what goes on behind the scenes at a traveling circus such as your own—to learn your secrets, if you will."
Mr. Remington pauses for more applause, but no one offers it to him.
(Santana squirms where she stands, uncomfortable though she can't exactly say why.)
Mr. Remington's smirk falters slightly, but when he speaks, he continues to do so in the same boastful tones as before, "I'd like to have a photograph to go along with my story! I brought with me a photographer today, so if we could have you good folks quickly line up, we'll get in a shot. Now, Mr. Halberstadt is just back there—"
Mr. Remington points in the direction of a tired-looking young man with mouse-brown hair, baggy trousers, and puffy eyes. The young man stands at the rear of the company, leaning against a carriage that Santana doesn't recognize. He holds a lumpy bag of equipment slung over one shoulder and carries a bundle of rods that Santana recognizes as a camera tripod in his free hand. He seems thoroughly unenthusiastic about being at the circus.
(No one moves.)
"You heard the man!" Mr. Adams snaps.
(Everyone moves, all at once.)
"I've never been photographed," Santana admits to Brittany as the two girls link pinky fingers and set off toward Mr. Halberstadt.
"I haven't, either," Brittany says. She wears a quiet thrill in her voice.
For a group of persons who seamlessly conduct an elaborately choreographed parade thrice daily, the company can't seem to arrange itself for the photograph. Ken bellows at everyone to stand here and stand there, but no one very well heeds him.
Many of the taller fellows—like Sam and Finn—scrabble to stand at the fore of the group, directly in front of the camera, enthused by the prospect of having their likenesses printed in the newspaper, while the Sylvesteri Equestrienne Coterie and other petite ladies insist on standing near the back of the crowd, disgusted at the vulgarity of the whole photograph-taking enterprise.
At first, there's confusion as to whether Mr. Remington would prefer to have only the circus performers in his photograph or if he would like to have everyone under Mr. Adams' employ in the shot, as well. Ma Jones protests loudly that she doesn't have time to "sit for this fool thing," but Sam insists that a photograph of the circus without Ma Jones in it is no real photograph of the circus at all, and several of the other boys say Aye! Aye! until Ma and her girls have no other recourse but to join with the rest of the convocation.
Once the kitchen girls line up, the supes, midway staff, seamstresses, and band do, too, until all five-hundred souls of the J.P. Adams & Son Traveling Circus & Menagerie stand delineated into six crude rows before the camera. With some prodding from the beleaguered Mr. Halberstadt, the company begins to sort out by height, with the taller fellows moving to the back and little children coming to the front.
Santana finds herself jostled and herded on every side. She tries to keep hold of Brittany but begins to lose her grip amidst so much movement and confusion. Their hands slip apart.
"Stand here!" Ken snarls, grabbing Santana by the shoulders and yanking her into place directly in the center of the congeries.
For an instant, Santana loses track of Brittany, unable to see sunshine blonde or starlit blue anywhere. Panic floods Santana, and she starts, feeling quite like she did as a child on the few occasions when she would call for her grandmother or father and no one would answer her.
She fumbles, hating to go without Brittany for such a momentous event, but then a warm body slips in beside her.
The girls haven't time to do more than acknowledge each other before Mr. Halberstadt stands before the company and motions for everyone to quiet down.
"All right, all right!" he says, waving his arms. "Listen up! I'll give you lot until the count of three before I begin the photograph. Once I do begin, I'll need you to remain perfectly still for a full minute, until I give you the signal that it's permissible for you to move again. When I'm making the photograph, you must stay in your poses or you'll ruin the image, you hear?"
Mr. Halberstadt offers the company a stout nod and trundles over to his equipment. It takes him several minutes to arrange his tripod and camera in a way that seems to please him; he glances through the lens, mutters to himself, makes an adjustment, and then glances through the lens again, repeating the process at least five times while the circus waits. As he works, Brittany and Santana face each other, and Brittany grins.
I'm glad I get to take my first photograph with you, Brittany mouths.
Santana nods because she feels the same.
For a girl with no birth certificate, baptismal records, or confirmation date, it's strangely exhilarating, knowing that, for the first time in her nearly nineteen years, she'll finally have some lasting proof of her existence beyond just her immediate presence and a few fleeting footprints through Midwestern grass. She and Brittany straighten up and make their poses, their faces turning solemn as they become human statues, Hermiones of Shakespeare.
They and the other circus folk around them hold their breaths as Mr. Halberstadt makes one final adjustment to his tripod and flings the camera cape over his head and shoulders, shrouding himself for the shot. Misters Remington and Adams stand behind Mr. Halberstadt, silently approving. Mr. Halberstadt holds up three fingers and starts to count aloud.
(Santana feels a swoop in her belly.)
Brittany reaches out, and, at the last possible instant, takes hold of Santana's right hand with her left. Their fingers braid together, and Brittany tugs both their hands to rest just over her navel, clearly in the camera's view.
Santana feels another swoop of an entirely different sort. She can't help but smile, though she knows it will be difficult to hold the expression for a full minute without moving. Brittany meets her eyes and smiles just the same.
The camera flashes, searing Santana's vision in a blaze of white and powdered chemical glow. Santana tries her best not to flinch at the sound and light. The back of her hand feels warm against Brittany's belly. Looking into Brittany's eyes, Santana finds it easier than expected to hold a genuine smile. Somehow, it seems right to her that the first record of her existence should happen at the circus—should happen with Brittany.
(Almost too soon, Mr. Halberstadt permits the company to move.)
At Mr. Halberstadt's word, the circus' six rows quickly collapse into chaos, with everyone hustling all at once to go off to work and rid themselves of Mr. Remington and his intrusions. Santana clutches Brittany's hand. She hasn't forgotten what she had intended to do before Mr. Adams collected the company. Brittany seems not to have forgotten, either; she stares at Santana in her all-seeing way and waits for Santana to lead her somewhere.
Santana hasn't a good idea about where to take Brittany for privacy, but her feet seem to: they start her in the direction of the woods behind the camp, almost of their own volition.
(The woods are as fine a place to make a love confession as any, Santana supposes.)
Nerves jitter in Santana's belly, but she swallows them down, offering Brittany a smile. She tries to draft up some sort of speech in her mind befitting to the occasion but finds she can't do so.
She's never been able to hold to a plan when it involved Brittany anyhow, so, in a way, it hardly seems right that she would do so now.
Solo sé honesta, Santana.
The girls weave through a sea of shoulders and elbows, dodging this supe here and that kitchen girl there, but scarcely make it ten paces toward the edge of the wagon bay before it happens.
"Santana Puckerman! Brittany Pierce! Where do you two idlers think you're going?"
(Mrs. Schuester has the best way of turning up at the worst times.)
Santana doesn't bother to stifle her groan. She should have known that Mrs. Schuester and whatever powers there are in the universe wouldn't allow her to speak to Brittany so easily today—and not concerning a matter of such great import, especially. She grits her teeth.
(Must it always be so difficult to tell the truth?)
Mrs. Schuester marches up to Santana and Brittany, holding her skirt up around her ankles. Her expression looks fouler than milk three days past curdling. She wags her most shaming finger at Santana and Brittany.
"You skived off your chores yesterday but not today!" she snips.
"We were just about to go ask Ma Jones if she needed any help in the kitchen!" Brittany lies, so much desperation in her voice that Santana wonders if Brittany doesn't know exactly why Santana wanted privacy for them before Mrs. Schuester's interruption.
An evil smirk curls Mrs. Schuester's lips. "Well, she doesn't," she says smugly. "I've just asked her. She said I'm welcome to take you two to work for me"—Brittany opens her mouth to protest, but Mrs. Schuester won't allow her to speak—"I want you to embroider the elephant blankets you never finished yesterday, Brittany." She rounds on Santana, "And, as for you, I'll need your help running inventory in the dressing tent. I've got to count out how many cowboy and Indian costumes we have for the spectacular today, and I'll need you to write out the numbers for me. You can write, can't you, Santana?"
Santana shuffles her feet in the grass. "Yes, ma'am."
Mrs. Schuester smiles even more evilly than before. "Good," she says. "That's what Ma Jones told me."
(Somehow, Santana doesn't feel like it's good at all, though.)
There are few things worse than feeling as if one has left something incredibly important undone—which is exactly how Santana feels as Mrs. Schuester marches her and Brittany away from the white city and toward the dressing tents.
Santana should have made her confession to Brittany this morning on the train or last night on the beach or even after they touched each other in the tent the other day, for now it seems that she might never have the chance to speak her piece again.
Brittany acts disappointed not in Santana but in their circumstances, and Santana can't help but feel much the same.
Both girls pout as Mrs. Schuester loads Brittany up with the elephant blankets, and they pout even more when Mrs. Schuester orders Brittany away from the dressing tents to do her work because she doesn't want Brittany "causing a rumpus" with Santana from across the room.
"I need Santana's undivided attention," Mrs. Schuester declares.
(Honestly, Santana doubts that she'll get it.)
Brittany offers Santana a sad smile before she goes. "I'll miss you, darlin'," she mumbles.
Mrs. Schuester rolls her eyes. "For Pete's sake!" she says. "You'll see each other again at lunchtime!"
Somehow, lunchtime seems awfully far away, though.
"Goodbye, Britt," Santana pouts, waving Brittany farewell from the tent door.
"Make your long farewells on someone else's dime!" Mrs. Schuester grouses. "Mr. Adams can't afford to have you two waste every working hour of the day mooning over each other!"
She yanks Santana back inside the tent by the elbow.
Working for Mrs. Schuester without Brittany to help her makes Santana miserable for almost more reasons than Santana can count.
For one thing, Mrs. Schuester seems to delight in criticizing Santana—nothing Santana does is good or fast enough, neither done to Mrs. Schuester's stringent standards.
For another thing, the work seems to never end: Mrs. Schuester spends at least an hour having Santana help her sort through innumerable cowboy, Indian, and homesteader costumes and place them into piles, and then she invents another task for them to do—namely, having Santana act as her scribe, following her around the dressing tent to write down all the new fabrics she would like Mr. Adams to order from the Sears Roebuck Catalogue to patch everyone's costumes for midseason.
"I think some new madder foulard for the clowns' cravats would be nice, but, of course, I might have to bargain for it. If I ask Mr. Adams to order two reams less of shirting than I had originally wanted, he might find such a tradeoff agreeable. Ooh, but I do hate to ask for less shirting, though! I need it all," Mrs. Schuester whines, and Santana only nods, helpless and knowing that none of her advice would be the right thing to say to Mrs. Schuester anyway.
Of course, the worst part of the whole endeavor is Brittany's absence.
Santana can't stop thinking about her.
Brittany always looks beautiful, of course, but today Brittany looks even more beautiful than usual, somehow. She felt so warm, sleeping pressed against Santana's breast on the train. Even now, with Brittany off God-knows-where embroidering blankets and Santana here tallying fabrics in the tent, Santana feels so sweet on Brittany that she can scarcely do anything for it.
Honestly, Santana tries not to spend too much time imagining how Brittany might smile or what Brittany might say or do once Santana finally admits to loving her. Even so, she can't help but look forward to the light in Brittany's eyes and maybe even to a kiss or possibly some touches.
(Santana has never felt so loved or cared for as she does with Brittany's hands upon her skin.)
Santana carries an ache and a hope inside her, wanting and knowing exactly what. The time can't pass quickly enough to take her away from Mrs. Schuester and back to Brittany's presence.
Only after several minutes of daydreaming about Brittany does Santana realize that Mrs. Schuester is still talking to her, prattling on about something.
"—wrapped splints along her wrist so that she couldn't use her thumb and kept them there for six months until my sister wasn't left-handed anymore. You might try it. Santana! Are you even listening?"
Santana starts, "No, ma'am—I mean, yes, ma'am!"
Honestly, Santana hasn't the slightest idea what Mrs. Schuester is talking about. She gulps, suddenly very uncomfortable. Mrs. Schuester eyes Santana beadily. Her madwoman eyes sweep over Santana's whole body, from bare feet to bare head. Mrs. Schuester wears a very queer expression, as if she's seeing Santana anew.
"You and Mr. Puckerman aren't—?" Mrs. Schuester starts but doesn't finish. She bites her lower lip. "It's just that Ma Jones said you weren't feeling well the other day and—"
Santana isn't sure what Mrs. Schuester means.
She wets her lips. "I feel very well today, thank you, Mrs. Schuester," she manages.
Mrs. Schuester's face twitches as if it wants to make a pleasant expression but doesn't know how. "Mr. Schuester and I have prayed for a very long time," Mrs. Schuester says contemplatively, as if Santana should know what she means and also for what they've prayed. She pauses for a just a second more before motioning for Santana to follow her again. "Come on now! No dallying. Mark down for another three reams of calico."
Santana does as Mrs. Schuester tells her to do.
(She doesn't know how to do anything else.)
Mrs. Schuester detains Santana for another twenty minutes before declaring their work together done. However, she leaves Santana with one last chore to do before they part ways.
"Deliver these ledgers to Mr. Adams at his business tent," Mrs. Schuester instructs, motioning to the lists of fabric Santana just wrote out for her. "Tell him please and thank you from me."
(Though Santana swallows and nods an okay, she doesn't suppose she will actually say anything to Mr. Adams, when the moment comes.)
(Rules are rules are rules, after all.)
Though she hasn't a pocket watch by which to check her estimate, Santana reckons that it must be nearly eleven o'clock in the morning, which means that the lunch bell will ring in one hour. She also reckons that, if she hurries to deliver Mrs. Schuester's ledger to Mr. Adams at the business tent, she still might have the time to find Brittany and make her confession before they must rejoin the company and prepare for the upcoming show.
Of course, Santana doesn't want to rush saying something so terribly important—sacred, even—to Brittany, but she also doesn't want to make Brittany wait much longer to hear the truth.
She scampers from the dressing tents, trailing along the far side of the sideshow through deep near noontime shadow. Her excitement carries her quickly. She so seldom has the pleasure of delivering good news to anyone, let alone to her one true love, whom she would do anything in the whole wide world to please.
(She can already see Brittany's smile in her mind.)
(She feels wonderfully giddy.)
Santana steps onto hotter grass, into direct sunlight, and makes haste toward the billboard partition dividing the midway from the white city. Color cascades over her skin, suffusing her in yellow, red, blue, violet, and aquamarine. All at once, she remembers that first day when Brittany showed her all the beautiful secret places of the circus—all her hidden rays of light—and feels somehow boundless inside and on the trail to something wonderful.
Santana hears it just as she steps under the billboard advertising Mister Jesse St. James the Lion Tamer and His Miraculous Feats of Derring-do in the Face of Almost Certain Death at the Jaws of Wild Beasts of a Most Carnivorous Sort. At first, Santana doesn't register the crying for what it is—it seems just a strange sound, out of place amidst the relative silence of the deserted midway—but then Santana sees, and then Santana knows.
Quinn Fabray sits against one of the great timbers supporting the billboard, her pretty face buried in her hands. Her shoulders wrack and her skirt fans out around her like a handkerchief dropped onto the floor. Quinn's reporter's ledger and pencil lay just a few feet in front of her; she's scribbled out the first page in the ledger with angry, haphazard strokes.
She sobs and looks like a glass girl just on the verge of breaking.
Without meaning to, Santana remembers that part in Mr. Carroll's book when Alice sits down and begins to cry, letting so many tears that she nearly drowns herself in a sea of them. Now, Santana thinks Quinn might be a bit of an Alice: a girl with a problem so vast and deep that she can't see anything but it and can't manage to catch her breath.
(Santana knows how Quinn feels—or she did know two weeks ago before she ever joined the circus and met such a person as Brittany Pierce.)
Immediately, Santana stops where she stands; she couldn't keep running if she wanted to do it. She draws to a halt just a few feet away from where Quinn crouches, pausing under a long expanse of orange and red light. Quinn hears Santana, of course, and looks up, her pretty face crumpled into the most tragic expression Santana thinks she's ever seen.
She sits beneath a splay of blue, water to Santana's fire.
Before Santana can stop herself, she blurts out, "I'm sorry you have to marry Arthur Adams."
It breaks the rules for Santana to say such a thing—it's foolish, and she ought not to be so bold.
For once, Quinn doesn't seem to mind Santana's impertinence, though. She gives a terse laugh, devoid of mirth. "I am, too," she admits, trying to choke back her sobs.
(It might just be the most honest thing Quinn has ever said to Santana.)
(Or even to anyone, maybe.)
Now that Santana has stilled, she can get a good look at Quinn, whose eyes are pink and small from tears and face wet and drawn from grieving. As Quinn speaks to Santana, she tries to straighten out her mouth, but she can't seem to keep her lips from quivering.
Quinn is one of the prettiest girls Santana has ever seen, even weeping.
If Santana knew Quinn better, she might offer to hold Quinn, like she did Brittany yesterday in the wood. As it is, Santana shuffles her feet awkwardly in the grass. She hasn't any comfort to offer Quinn Fabray. After all, if a father says his daughter must marry, what choice does the daughter have but to do it? She must.
"It isn't just the wedding, though."
It surprises Santana that Quinn would keep talking. Santana starts at the sound of Quinn's voice but says nothing, allowing Quinn to go on. Quinn looks up at the billboards billowing above them, attempting to stymie her tears, and lets out another wilted, hapless sort of laugh.
"I know I shouldn't care because it doesn't matter," she says, grabbing at her skirt with angry fists, "but that dog Remington is sharking my story!"
Quinn glances at Santana as if she expects Santana to say something, but Santana doesn't know what to say. She stares at Quinn until Quinn finds more words.
"I've always known that Daddy would have me marry one of his business associates," Quinn admits. "I had just hoped that I might"—her voice cracks like a fault line—"that I might have something to show before—for—"
Her words dissolve into fresh sobs, and she rocks forward, clutching at her heart. It's a kind of sobbing that feels like swallowing shards of glass—Santana knows it from when Abuela died, and Papa, and also from when she thought that Brittany Pierce could never return her love.
"I'll give you an interview."
Santana surprises herself with her own boldness. It's an empty gesture, she knows, but what else can she do? She hates to see anyone cry, and especially a girl as beautiful as Quinn Fabray. Somehow, Quinn seems like someone who ought to be untouchable.
(It isn't right that the girl who doesn't even work at the circus should be so circus-lonely.)
Quinn looks up from her hands. She stares at Santana with a heartsick sort of seeing.
For Quinn's attention, a blush creeps over Santana's skin. Santana ought not to be so bold—not when someone like Quinn is so far above someone like her, not when there are rules, not when Quinn didn't even want to interview Santana before, when she had the chance.
"—if you like, I mean," Santana mumbles, no longer sure where to look.
Though Santana expects Quinn to reject the suggestion right away, Quinn doesn't. Instead, Quinn offers Santana a hopeless kind of smile, ducking her head in a grateful nod.
"Thank you," Quinn says, straightening up a bit, "but I'm afraid it wouldn't do any good." She wipes her nose along her sleeve. "Even if I were to publish one story with the A.P., I'd never have the chance to publish another, you see. If I marry Arthur at this age, there's nothing for me but—," her sentence trails away. After a second, her lip quivers again, and she shakes her head, clearing cobwebs. She fixes Santana with a very serious look. "It's better not to ever have the thing you most want than it is to have it once before it's taken away from you, don't you think?"
She speaks in an unaffected way, as if she had asked a superfluous kind of question, like Do you suppose Oklahoma Territory will ever become a state of the Union? or How is a raven like a writing desk?—the kinds of things about which one might prattle to a friend over tea.
Hers isn't just a superfluous question, though.
Santana feels an ache for her. She knows what Quinn wants her to say, of course, but somehow she doesn't think she can say it because after meeting Brittany—after kissing Brittany and holding her and after everything they've done together at the circus—it would feel too much like a lie to tell Quinn that there's some sort of value in never knowing happiness, no matter how short its duration.
Santana knows differently now.
So she makes a decision.
She takes a few steps forward, cautiously, as one would in approaching a skittish animal, holding Quinn's gaze the whole time. Once she shares Quinn's space, she crouches down, covering Quinn's hand with her own upon the grass.
It's the first time she's touched Quinn. It's something Santana ought not to do, not without permission, not like this. People like her and people like Quinn don't touch each other.
Quinn's pulse feels quick and flighty under Santana's palm. Though it shouldn't surprise her to find Quinn made from skin and bones just like any other person, somehow it does. Quinn feels just like a frightened girl. Neither she nor Santana breathes much.
Their fingers tangle together, light and dark, against the earth.
Santana offers Quinn what she hopes is her most reassuring smile. She stares into Quinn's tear-sore hazel eyes and doesn't hesitate when she speaks.
"You know," she says softly, "just because somebody says you're married, it doesn't mean that you are. You have to want it, too. Somebody really smart told me that once."
The ghost of a smile curls Quinn's lips but only for the briefest second before Quinn collapses into more sobbing. She holds tightly to Santana's hand and cries and cries.
Santana doesn't move.
There are few things that will make a person feel more helpless than watching a stranger sob.
Santana clings to Quinn's hand, staring at her, but doesn't dare to touch Quinn any more than she already is or even to speak to the poor girl. Santana knows that if Brittany were here, Brittany might pet Quinn's hair or rub Quinn's back, but Santana isn't Brittany and there are rules and other things, as well—and maybe that's why after what seems like a long while, Quinn straightens up again and hastily wipes her eyes.
She swallows down what must be a great lump in her throat. "I'm sorry," she says, perhaps more to herself than to Santana. "I didn't mean to—I shouldn't have—"
"It's all right—," Santana tries to say, but, apparently, it isn't.
Quinn shakes her head and pulls her hand away from Santana. She wipes furiously at her eyes and reaches for her castoff ledger and pencil.
"I'm sure you have work to do," Quinn says in a clipped voice.
(She won't look at Santana.)
(She's trapped behind that same high wall, like Mr. Perrault's Sleeping Beauty encased about by thorns.)
Quinn snatches her belongings up from the grass and forces herself to her feet, all but tripping over her pretty Gibson skirts. She smoothes back her hair and wipes her eyes one last time. Her face still shines, wet and soft from tears; her mouth looks angry, but her eyes look sad. She clutches her ledger to her breast.
"You oughtn't to dawdle," Quinn snaps, and Santana would feel afraid of her, except that her jaw quivers just a bit when she speaks.
Santana doesn't bother to stand up from the grass just yet. "Yes, miss," she says, looking down to her own hand, still flatted upon the earth.
Quinn nods, satisfied with Santana's deference, turning on her heel and stalking away, back toward the white city. It should seem strange that a girl who tries to make herself appear so big and powerful would actually be so small and not, but Santana understands the contradiction, she thinks.
(She sees and she knows and she knows.)
By the time Santana delivers Mrs. Schuester's ledger to Ken—he takes the list from her at the door to the business tent, so Santana never actually sees Mr. Adams himself at all—she finds that she has only a half-hour remaining until lunch, which is hardly enough time to declare true love to the most perfect girl in the world, she figures.
Now that she doesn't have a secret to tell right away, Santana finds herself in a strange sort of humor, half of her heart high and floating like a balloon, giddy with thoughts of Brittany, and half of it anchored down, still troubled by the anguished look Quinn Fabray wore when Santana found her under the billboards.
(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.)
It puzzles Santana that so much happiness and sadness can happen at a single place, and particularly at a place as encapsulated as the circus. It seems strange to her that she herself can feel so carefree when someone else—and especially a someone else as important as Quinn Fabray—should feel so miserable at the exact same time.
Part of Santana wonders if she and Quinn didn't somehow exchange fortunes, the princess and the pauper, like in Mr. Twain's book.
It strikes Santana that it might not be so terrible that Quinn would have to marry Arthur if only Mr. Remington hadn't appeared to ruin Quinn's story, too. If Quinn could just have one perfect thing, then maybe she would feel all right with all her many other things that are so far from perfect.
(By whatever happy chance, Santana found her own perfect thing—her own perfect person—without having to do any searching for her at all, really.)
Deep in contemplation, Santana fails to mind her surroundings.
She collides with someone, hard, coming around the corner of a tent row, headed toward the mess.
"Watch it, ladybird!"
Puck all wet.
It surprises Santana to feel the slickness on Puck's skin and to see beads of water clinging to his hair, as would dew to morning grass. At first Puck regards Santana with the same sort of animal wariness with which he's met her for the past few days, petulance and distance behind his eyes, but then he seems to catch sight of her face, scrunched up with confusion, and something about his demeanor changes.
Half his idiot smile creeps onto his face.
"You're all wet," Santana starts.
"Oh," Puck says, "I just got back from the showers. Bath day, ladybird." He chucks her elbow and suddenly looks a bit more devilish. "I take it you haven't had your turn yet."
Santana shakes her head. "I haven't," she admits. "But maybe I'll go take my turn before lunch."
Puck nods. "There weren't nobody in there when I had my shower just now," he reports. "You'll have to hurry, though."
"I will," Santana assures him, confident that she can shower in less than a half-hour now that she has memorized the routine for doing so. A thought occurs to her. Then, "We don't happen to own a towel, do we?"
Her question, though simple, seems to take Puck aback and dissolve the last traces of his wariness. His posture changes. He jolts, straightens up, and peers at Santana, curious at something about her, like she's a new creature to him. When next he speaks, his voice sounds honey-soft.
"We don't," he admits. He wets his lips, tentative. "Would you like for me to buy us one, though?"
(Now it's Santana who starts.)
"Oh," she says, flustered that Puck would ask her opinion. No one has ever much cared for Santana's input about shopping before. "Only if it's not too much trouble."
Something lights behind Puck's eyes—it looks strangely like gratitude. All of a sudden, Puck seems like both a little boy and a grown man at once. "We can budget for it, if you like, ladybird," he offers. "I can supply a nickel from my savings, and then we can each put in two pennies from our next paychecks."
He seems weirdly excited at the prospect of buying a towel for their household, as if the very idea of doing so thrills him. His gaze shifts from Santana's eyes to her lips, and his own mouth curls into his most genuine sort of waiting smile.
"Once Mr. Adams makes good on his notes payable," says Santana, only half-joking.
Puck nods, still smiling. "Right," he says.
(Santana has never known a boy so happy to part with his money.)
Somewhere between Puck and the showers, Santana gets back to thinking about Brittany. It's Brittany as she lets down her belts and sashes, Brittany when she stands on tiptoe upon the wooden stool, Brittany as she fills the colander, Brittany as she soaps, and Brittany as she rinses.
Santana sings to herself as she bathes.
I'm in love with a sweet little girlie
I meet her each morning nice and early,
rain or sun,
rain or sun
To work we go walking together,
just as gay as can be
We're truly two birds of a feather,
just my one little girl and me
Satisfied that she no longer stinks of lake water, Santana wrings out her hair, dresses, and sets off back toward the camp. She hasn't heard the lunch bell yet and wonders how much time she has left before it will ring.
As she goes along, she hums the same song that she sang in the shower stall and tries, again, to think through what she might say to Brittany after the matinee, recalling all the best speeches she's read from Misters Scott and Shakespeare concerning love.
So deep does Santana carry away into thought, imagining how she'll hold Brittany's hand and look into Brittany's eyes as she makes her confession, that she almost thinks she's imagined it when she actually happens upon Brittany sitting under a lone shingle oak tree.
Brittany has one elephant blanket covering her lap and the other two blankets bunched up behind her. The myriad pieces of a single sewing kit fan out around her. Before she sees Santana, she frowns at her project, almost distraught. After she sees Santana, she smiles, wide and true.
(Will Santana ever not blush at her call?)
"Hi, BrittBritt," Santana grins, drawing closer. "How's the work? Have you nearly finished with it? It will be time for lunch soon, I think."
Brittany's face falls the instant Santana mentions sewing. She glances between Santana and the embroidery, her needle paused halfway through the heavy velveteen blanket.
"I didn't finish as much as I should have," Brittany confesses. "Mr. Remington stopped me after I got back from the dressing tent and wanted to interview me for his article." She pouts. "He talked to me for a long time and only just left a few minutes ago."
"Golly, Britt," Santana says. "I'm sorry."
She mirrors Brittany's pout, sympathetic, and sits down on the grass in front of Brittany. Latticework shadows from the oak's branches crisscross her skin, and the grass feels cool beneath her legs. Without thinking, she reaches forward and sets her hand on Brittany's knee, massaging it.
Brittany gives a one-shouldered shrug. "It's not your fault," she says honestly.
"I know, but I'm still sorry for you," Santana says, rubbing over Brittany's knee with her thumb. A thought strikes her. "You're not the only one who doesn't like having Mr. Remington at the circus, you know. I just happened upon Quinn Fabray. It upset her very much that Mr. Remington has come to shark her story for the A.P."
"Really?" Brittany says, interested but not surprised.
Santana nods. "I don't think I like any fellow who makes you so fretful, Britt," she says, concerned at the way Brittany can't seem to stop frowning at her work. She continues to stroke at Brittany's kneecap. "Are you okay?"
Brittany gives another one-shouldered shrug, as if to say she doesn't know. "Mrs. Schuester will tell Daddy that I haven't finished my chores," she says forlornly. Her brow furrows as she looks down at the blanket in her lap and finds it woefully incomplete for beadwork.
"Oh, Britt," Santana says, deepening her pout.
She can see the worry starting to set in Brittany's features and feels a pang because Brittany's troubles always hurt her more than her own do somehow. She knows that Brittany is right, of course: If Mrs. Schuester discovers that Brittany didn't finish the project, it will mean trouble for Brittany of a sort that Santana doesn't particularly like to consider.
If Santana could, she would do all of Brittany's chores for her. Unfortunately, Santana would never be able to finish all the embroidering before lunch, no matter how quick her hand. She flusters, wanting more than anything to help Brittany but not knowing how to do it. She hates it when Brittany feels sad or worried or—worst of all—not good enough.
(That such a wonderful person as Brittany shouldn't know just how wonderful she really is somehow breaks Santana's heart.)
Santana scrambles for something to do to make Brittany feel better.
Her eyes light on something familiar in the grass.
A spool of red thread.
"Close your eyes," she bids, breathless.
Brittany does as Santana tells her, perfectly trusting.
Santana looks around at Brittany's sewing supplies, searching over several more spools of thread, a bead bag, and even a long, steel needle embedded in the ground, until finally she spots what she's looking for amidst the other detritus and snatches it up from the grass.
If right-handed scissors weren't invented by the same devil who sits on her shoulder, Santana will be even more damned than she already is.
She struggles to maneuver the scissors around the thread and then struggles even more to wield them properly. Several times, the scissors slip, and she fails to cut the thread, the blades ineffectual in her awkward grip.
When Brittany tried this same trick for Santana's sake, she managed it so easily. Try as she may, Santana can't seem to muster Brittany's special kind of grace.
Brittany must hear Santana fumbling because after a moment she asks, "Are you all right out there, darlin'?" a funny twinge in her voice.
"Just a second, Britt," Santana promises, only just managing to cut the thread. She grins, pleased with herself. Her smile steeps through her voice. "Give me your hand."
(She sounds surprised.)
The faintest smile starts to curl at Brittany's lips, though Brittany obviously tries to smooth out her expression and not seem too hopeful, lest she somehow expect the wrong thing.
She doesn't expect the wrong thing, though.
When Brittany proffers up her right hand, Santana is almost sure that she does it on purpose just because she's clever and wonderful and the most precious person in the world.
"Other one," Santana instructs, adoring.
Brittany fully grins now, so widely that she shows her teeth, and her whole countenance seems to shine. When she offers her left hand to Santana, her fingers tremble.
With far less deftness than Brittany had when fitting her with a thread ring, Santana loops the thread around Brittany's ring finger, bumbling to put it over twice and work it into a sound knot, trembling herself after a moment. She fidgets the knot into place, feeling clumsy and stupid but also golden just from the way that Brittany smiles at her.
I love you, she thinks.
"There," she says.
At her word, Brittany opens her eyes, gaze darting from her own finger to Santana's face. Brittany bends her finger at the knuckle, testing her new "jewelry" for its elasticity. Everything about her seems light.
"What's this for, darlin'?" she asks, reverent.
Santana searches. "It's a promise," she says honestly.
She expects Brittany to ask her about what kind of promise she means—honestly, Santana doesn't know, not fully anyway, not about something so important and lasting—but Brittany doesn't. Instead, Brittany's smile and eyes turn soft.
"Thank you," Brittany says.
She never quite does what Santana expects.
(Santana didn't realize how much she loved surprises until she realized how much she loves Brittany.)
The invisible string tied at Santana's heart gives what feels like one-thousand tugs at once, and Santana's cheeks heat. Her head dips of its own volition. "May I kiss you, Britt?" she asks, already halfway to Brittany's lips.
"Yes, please," Brittany says.
And so Santana does.
Brittany smiles into the kiss and Santana does, too, and at the moment when their mouths fully meet, Santana doesn't think that she's ever felt happier or brighter. She nudges their noses together and chins, shifting the shape of their kiss and the angle of it, feeling Brittany out in new ways. The sensation of Brittany's lips against hers sends a warm sort of shiver through Santana's body. Brittany's smile widens until finally she and Santana break apart, dizzy.
"I'll help you with your fancywork after lunch," Santana promises, reaching for Brittany's ringed hand and setting it in her own lap. "I don't care what Mrs. Schuester says about it."
Brittany smiles. "Really?" she says, giving Santana another peck on the lips.
Santana nods. "If she says aught to me, I'll tell her fiddlesticks and have done with it," she boasts because, at the moment, she feels it to be true—she could very well say such things to Mrs. Schuester without as much as a second thought of it.
(She could do anything for Brittany.)
"Thank you," Brittany says again, breathless.
The girls grin at each other, and the lunch bell rings.
(Honestly, Santana couldn't have timed everything better.)
Santana helps Brittany gather up her sewing supplies and the elephant blankets before the two girls head back toward the heart of camp together. They deposit Brittany's materials outside the front door to the Pierce family tent, but Brittany doesn't go inside because she doesn't want to wake her father. With linked pinky fingers, she and Santana jog to the mess area and enter it via the back path just beyond the chuck wagon.
Almost immediately, they happen upon Ma Jones and Ken together, the former scolding the latter, brandishing her wooden spoon with such righteous aplomb that even old General Grant would be impressed to see her, were he still alive and here at Mr. Adams' circus today.
Ma looks like an archangel, full of justice, beautiful in her ferocity.
Ken, by comparison, looks like the lowliest worm in Hell.
He cowers before Ma Jones, his undersized bowler hat crushed between regretful hands, his shoulders hunched as he seems to try to sink below the surface of the very earth. He flinches at Ma's every word and acts sorrier than Santana felt when she first awakened in the morning.
Ma prods at his bulbous belly with her wooden spoon.
"I know what you said," she admonishes, "but I won't have none of that flap-jawing' up in my kitchen! You are still dog drunk, Ken, and you stink of booze, but that's between y'all and Jesus—what I care about is that you was supposed to be on watch at the chuck, but instead you decided to drink that beer like it was water and cheap as piss, and now we're down two half-barrels and ten biscuits out of that wagon! I don't know how Mr. Adams puts you in charge of nothing, what with your being a bigger fool than you even look and selfisher than any man of your great size has a right to be!"
"Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry, ma'am."
If Santana didn't know better, she would say that Ken looked like he was about to cry.
Brittany and Santana tiptoe around the commotion, careful not to let Ma Jones see them and desperate to keep straight faces should Ken happen to glance their way. Santana avoids looking directly at Brittany because she knows that if she does so, she'll laugh and thereby incriminate them. She ought to feel guilty for allowing Ken to suffer for her sins, but somehow she can't fuss about it.
The girls make it into the mess pit proper before Brittany starts giggling, and Santana does, too.
They're still laughing when they takes seats on the grass on a low hillock just beyond the tables. Brittany squeezes Santana's finger.
"I feel like I ought to do penance," Santana says. She tries to sound sincere, but she can't stop smiling.
Brittany hums a happy note, grinning just as well. "But why, Santana? You heard Ma Jones: Ken's the one who's done wrong," she purrs, looking more precious than any troublemaking person has a right to.
Santana laughs. "I'll go get us some lunch. Is that a good penance?"
"The best penance," Brittany agrees, only it sounds like something else.
Color floods Santana's cheeks. She glances at the thread rings on her and Brittany's fingers, her own slightly faded, Brittany's still bright red, both of them perfect, and especially together. "All right," she says. "I'll be right back—promise."
Brittany helps Santana to her feet, though she herself remains sitting on the grass. "Okay, darlin'. I'll wait for you," she returns.
(What she says feels like a million things, really—all of them, all of them good.)
Santana returns to her and Brittany's place with two plates of dumplings with gravy, greens, two tin cups, and a single fork. She finds Brittany lying belly-down on the hillock, her back turned to Santana and feet kicked up in the air above her.
At first, Santana thinks that Brittany might be sunbathing—catlike—but then she realizes that something in the grass has Brittany's attention. As soon Santana draws closer, she sees what the something is: namely, two queen butterflies with brilliant roan wings fluttering over a clump of yellow sneezeweed.
The butterflies flit about each other, bumping together mid-flight as they hover about the plant. When Santana listens closely, she hears Brittany whispering to them.
"I hope you're not fighting," Brittany says fervently. "You really ought to be kind to each other. Do butterflies know manners? Maybe you're kissing," she muses. "Kissing is nice—well, kissing Santana is nice. The nicest, actually."
(Santana feels a firm tug on her heart.)
(She gasps without meaning to do it.)
Brittany hears Santana behind her and lifts up her head. Though anyone else might feel so, Brittany doesn't seem at all self-conscious, despite the fact that she must know that Santana caught her dreamy butterfly talk. She greets Santana with a smile and flits her feet in the air, absentminded.
"Hey, darlin'," she says, still flat on the ground.
"Hey," Santana says back, stupid.
For a moment, both girls stare at each other, dumb with affection, but after several seconds, Brittany bites her lip. "What?" she asks slyly.
Santana's heart flutters. She searches to explain exactly what makes this particular Brittany moment so endearing to her. "It's just—," she starts. "It's just—almost nothing surprises you, does it?"
Brittany grins and bites her lip. She nods. "Almost nothing except you," she says, just so. She searches Santana's expression. "Why? What's on your mind, darlin'?"
"My favorite book," Santana admits. When Brittany stares at her, waiting for her to say more, Santana elaborates, "It's—it's about a little girl who goes to live at a boarding school. The headmistress is called Miss Minchin." Santana pauses before adding, "Miss Minchin is a lot like Mrs. Schuester, actually."
Brittany scrunches up her nose. "You mean only happy when she's cross?"
(Santana feels a sweet pang play through her chest, like a high, clear note on a piano.)
She laughs, still hovering over Brittany. "The crossest," she affirms.
Brittany looks up at Santana, learning about Santana's favorite book in the same way one might learn the topography of a room she was visiting for the very first time—which is to say, carefully and by paying attention to everything that makes the room different from what's familiar to her.
(Brittany is the kind of person who revels in the quiet wonder of a new room, Santana thinks.)
Brittany's gaze moves between Santana's two eyes, then down to the curve of Santana's shy smile, and then back up to Santana's eyes again.
"Well, what about the little girl in your book?" she asks, infinitely curious.
Santana blushes and sits down in the grass beside Brittany. The butterflies flutter at her intrusion but still hang close to the sneezeweed. Santana offers Brittany her plate and their lone fork to start the meal and then shrugs, bashful.
"Well," she starts, "the little girl's father loves her very much and provides for her well—he's a rich, young officer in the army—only it so happens that he loses his fortune and dies in India, leaving his little girl penniless and without a friend in the world. After that, Miss Minchin acts terrible to the little girl, and the little girl escapes into the stories she reads in books and into her imagination. She imagines so often and so fancifully that nothing really surprises her when it happens, no matter how strange it is."
Brittany wears a soft, adoring smile. She hasn't stopped staring at Santana yet. "The little girl is a lot like you, isn't she, darlin'?" Brittany says thoughtfully.
Santana's ears pink. "I used to think so," she admits, ducking her head, "but now I think she's more like you." Her secret rises to her throat, and she speaks around it. "That's why I l-like her so well."
Now it's Brittany who blushes. She grins and digs into her dumplings with the fork, only she doesn't take a bite yet—just looks away from Santana out of modesty and something else.
"How does she end up?" Brittany asks after a minute spent poking around at her food. "The little girl, I mean?"
Santana shrugs, still hot in the face, even though neither she nor Brittany looks at each other now. "She makes a friend who takes care of her," she mumbles.
Brittany looks up at Santana then, a familiar queer perspicacity in her cornflower blue and specks of gilt. "You've never talked about your favorite book before," she says, hushed. She sounds grateful to hear Santana talk about it now, like Santana doing so is some sort of gift.
Santana feels very warm inside. She squirms where she sits. "I suppose I haven't," she concedes.
"Why not?" Brittany asks, not accusatory but interested.
Though Santana had never considered the matter before, at Brittany's word, she searches inside herself and instantly knows the answer to Brittany's question. She reaches for a tuft of grass and pulls it up by the roots, fidgety, trying to formulate her words.
"Have you ever been very fond of something, but then had it too often and then not liked it anymore?" she ventures. Brittany nods, and Santana continues, "Well, I suppose I didn't want to talk about my favorite book or think of it too much because I didn't want it to stop being special," she confesses. Speaking her concern aloud makes it sound foolish. She looks up from the grass at Brittany, embarrassed of herself. "That's not how magic works, though, is it, BrittBritt?"
Brittany considers Santana's deduction, contemplative and serene. She still hasn't taken a bite of her lunch yet. After a long while, she says, "Circus magic, maybe—but not real magic, no."
"Real magic?" Santana asks, scrunching up her face.
Brittany nods. "Our kind of magic," she explains, reaching for Santana's hand upon the grass.
(Red thread overlaps red thread.)
(Santana's heart squeezes in her chest.)
At Brittany's touch, the moment turns urgent, and Santana finds she wants nothing more than to kiss Brittany deep and slow. She knows that Brittany wants the same thing from the way Brittany's eyes turn darker blue. The want pulses between them.
All the same, however much Santana wants to write out love on Brittany's lips and in the heat of Brittany's mouth, she can't—not when she and Brittany sit just a few feet away from the whole company, where anyone could see them kiss—so rather than do it, Santana offers Brittany her best smile, and Brittany returns the look.
"Can we read your favorite book together someday?" Brittany asks suddenly.
Santana's throat tightens just from thinking about someday with Brittany. When Santana next speaks, her voice sounds scratchy for it. "I'll teach you, BrittBritt," she promises.
Brittany gives Santana's hand a squeeze. "I'd like that very much," she says.
(Brittany is the kind of person who never forgets important things, and, when Santana is with her, Santana is that kind of person, too.)
Brittany and Santana make it through very little lunch before the mess bell rings, and they both jolt, confused.
It's far too early for lunch to have ended already.
They look up from their plates to see what's afoot beside the hearth. Almost immediately, they find the source of the disruption: Ken standing atop a vegetable crate. Ma Jones waits just beside him, holding the hook she uses to ring the mess bell. The whole circus company mutters, surprised that Ken would interrupt their meal—and especially when he's already addressed them once today.
"Quiet down!" Ken shouts, looking smug with himself for doing it. He waits until everyone complies with his order. Only after they do so does he address them, "Listen up! Now, today's the Fourth of July and we've got a spectacular to run! Missus Schuester has spent all of last week sewing new costumes for you lot, and you'll wear them today instead of your knight duds. The choreography during the sketch will run the same, except the black knights will be Injuns, and the blue knights'll be pioneers. The ladies will be frontier women and Injun princesses. Understood?"
"Yes, sir," choruses the company, not sounding particularly enthused.
"Good," Ken says, as self-satisfied as if he had just won some argument. "Now, Mr. Adams has made arrangements for us to have a dance inside the big top tonight after the show, and not just with us but with the townsfolk from Ackley. He invited the whole town. After the dance, we'll set off fireworks. To my boys, you all know which ones of 'ya are on duty for that fuss. So what says everyone to that?"
This time, the company cheers, thrilled at the prospect of such a diversion.
Santana's own heart leaps in her chest.
(She can't help but recall the last time when the circus had a dance and the way that she and Brittany fit together, spinning—)
"All right, then," Ken gruffs, motioning for the company to quiet down again. "Well, before any of you get smart ideas, let me tell you: Mr. Adams made it very clear that anyone who treats our guests discourteously or harasses the gillies will be off the list faster than a mule kick, you understand? Give the townsfolk plenty of space, and don't try to mix with them."
"Who would want to?" calls a voice that sounds suspiciously like Puck's.
The company chuckles, but Ken looks annoyed.
"No funny business!" he warns, shaking a pudgy finger at the crowd.
"Yes, sir," comes the chorus.
Brittany and Santana meet each other's eyes and grin.
"Save me a dance tonight, darlin'?" Brittany asks.
Santana smiles wider. "As many dances as you want," she says earnestly, though what she really means to say is "As many dances as there are," of course.
After Ken addresses the company, everyone begins to disperse for the morning fair, even though it's perhaps a bit early for them to do so. Brittany and Santana remain on their hillock for just a while longer—fitting in a few more bites of lunch and a few more minutes spent in each other's company—before they too bus their plates to the washtubs, ready to prepare for the show.
As they set out from the mess pit, they pass by Mr. Remington approaching Mr. Evans.
"Excuse me, good fellow," says Mr. Remington in his deep, booming, boastful voice. "Would you be disposed to perhaps sit for an interview—?"
"Haven't the time for it," Mr. Evans says quickly. Then, tersely, "God bless."
And he departs.
Mr. Remington seems very put out by Mr. Evans' dismissal; his lips tighten on his face, and he clutches hard to his ledger. His already deeply furrowed brow furrows even deeper. He is a man unaccustomed to having anyone refuse him.
Immediately, Mr. Remington searches for another potential interviewee, looking around at the circus folk passing him on either side, but no one meets his eyes—not even Brittany or Santana, who dodge him like the rest.
Of course, Mr. Adams instructed the company that they ought to make Mr. Remington feel welcome at the circus and that they should be forthcoming with him when he questioned them for his report. However, Mr. Adams also instructed the company—by way of Ken—that they should put on a perfect show today and threatened everyone that he would strike any man from the lists who happened to miss a mark.
Even to Santana, who still knows much less concerning the circus than most of the other company members do, it seems that the latter order trumps the former one.
(All the same, Santana can't help but think that the company's unwillingness to stop for Mr. Remington has less to do with obedience than it has to do with privacy.)
Between last night's circus ending early and Santana staying awake into the wee hours of the morning, it feels as if a considerable amount of time has passed since last she performed on the midway. Of course, Santana can't say that she particularly missed the midway at all. Indeed, she feels a great impatience about sitting for today's fair—or perhaps, more accurately, about sitting anywhere away from Brittany.
Though Mr. Adams put in a word to Ken yesterday to order Santana new tarot cards, the delivery doesn't seem to have arrived yet; Santana's sign still announces her as "MADAME ROSSETTI, GYPSY FORTUNETELLER: Reader of Both Palms."
Ken says nothing to Santana as she sidles into her chair. He seems rather preoccupied with the upcoming spectacular and keeps glancing toward the big top in the distance.
For her part, Santana takes to telling very detailed fortunes in the hopes that her doing so will help to pass the time until the matinee more quickly.
She "prophesies" to a young farmer about how he ought to search for a cow with a particular kind of spots—"It must have a star, a rain cloud, and a circle no bigger than your fist," she tells him, "and all on its left flank"—and raise it for the county fair, feeding it on the best stuff, if he wants to win a grand prize.
The farmer listens to Santana's words with rapt attention, repeating them over and over again just a beat behind her, trying to memorize them for himself. His older brother stands at his shoulder, nodding intently, similarly focused.
Next, Santana "sees" in the palm of a jovial businessman that if he searches in every corner of his office and under his bed at home and in his satchel and through all his pockets and beneath the bench of his buggy, he'll find his misplaced pocketbook—and especially if he searches every place twice and does so thoroughly.
"So I ought to search the buggy when?" he asks, eyes twinkling.
"After your pockets," Santana repeats, thick in her grandmother's accent, "—and make sure to search every pocket in all your slacks and jackets."
"What about my waistcoats?" the man prods.
Santana pretends to consider for a moment. She squints at the businessman's palm—as boringly pink and nondescript as every other palm she's read at the circus—feigning as if she must really search for her answer in its landscape.
After a minute, she gives a slow shake of her head.
"Only the blue one," she says wisely.
"My blue waistcoat?"
(The man looks thoroughly impressed that Santana would know what color waistcoat he owns.)
After his reading, he makes it ten full steps away from Santana's gazebo before he realizes that he's wearing a blue waistcoat today and laughs most raucously.
He spins where he stands and wags a finger in her direction. "You sly devil girl!" he says. "Bon spectacle, Madame Rossetti!"
In the wake of her successful joke, Santana feels very pleased with herself but only until a familiar but unwelcome person appears at the front of her line: none other than Mr. Roderick Remington, wearing a self-satisfied smirk.
"Good afternoon. How do you do, Madame?" he says in his deep, boastful voice. He tips the brim of his hat to her and sits down in the open chair in front of her table without her inviting him to do so first. "I saw your last reading, and I must say that I'm very impressed. You're quite the well-behaved little thing, aren't you?" he says, more sneering than smiling.
His voice sounds severely unctuous, and Santana finds that even though he complimented her, what he said was far from genuinely laudatory. There's a word he didn't say, though Santana heard it very well.
Santana eyes Mr. Remington warily but doesn't reply to him. Mr. Remington doesn't seem to notice her silence and goes on.
"Now," he says loudly, "I would like to ask you a few questions for the A.P. That would be all right, wouldn't it?"
At first, it surprises Santana that someone like Mr. Remington would ask her permission to do anything—the rules say that he doesn't have to do so, really—but then she realizes that Mr. Remington actually asks his question to Ken, who hovers just behind him. A strange expression passes over Ken's face. His beady eyes narrow, and his mouth turns taut. He seems to consider Mr. Remington's question with great scrutiny before he answers.
"I-I suppose," he says finally.
For his word, something seems to shift in the air, and even the small crowd of bystanders still surrounding Santana's gazebo appears to notice it. The throng titters, their interest piqued. Suddenly, Santana feels immensely nervous.
Ken stares at Santana, hard, a certain neediness written over his features. It isn't the same as how he usually looks at Santana when he just wants her to get on with a reading, for cripes' sake. In fact, it seems almost opposite of that—like he's willing Santana not to do something. Does he not want Santana to speak with Mr. Remington, even though he just gave his permission for her to do so?
If that's so, then for once Ken and Santana might find their desires in accord, as Santana herself most certainly doesn't want to give an interview to Mr. Remington, whom she doesn't trust one whit.
Of course, Santana realizes that it's strange for her to not trust Mr. Remington, as she hasn't ever spoken to the man and knows nothing about him more than what Mr. Adams told the company concerning his dispatch this morning.
Really, Mr. Remington seems at least falsely nice in the way that men like him can sometimes be when addressing girls like Santana—it's all in the rules, after all.
Really, Santana hasn't any reason to distrust Mr. Remington as she does.
This morning, Mr. Remington told the company that he'd like to learn their secrets.
But that isn't the way that the circus works.
Not when it comes to outsiders.
Not when it comes to gillies.
Santana remembers the hard looks that Rory and the other clown wore when Mr. Adams first introduced Mr. Remington to the circus folk, and something hardens in her belly. She finds that she doesn't want to tell Mr. Remington secrets—not her own and not anyone else in the company's, either.
The circus 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.
No one asks questions, everyone tells lies.
(Santana can't betray the circus without betraying herself, too.)
Only as these thoughts occur to her does Santana realize that Ken isn't the only circus person watching her interactions with Mr. Remington. Kurt Hummel has stopped just outside Santana's gazebo along the midway pitch on his usual rounds; he stands at a gap in the crowd, holding his juggling pins in his hands without throwing them. He watches Santana with wide, worried eyes. His Adam's apple bobs in his throat.
Though Santana often observes Kurt walking up and down the midway past her gazebo during fairs, she's never seen him pause before it either for so long or so blatantly.
He wears a pretty purple vest and green knickers with ornate beadwork sewn into the seams and upon the breast pocket and looks like a marionette or a porcelain doll from Europe. He also looks scared beyond breathing that Santana might say the wrong thing to Mr. Remington.
Suddenly, everything feels too bright and too much.
"Very well!" booms Mr. Remington, turning over the first page in his ledger and preparing his pencil to write. He fixes Santana with a smarmy look. "Now, Madame, will you please kindly tell me your occupation with the circus?"
It's a profoundly foolish question—that's Santana's first thought. It's also a question that she feels disinclined to answer, though she knows that the rules require that she must.
She glances at Kurt and Ken, both hovering behind Mr. Remington. It occurs to her now that neither one of them wants her to answer Mr. Remington's question any more than she does. Her throat runs dry.
She glances at the marquee sign outside her booth but says nothing.
Mr. Remington follows her line of sight, and his face falls.
He makes a note in his ledger.
(Santana wonders if Mr. Remington is even a good reporter.)
"So you're a fortuneteller who reads... both palms... then?" Mr. Remington clarifies, clearly a bit flummoxed as to what Santana's sign implies. He squints.
Santana stares at him, biting her lips into her mouth. She can almost feel Kurt and Ken willing her not to speak. Knowing that she must answer Mr. Remington but not wanting to do so, she simply nods without elaboration.
Mr. Remington appears even more flummoxed than before. He adjusts himself in his chair. "So, Madame," he tries again, "how long have you been with the circus? You can't have been performing for so very many years?"
While Mr. Remington's first two questions only made Santana want to roll her eyes, this question actually startles her—mainly because however Santana answers it, she knows that she'll be wrong.
On the one hand, the rules mandate that Santana must tell Mr. Remington the truth.
(Nine days only.)
On the other hand, if Santana tells Mr. Remington the truth now, then all the people standing huddled about them will hear her do it, and it will spoil the circus magic that casts Santana's Madame Rossetti glamour.
(Nobody wants the newcomer to the circus to read his fortune, after all.)
"How do you mean?" Santana says, playing stupid.
She puts emphasis on her grandmother's accent and trips a bit over her words, as if they're unfamiliar to her. It's the first time Santana has ever pretended not to comprehend plain English when someone's spoken it to her, and she feels like a stranger to herself doing so.
Mr. Remington squints at Santana. "How—long—have—you—been—with—the—circus?" he repeats. He speaks very loudly and enunciates each word in the same way that Rachel does sometimes when she talks to Brittany. "You—seem—very—young."
Should she continue to feign that she doesn't understand what Mr. Remington means? Ken fidgets at Mr. Remington's side. He doesn't force Santana to do something that she doesn't want to do, as he would on any other occasion, but he also looks uncomfortable to see her failing to please a better.
Just then, a high, silk voice interrupts the conversation.
"She comes from the finest gypsy stock of Rome."
(Santana had almost forgotten about Kurt's presence altogether.)
"She's very accomplished," Kurt adds, selecting his words with carefulness, speaking with slight tremor, like the flitter of birds' wings, in his breath.
With the utmost caution, Kurt takes a step closer to Santana's table, so that he stands at Mr. Remington's left shoulder while Ken stands at the right. Kurt glances between Santana, Ken, and Mr. Remington with wide, gray eyes, checking that he has their attention, which he does. Santana can't help but notice how Kurt carries his juggling pins, with two in his right hand, two in his left hand, and one pinned under his armpit, all of them forgotten in his brave moment but situated around him almost like armor.
Mr. Remington stares at Kurt expectantly, but Kurt simply shrugs his shoulders and fakes an apologetic smile, as if to explain he doesn't know what to say more than that.
He doesn't know what to say more than that, considering that he knows nothing about Santana save for her billing information, which Ken hollers up and down the midway every morning and afternoon for the bally right where Kurt can hear it.
(Only after several seconds does Santana realize that Kurt never really answered Mr. Remington's question at all.)
When Mr. Remington looks to Santana again, hoping she might elaborate, Santana shrugs her shoulders, as well. Mr. Remington writes a brief note in his ledger. He opens his mouth to make another inquiry, but Ken cuts him off.
"You'll want to get to the big top in time to see the spectacular," Ken says gruffly. He sets a firm hand on Mr. Remington's shoulder, and Mr. Remington flinches at his touch. "The bell for the show should ring at any minute now."
Mr. Remington seems affronted at Ken's news. "Oh," he says dazedly, blinking through his heavy squint. "Oh. Of course," and, at Ken's further prompting, he rises from his chair.
The instant that he does so, the warning bell rings.
Ken escorts Mr. Remington to the big top, leaving Kurt to tend Santana, as if she needs a sitter, even for just such a very short time before the show. Compliant to Ken's orders, Kurt hovers around while Santana gathers up her peacock-colored tablecloth and her tambourine. He seems not entirely certain as to how he should stand or where he should look.
Once Santana has her things in hand, Kurt gestures to her. "Shall we?"
Despite the short distance between Santana's gazebo and their destination, it's still awkward going for Kurt and Santana, side by side. Even after all their shared revelries on the beachfront last night, they've have never said a word to each other yet and still don't say a word to each other all the way from the midway to the backstage. Rather, they exchange queer glances with each other from out of the corners of their eyes and keep an odd, discomfited pace, asynchronous.
Though Santana certainly feels grateful to Kurt for intervening during her interview with Mr. Remington, she still isn't sure if she likes Kurt very well or not.
(How could she be when they know nothing about each other?)
When they arrive at Santana's backstage area, Kurt offers Santana a strange, swift nod before ducking away to his own designated place. Santana watches him go through the rabble. He's a weird wisp of a boy and scared of something, though Santana doesn't know what that something is. Of course, Santana doesn't have long to think about Kurt or anything else for that matter before someone shouts something just behind her.
It's one of Mrs. Schuester's seamstresses.
At first, Santana isn't sure that the girl means to hail her—even though Santana has pretended to be married to Puck for almost a month in total now, counting her time spent in the Tenderloin district, she still isn't used to the title that goes along with her charade—so she stops where she stands and waits for the girl to beckon to her, if that's what the girl really means to do.
It is, and the girl does.
"Hey, Missus Puck! Come here so we can get you ready for the matinee!"
The girl motions for Santana to hurry over to where she and the other seamstresses stand just at the edge of the backstage area.
"We ain't got all day!"
After a second's hesitation, Santana does as the girl commands and crosses over to join the seamstresses. Almost immediately, the girl who called out to Santana and two other seamstresses take Santana by the elbows and lead her toward the ladies' dressing tent. The girls wear smiles that seem neither happy nor kind. They sling little knowing looks at one another over Santana's head.
Santana hasn't stood so close to these girls since her very first day at the circus, and now she finds that she doesn't particularly like to do it.
The girls hustle her inside the tent and steer her toward several costume boxes sitting propped open in the heart of the room.
"Stand here, girl," one of the seamstresses commands, pointing at what seems like a rather arbitrary spot upon the ground.
The other seamstresses push Santana into place, and she remains where they set her, not daring to move. Nerves jitter through her body, and she watches, worried, as the seamstresses begin to sift through the bundles of costumery in the boxes, still giggling to one another as they work.
As Santana watches the girls, it occurs to her that she doesn't yet know a thing about them or even any of their names. Of course, it also occurs to her that these girls don't know her real name, either.
(She isn't "Missus Puck.")
(Lopez, Lopez, Lopez.)
The truth is that, on the rare occasions when Santana thinks about them, most of Mrs. Schuester and Ma Jones' girls blear together in her mind, indistinguishable, all shabbily-dressed and caught up in pursuits as foreign to her as the bachelor cottage might seem to them.
Briefly, Santana wonders how these girls got to the circus—if they were born here, like Brittany, or if they had fathers or brothers or husbands or even fake-husbands, like hers, to bring them to work for Mr. Adams.
Honestly, Santana wouldn't know any one of the girls apart from the others by sight, except that some have darker complexions than others and one—Santana finds now—almost matches her own pigmentation, very nearly as light as she is.
(Santana wonders about the girl and about herself.)
"Okay, we got something for you," one of the seamstresses declares, standing up to reveal Santana's costume for the matinee.
Santana only sees a glimpse of brown and a flash of rainbow color before the three seamstresses surround her, overwhelming her senses. She feels their hands upon her body, measuring her up and fitting her costume into place. She hears the girls talking to one another—talking around her and about her—and still giggling. They smell like talc and tailor's chalk. Their fingers move nimbly but carelessly at their task.
Someone commands Santana to put her arms out, and she complies, helpless. Someone else lifts Santana's hair from the back of her neck, holding it up as yet another person pulls something rough and made of leather over her arms and onto her shoulders. Before Santana knows what's happening, another person—the first girl, maybe—fits something over her head, jamming it down a bit too hard onto her brow. Something tightens at Santana's waist, a sash of some sort. The tallest girl, the one who first hailed Santana in the backstage, looks down at Santana and smirks.
"Stand up straight now so we can get a look at you," she directs.
The three seamstresses peel away from Santana enough to check her over; they appraise their handiwork up and down.
"Uhm-hm," says one of them, holding her own chin and nodding slowly.
"She look like an Injun princess," another says.
"Girl, you got Injun in you?" says the first.
Santana doesn't have the chance to answer the question before the flaps to the ladies' dressing tent part and another group of Mrs. Schuester's seamstresses enter with some Sylvesteri Coterie girls in tow.
"Hey, you best get Miz Puckerman back outside before Miz Schuester has it in for you," the new girls warn, gesturing in the direction of the backstage.
"We ain't done her face paint yet," one of Santana's girls protest.
"Well, do it quick."
"Face paint?" Santana squeaks.
No one addresses Santana's concern; instead, her girls shuttle her away from the costume boxes and into a corner facing a full body mirror, stopping Santana just in front of it.
Though Santana has read many books featuring Indian characters—Mr. Fenimore Cooper seemed to like writing about Indians very much—she had never given any extended thought to what an Indian princess might look like before, excepting to wonder if the princess were pretty, as Mr. Fenimore Cooper described her. Now Mrs. Schuester's girls say that Santana looks like an Indian princess herself, and Santana still doesn't know what to think of it.
She just sees her own reflection in the mirror and stares.
The heavy, leather garment the girls pulled over Santana's arms and shoulders turns out to be a robe rather like a dressing gown, save, of course, for the material. The robe weighs several pounds and is made from rough, brown, untreated buckskin. It has fringes up the arms and at the hem. Though the robe reaches down past Santana's knees, it doesn't go all the way to the bottom of her skirt. It has beads and even little white, whittled bits of bone sewn to its front in an elaborate pattern that somehow reminds Santana of a field of vibrant wildflowers.
It doesn't seem like something Mrs. Schuester could have made, even if she had had all the time in the world to embroider it herself.
(Santana wonders if it isn't authentic, then.)
Despite its ornate design, the robe isn't the part of Santana's costume that most attracts her attention—mainly because it dulls in color compared to the headband encircling Santana's brow.
It's amazing what Mrs. Schuester has done with dyed chicken feathers, really.
The headband is made from striped fabric stretched around what Santana can only imagine is the bandeau of a hat. At the back of the headband stands a row of tall, proud goose feathers arranged like peacock plumes, each one nearly as long as Santana's forearm and dyed a different color of the rainbow, in blue, red, orange, green, yellow, and violet. So vibrant are the headband's colors that even patrons sitting in the very top row of the bleachers will be able to spot Santana the second she enters the big top, she's sure.
(Santana's grandmother would faint at the vulgarity of the headband, were she still alive to see the thing for herself.)
Santana's mouth falls open a bit as she takes in her own appearance in the mirror, but she doesn't have time to voice as much as a peep about it before one of Mrs. Schuester's girls sets hands on her face, shutting her jaw. The girl holds a small tin of black paint in her hand.
The paint both looks and smells suspiciously like boot blacking.
"Don't move, miz," the girl commands, situating herself right at Santana's eye level so that she can get a clear look at Santana's face.
In the next second, the girl daubs a little brush not dissimilar to the ones from Sam and Blaine's clown make up kits in her paint tin, gathering blacking on its bristles. She draws the brush to Santana's cheeks and begins to paint on them in quick, short strokes.
The brush bristles tickle Santana's skin, and the girl's nearness to Santana's eyes and lips unnerves Santana greatly. She's never had another girl except for Brittany this close to her before; she finds she doesn't know where to look at this stranger—or where not to look at her, as it were. She knots her hands together in front of her so tightly that she almost can't feel her own fingers.
"Hold still," the girl chides her.
Santana stiffens, breath catching at the back of her throat. She tries not to swallow too hard and not to think of anything in particular. Just as she begins to wonder how the girl is decorating her face, the girl pulls away and checks her up and down.
"There," the girl says definitively. She steps away from Santana, allowing everyone to get a good look at Santana's reflection in the mirror.
Two short, parallel strokes rather like equals signs adorn Santana's either cheek, each stroke about three inches in length. They make Santana look severe and somehow unlike herself. They're also noticeably uneven.
"Don't be pokey," one of Santana's handlers orders.
She apparently means that Santana ought not to dawdle because, in the next moment, she and the other seamstresses shove Santana toward the door to the dressing tent, herding Santana back outside into the bright sunlight and then in the direction of the big top.
Though Santana hadn't realized it inside the dressing tent, the show bell has already rung; the other women from her backstage area all crowd around the entrance to the big top, bedecked in their costumes for the spectacular. Someone shoves a flower into Santana's hand; it's small and pale pink, and Santana doesn't know the name for it.
"Get over here!" Ken snarls, spotting Santana from across the way.
(She hardly knows why it should be her fault that Mrs. Schuester's girls held her for too long in the dressing tent.)
At Ken's word, Mrs. Schuester's girls release Santana into the throng carelessly and amidst a chorus of giggles. "Don't let them Injun braves get you," one of the seamstresses says, only it doesn't sound like she means her advice helpfully at all. Santana stumbles in amongst the other female performers, disoriented.
(Ackley is a place where everything happens all in a rush.)
Before Santana knows it, she's jostling and bumbling into the ring, elbows and shoulders and a great clamor of noise all around her. Someone has obviously repaired the big top arc lamps after their failure last night because they seem to shine brighter than ever before and almost blind Santana with their brilliance. The circus band plays a lively tune that sounds very keenly American.
It vaguely registers with Santana that she and Rachel and the two female Dragon Changs are the only ladies dressed as Indian princesses out of the whole company—everyone else is a pioneer woman or else dressed in her own usual show clothes—but it does so just for the briefest second before a familiar hand slips into Santana's.
"Hey, darlin'," Brittany greets, a smile in her voice. "Let's get a look at you."
Brittany spins Santana around in a swirl, and Santana laughs, her skirt and leather robe swishing around her legs in a graceful cascade. She smiles her widest Brittany-smile. In the second when she has her back turned to Brittany, she wonders what Brittany's costume will look like, but then she makes her full about-face and finds that Brittany looks perfect.
Of course, Santana doesn't feel the least bit surprised.
While Santana is an Indian princess, Brittany is a homesteader in a white, felt Stetson hat with a black band about the crown and a vivid red paisley neckerchief. Brittany wears her usual costume otherwise, but somehow looks just the part for the sketch.
Before Santana can say anything, Brittany thumbs at Santana's cheek, just below where Santana can feel the face paint markings on her skin.
"They made your face all dirty just after you had your bath day," Brittany notes, scrunching up her nose and giving Santana's hand a squeeze.
(Santana feels a sweet pang play through her chest, like a high, clear note on a piano.)
"How did you know I had my bath day?" Santana asks, knowing that she never told Brittany as much herself.
Brittany shrugs, nonchalant, and gives Santana another twirl, paying no mind to the fact that they're not dancing in the same way that the other ladies around them are. "Your hair was all wet before lunch. And," she singsongs, "you smell like soap."
Santana flushes. "You noticed?" she asks, quirking an eyebrow.
Brittany gives a just-so nod. "I like noticing things about you," she says with a cat-grin.
(It's such a perfectly Brittany thing to say.)
(Santana's invisible string gives a tug.)
Before either Santana or Brittany can continue their conversation, the music changes and the usual rabble of black knights—now dressed as Indian braves—rushes out into the rings, letting up a mighty shout, charging at the maidens. As per their usual, Brittany and Santana laugh, and Santana screams, and they both hold tightly to each other's hands in the face of the coming onslaught.
Santana finds Puck amidst the horde almost immediately. He sports a feathered headdress and war paint on his face, though he wears his usual gypsy clothing otherwise, and carries a wooden tomahawk with him, as do some of the other men. Altogether, he looks very fierce, with black and white stripes on his cheeks and down the bridge of his nose.
Puck's eyes meet Santana's from across the ring. Briefly, he smiles his idiot-smile at her, though only for the quickest instant before the blue knights-turned-cowboys-and-pioneers show up to save the day, not on foot, as they usually might arrive, but on horseback and nestled into wagon beds, with Sam riding a dappled charger.
During the knight sketch, the blue knights and the black knights duel each other on even grounds with wooden swords. Today, the Indian braves and the pioneers have no such recourse for their staged violence; the Indian braves stand flatfooted and have only wooden tomahawks and bows without arrows, while the pioneer men come mounted on horseback and have fake guns and rifles, some of the them wooden, others of them metal.
Santana thinks she spots the false pistol Brittany wore on the day when she and Santana made such a mess playing around in the dressing tent holstered at Blaine's side.
For a second, Santana isn't sure what will happen, and she cowers behind Brittany, nervous and uncertain concerning what she ought to do, but then the drummer in the band strikes a sharp rap on his snare at the same instant that one of the cowboys motions with his fake gun as though he'd shot it. The Indian braves give a great whoop, and one of them falls to the earth, playing dead.
It's the male acrobat, Santana realizes.
He still has his arm in a sling.
At the sight of their fallen comrade, the braves attempt to rush forward with their tomahawks, but, just as they do so, the drumming speeds up, and they begin to fall faster. The audience roars with delight as the cowboys wave their guns about and "take aim." Immediately, the drummer trills off more drumbeats, rapid-fire, and more Indian men flop to the earth.
Even though Santana finds this new version of the sketch highly diverting to watch—it's the best kind of circus action, haphazard and beautiful well-choreographed chaos—she also feels weirdly uneasy watching the boys stage their playacting, though she can't precisely say why.
(It is just playacting, isn't it?)
She only registers her own uneasiness for just a moment before the music changes again and a final round of "shots" ring out, taking down the last of the braves, including Puck, who had stubbornly refused to fall until the final instant.
Santana watches now as Blaine takes aim at Puck with Brittany's old false pistol, and the drummer supplies him with a fatal shot—a single hard rap against the din.
Puck "takes the bullet," screwing up his face in a comical grimace that looks more dyspeptic than fatal. He clutches at his heart and pirouettes on one foot as though the force of the "shot" had spun him around. With all the grace of Methuselah dancing ballet, Puck throws himself down on the earth, kicking out his feet.
The audience roars with laughter in response to his performance, though somehow it doesn't seem to Santana that Puck meant his "death" to seem funny. Even so, Santana and Brittany both laugh at Puck, too.
When the braves "rise from the dead" to make their surrender to the cowboys and to receive their favors from the ladies, Santana overhears Rachel chiding Puck for his gregarious acting and can't help but laugh at him for a third time, even.
"—and, really, Noah, your performance was dreadful. If you'd just allow me to coach you a bit on the finer nuances of gesture, perhaps it would improve your stage presence and the audience would cease to find your improvisations so unfortunately laughable."
("You haven't really joined Mr. Adams' circus until you've had Rachel criticize you.")
Santana brushes past Rachel to hand Puck her flower.
(It's pale and pink, and she doesn't know the name for it.)
Puck smirks as he accepts Santana's favor. "You don't think I'm a bad actor, do you, ladybird?" he eggs her, tucking the flower into his vest.
Santana rolls her eyes a bit at Puck as she returns to Brittany's side. "I don't think you're a bad actor," she says honestly. She fixes Puck with a serious look. "I think you're the worst actor who ever there was."
"I thought you did all right," Brittany shrugs, taking Santana by the hand.
(She sounds very honest, too.)
(Puck once told Santana that the truth didn't matter, but he was altogether wrong.)
The audience continues to applaud raucously for the frontier sketch, even as the performers exit the rings and William Schuester the Ringmaster welcomes everyone to Mr. J.P. Adams' American Independence Day Spectacular.
Santana feels half-tempted to follow Brittany over to her backstage area, but she doesn't get the chance to tell Brittany as much before Mrs. Schuester interrupts them.
"Brittany Pierce! You best get to where you belong or so help me I'll have Ma Jones feed you no supper for a whole week!" Mrs. Schuester declares, waving a scolding finger in Brittany's face.
Brittany heaves a sigh but doesn't protest. "Yes, ma'am," she says solemnly.
Only as Brittany starts to walk away does Santana realize that today will mark the first knife throwing act since the matinee in Storm Lake.
Her stomach drops.
She thinks about everything Brittany told to her in the woods yesterday—about Brittany's secret and Brittany's father's worsening blindness—and remembers how much it tried her to stand before the board herself, even knowing that Brittany would never, ever harm her.
"Brittany!" Santana blurts out.
Brittany turns to face Santana immediately, her expression both intense and curious. Santana wants to say a thousand things to her—I love you, stay with me, be safe, I wish you didn't have to do the act, I'll stand in your place—but can't seem to manage more than one of them. The rules press in all around both girls, binding them up fast.
"Please be careful," Santana implores, breathless.
(Sometimes Santana couldn't be more foolish.)
(After all, Brittany's own carefulness only counts for so much in this situation.)
Brittany meets Santana's eyes in the same way that she did when Santana stood before the board, outlined in knives, as if just seeing Santana somehow reminds her of something holy. She nods her head, slow. "I promise I—," she starts, but she doesn't get the chance to finish.
"Santana Puckerman, come here this instant!" Mrs. Schuester snaps. "We have to get you out of that robe before you ruin it. Mr. Adams doesn't pay you to talk to Brittany!"
Though Santana has half a mind to retort that she has yet to see a cent from Mr. Adams since she signed onto the circus lists, Brittany prevents her from doing so, glancing quickly between Santana and Mrs. Schuester and smiling, bashful, a blush rising to her cheeks and ears.
"I can't help but keep her," she confesses, claiming the fault for herself. "I'll go now."
And, with another meaningful look at Santana, Brittany does go.
"I'll see you later, darlin'. I promise."
(Brittany has never lied to Santana before.)
(Santana feels caught up in something bigger and deeper and so much vaster than herself.)
Aside from the fact that the male acrobat doesn't perform with the other Flying Dragon Changs on the trapeze, everything happens like clockwork during the matinee. No one misses his cue, no one botches his tricks, and the audience roars with delight for every act. Santana should probably take comfort in the seamlessness of the show, but she doesn't. She just can't help but worry about Brittany.
When it comes time for the gypsy act, Santana feels distracted but nevertheless performs without mistake, keeping exact time with her tambourine and matching Rachel in the choreography. As she and Puck and Rachel stand at the fore of the ring, basking in the audience's enthusiastic ovation, it occurs to her that performing has become second nature to her; the routine has worn into her blood and bones, and her body looks forward to it, just like it once did the little day-to-day chores at the bachelor cottage.
As Rachel's voice wafts to the rafters of the big top during the Little Malibran sketch, Santana stands at the back of the tent, in shadow, trying to gauge whether or not today feels like a good luck or a bad luck day, stroking over the thread ring around her finger.
Rachel shatters the goblet in her first attempt to do so.
(Santana holds her breath.)
"Thank you, thank you! Our Little Malibran, everyone!" Will the Ringmaster coaches the audience. "Now that we've had our music, how about a little danger? Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce to you a frontiersman skilled in the art of knife throwing, whose precision goes unmatched in these fine United States! I give to you Mr. Daniel S. Pierce and his beautiful daughter, Brittany, straight from the heart of Appalachia to the J.P. Adams & Son Traveling Circus!"
The supes enter the ring with the backboard and prop, and the Pierces follow after them, Brittany now sans her hat and neckerchief and with the satchel slung over her shoulder, her father with the same surly gait as ever. Santana probably imagines it, but it seems to her that Brittany glances over to where she lingers in the darkness, knowing.
Santana holds her breath as Brittany arranges everything for the act and then takes her place before the board. It feels different watching the Pierce act now that Santana knows the trick for herself—almost as if she were a part of the goings-on, though, of course, she isn't.
Logically, Santana knows that her sitting through the trick, waiting on the sidelines, won't change anything about its outcome. Mr. Pierce will either aim true or he won't, and no amount of Santana's hoping and willing can alter his performance.
All the same, in some secret part of her, Santana knows that her own fate depends on what happens during the act as much as Brittany's does. An invisible string binds them together, and whatever happens to the one of them will happen to them both.
And so Santana must watch.
Just then, though Santana despairs to do it, she can't keep from imaging the worst, and sees, in her mind's eye, Brittany fallen to the ring, a horrible red seeping out over her pretty white dress. The image makes Santana sick and clammy all over. What could she do, though? A surgeon's daughter can no more save a life than a knife thrower's daughter can protect one for herself.
Not for the first time since arriving at the circus, Santana wishes that she knew how to pray— or, rather, that she knew how to believe in some force that could deliver Brittany from harm.
She'd give anything to keep Brittany safe.
Mr. Pierce meets Brittany's eyes, and father and daughter look deeply at each other, fixing in. Will the Ringmaster counts out paces for Mr. Pierce, and Mr. Pierce takes them, gaze never breaking from Brittany's. When Mr. Pierce reaches his tenth pace, he plants his feet and waits. Sure enough, just a few seconds later, Brittany nods. She smiles her show smile at the audience and waves but keeps eye contact with her father all the while.
(Santana isn't sure if she herself is ready or not. She doesn't have a choice but to be so, she supposes.)
Mr. Pierce throws.
Santana counts his throws if she were the one before the board. She checks the straightness of Mr. Pierce's arm and the fastness of his stare and holds her breath along with Brittany, never blinking, as if her unwaveringness counts for as much as does Mr. Pierce's and Brittany's.
Mr. Pierce's first throw lands true.
And his second.
Though Mr. Pierce makes his throws instantaneously, Santana still feels as if it takes an eternity until Brittany stands haloed by knife hilts, unscathed and still unblinking. The audience applauds, and Santana draws a few quick breaths.
She knows there's more to come, though.
Brittany wrests the knives from the board and returns them to her father. She then procures the apple from her satchel and arranges it on her head, balancing it—to the delight of the crowd—as she dances back to her place in front of the target.
Right on cue, Brittany poses herself in the first position, as if she were one of Mr. Degas' ballerinas, beautiful with pastel pink skin and a fanning, flower skirt. She smiles as Will calls her father William Tell. The band starts to play Mr. Rossini's overture, and the audience laughs at the musical joke, but then the maestro quickly halts the music when Mr. Pierce takes aim.
As easy as if it were nothing, Brittany lifts her right leg up so that she stands in an upright split, her toe pointed toward the very crest of the big top, her body just barely bent to accommodate the stretch. She keeps perfectly still and meets her father's eyes. With a nod from her, he heaves his throw.
His knife digs deep into the backboard.
Brittany shifts into an arabesque and Mr. Pierce throws again.
The apple remains perfectly balanced atop Brittany's head. Her father's second knife rattles against the backboard, just a few inches away from her nose. Brittany shifts into another dancing pose.
Brittany straightens up against the backboard and stands flatfooted for the final throw. The apple announces itself, red and wax-bright, against the white target. Will the Ringmaster declares that Mr. Pierce will take his final throw, and the audience applauds but then quickly runs silent again. Mr. Pierce produces the red blindfold from his belt, and Santana's whole body stiffens as he ties it about his head.
She listens and at first hears silence but then a dull rapping.
Brittany knocking on the board.
Aside from Mr. Pierce and Brittany and maybe Will, Santana is the only person in the whole big top who knows to listen for it—for Brittany's signal. She searches Brittany's eyes and sees Brittany steely, poised, still staring at her father through his blindfold, watching him though he can't watch her. Santana holds her breath.
(Santana doesn't register the raucous applause from the audience, just the fact that Brittany kept her promise because Brittany always, always does so.)
After the show, Santana passes her things off to Puck and then runs—no, flies—just as quickly as she can to the family tent row, bare feet fleet upon Iowa grass, her thoughts and heart and hope all in a jumble, fixed on promises she's made and on the abiding gratitude that pulses through her for Brittany's safety and well-being.
She finds Brittany outside the tent, stooped and rustling through the sewing supplies that she and Santana left piled by the tent post. Brittany hears Santana behind her and starts to stand but not before Santana drapes herself over Brittany from behind, wrapping her arms around Brittany's middle and burying her face at Brittany's shoulder.
Their hair blends together, black so dark against the afternoon sun that it nearly shines blue, and blonde all the way from gold to white, like coins glinting in a treasury. Their rib bones fit against one another, and Brittany takes hold of Santana's arms, knitting herself to Santana, as she finally stands fully upright.
"Hey, you," Santana says, loving the beat of Brittany's heart as she can feel it through Brittany's body and against her own skin.
"Hey," Brittany returns, rocking back into her, feigning wobbliness. She reaches over her shoulder to set a hand on Santana's cheek. "You're all fluttery," she observes.
Santana nods. "I promised you I'd do something," she says, shifting to hold Brittany more tightly.
"You did," Brittany agrees. "You promised me you'd do two things."
Santana feels a thrill that Brittany remembered.
If Santana is truthful with herself, she must admit that she feels nervous and untethered, like laundry on a line, taken by the wind. She's never told such an important secret to anyone before, and somehow the truth seems almost too big to fit into words, never mind Misters Shakespeare and Scott and all their speeches. She would do anything to make Brittany happy, though—never mind her nerves and never mind where the wind takes her.
"Which thing do you want me to do first?" Santana mumbles, leaving it up to Brittany.
Brittany considers for a moment, still in Santana's arms, though her heart beats quick and hard, like the tick of a watch wound to its tightest coil. She swallows, and Santana feels it.
"Let's finish the fancywork," she says sensibly, "so that Mrs. Schuester won't bother us once we're done. And then—"
"—I can tell you my secret," Santana finishes.
Brittany hugs Santana more tightly to her. "Will that be all right?" she asks, a funny quaver to her voice.
"It'll be perfect," Santana assures her, pressing a quick kiss to Brittany's shoulder. "Now let's gather up the elephant blankets."
Brittany laughs. "Okay, okay," she says, pulling away from Santana.
When their eyes meet, Santana swears it.
(Brittany knows exactly what.)
After gathering up their supplies, the girls decide to work in Santana's tent so as not to wake Brittany's father, sitting outside his front door. They only make it past the mess pit before they happen upon Puck and Sam, though. The latter boy walks with a basket slung over his arm.
"Hey, ladybird!" Puck says slyly.
"Why, hello, Ms. Santana! And hello, Miss Brittany!" Sam smiles, wide and amiable.
"You two ladies wouldn't be hungry for some sandwiches, would you?" Puck offers, gesturing to Sam's basket.
Brittany quirks an eyebrow. "Sandwiches?"
Sam nods. "Ma Jones fixed us fellas a snack to help us through all the tedious work of loading up ol' Kenny's fireworks," he explains.
(Santana can't help but notice the way Sam's voice lifts when he mentions Ma Jones—as if he enjoys even just saying her name to mutual acquaintances.)
"Aren't those for you and the other workers, then?" Santana asks, not sure if Puck and Sam are at liberty to so freely give away what they offer.
"Well, sure they are," Puck says, "but, ladybird, what's mine is yours."
"And I wouldn't mind sharing my sandwich with you or Brittany, either," Sam adds helpfully.
"We could have a picnic," Puck singsongs. He wags his eyebrows at Santana, wolfish.
Santana meets Brittany's eyes, checking as to what Brittany wants to do. Though Santana doesn't doubt that Sam only wants to show kindness to his friends, she can't quite believe that Puck doesn't have more mischief in mind than simply sharing contraband sandwiches.
Truthfully, Santana doesn't want to spend more time with Puck than she has to; she wants to go with Brittany so that they can finish their embroidery and get on to telling secrets to each other. When she holds back, waiting for Brittany to speak, Brittany reads her cue.
"That's all right, fellas," Brittany demurs, offering up a one-shouldered shrug. "We're not hungry—and we've got work to do." She lifts the elephant blankets bunched in her arms, showing them off as if Puck and Sam had somehow previously failed to see them.
"Thank you anyway," Santana says, remembering her manners.
Sam tips his hat. "Well, all right," he says amiably. "If you change your minds, we'll be down on the midway."
Puck just grunts, put out.
"We wouldn't dream of trying to make you give up Ma Jones' sandwiches, Samuel," Brittany teases, starting to peel away from the boys, diverging from their path.
"Of course not!" Santana teases. "How could we when we know how very much you like them?"
Brittany smirks. "It wouldn't be very neighborly of us."
"And we would hate to be unneighborly," Santana smirks alike.
Sam laughs and blushes a little around the ears. He tips his hat to both ladies again and gestures to Puck to follow him as they duck into an alleyway between some white tents. As the boys go, Santana hears Puck grumble something, though she doesn't catch what it is.
(She has some guesses, though.)
It doesn't take long before Brittany and Santana arrive at their destination. They slip inside Puck and Santana's tent and drop their sewing supplies, heavy, on the ground. Even after sloughing their supplies, both girls pant, overheated. The air inside the tent seethes with summer and humidity in the kind of way that causes Santana to forget that there's such a season as winter or such a feeling as being cool.
"Whew," Brittany says, slumping onto the ground, patting the grass for Santana to sit beside her.
Sit Santana does, cross-legged and surveying their project. "You do the cutting and I'll do the beadwork?" she offers.
Brittany nods. "Whatever way you like," she says.
Santana grins. "I just like not having to use those confounded right-handed sewing sheers," she says loftily, reaching for the bead bag and a steel needle.
After rustling around for a few seconds in the bead bag, Santana looks up from her task only to find Brittany staring at her. Brittany wears her queer, delighted smile, as if someone had just offered her a candy for being pretty. Santana's cheeks heat under Brittany's gaze, and Santana shrinks a bit, suddenly worried that Brittany might disapprove of her cursing.
Brittany grins and reaches for the sewing sheers. "You're sweet," she says, just so.
Santana quirks an eyebrow, not certain that she follows. "Sweet?" she says. "But I just said a coarse word, Britt."
Brittany shrugs. "Well," she says in her drawling way, "you said it sweetly."
She still wears her queer smile. It's starting to look more and more like she has a secret. Santana flushes even more.
"What?" she says again, ducking her head.
Brittany's eyes dart between Santana's, as if Brittany is measuring something out, pros and cons. Brittany bites her lip until it pinks. The longer she takes to look at Santana, the more Santana squirms. Finally, Brittany seems to finish her deliberations with herself.
She speaks all in one breath: "You still have boot black on your face from the spectacular, and it's the sweetest thing I think I ever saw."
Santana's eyes widen, and she reaches for her face without thinking twice of it. "Britt!" she squeaks, blushing even more deeply than before. "Why didn't anyone tell me? You mean I had it on all through the gypsy act and after the show, too?"
Brittany reaches for Santana's wrist, stopping Santana before she can drag her fingers through the blacking. "Don't smear it," she warns, trying—and failing—to quash down her smile with a sorry look instead. She settles on a funny smirk but doesn't particularly succeed in swallowing her giggles.
Santana groans, "Britt..."
Brittany takes pity on her. "I don't know why everyone else didn't tell you about the boot blacking, darlin'," she confesses, "but I didn't tell you about it because I thought you looked so swell with it on." She pouts out her lip. "You're not sore at me, are you?"
"Never," Santana says earnestly, melting at Brittany's compliment.
Brittany leans forward and kisses the tip of Santana's nose. "Good," she says, pulling away. Then, "I can help you wash most of it off, if you like. Or at least as much as we can wash it off with just water, I guess."
The invisible string attached to Santana's heart winds tight, tangled up in Brittany's kindness. "Okay," Santana says dopily, allowing Brittany to help her to her feet and lead her over to the cot. Santana sits down while Brittany goes to the steel toilette set to wet Puck's shaving washcloth. She furrows her brow. "I'm going to have to tell it to Puck for not warning me about the blacking, though."
Brittany shoots a glance over her shoulder in Santana's direction; she wears a peculiar expression, halfway between worried and not. "Well, maybe he thought you looked swell, too," she mumbles. Brittany's quietness seems curious to Santana, but Santana doesn't get the chance to ask about it before Brittany joins her on the edge of the cot. "Look up, please," Brittany says, setting two fingers under Santana's chin and lifting Santana's head.
(Santana's body anticipates a kiss instead of a wet washcloth, and her breath hitches for it.)
(Her lips feel very disappointed when Brittany starts gently cleaning at her cheek, though the rest of her feels grateful.)
Brittany works with careful hands to scrub the blacking from Santana's skin. She only wetted half the washcloth and she uses the dry part of it to pick up what paint she can from Santana's cheek before swabbing the stain away with the wet part.
Eventually, Brittany tilts Santana's head to the side and moves Santana's hair away from the edge of her face to get a better angle. Brittany hums an Independence Day song while she works and smiles at Santana with her eyes, though her lips remain pursed in deep concentration. Though it isn't particularly cool, the wet washcloth still feels soothing against Santana's skin, and the gentleness of Brittany's touch stirs something deep within Santana.
Santana remembers the last time she and Brittany sat on her bed together.
She swallows, hard.
"Are you okay?" Brittany asks her in a low voice.
"Yes," Santana says, heat nagging low in her belly. Then, "Thank you."
Brittany laughs. "Don't thank me yet," she says. "It doesn't come off all the way with just water."
Santana scrunches up her brow. "Well, then, what am I supposed to do?" she asks, distraught at the idea of having boot blacking on her face, no matter how many times she washes it.
Brittany doesn't answer Santana right away; instead, she sets her hands on Santana's shoulders and gestures for Santana to stand up with her from the cot. Though Santana's body longs to lie down with Brittany and do other things, Santana follows where Brittany leads and finds herself standing back at the steel toilette set, where Brittany splashes her cheeks with water and gives them one last thorough scrub.
"The clowns have a face tonic that takes the blacking right off," Brittany says placidly. "We can ask Blaine or Sam for some later, but it won't be any use now because you'll just have to get painted up again for the evening show anyway. I got most of it, though, darlin'. You can only see the stains if you look real close."
Before Santana can say anything in reply to this new information, Brittany does lean in real close herself and kisses Santana on the cheek, just where the blacking used to be.
(Santana's heart flutters.)
"Good?" Santana says in her little Brittany-voice.
"Good," Brittany repeats, looking at Santana for just a second longer than maybe she ought to.
A nervous fluttery sort of laugh—like Brittany's butterflies on the hill—bubbles up from Santana's throat, and Santana runs a hand through her own hair, wondering if maybe she shouldn't just say her secret right now and have done with it. She settles on something very close but not precisely it.
"You're kind of wonderful, you know, Britt?" she says, returning Brittany's cheek kiss.
(She feels heat on Brittany's skin.)
(It answers something beneath her own.)
Brittany shrugs one shoulder, bashful. "Well, Mrs. Schuester won't think so if I don't finish beading those blankets," she says, hanging the washcloth over the edge of the steel toilette basin.
For Brittany's word, Santana remembers their embroidery project for the first time in minutes. "Oh," she says. "You're right—she won't. She never thinks anything good of me anyway, but she'll probably think all sorts of awful things about me if I keep you from finishing your chores, and especially after I promised to help you with them."
"So you better just help me," Brittany says simply.
Santana smiles. "Yes, I'd better just."
The girls' work passes quickly once they sit down to it. For a while, Brittany simply cuts threads for Santana, but then the two of them take to embroidering the beads at once, and thereafter everything goes seamlessly.
"Did Abuela have a proverb about that?" Brittany asks when Santana notes their fast progress. Santana shakes her head no, and Brittany smiles in a just so way, neither happy nor sad. "Mama did," she reveals. "She used to say, 'Many hands make work light.'"
Santana pauses from her stitching. "I like that one," she says earnestly, imagining, for a moment, Brittany's mother, who must have been just as kind and wise as Brittany is, and probably beautiful, too.
Brittany makes a funny face. "Really?" she says, quirking an eyebrow. "Because it never really made sense to me. Not all work is heavy—these elephant blankets aren't, and neither are the beads—and some work is heavy no matter how many people you have to help you do it, like putting up the big top timbers or hauling the laundry bags."
Santana considers Brittany's words for a minute, chewing them over in her mind. "But what if you had the elephants to help you carry the laundry, Britt?" she asks. "Wouldn't the work be lighter then?"
Brittany fixes Santana with a serious look. "But elephants don't have hands, darlin'," she says, as if it should be obvious.
"Britt!" Santana laughs. "No fair!"
Brittany beams, pleased with herself, and then pauses for a minute. "It would be a better proverb if it rhymed, like the Spanish ones," she says thoughtfully.
(Sometimes Santana loves Brittany so much that she doesn't know what to do for it.)
With their chore completed, Brittany and Santana gather up their supplies and emerge from the sweaty tent, headed in the direction of Mrs. Schuester in the dressing tent. Brittany insists upon carrying the elephant blankets, and Santana tags along behind her, holding only the sewing kit and bead bag for herself. With their every step toward their destination, her heartbeat turns faster and headier, too.
(Today isn't tomorrow anymore. Today's today.)
When the girls reach the dressing tent, Brittany pauses just outside the threshold. She draws a whistling breath through her teeth. "Let's hope she likes the work," she says, parting the tent flaps and ushering Santana inside.
Somehow, Santana had expected that Mrs. Schuester would accept her and Brittany's project without question—though perhaps with a few of her usual barbs.
Somehow, Santana had expected that Mrs. Schuester would be quick to send her and Brittany away.
Somehow, Santana had expected entirely wrong.
Mrs. Schuester holds one of the two elephant blankets which bears Brittany's handiwork close to her face. Her mad eyes search up and down the beads, scrutinizing each one, and then narrow. Her lips thin on her face.
(She's both beautiful and terrible in a way that makes Santana hate to look at her.)
After a long while, her eyes flick from the elephant blanket to Brittany. She wears an expression that's downright acidic.
"I would think," she says slowly, in her honey-poison voice, "that even a halfwit like you could make a straight line when called upon to do it. I suppose I was wrong, though!" She shoves the blanket toward Brittany, shaking it as though it were filthy. "Santana has only been at the circus for less than two weeks, and somehow she can still do your chores better than you can! Did you think I wouldn't notice that your beadwork has more zigzags than any railroad line Mr. Fabray owns? Answer me!"
"She doesn't have to!"
It surprises Santana to hear her own voice so loud against the expanse of the dressing tent and so hard and flint-sharp, as well.
Mrs. Schuester's seamstresses, who had been scattered about making alterations to costumes for the spectacular, look up from their work, flabbergasted that Santana would shout at a person so much higher up in society than herself. They wear a terror for the rules written all over their faces and wide, white eyes.
Santana knows that she should stop speaking, but she doesn't.
"Brittany doesn't have to make an accounting of herself to you! When you asked her to embroider these blankets, you knew perfectly well how she'd do it, and if you didn't like it, you should have given all the work to me or to one of your girls who would do it to your liking! No one can see the detail on the beadwork from the stands anyway! I'm certain the elephants won't complain of it when they see it, either, because Brittany knows more about them than anyone at this circus anyhow and probably made just the pattern that they'd like to wear! Brittany's cleverer than you could ever hope to be, and you only hate her because you can't keep up with her conversation!"
It's too much, and Santana knows it's too much.
She could scarcely break more rules all at once if she were to stride into Mr. Adams' business tent and tell him that she disliked his hat and that she thought that he had hay for brains.
Everything in the room stills, and Brittany gasps from somewhere just behind Santana's shoulder. Mrs. Schuester's seamstresses all pause, open-mouthed, their needles dangling from their hands. Mrs. Schuester regards Santana, furious and astonished, her eyes bright with sheer offense, but only for the briefest second before her hand flies of its own accord.
Her palm connects, flatted, with Santana's cheek, and the noise of it reverberates around the room, her fingertips rapping against the side of Santana's head, sharp. Santana's skin flares with pinprick pain by the millions, and her one eye closest to Mrs. Schuester's hand waters from the impact. She feels the blow in her jaw and teeth and in the hollow places of her face.
The slap startles more than pains her, though.
Everyone in the room gasps again, and Santana straightens, clutching her cheek.
"Get out," Mrs. Schuester commands, pointing toward the door to the dressing tent.
Somehow, Santana is too startled to obey. Though she oughtn't to do it, she meets Mrs. Schuester's eyes and sees ferocity and indignation there but also another emotion—a kind of tiredness that she never would have expected, along with something close to shame.
Brittany's hands close around Santana's shoulders, and she starts to guide Santana away from the scene, leading her past Mrs. Schuester's girls and out the tent flaps into the sunlight. "I'm so sorry, Santana," she mumbles over and over again, as if she were the one whose hand had struck Santana's cheek and not Mrs. Schuester. "I'm so sorry. I'm sorry."
Santana expects Brittany to lead her somewhere far away, but Brittany doesn't.
(Brittany always surprises Santana, even with the little things.)
The girls stop between two small, white tents just to the west of the ladies' dressing area. Though the tents are of the same size and make as the residential tents in the white city, they occupy the business side of the camp, just beyond the billboard partition. Santana can tell that they're empty now by the way their sides billow in the wind without anything to fat them.
"Are you okay?" Brittany asks with so much forlornness in her voice that it causes Santana to jolt. When Santana looks to Brittany's eyes, she finds them shiny with unshed tears. "I'm so sorry she—she shouldn't have done—," Brittany stammers, but she can't seem to finish her sentence. She slumps against an empty barrel, leaned against a tent pole.
(Even though Mrs. Schuester maybe shouldn't have done, the rules say that she can.)
(And she did.)
Seeing Brittany so upset squeezes something in Santana's heart. The truth is that other people have hit Santana before but telling Brittany that she has won't cause Brittany to feel any better or assuage Brittany's guilt for Mrs. Schuester hitting Santana now on her account. Santana fumbles for words as one might fumble for a lamp in the darkness.
"Brittany," she says, reaching over to take Brittany's hands in her own. A pause. "You know, Miss Minchin always hated Sara because Sara had such a queer way of looking at things."
Brittany's expression shifts from forlorn to quizzical. She meets Santana's eyes. "Is Sara the little girl from your book?" she asks in a very small voice.
Santana nods and is surprised to find tears in her own eyes, not from Mrs. Schuester's slap or because she feels sorry for herself at all, but because, in a way she could never fully explain, she knows that someone—that Brittany—has found her, and, moreover, that someone—that Brittany—comprehends her in a way that she doesn't even comprehend herself. It occurs to her that even in knowing her so completely, Brittany finds nothing to dislike in her at all, and again she can't help but feel grateful.
(To love a person's favorite book is to love a secret part of her, soft and hidden and curious.)
"She is," Santana says. Then, "Mrs. Schuester shouldn't say such horrible things to you, Britt."
Brittany nods. She shrugs and smiles a sad smile. "If I wasn't so bad at sewing, I wouldn't have gotten you in trouble, though," she says.
(Brittany always blames herself for things that aren't her fault.)
"No, Britt, you didn't—you shouldn't—," Santana scrambles, not wanting Brittany to hate herself even for a moment for any of Mrs. Schuester's doings. "You didn't do anything wrong at all! I meant everything I said to that old crow about you embroidering the blankets just how Methuselah and his ladies would like them. I don't regret anything I said to Mrs. Schuester at all! Remember what I told you earlier? Fiddlesticks and have done with it, Britt."
With Brittany half-sitting on the barrel, she and Santana seem nearly the same height for once. Brittany looks at Santana, serious, like she almost can't believe that such a person as Santana exists. "You're really not sorry about it?" she asks.
Santana nods. "No, I'm not sorry about it," she says firmly. "Theresa Schuester is wrong about you. You are the cleverest person I know, and the circus is lucky to have you."
The barest hint of a real smile starts to curl at Brittany's lips. "How do you know?" she says, somewhere between teasing and curious.
"Because," Santana starts, leaning in so, so close to Brittany's face, "you make the best jokes."
A quick kiss to Brittany's lips.
"And you're the only person who would talk to me when I got to the circus."
"And you make all the patrons smile when they see you at the parade and during the show."
"And you're the most beautiful girl at the circus, and if Mr. Adams were wise, he'd have your face on a billboard so that people would just know you exist."
This time, Brittany giggles when Santana's lips meet hers.
Santana kisses Brittany again, losing her words to the sensation, to the swelling, wonderful, too bright feeling in her chest.
Brittany kisses her first this time, not with a quick kiss but with a deep one, soft and thankful.
"—and because I'm in love with you in the storybook way."
On all of the occasions when Santana imagined herself telling Brittany her secret, she somehow always supposed that she would also give a very detailed explanation along with it, so as to make certain that Brittany understood exactly how she meant what she said.
She didn't want Brittany to somehow mistake her love for the friendly sort, after all, and neither did she want to somehow make her own feelings sound maudlin or haphazard, for, of course, she herself had considered them a great lot, and knew that her love was of a most serious and enduring kind.
She had intended to make a very deliberate sort of speech to Brittany about everything.
She had intended to be in control of herself when she spoke.
She had not intended to blurt out that she loved Brittany in the storybook way while they were hiding amongst derelict tents and both of them were giddy.
She had not intended to make such a fool of herself at all.
Santana recoils from Brittany like their latest kiss shocked her, clapping two hands over her own mouth, as if doing so will somehow trap the words back in, though she has already spoken them.
(She thinks it's because she's surprised.)
For an instant, she can neither breathe nor move, and she can't think of anything except for how she just misspoke perhaps the most important thing she might ever have the chance to say. If Brittany doesn't suppose her the grandest fool on the face of all the earth, it will be some sort of miracle. She blushes so deeply that Brittany can probably see the imprint of Mrs. Schuester's palm seared across her cheek. All the same, though she can't stand to see Brittany's reaction, she also can't stand not to see it, either. She meets Brittany's eyes, helpless, and waits.
Oh God, oh God, oh God.
Brittany stares at Santana, an unreadable expression on her face. Her brow knits together, and her mouth hangs just barely open. She looks as if someone had just awakened her very suddenly from a dream, and she isn't certain yet as to in which world she finds herself—asleep or alert.
Santana lowers her hands from her mouth. "Britt... was that okay?" she squeaks.
Brittany nods immediately. She hasn't blinked since Santana first looked at her. There's a stillness in her, utterly indecipherable to Santana. "Yeah," she says, just so.
(The worried knot in Santana's heart unravels just a bit.)
(And yet she still has a tremor.)
"Do you... Do you understand what I said just now?" Santana asks, her voice turning tight and teary in her throat. She doesn't think she's ever heard herself sound smaller.
Again, Brittany nods. She looks at Santana in her careful, all-seeing way. "I understand," she says quietly, with another nod.
She leans forward, slowly—so impossibly slowly that at first Santana isn't sure she's doing it—and finds Santana's lips, pressing into them, both urgent and deliberate at once.
After the initial press, she takes Santana's bottom lip between her own. She works Santana's mouth open so that they can kiss more deeply. Her tongue slips along Santana's, and Santana moans without meaning to do it.
Brittany's hands link at the small of Santana's back and she pulls Santana into her so closely that their hips fit together. Her body is warm all over. Santana relaxes into her touch. Her own hands find a place just at Brittany's waist. She strokes over Brittany's hipbone with her thumb and sinks into wet kissing sounds and Brittany's breath and into the lit feeling that flares inside of her again, like it did earlier in the day.
Without meaning to, Santana rolls her hips and presses closer to Brittany until their breasts rub together and their bellies touch. Suddenly, Santana finds that her clothing feels unfortunately tight and altogether unnecessary. She trails her kisses from Brittany's mouth to the hinge of Brittany's jaw, and Brittany lets out a voiced breath, lowering, boneless, against where she sits.
"Santana," she whispers, needing something.
Santana reaches for the hem of Brittany's skirt and starts to drag it up Brittany's leg. She meets Brittany's eyes, checking to see if what she's doing is okay, and Brittany nods, eager. Santana smiles, fire blooming in her heart.
She likes this touching because it says exactly what she means.
Her hands write out I love you slow on Brittany's skin. They trail it up Brittany's leg as she lifts Brittany's skirt. Santana stops with the garment up around Brittany's hip and strokes over Brittany's hipbone, now naked without any calico to curtain it. A thrill passes through her.
"May I—?" she starts to say.
"Oh! I beg pardon!" a booming, boastful voice comes from just beyond the tents.
Santana's heart all but escapes out her throat. She drops the hem of Brittany's skirt as if it had burned her. Her pulse pounds again, though for an entirely different reason than it did before. Before Santana thinks better of it, she whips around to find Mr. Remington standing at the end of the alleyway, reporter's ledger and pencil in hand. He wears a strong squint and nods his head to the girls, as if to apologize for his presence, though he doesn't move otherwise.
Santana glances at Brittany.
How much did he see?
Santana can't begin to imagine all the bad things that might happen from Mr. Remington knowing about her and Brittany's secret. She also can't find any words to make an explanation or to excuse herself at all. Her whole mind blanks as she stares between Mr. Remington and Brittany, waiting for someone to say something.
"We were just off to practice for the evening show," she says evenly.
For all of Santana's anxiety, Mr. Remington only nods. "Oh, that's very good of you girls," he says. If he has any idea what he just stumbled upon, he makes no indication of it. He seems blessedly, wonderfully amiable—and oblivious.
Brittany smiles a falser version of her show-smile and nods in deference to Mr. Remington. "Come on, Santana," she says, straightening out her own skirt and then taking Santana by the hand, tugging Santana in the opposite direction from Mr. Remington down the alleyway.
"Okay," Santana says, totally stupid.
She can't keep from staring at Mr. Remington as Brittany leads her away.
The girls don't stop until they're well within the borders of the white city and far away from Roderick Remington. They halt just a few paces off from the Pierce family tent, though not before checking to see that they're truly alone.
Almost right away, Brittany reaches out to smooth Santana's bangs away from her face, careful. Her eyes are as soft and pristinely blue as Santana has ever seen them. She smiles both with her look and with her mouth and seems very keenly excited about something, like a person who expects to host a favorite visitor by week's end or like someone who just found an extra penny in the pocket of her coat.
"I don't think I want to be anywhere that isn't just with you before the next show," Brittany announces, and, despite her recent fright, Santana laughs because she feels the same.
"Me, either," she agrees, still a bit breathless from everything that's happened to her over the last hour. She rubs against the edge of Brittany's hand, curled beside her face; Brittany's touch feels soft and easy when nothing else is so.
(Ackley is a place where everything happens all in a rush.)
Brittany glances away from the camp. She starts to pet over Santana's cheek, soothing where Mrs. Schuester slapped Santana earlier but also doing so just because, because.
"What do you say we hide in the woods until the show bell rings?" she asks, not at all joking.
Her suggestion puts an idea into Santana's head.
"Okay," Santana consents. She chooses her next words very precisely. "And what do you say we bring your knives along, too? We could practice the act, if you wanted," she offers.
Brittany doesn't seem convinced. "Are you sure you want to?" she asks, screwing up her face. "You've already gone through a lot of trouble today because of me."
"La práctica lo hace perfecto, Britt," Santana says seriously.
Brittany's brow furrows. "That one didn't rhyme," she says flatly.
Santana smiles at Brittany's cleverness. "That's because it's an American proverb—or an English one, I guess—and I just said it in Spanish," she admits.
Brittany gives Santana's cheek another stroke. "Well, for a phony Spanish proverb, it still sounded pretty, even if it didn't rhyme," she shrugs, placid. Then, "Let me go inside to get our things?"
It surprises Santana that she could so easily convince Brittany to practice throwing with her but not in an unpleasant way. After standing up to Mrs. Schuester, Santana somehow feels ready to face any danger, as long as she has Brittany with her to do it. She nods.
"Right. I'll wait for you," she says, more pleased to hear Brittany say our things than she would ever divulge to anyone aloud.
Brittany broadcasts a parting smile to Santana, that same giddy excitement in her eyes from before, and bounces over to her own tent, ducking inside. She scarcely opens the tent flaps at all and then closes them thoroughly behind her. Her moves are quick, practiced, and feline.
Only after Brittany goes away does Santana realize for the first time in the wake of her confession that Brittany hasn't actually said the words I love you back to her yet.
Her stomach drops.
This morning, Santana had felt almost certain that Brittany loved her just the same as she loves Brittany, and she had imagined, in her own fanciful way, hearing Brittany say as much as soon as she felt brave enough to finally tell Brittany the plain and honest truth.
But now Santana has told Brittany the plain and honest truth, and the only thing Brittany's said in return is that she understands what Santana means by it.
Did Santana somehow misestimate Brittany's feelings for her, then?
Panic starts to fill Santana, pushing away her logical thoughts. She struggles to keep her composure, searching for the rationale behind Brittany's reserve. Right away, Santana realizes that, if nothing else, Brittany at least doesn't resent her for her love. After all, Brittany said she understood it. And she kissed Santana just after she did so—deep and more than friendly.
Maybe Brittany did mean to say that she loves Santana back, only Mr. Remington interrupted Brittany from doing it, or else Brittany had some other reason for waiting.
Santana breathes in, deep, and tries to steady herself. She'd like to think she learned her lesson on assuming anything about what Brittany feels for her after everything that happened between them last week. All the same, though Santana hates to do it, she knows that if Brittany doesn't say anything concerning her confession soon, she must ask Brittany about it, for the good of her own heart.
She doesn't get the chance to think anything more on the matter, though.
"Santana! Girl, if you're just standing around waiting for Brittany Pierce, I could sure use you in the kitchen to peel potatoes. Lord knows supper won't cook itself and my girls are already cracking chickpeas and have been since noon."
(It had been too long since Ma Jones had snuck up on Santana.)
"I—," Santana starts to protest, but she doesn't manage to say anything beyond that before Brittany emerges from the Pierce tent, sans the throwing supplies, apparently savvy to Ma Jones' presence.
"Brittany!" Ma Jones says, not displeased to see her. "If y'all are handy, I sent Samuel Evans off to the midway with one of my baskets full of sandwiches so he and his woodenhead friends could have a smidge to eat while they loaded up Ken's fireworks for the night show. I reckon they probably done with their sandwiches now—or they should be—so you need to go get the basket back from them before they find some way to make mischief with it."
Brittany and Santana glance at each other, helpless.
"Yes, miss," they both say at once, knowing that they can't very well refuse Ma's orders now that she's caught them without other chores to do in the middle of the day.
Ma nods, glad to see them deferent. "A'ight. Come on, Santana," she says, gesturing towards the kitchen.
Santana slings a desperate look at Brittany. She has a thousand things to say but no time in which to say them. "Yes, miss," she says again, watching as Brittany starts out in the direction of the big top.
A deep tiredness overtakes Santana as she sits down to peel potatoes. It tightens in her face and heavies in her bones. Earlier in the day, Santana had forgotten that she scarcely slept at all last night, but now she feels as if she hasn't slept in weeks and as if her sleeplessness is inescapable.
She wants very much to take a nap and to not to have to peel potatoes.
She also just wants Brittany to love her back.
Though Santana had expected that Brittany would appear sometime before the bell, Brittany only returns to the mess just as it rings. She shows up short of breath, her golden hair windswept and hanging over her face, as if she'd run all the way from the midway to the mess pit in a just few minutes' time. She doesn't see Santana seated at the dining table and hurries away after returning the boys' empty picnic basket to Ma's care, rushed to prepare for the evening show.
As she goes, she skips a little, and Santana smiles.
(Brittany moves with that same quiet excitement from before.)
At her gazebo, Santana can't help but think of Brittany, to the point where she can scarcely bother to say anything clever about her patrons' palms. She fumbles through four readings, promising absurdities while Ken glowers at her from beside her marquee sign. She doesn't say anything wrong, per se—just nothing entirely right, either.
The image of Brittany's quiet, excited smile hovers at the forefront of Santana's mind like the last lingering memory of a happy dream.
It soothes Santana more than anything Brittany could say to her at the moment, barring the words "I'm in love with you, too."
(Santana always trusts Brittany with important things.)
Vaguely, it occurs to Santana how difficult a thing it seemed to confess her love to Brittany before she had done it and then how easy a thing it seemed afterward. It seems so much that Brittany loves her that Santana can scarcely believe it isn't so. Maybe Brittany is only afraid to speak, like Santana was before. And if she is, then how could Santana complain about it or pressure her to speak faster?
El amor es sufrido, Santana, y es benigno.
Somehow, Santana hadn't expected to see Mrs. Schuester again so soon after their run-in at the dressing tents and so has a start when she does, coming into the backstage area. Mrs. Schuester's mad eyes find Santana from across the way, and, for a half-second, Santana wonders if Mrs. Schuester won't fly at her again or at least complain of her to Puck or Ken.
Santana halts where she stands, waiting for the worst.
The worst doesn't come, though.
Mrs. Schuester stares at Santana, that weird near-shame in her eyes again, and then looks quickly away, pretending not to have seen Santana at all, perhaps. It isn't the strangest way that Mrs. Schuester has ever behaved toward Santana, so Santana doesn't question it.
Without delay, Santana goes quietly over to one of Mrs. Schuester's girls and asks for her costume and flower for the spectacular. She follows the girl to the dressing tent past where Mrs. Schuester stands, wondering all the while what it will mean for her now that Mrs. Schuester has decided to ignore her existence entirely.
Santana returns to the backstage from the dressing tent just in time to join the ladies going into the big top. She wears blacked cheeks, a tied robe, and feathers loud upon her headband. She carries a cluster of pink pye weed in her hand, ready to give it away as a favor to a "frontier man" at the end of tonight's sketch. Rachel avoids Santana in the queue, and Santana nearly regrets it, but only until they enter the ring and Santana finds Brittany waiting for her, barely able to contain herself for all her giddy excitement.
Brittany has improved her costume for the spectacular since the matinee. Now instead of wearing only her usual white ballet dress paired with a Stetson hat and neckerchief, she also has on a bandolier not unlike her father's and pretty fringed Western gloves of the same shade of red as her neckerchief. In her wonderful Brittany-way, she looks dashing, and Santana applauds to see her, as does the audience.
It turns out that Brittany isn't the only one to have upgraded her costume for the night performance, though.
During the matinee, Puck was dressed as one lowly Indian brave amongst many, but tonight he appears as an Indian chief, with a magnificent trailing headdress dyed in every color of the rainbow. Santana can only imagine how many geese had to sacrifice for Puck to have such a decoration, which trails all the way down his back and must weigh nearly twenty pounds or more, judging by the visible strain in his neck.
Puck has entirely traded in his gypsy costume, wearing fringed buckskin leggings and a bare chest in its place. Someone has painted his entire face white, with red stripes down his cheeks and nose and over where his eyebrows should be.
If Santana didn't know who he was, she would be entirely convinced he were an Indian.
The crowd roars with delight and awe as Puck rides into the big top on a fearsome black horse with no saddle beneath him, his "braves" at either side of his steed. Puck lets out a great war whoop and jumps down from his mount to charge the maidens with the other Indians.
(No one seems to notice the supe who creeps out from the shadows, leading Puck's black charger quietly away.)
Santana doesn't have to make herself pretend to scream when Puck lunges for her, for he seems so wild and unlike himself that she can't help but forget the sketch a bit, despite the audience and stage lights.
(It's only playacting, isn't it?)
She shrieks and dodges back, throwing herself behind Brittany. She can only hope that the pioneer men will arrive soon—with Sam on his dappled steed and Blaine with his false pistol—to intervene before Puck can lay hands on her.
In the blink of an eye, Brittany produces Blaine's selfsame false pistol from the fold of her bandolier, brandishing it toward the rafters. She shoots Santana her slyest wink and shouts, at the top of her voice, "Bang!"
All at once, everyone under the big top has their eyes on her.
Puck is already coming at a dead run and can't slow his momentum for anything, though Santana sees a waver of confusion cross his brow. The audience roars.
"It's Annie Oakley!" someone shouts.
Someone else yells, "Yeehaw!"
For her part, Brittany furrows her brow in concentration and "takes aim" at Puck down the barrel of her pistol. She bites on a corner of her tongue and closes one eye, as serious as if her showdown were real.
When Puck comes to within three feet of her—tripping over his own legs to slow to a halt before he and Brittany collide—Brittany jolts her arm back in a wide, staged "shot," and the drummer in the band raps hard on his instrument just in time to her motion.
Santana shrieks, and Puck yelps.
Though Puck did not well abide Rachel, Santana, and Brittany's criticisms of his acting earlier in the day, at least some of their chiding seems to have influenced him for the better, for when Brittany "shoots," he stops as if he had hit an invisible wall and all but leaps to the ground, landing on his side—only barely managing not to crush the feathers on his headdress beneath him—immediately "falling dead."
Santana doubts that the real Annie Oakley could have so pleased the audience if Mr. Buffalo Bill Cody were to have sent her on loan to Mr. Adams for the night show.
So great is the audience's applause and so raucous their cheering that Santana feels nearly deafened for it. In her nine days at the circus, she has never seen any crowd as delighted at anything as this one is at Brittany's antics. The band strikes up an impromptu rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner," and the audience begins to sing along, many of the patrons rising from their benches to doff their hats and wave their handkerchiefs.
Brittany seems a bit flummoxed at the success of her prank and looks uneasy at the sight of Puck sprawled upon the ground.
"I don't like shooting, I don't think," she mumbles as Santana sidles up at her elbow and the pioneer boys ride in on their horses to wallop the other Indians and finish out the sketch.
Santana can't say that she very much likes shooting, either, or even to see anyone playacting at it, let alone her Brittany, even if it's just for the show. She shrugs, uneasy.
"You made everyone smile, though, just like I told you," she says honestly. "No matter what else happens tonight, you'll be the best part of the circus."
Brittany blushes deeply at Santana's compliment. "Shucks, Santana," she says, tilting her face down so that she can hide behind the brim of her Stetson hat.
Her cheeks don't resume their normal color until long after the pioneers have soundly vanquished the Indian braves—who fall easily without their leader—and the ladies have given away their flowers.
Santana gives her flower to Sam, who stands closest to her of all the men, while Brittany keeps her own flower for herself, sticking it under the band of her hat—an action which no one protests.
Unfortunately for him, Puck has no choice but to lie on the ground playing dead through the whole sketch and misses out on the battle, which is probably his favorite part. By the time he peels himself from the ring, Santana has already given Sam her favor. Puck grimaces when Rachel hands him a sprig of wilted, green rattlesnake weed.
(Santana almost feels sad for him.)
(Except, except, except.)
Brittany's antics during the opening sketch set the tone for the rest of the show.
After Santana returns her robe and headband to Mrs. Schuester's girls, she watches from the aperture in the tent as the male Dragon Chang resumes his part in the trapeze act and performs as if he had never been injured doing it.
Once the acrobats clear the big top, the clowns appear and improvise a sketch in which they storm "yon San Juan Hill," with off-key bugles and an upside-down flag that boasts a poorly-drawn clown face. They climb halfway up the ladder to the trapeze platforms before they rather comically remember that they are all, to a one, insurmountably afraid of heights and don't want the hill after all.
At first, Santana doesn't understand the reference, but then Rachel explains very loudly and to anyone in the backstage area who will listen to her that her father read a newspaper article detailing how General Shafter had overtaken a very important hill of the same name in Cuba this Friday last as part of the war and that a correspondent from the New York Times had been there to see it all happen.
(The more Rachel talks, the more Santana's head begins to spin.)
(She finds she dislikes the way Rachel says the name of the Spanish general—Linares—more than she could ever explain.)
After the clowns, the Sylvesteri Equestrienne Coterie draws a standing ovation for their riding, and Mr. Jesse St. James somehow makes it so that all three of his African lions and his Bengal tiger roar at the same time, to the shock and awe of the crowd.
Puck disappears for a while during the middle acts and returns with his face scrubbed clean of its paint, his cheeks thoroughly raw and pink.
"You get any of that tonic, ladybird?" he asks, pointing to Santana's face, though the answer to his question should be obvious to him.
"Hey, Sammy! Toss your magic face cleanser over to Rachel so she can help my missus get gussied up for our act!" Puck commands, pointing a finger at Sam, seated by the fire.
Sam rolls his eyes at Puck's rudeness but nevertheless rustles through his leather pouch and procures a long, green vial. "Here you are," he says, standing up and delivering the vial over to Rachel. "You only need a few drops," he warns her, handing over a smudged cloth into her care, as well.
Rachel wears a forced smile. "Thank you, Samuel," she says, motioning for Santana to follow her over to the benches.
As it turns out, Santana finds that having Rachel clean her face is not nearly as interesting or as gentle as having Brittany do it.
"Hold still," Rachel chides, though Santana hasn't moved. She wields Sam's washcloth like it pains her to hold it and scrubs harshly over the sore spot where Mrs. Schuester slapped Santana earlier.
"Ow," Santana complains.
Rachel sniffs, indignant. "Oh, I'm sorry, Santana," she says in a treacly voice. "Is something the matter? Perhaps it would be better if you had Brittany do this."
Santana frowns. "What does that mean?" she asks, a niggling feeling in the pit of her stomach. Rachel prods over her sore spot again, and she winces.
"Nothing, I'm sure," Rachel says bluntly. Then, "Only that since you know Brittany so well, and you two obviously understand what's good for each other, you might ask her to help you clean off this paint, as I'm clearly ill-suited to the task."
She scrubs hard over the sore spot again.
"Ow!" Santana yelps, recoiling. "Will you please be careful?"
"It won't come off if you won't stop moving!" Rachel shouts but then immediately throws the washcloth down on the bench and looks up at the sky, exasperated. "I can't work under these conditions!" she declares, as if Santana had ruined something just by moving her head. Rachel sets Sam's green vial where she herself once sat. "Be careful of this," she warns. Then, "Noah, you'll have to tend to your wife yourself, unless you can find Brittany to do it. I'm sure she'll come running."
Rachel then makes what Santana can only describe as a very theatrical exit from the backstage area, headed off toward the dressing tent.
"What was that all about?" Puck asks, agog.
Santana searches herself. "I—I don't think I know," she falters.
After several moments, the sound of Rachel's voice wafts over the backstage area, singing scales. It comes clear from the dressing tents and sounds vibrant, fierce, and—if Santana listens carefully—just a little bit circus-lonely, as well.
Perhaps surprisingly, Puck proves much gentler than Rachel at cleaning Santana's face paint off, albeit a bit clumsier with his strokes and more liberal with Sam's face cleanser than her on the whole, too.
Santana finds it very uncomfortable to sit on the same bench as Puck with his face so close to hers, and especially in public, where everyone can see them, but she hasn't any choice but to submit to his care because, despite Rachel's assurances to the contrary, Brittany does not appear to finish the chore, no matter how much Santana wills it to be so.
Luckily, Rachel had already done most of Puck's work for him, so Santana only has to endure a few awkward moments of Puck staring at her face—she hates how attentively his eyes trace over her features, checking for any stray blacking, and especially the way they linger, wolfish, at her lips and along the curve of her neck—before they can both rise and return Sam's supplies to him.
When it comes time for the gypsy act, Rachel appears without anyone having to call for her. She lights her fire flail without looking at Santana and follows Puck into the big top at Santana's side just as night falls over Ackley, violet, warm, and deep.
Tonight, Santana delights in the beauty of the gypsy dance, in the way Puck's fire curls about his limbs, almost sentient, and at how the audience claps in time to the cadence of the music. For the second time in the day, Santana feels as if the routine has somehow worn into her blood and bones and senses how her body looks forward to it.
She sees orange flames reflected upon the silver pocket watches and brooches of the people on the bleachers. It gives the illusion that the whole tent is on fire, though in a harmless, happy sort of way.
(Santana spins and spins until she feels reckless and dizzy from it.)
Despite Santana's apprehension, the Pierce's knife throwing act passes without incident, a grace for which Santana thanks her shoulder devil. Afterward, the elephants perform their majestic tricks. Methuselah finishes out the night with a resounding trumpet before Will the Ringmaster resumes the floor and faces the crowd.
"We thank you for your most affable response to tonight's show! It has truly been our pleasure to host you on this holiday! Now, by courtesy of my good friend and most generous employer, Mr. J.P. Adams, I would like to invite you, the estimable citizens of Ackley and its surrounding areas, to remain with us for a celebration, during which time our most excellent circus band will divert us with music for dancing. As a special token of Mr. Adams' ceaseless adoration for both your great town and this great and glorious nation, we shall conclude the evening with fireworks. Come, join us in the rings! Let us celebrate this, the land of the free, and the home of the brave! Happy Glorious Fourth, everyone!"
(As she listens to Will's speech, something catches in Santana's throat, though perhaps not because of the sentiment of his narration.)
(She stands just on the outside of the festivities, looking in on them from the darkness.)
The ushers lead the patrons down from the stands, and, as they do so, Santana begins to notice a peculiar happening behind her. At first, the tent canvas directly at her back starts to rustle, and then, all at once, it lifts.
Santana gasps when she catches sight of Ken and a host of supes, who appear from behind the gap in the canvas. Each man holds a long, metal hook on a pole, much like the one Ma Jones employs to ring the mess bell to call the company for shows and meals.
With deftness and practiced motions, the supes use their hooks to reach for rope latches on the sides of the big top tent. They then lift the canvas as one would lift a lady's skirt from the ground to save it from dragging through mud or water.
In the next instant, the indoors and outdoors fully become one place.
Though the big top's roof remains intact, the sides of it peel away, until everyone inside the rings and on the bleachers can look out to see the stars and a moon nearly as full as the one under which Santana, Brittany, and the boys bathed naked in the waters of Storm Lake. Several planets dot the sky—Santana counts Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus as she spins to see them each in turn—unblinking. Everything feels bright and hopeful, despite the cover of darkness.
Almost immediately after raising the tent, Ken hollers for Puck, Sam, Finn, Blaine, David, Shane, and a handful of other fellows to join him in preparing the "pyrotechnics." They all go away together to someplace beyond the men's dressing tent. As if on their cue, the other circus folk begin to disperse from Santana's backstage area, as well, leaving her alone.
(And, as if Brittany had planned it, the band begins to play.)
Because Ken had warned the company not to approach the townspeople or make pests of themselves with their merriment, Santana hadn't known what to do once Will invited everyone into the ring, and so feels glad—heaps upon heaps of glad, actually—when Brittany takes her by the pinky finger and leads her around the curve of the big top, clearly with some destination in mind.
"You still good for that dance, darlin'?" Brittany whispers, that same giddy excitement from before now in her voice as well as in her eyes and at the corners of her mouth.
Santana nods, too excited to speak.
(She likes it very much when Brittany takes her on adventures.)
The girls end up on the side of the big top closest to the midway, where Brittany gestures to the back frame of the recently emptied bleachers. A loose latticework of rods supports the bleachers from behind, but beyond the latticework and directly underneath the bleachers themselves, Santana sees a flat of grass, deep in shadow and entirely hidden away from the big top rings at the front.
"We can dance down there, and no one will see us," Brittany explains, and Santana grins at her.
(Any person who calls Brittany a halfwit ought to have her own brains examined.)
"Careful," Brittany says, helping Santana slip through the latticework without tangling her gypsy skirt. Santana then turns to help Brittany climb through the latticework in kind.
It's far darker beneath the bleachers than it was under the light of the full moon. Blue shade hangs on everything, and the air feels cool and still. Though the band's songs are still very audible through the slats in the bleachers, the din of conversation and motion don't sound nearly as loud to Santana here as they did in the rings.
Everything about the space seems somehow like a secret.
Once Brittany slips through the back of the bleachers, she explores the space, ducking her head to see down the "corridor" to the left and to the right of her. She wanders toward the bleacher seats and peers out at the rings from below, her arms resting on the back of the bench just under her chin, her face level with the gap between it and the bench above it. Santana flanks her, wanting to see what she sees, standing a bit on tiptoe to get a good look.
To Santana's great delight, she finds that she and Brittany have a perfect view of Rings Two and Three, and that, from their vantage point, they can see everyone, though no one can see them.
(She suddenly feels like Harry Birch in Mr. Fenimore Cooper's novel.)
She laughs, not because anything seems funny to her but because she and Brittany have a secret together, and Brittany laughs, too, just the same.
"Puck always said it would be easy to pickpocket gillies if we sat under the bleachers during a show," Brittany notes.
Santana pretends to act scandalized. "That's a very criminal thing for him to say," she gasps, and she and Brittany laugh again before lapsing into easy silence.
They watch, clandestine, for a few more moments as the townspeople form lines, the men and the women, coached from within their own numbers, and then as the townspeople begin to dance, sprightly and gay. They watch again as the circus folk begin to occupy the space just behind the rings and on the outsides of the tent in what used to be the backstage areas, forming lines and dancing amongst themselves beneath the light of the moon.
The townspeople, Santana notices, are dressed very well, the men in rounded collars and the women in dresses of velvet and lace. It strikes Santana how they must love this holiday and adore their country to come clothed in such fine apparel to a circus and a rural "barn" dance such as this one. By comparison, the circus folk are not so well-dressed at all; most of them still wear their costumes from the show and some of them even their stage make up.
They seem just as happy as the townspeople, though.
Santana watches the beginnings of these dances for several minutes, seeing the townspeople take each other by the hands, wondering if any of them love each other in the same way that she loves Brittany and maybe as Brittany loves her.
Her thoughts prompt her to glance over at Brittany by her side. When Santana does so, she finds Brittany staring at her rather than at the dance, her expression deep, thoughtful, and perhaps even a little bit awed. Brittany rests her chin on her arms. Her eyes seem dreamy but the rest of her awake. Blue shadow falls across her face, and Santana doesn't know what to do for how beautiful she is.
"Hey, BrittBritt. Would you like to have a dance now?"
"Sure thing, darlin'."
(And so they do, and so they do, and so they do.)
Brittany leads Santana away from the bleachers and into the open heart of their private space. They wait until the band strikes up a new song, and Brittany curtsies to Santana and Santana back to Brittany. Both girls laugh.
"May I?" Brittany says in her falsely proper accent, extending a hand to Santana.
"You may," Santana says, feigning dignity, though she knows how very silly they both seem.
Without further exchange, she accepts Brittany's proffered hand. A thrill swoops through her body. In the next second, Brittany pulls her forward, meeting their hips together, and they begin a quick, lively dance together in time to the music, Brittany leading, Santana following, and both of them laughing a lot.
"Britt, what's this dance called?" Santana asks, giggling as Brittany spins her in a rollicking circle.
"It's a schottische. It's step-step-step-hop, step-step-step-hop, step-hop-step-hop-step-hop-step-hop," Brittany chants, breathless and in time to their dancing.
"It wouldn't be so hard if we didn't have to keep switching feet," Santana muses, dizzy.
"Are you left-footed, too?" Brittany teases, dipping Santana lower than she's gone before. Another thrill swoops through Santana's body and she laughs for it. Brittany grins. "I like this dance," she says simply.
(It sounds like something else.)
The girls make it through two reels, a waltz, and a strathspey with just the two of them. As it turns out, Brittany dances even more cleverly in private, without an audience, than she does on down days in plain view of everyone.
When Santana asks her wherefore, Brittany says she doesn't know but then reconsiders. "You just make everything easier," she observes, shrugging her shoulders and pulling Santana in closer to her. Brittany breathes deeply, and Santana does, too.
(Santana wonders then if it isn't true that people find it easiest to succeed around those who expect them to do so.)
The grass is cool and dark beneath Santana's feet, and music plays in swells through the bleacher slats. Little moths flitter up from the weeds, and fireflies flare like semaphores, electric green, against the recesses of Santana and Brittany's hideaway.
Brittany dances like a dream—or like falling into one, maybe—in ebbs and flows, each step making perfect sense in the tide of her motion, though seemingly without rhyme or reason in itself. Santana nestles her head against Brittany's shoulder and thinks, for a moment, that there is nowhere else she would rather be in the world than here, dizzy, dancing with Brittany.
It would follow that dancing should rile Santana up and rouse her faculties, but somehow it doesn't. Instead, she finds herself so comfortable that she sinks low onto Brittany's shoulder and begins to relax all over. It doesn't surprise her at all when Brittany mirrors her sentiment and yawns, wide, just as sleepy as she is.
"Long day," Santana says, and Brittany nods, agreed.
Without speaking anything of it, Brittany leads Santana out from the shadows to where the moonlight fits though the slats in the latticework and gestures for Santana to lie down with her, side by side, upon the grass. The girls descend slowly and then turn to each other, laid out on the cool earth.
"Thank you," Santana says.
"Thank you," Brittany says back.
(Vaguely, Santana registers that the music has stopped behind them.)
(She hears someone speaking from very far away but can't make out the words.)
Brittany's eyelashes flutter against her cheeks, so like the wings of her butterflies. Under such a bright, argent moon, Santana can see every feature on Brittany's face and marvels a bit at the gold of Brittany's hair and the light freckles that dot the bridge of her nose. Santana is in love with the most beautiful girl in the world, and she feels impossibly, wonderfully lucky for it, when she's never had good luck before now in her life.
"May I kiss you, Britt?" she asks, sleepy.
Though Brittany seems sleepy herself, her eyes light with the same giddy excitement from earlier. She nods, eager.
Santana doesn't sit up. Instead, she leans forward on the grass, hand curling at Brittany's jaw, urging Brittany to meet her where they lie. Brittany does meet her, eyes turning dark and deep with something.
It's a slow kiss, one that starts with pressed lips and slowly becomes about open mouths painting lazy stokes together. Both girls nod into the touch, and Brittany closes her eyes, a smile spreading out over her face as though someone had spilled it there from a jar. She tastes and breathes like sleep already, and Santana loves the feel of her, warm against the blue dark.
A pop goes off overhead, and light blooms, astral, into the first firework of the night.
Santana has never seen fireworks before, but somehow she finds their goings-on in the heavens far less important than her and Brittany's goings-on against the earth.
Several more pops sound, and more fireworks flare, brilliant white, against the darkness. They sear for a moment below the stars and in competition with the moonlight before petering out and fading away, leaving behind naught but skeletal smoke in their wake, fossils of great celestial spiders, spindly and bent.
"Happy Glorious Fourth, Brittany," Santana mumbles, no longer sure if she's awake or dreaming.
Brittany thumbs over her ribs. "Happy Glorious Fourth, Santana," she mumbles back.
They kiss and kiss and kiss until they're both just on the brink of dreaming. Brittany murmurs, "Thank you," against Santana's lips again and Santana says at the same time, "Brittany, do you—do you maybe—do you l—?" but both of their voices trail away at once.
(And suddenly they're fallen to sleep.)
Santana awakens to a prod in the ribs.
"Britt—?" she says, struggling between waking and sleeping, her mind still heavy from her last dream, whatever it was.
She opens her eyes to find the night much darker than it was when she fell to sleep. Clouds have rolled in to cover the moon, and all the lights from the big top tent have gone out. The bleachers overhead cast deep, black shadows over everything. Santana can scarcely see anything, let alone Brittany, but she feels Brittany's body hovering over her own, with Brittany's arms on either side of her, buoying Brittany up.
"Shh," Brittany says, moving—Santana assumes—to draw a finger to her own lips.
Santana's thoughts swim. She tries to remember where she is and what she's doing, but can't come up with anything except that she knows she's been with Brittany all night.
"What?" she says, disoriented.
"Shh," Brittany warns again. "Listen."
And Santana does.
Crickets chirp along the grass, and little rustlings stir—mysteries—through the dark. Wind prowls low to the earth but gentle. But then, voices. Male voices. They're not a long ways off and gruff. One of them sounds throaty and picked upon.
Santana can't make out what Ken says, but she knows that he's displeased. She looks in the direction of his voice through the bleachers and past where she knows that the rings stand. Benches and a thick, country blackness obscure her view. She doesn't doubt her ears, though.
Brittany nods, her hair brushing over Santana's face, confirming what Santana hears. Silently, Brittany peels her body from Santana's and clambers to her feet. Once she has her balance, she reaches for Santana and lifts her up, as well. Blood rushes to Santana's head, and she feels impossibly dizzy, but, thankfully, she doesn't fall; Brittany holds her steady.
Santana's back aches from lying on the ground, and it cracks as she stands up straight, but otherwise she remains silent. In the next second, she and Brittany link hands and walk quickly but quietly toward the latticework upholding the bleachers. Brittany threads herself through a slat with all the deftness of an expert seamstress stringing her needle, her motions both fluid and feline, and then offers a hand back to Santana, coaxing her through the same space, helping her to mind her skirts.
Once the girls stand safely beyond the bleachers and the big top, Brittany checks both left and right, and then pauses, listening in the direction from which she and Santana last heard Ken. Santana holds her breath and counts out ten beats in her mind. She can't hear Ken or his companion anywhere, and apparently neither can Brittany.
"Come on," Brittany breathes, offering Santana her hand. She starts off in a southwesterly direction, intending, Santana realizes, to head toward Santana's tent.
But Santana stops her.
"Britt," she breathes, "we should get you home first." Brittany opens her mouth to protest, but Santana won't allow it. "Your father," Santana says firmly, and whatever fight Brittany has in her dies away. Without another word, Brittany changes direction, headed to the northwest toward her own tent. Santana gives her hand a squeeze, and Brittany squeezes back.
Once the girls clear the billboard partition, which seems more haunted than beautiful under the darkness of night, they both relax, and Brittany swings their hands between them.
"I wish we didn't have to go away from each other," she pouts, rounding the corner behind Mr. Adams' business tent.
"Me, either," Santana agrees.
(She realizes that they both mean much more than they can say.)
They stop just beyond the Pierces' door, holding hands with each other. Without speaking, they both lean in at once and kiss each other, sweet and slow—a real goodnight kiss, and one that helps Santana to remember all their other kisses throughout the night. Brittany thumbs over Santana's palms and looks at her very carefully, though it's still too dark for either one of them to see the other person well. Brittany's lips rest just at the corner of Santana's mouth, so close that Santana breathes Brittany's breath.
"Goodnight," Brittany says, though it sounds like nothing quite as simple as that.
"Goodnight," Santana repeats.
They part from each other with as much reluctance as met magnets, holding onto each other's hands for as long as they can until Brittany shifts back the tent flaps and starts to let herself inside. Santana takes a few steps away, not wanting to disturb anything as Brittany sneaks into her bed. But then something snags on Santana's heart, and she finds she can't help herself.
"Britt," she whispers, helpless. "Britt, I—I love you."
Santana can scarcely see Brittany's face through the darkness, but she can somehow feel it when Brittany starts to grin. A warmth spreads out between them, radiant as a blush. Brittany's hand moves from the tent canvas to touch her own heart, and Santana feels sweet inside, like she just did something good.
(Like good things will come to her.)
She can hear the queer, secret sort of smile in Brittany's voice when Brittany speaks.
"I know. Thank you."
Though Santana might have panicked at such a simple reply just a few days or even a few hours ago, she feels nothing but peace for it tonight, and gratitude, too, low in her bones. She nods her head and starts away.
(El amor es sufrido. Cosas buenas vienen a aquellos que esperan.)
(Las mejores cosas, realmente.)
As Santana wanders back to her own tent, she hums snatches of the patriotic songs that the circus band played for the spectacular interspersed with the tune about her sweet little girlie. She feels sleepy and stupid and wonderful, and she can't seem to stop smiling her brightest Brittany-smile. She knows that maybe she should worry that Brittany won't say that she loves her back, but somehow she doesn't.
Brittany knows that Santana loves her and seems happy about it, and Santana knows the way that Brittany's touch and kisses feel to her, and how Brittany's words sound, and that's enough for Santana right now.
It's perfect, actually.
She sings as she comes to her tent door.
To be married, we're old enough, plenty,
she and I,
she and I
She's eighteen and I'll be twenty,
by and by,
by and by
Although we are short as to money,
what care we,
what care we?
There are just two flies in the honey
just my one little girl and me
It takes Santana a minute to fidget with the canvas, so tired are her fingers and clumsy her motions, but eventually she manages to work the flaps and comes into her tent, more ready for sleep than she can say. She starts to doff her bangles, hating the way that they chaff on her wrists, and then rubs at her eyes, pushing out a yawn.
It's only when she looks to the bed that she sees.
There, silhouetted in the darkness, sits Puck, wide awake and upright. He's only a shadow, his features hidden in deep black. His posture is stiff. Mean.
When he speaks, he does so through gritted teeth.
Author's Note: Thank you all for waiting patiently for this chapter! I hope that its length will make up a bit for the delay. Special thanks to Han for going above and beyond the call of awesome in her beta duties. Also, special thanks to Lu for being a Spanish-speaking goddess.
Solo sé honesta, Santana : Just be honest, Santana
"La práctica lo hace perfecto, Britt" : "Practice makes perfect, Britt"
El amor es sufrido, Santana, y es benigno : Love is patient, Santana, and love is kind
(El amor es sufrido. Cosas buenas vienen a aquellos que esperan) : (Love is patient. Good things come to those who wait)
(Las mejores cosas, realmente) : (The best things, really)