Chapter 11: Sad Clowns and Happy Endings
Tuesday, July 5th, 1898: Independence, Iowa
There's a dread stillness to Puck, like dark clouds before thunder.
It startles Santana to find him still awake and waiting for her, even so many hours after the spectacular has ended. Somehow, she had forgotten about him. Somehow, she always does.
Her heart kicks in her chest. "You scared me," she gasps, drawing a hand to the beat as if her touch might slow it.
Of course, Santana should have known that Puck would be waiting for her at the tent—after all, he lives there, just as she does, and he can't always ride the rails as a hostler on nights when Santana falls asleep in Brittany's arms.
It would be too easy if he did.
(Somehow, Santana hadn't expected that she would see Puck again tonight.)
Puck says nothing.
Though Santana can't see Puck's eyes, she feels him staring at her through shadow, scrutinizing her form and bearing as if she were something that he suddenly realizes he has always mistaken, like a familiar street sign misread every day for years until someone points out the true lettering.
After a full moment, Puck rises from the cot, posture rigid against the darkness. In a single stride, he meets Santana, towering before her, head near the apex of the tent. On impulse, Santana takes a step back from him.
Now she isn't just startled but frightened.
Puck doesn't seem like himself.
The darkness over the room turns almost palpable and thick. Before Santana can say anything more, Puck moves, snatching Santana's wrist out of the air. When he catches Santana, he holds her arm fast and with an iron grip, keeping her tethered to him, like a ship to a dock.
At first, Santana thinks that Puck might strike her, but he doesn't. His anger is controlled and self-contained, like a loaded gun, but not a shot one. He yanks Santana closer to him—close enough that his body heat washes over her. She can smell his usual choking, herbal musk on his hands, as well as tin smoke.
Animal dread floods through her. "Ow! Let go of me!" she yelps.
Puck cuts her off with a snarl. "Do you think I'm stupid, ladybird?!" He grabs her by the other elbow, hard, pinioning her body to his.
Santana doesn't know what's happening—only that Puck thinks that she's done something to deceive him. She splutters and tries to pull away from his hold. "What are you doing?" she balks.
"You think you're so smart, and I'm so dumb, don't you?"
Puck uses Santana's own momentum to spin her toward the cot and then forces her to sit down, hard. He drops her left arm but still clutches her right.
"I don't know what you're talking about!" Santana protests. She quakes all over and still fights against Puck's hand. She has to get away from him. She hates that she can't see his eyes through such pitch.
"You're green-gowning it while I pay your way through everything!" Puck bellows. "You think that's fair, ladybird? You think that's how it is? I'm not a fool!"
Santana's heart pricks in her chest, sprinting faster and harder than ever it has before. She doesn't know what Puck means, just that he's livid about whatever it is. She feels hot all over and trapped with no place to run. The darkness inside the tent seethes, both infinitely deep and terribly small at once. Santana can't breathe.
(Surely, someone must hear all this shouting.)
Santana struggles for air. She tries to tell Puck that she doesn't understand him, but her voice disappears in a squeak, her throat closing as tears leap to her eyes. "Wha—?" she stammers.
"Green-gowning! Committing adultery! Fornicating!" Puck shouts. "You're fornicating with Sam Evans when you're supposed to be married to me!"
Puck's accusation echoes through the tent. Its knell rings through Santana's body. How could Puck think such a horrid thing? Santana isn't fornicating with Sam. She couldn't possibly do so. She wouldn't. She doesn't even know how.
Since joining the circus, Santana hasn't spoken more than two words to Sam unsupervised anyhow. In fact, she hasn't spoken to him unsupervised at all since the day when Sam helped her to pack up the tent—and only then because Puck himself had left her on her own when she needed him.
Sam is in love with Ma Jones. Santana is in love with Brittany.
Santana's stomach turns over. She'll be sick if Puck keeps saying such awful words. She wants to make some sort of defense of herself—she wants to tell Puck how very wrong he is and to reprove him for thinking evil thoughts about her—but she can't. She paws at his hand against her arm, desperate to pry his fingers from her skin.
"F-fornicating?" she repeats.
Santana's voice sounds unnaturally high and stretched to breaking. She almost can't force herself to say the word. Her face flares with heat, contorted into a strange, aching expression. She blinks and blinks and blinks against the darkness, but to no avail; fat tears gather at the corners of her eyes and roll down her cheeks. She couldn't hold them back if she tried. She can't stop trembling. Her heart beats like it wants to burst straight from her chest.
(She supposes that this is what being hysterical must feel like.)
"You think I'm f-fornicating with Sam?" she squeaks. Her voice breaks into a sob, "No! No! I would never! I'd never!" Puck tightens his grip on Santana's arm. "I've never known a man! I never—! I couldn't—! I've never kissed another man but you! Please!"
"You ran off tonight!" Puck shoots back. "You and Evans weren't nowhere around! You'll smile at all his jokes and talk pretty to him, but you won't even look twice at me unless you want me to buy you something! You mean to tell me you weren't with him?"
Santana's tears start to curl over the edge of her chin, wetting her neck and collarbones. She still can't breathe and can't move—only plead with Puck to hear reason.
"What about the town boys? The gillies, then? You weren't with none of them?" Puck insists, dead set on the idea that Santana must have gone sneaking around with some boy.
(She would never.)
"No! I was with Brittany!" Santana cries, clinging to the truth. "I was with Brittany! Please! Please! We fell asleep!"
Santana can feel Puck's confusion and frustration mounting as she denies each one of his mad accusations in turn. He wants her to have done something wrong and bears down on her for it.
When he does so, it surprises Santana to hear hurt in his voice.
"Then why won't you ever just be with me?" he cries. "Why can't you stand to be around me? Why won't you kiss me or let me hold you?"
Because I'm in love with Brittany.
It's a simple answer and the truth, but Santana knows better than to tell it to Puck, not with him so wounded and already hating her for avoiding him, though he saved her life and brought her away from New York City to the circus.
"Answer me, ladybird!" Puck roars. "Why won't you—?"
"Because I'm not married to you! We're not married!" Santana shrieks.
Her voice frays, raw, in her throat and she chokes on more tears. In that moment, she thinks back to all the times when Puck has kissed her and almost gags for it. She can't stand the feel of Puck's lips on hers or his hands touching her skin, not when she belongs with Brittany and to Brittany in every possible way.
Santana had only needed Puck but never wanted him.
She doesn't want him.
"I can't," Santana sobs, running up against that invisible wall inside of herself, "I can't, I can't—"
She can feel her chest closing up, tightening, her whole self locking against Puck and against anyone who isn't Brittany. She can't breathe, not around the lump in her throat, not when Puck is so close and so mean. Her body reviles against him.
"—I'm not married to you and I don't want—I don't w-want—"
For the first time since he started shouting, Puck looks at Santana, deep and slow. Though they can't meet one another's eyes through the darkness, Santana feels Puck scrutinizing her again, appraising what she's told him. Briefly, Santana wonders if Puck won't strike her after all, and she braces for it, waiting to feel the blow through her bones.
It doesn't come, though.
Instead, Puck's grip slackens against Santana's wrist.
The thunder in the room disperses to calm, as if Santana had somehow spoken a magic word against it or finally explained herself in some way that Puck could understand. When next Puck speaks, his voice sounds entirely different than it did before, suddenly quiet and worried.
"Oh no, ladybird, don't cry," Puck says softly. "Oh, hey, I didn't mean it. Hey, now. Hey."
In the next second, Puck presses closer to Santana, his lips skirting along the edge of her jaw in a sorry, sloppy kiss. His one hand drops to her leg, propping him up as he kneels before her. His other hand moves to the underside of Santana's chin, lifting her head to him.
"Ladybird, God! I am so sorry. I would never—"
He stops, considering his words. After a long time, he speaks again. He sounds sure and soothing.
"Ladybird," he whispers, "I swear that I would never do to you what my old man did to my old lady. I wouldn't get you like that and then leave you. I couldn't leave you or anybody else of ours, either—I'd die first. We don't have to be together like that, ladybird, not now. There're other things we can do. I can teach you. You're my family, ladybird. Shh, please, don't cry, don't cry."
He kisses at her neck, slowly sitting up from his knees to join her on the cot.
The danger has passed—Santana knows that. Puck isn't angry with her anymore. She still can't keep from trembling, though. She doesn't know what Puck means exactly, but she does know that she hates the sound of the promises he makes to her.
(She fidgets with the thread ring on her finger.)
"I want—," she cries, but she can't say the name she means aloud, not with such a great ache in her throat, not with Puck still pressing into her. She shivers away from his lips wet on her neck.
"You're shaking," Puck realizes. "Jesus."
He crawls onto the cot and takes Santana in his arms. His whole body enfolds hers, his hot, vivid smell filling up her nostrils and mouth. She would flinch away from him, but she finds that she can't. Like the mouse scared of a hawk, she halts and hunkers, helpless to do anything else.
"I wouldn't do no harm by you ever," Puck promises, his voice suddenly boyish again. "I'm so, so sorry, ladybird. I've got you," he whispers, kissing her head. "Things'll be different one day. You and me, we'll go somewhere. We'll travel, visit Europe. You know they have ballrooms in Vienna with flowers and waterfalls in 'em, even in the winter, and anyone can dance there? Anyone at all? One day, you and me, we'll go to Vienna, and there ain't nobody who'll look at us slanted. I'll take you dancing in Vienna. You and me, until morning's light, ladybird. It'll be a new century, and everything'll be different."
Santana tries to understand, but she can't. Just a few seconds ago, Puck seemed liable to throw her out of their tent to the road, but now he wants to take her globetrotting with him. If there has ever been a more volatile man than Puck, Santana wouldn't believe it. She stills in his arms, swallowing hard. She can't help but feel somehow sad.
(She just wants Brittany.)
Puck holds Santana for a long, long while. His heartbeat goes from quick to metered, a song finding its best time. He dots little kisses to Santana's hair and keeps her pressed to the crook of his neck and at his chest, as if she were a doll and he the little child who cherished her. Though his body is still strong and hard, it's also gentle, as is he. He wipes the tears from Santana's cheeks with the edge of his thumb.
After many minutes, he asks, "Ladybird, will you forgive me?"
He sounds like he'll die if she doesn't.
Santana searches inside herself and through herself, as might a patron at a vast library, seeking a particular book located somewhere amidst many, many tall shelves.
Can she forgive Noah Puckerman for the way that he frightened her? Can she forgive him for the false accusations he leveled at her expense? Has she catalogued that elusive title anywhere inside her heart?
Santana knows that both her grandmother and her grandmother's bible would tell her that she ought to forgive Puck, but Santana never believed like her grandmother did, and the Bible is one book about which Santana can't seem to care.
Her heartbeat still runs mouse-quick. Puck's smell and presence overwhelm her. She hears the echo of all the terrible things Puck said about her, loud and vociferous, in her ears.
And it's strange.
Santana hasn't committed any of the crimes that Puck tried to pin upon her tonight, but she does feel, in a way, wrong.
Though she hasn't kissed Samuel Evans or any gilly boys, she has kissed Brittany Pierce, and while that in itself isn't a wicked thing—it's wholly good, Santana knows, for she can feel the goodness of it inside herself, changing her for the better—maybe the fact that Santana hasn't told Puck that she kissed Brittany is.
Maybe it is deceitful of her. Maybe she ought to have told him. Maybe Puck could have been happy for her if she had given him the truth outright.
There's a reason why Santana never wants to kiss Puck, after all.
(Sometimes it's easier not to have the thing one wants when one knows the reason why one can't have it.)
(Santana strokes over the thread ring at her finger, absentminded.)
For Puck's question, Santana tries, for a moment, to picture how it would be, telling Puck the truth, just like she told it to Brittany earlier in the day. What if she revealed to Puck that she was in love with Brittany? What if she explained to Puck that she only ever wanted to kiss Brittany and not him? She tries to envisage herself whispering the words into the dark against the heat of Puck's skin. Somehow, she can't imagine that Puck would smile or seem as giddy as Brittany did to hear the truth, though.
Fear pricks her heart.
She can't whisper such a secret as that one to Puck, not even here, in deep shadow.
Puck isn't the person to whom Santana tells her secrets.
(Brittany would never, ever frighten Santana in the way that Puck did tonight.)
The practical part of Santana realizes that she can't tell Puck the truth. Even so, she feels a keen sense of guilt, for now she knows that she has chosen to deceive Puck, and that she will continue to deceive him for the rest of her days at the circus.
She will always only take from him and never give anything to him in return.
Right then, Santana resolves in her heart to try to treat Puck more kindly than she has in the past. She also resolves to forgive him, though perhaps he doesn't deserve it.
It's the one thing she can do.
"Of course I forgive you," she whispers, and only then does Puck's body fully relax against hers.
"Thank you," Puck says, kissing her hair, sweet, in benediction.
Santana allows Puck to hold her for a long, long while, and even to fall back against the cot, still holding her, as both of them drift toward sleep. Eventually, Santana's heartbeat begins to slow. She breathes in deeply and stills herself as Puck's arms gather her in closer to him.
(Really, there's nothing wrong with Noah Puckerman, as far as circus boys go, but Santana Lopez just can't fuss about him. She never has been able to.)
Santana awakens to coffee smell, rich and earthy. It reminds her of her father and of the bachelor cottage. For a moment, she forgets where she is and wonders if her grandmother won't scold her for sleeping late again. She thinks, still mostly dreaming, that maybe she and Brittany can spend the afternoon together in the garden, as long as they promise Abuela that they won't pester the new gardener boy, Puck.
But then Santana remembers that she isn't at the bachelor cottage and that Papa and Abuela aren't with her, and neither is Brittany, for the time being. Her face rubs against rough canvas rather than a lace pillowcase. A heavy hand rests upon her shoulder.
"I brought you some breakfast," Puck says in a small voice, half-whispering and half-speaking, like he isn't certain whether he actually wants to wake Santana or not.
Santana groans against the cot and shifts. She dislikes it when Puck wakes up so much earlier than she does. Somehow, it makes her feel useless, lazy, and also weirdly bare, knowing that he's watched her sleep, even for a little while. She forces herself to sit upright.
"Is it time to go to the train?" she mumbles, accepting the warm tin cup that Puck passes into her hands though she can't see either it or him through the darkness—only shadows and a single beam of moonlight peeking through parted tent flaps.
"Not yet, ladybird," Puck says placidly. He pets her hair away from her shoulder and sets a plate and fork in her lap. Eggs and hotcakes. "You've got time to eat your meal."
Santana nods, still addlebrained and not up to talking. It feels like hardly any time has elapsed since she fell asleep, and yet she can hear camp sounds and stirring beyond the tent doors, telling her that the night is over and that a new day at the circus has begun.
Birds titter somewhere in the distance. Santana's face feels tight from crying last night. When she swallows, her throat scratches. She takes a gulp of coffee, hoping to wet away the ache.
"Will you ride with me on the train today, ladybird?" Puck asks.
He sounds like he'll die if she says no.
Yesterday or the day before, Santana might have declined Puck's offer, if she thought that she could get away with it, but now she doesn't feel as if she can do so—not in good conscience. Last night, Santana resolved to treat Puck with more kindness, and she has to start on her resolution sometime, after all.
"Of course I will," she promises.
She can't see Puck smile at her through the darkness, but she can feel him do it.
Santana watches Puck dismantle their tent and then follows him to the mess pit to put away her dishes. Under the firelight from Ma Jones' hearth, Santana sees how red Puck's eyes look—and tired, too. She also finds something like quiet determination set into his jaw.
For his part, Puck treats Santana carefully, like the little boy whose mother has instructed him to set out the best china in the dining room for guests. He takes Santana by the elbow when they walk together and lets her go in first to every place they visit, all but holding invisible doors for her, and bowing to her when he can.
When Santana glances at Puck, he smiles at her, grateful in a way that nags at Santana, twisting guilt low into her stomach. She tries to tell herself that she'll be better to Puck and that things will be all right.
(All the same, she can't help but scan over the crowds for Brittany, hoping hard to find her.)
Strong wind chases the company all the way to the train depot, lifting the ladies' hair from their shoulders and threatening to steal the men's hats away as everyone clings to the sides of their wagons and carts. The wind is warm and whistles against the slats in the lion cages, but it still somehow feels lonely and like it takes more than it gives.
When Santana spots some of her and Puck's neighbors from the white city riding in an adjacent cart to theirs, she finds that though no one will meet her eyes, everyone can't help but stare at her. A whisper catches on the wind, and Santana doesn't have to hear it to know exactly what it says.
She looks up at the stars, taking in the carnival constellations and sleepless planets. After a moment, she closes her eyes to the black expanse. All the while, Puck's hand rests at the small of her back, keeping her in place.
As the circus processional reaches the end of the main street in town, Methuselah heaves a baleful wail to the stars, and every head turns to him, waiting for something, though nothing comes.
(Ackley, Iowa was such a place where everything happened all in a rush.)
It's only once the company reaches the depot that Santana finds Brittany amidst the crowd, sleepy and with a ragged flannel blanket wrapped around her shoulders.
Just for seeing her, a great swell of relief blooms in Santana's chest. Suddenly, Santana feels, somehow, like Odysseus come home at last after such a long while spent away from Ithaca—from Penelope—though she knows that, in truth, only a few hours have passed since last she and Brittany parted ways.
Her first impulse is to throw her arms over Brittany's shoulders and to tell Brittany all at once about what happened between her and Puck before bedtime, but then she thinks better of it, remembering where she is and who watches her. Her feet slow from their run. She can't do as she pleases, not with so many people around, and especially not with Puck standing off to the side.
Instead, she does all that she can do, given her audience.
She goes over to Brittany and slips their pinky fingers together. "I missed you," she says, meaning much more than just that.
Brittany's eyes look a fathomless and storm-tossed blue under the electric lamps hung along the platform. She glances between Puck and Santana, and, for a second, seems almost to know something about them and what transpired in their tent last night.
"I missed you, too," she says, loud enough for Puck to hear it. Then, smiling at Santana, "Will you ride with me on the train?"
They ride in silence.
Santana leans back against Puck but drapes her legs over Brittany's lap beneath the flannel blanket. Within the four walls of the boxcar, the world seems a still life painting, static and chiaroscuro. Beyond the boxcar doors, it seems a blur of motion, all greens and golds and goodly earth tones muted under predawn blue.
Brittany stares at Santana for a long, long time before burrowing her hands under the blanket. Without a word, she begins to stroke over Santana's legs, massaging the undersides of Santana's knees and then Santana's anklebones. She searches out Santana's soft and hard places, tracing over the furrows between Santana's muscles and the sinews which bind Santana together deep below the skin.
Her move is a bold one, fearless and familiar in a way that no one has ever been with Santana before. Brittany acts as if her hands belong just where they are—and they do, Santana finds.
At Brittany's touch, a tight coil inside Santana begins to unwind, though Santana hadn't realized that it existed until now.
It's almost as if Brittany has cast some fairy spell over her, though whether it were to set her into an enchanted sleep or to wake her from one, she cannot say. All she knows is that for the first time since walking Brittany home last night, she finally feels at peace.
As the first light of morning peeks through the boxcar doors, illuminating the cabin, Brittany offers Santana a concerned look, like a hostess who can see that her newly arrived guest has traveled for a great while and over a very treacherous road. She pulls Santana's knees up toward her body, resting them against her belly, and then starts to draw over Santana's legs, little curlicues and nothings at first—and then, at last, a heart.
She offers Santana a small smile, comforting and careful, asking Santana without words if she's all right. Santana returns the smile easily; she is now and she will be. Brittany nods and hums a little note, neither major nor minor. She draws another heart on Santana's leg.
If Puck notices anything going on between the two girls, he says nothing of it; instead, he stares blankly out the open boxcar door, lost somewhere behind his own eyes.
Gradually, some of the quiet excitement from yesterday begins to shine in Brittany's countenance, as if the sunrise were putting it there. It glints in Brittany's tiger flecks and lifts at the corners of her mouth.
When Brittany checks to see that Puck has his back turned and then quickly dips her head to press a kiss against Santana's kneecaps through the blanket, Santana shivers, caught up, because she feels the excitement, too.
Hi, Brittany mouths.
Hi, Santana mouths back.
The two girls smile at each other, their excitement shifting into something more like wiliness. Brittany glances at Puck again and then back at Santana. She takes care to enunciate.
How do you say... 'Welcome to the circus' in Spanish?
Bienvenidos al circo.
Bent tent poles all circled?
Not even close.
Not even a little bit?
How about... 'You're not fair'?
No eres justa.
No air is... hostlers? No? He'll go? Hugo?
Who's Hugo, Britt?
I dunno. Somebody who speaks Spanish?
No eres justa, Britt.
No, you aren't.
They ride all the way to their destination holding hands under the blanket.
Puck never suspects a thing.
When Santana asks him about their current location, Puck says that they're in Independence, Iowa. He also says that Independence, Iowa boasts one of the best horseracing tracks he's ever seen. When Santana asks Puck what makes the track so very exceptional, Puck stammers a bit and then explains—in a faltering way—that it's big and shaped like a kite with round edges.
(Santana wonders if Puck knows very much about horseracing at all.)
It seems to take a longer time than usual for the supes to get all the circus equipment sorted out at the station. The company ends up standing about during the lag, not certain what to do for it. Brittany runs off for a moment to relinquish her blanket to her father but quickly returns to Santana's side, joining Santana and Puck on the peripheries of the company.
While everyone loiters about waiting for the supes to ready the wagons, Puck acts fidgety and like he would prefer to be somewhere other than where he is. He keeps glancing over the heads of the other circus folk and tugging at the brim of his hat. After a few minutes, he takes Santana gently by the elbow, closing the distance between them so that she can hear what he has to say over all the company's babble.
Brittany hangs back from Santana and Puck's private conference, wearing a furrowed brow.
"All right, ladybird," Puck says, leaning down close to Santana. "I've got some business to attend to, so I'm going to go on ahead now. You and Brittany stick with the company for the parade. I'll find you later."
He doesn't wait for Santana to either question him or tell him goodbye before he releases her and starts off through the crowd, headed to where some supes have circled up the circus horses. Santana quickly loses sight of him amidst so many tall persons and so much helter-skelter motion.
"Where's he going?" Brittany asks, taking Puck's place at Santana's side.
"I don't know," Santana says honestly.
The truth is that while Santana usually finds Puck very plain, today he seems strange to her—a mystery with an ending that she isn't sure she wants to read. Something has gotten into him. He comes across as somehow different than he has been before, though Santana isn't sure if the change in him is for the worse or for the better.
The rambling apology that Puck made to her last night lingers in her thoughts, though it escapes her understanding. She would perhaps ask Puck to explain what he said to her, but the fact is that she's never has been able to talk to him, either to find anything worthwhile in what he says or to entice him to listen to her whatsoever.
In some way, Santana feels that she's missed something with Puck, though she can't name what that something is precisely. She only hopes that missing it won't get her into trouble.
Maybe she can ask Brittany about it later.
Brittany and Santana ride into town hanging from the side of a farm wagon along with Blaine, Rory, and a handful of the boys' clown friends. Everyone packs in tightly together, their bodies hot under the morning brightness, their elbows touching and their feet all lined up upon the bottom rail of the vehicle.
Independence is a handsome town, smart in brown and red brick. White awnings unfold above the shop doors and arched windows cause the store fronts to all seem somehow shocked. Everywhere Santana looks, American flags drape over ledges and hang above intersections, leftover from festivities of the Glorious Fourth, no doubt.
The citizens of Independence greet the circus parade from the backs of black buggies, dressed up in finery and with their hats at jaunty angles. The women wear rouge and have beautiful dark lips. They wave white handkerchiefs at the circus folk, and Santana feels all aflutter for it. The men seem quietly and staunchly pleased to have such revelry visit their little milieu, and the children all cheer, delighted by the parade pomp.
Just when Santana thinks that she couldn't like the parade much more than she already does, Brittany leans over to her.
"I have a secret," she whispers in Santana's ear, mischief in her voice.
Santana's whole self perks up. "What kind of secret, BrittBritt?" she asks.
Of course, Santana knows that Brittany's secret could as a matter of fact concern just about anything, whether it were some new bit of circus magic or something much more pressing, even. Knowing that Brittany could very well say anything doesn't stop Santana from wanting Brittany to say something in particular, though.
Brittany did kiss Santana after Santana confessed to loving to her, after all.
(Please say you love me back. Please.)
Santana oughtn't to hope for too much, she knows. She oughtn't to set her heart on one thing.
It's just that Brittany seems so excited, is all—so breathless and fond, with her lips parted like the middlemost bloom of a flower and pink brilliant upon her cheeks. She looks more at Santana than at anything going on with the parade, even though the gillies along the sidewalks holler at her to wave at them.
Santana shouldn't allow her heart to stop just from Brittany looking at her, but.
"What kind of secret indeed, Miss Pierce?" Blaine asks amiably.
He lifts up the brim of his trilby hat to get a better look at both Brittany and Santana, and, just for a second, Santana finds that she hates him—and also that she hates Mrs. Schuester and Ma Jones and Roderick Remington, who aren't even present, but who would all probably interrupt Brittany from saying her secret, just like Blaine has, if they were so.
(It's exceedingly difficult to carry on a secret romance with someone when everyone and everything in the world always seem to disrupt it.)
Brittany's expression changes from a cat-smile to blankness in a trice, a slate wiped clean.
"I said I have a secret," she repeats slowly, frowning at Blaine as if he's interjected an especially nonsensical thought into the conversation. Then, "If I told you what it was, it wouldn't be a secret anymore."
Santana knows Brittany well enough to see Brittany's statement for what it is, namely, for Brittany putting Blaine off her trail on purpose, like a wily fox running loop-de-loops to evade an obnoxious hunting hound.
Blaine doesn't know Brittany very well at all, though, and so he doesn't discern her trick.
"Aw, you're no fun!" he says, slapping at the wagon sideboards.
Santana wants to say that Blaine is the one who's no fun, or at least that he's the one who's ruined her fun and the moment—confound him!—but she knows she oughtn't to snap. She heaves a sigh and rests her brow against the side of the wagon, defeated, closing her eyes to the morning light and wishing and wishing and wishing for things.
(She knows she shouldn't get her hopes up for anything in particular.)
Santana somehow misses it when the wagon draws to a halt. She also misses it when Blaine, Rory, and the other clowns disembark from the wagon. She doesn't miss it when Brittany sets a hand on her shoulder, though.
"You okay in there?"
Santana peeks out from behind her arm to find Brittany's face directly parallel to hers, rested against the wagon rail. Brittany's eyes look especially soft, as does her smile. Once Brittany sees that she has Santana's attention, she scrunches up her nose at Santana, only lopsidedly, with her one cheek still pressed against the wood grain.
(Santana feels a sweet pang play through her chest, like a high, clear note on a piano.)
Brittany strokes Santana's hair away from her face and traces along the edge of Santana's jaw. Her touch feels careful and welcome upon Santana's skin.
"I'm all right," Santana says. "I just wish there weren't so many people around us all the time."
Brittany nods, understanding. "Me, too."
The girls remain in their places upon the wagon, Brittany petting through Santana's hair and Santana loving Brittany's touch and loving Brittany beyond words. Santana hums from the back of her throat. The wood heat and Brittany's easy strokes cause her to feel lazy and even just a little bit sleepy.
"How long do you think we could stay here without anyone finding us?"
"Probably only a few minutes."
"You really think it would take that long?"
Both girls laugh and sit up from where they rest, squinting into the sunlight. For the most part, the company has already vacated the wagon bay. Only a handful of supes and some stray midway vendors stand around, tending to vehicles, goods, and animals.
Brittany hops down from the wagon rail first, landing lightly upon the dirt. She offers a hand to Santana, and Santana takes it, feeling like a noblewoman escorted from her coach. As soon as Santana has her footing upon the earth, Brittany gives her a twirl, dancing her in the direction of the camp.
"I like the way your skirt flips," Brittany says, just so, and Santana laughs because Brittany always finds the most peculiar things about her to like.
Only as she and Brittany go along does Santana properly consider her surroundings for the first time.
Independence is a handsome, river-fed land, verdantly green, with tall copses of trees reaching toward the sky and sprawling fields that lead on for miles upon miles. The white city stands partially constructed, still in its middling stages. Company members mill here and there, but none of them pays much mind to Brittany and Santana.
It almost surprises Santana when no one stops her and Brittany to force them into doing chores, but then she remembers what happened between them and Mrs. Schuester at the dressing tent yesterday.
"I suppose Mrs. Schuester won't want to see us anytime soon," Santana mumbles, her cheeks pinking at the memory. "We probably ought to find Ma Jones instead."
Brittany nods. "Probably."
Brittany and Santana only make it to the first intersection of tents before they happen upon an unusual sight: namely, Mr. Adams away from his business tent, standing out in the open air—and in conversation with Puck, no less.
Both men wear serious expressions. Mr. Adams strokes over his beard with the crux of his hand. He furrows his brow, deep in concentration. Puck seems very businesslike as he speaks, jaw tight with the same determination Santana sensed in him earlier in the morning. He holds his hat in one hand and the reins to a horse in the other. The horse stands behind him, munching grass and flicking its tail at the fat, black flies that dart up from the weeds.
Puck speaks in a very low voice—so low that Santana can't actually hear him, though she strains to do so. He gestures over his shoulder in the direction of the main road back into town, and Mr. Adams nods at him, comprehending.
Santana feels odd watching Puck and Mr. Adams speak with each other, knowing that neither one of them has noticed her presence yet. Apparently, Brittany shares the sentiment, as she glances at Santana, asking without words if they ought to draw closer or at least to make themselves known to the men somehow. However, Santana doesn't get the chance to answer Brittany's question before Puck and Mr. Adams conclude their conversation.
Mr. Adams extends a hand to Puck, and Puck accepts it with a hearty shake. Santana thinks she hears Mr. Adams say, "Good man, Noah," as he claps Puck on the back. The two men break away from each other, seemingly in accord about something, and Puck whistles for his horse, tugging on its reins. Once he has the animal's attention, he starts to lead it away in the direction of the midway pitch.
Brittany and Santana remain where they stand, and Puck doesn't turn around to see them. Though Mr. Adams has the girls directly in his line of sight, he himself pays no mind to them at first. Instead, he retrieves his gold pocket watch from his waistcoat and checks the time, ignoring Brittany and Santana as easily as if they were invisible.
Only after replacing his watch in his waistcoat does Mr. Adams take note that he and Puck had an audience; he stares down the intersection, his eyes locking with Santana's. For just a second, he regards her in the same searching way that he did when she first joined the circus, seeking for something in her expression and person.
Whether he finds that something or not, Santana can't say, for his look is blank and his glance quick. After only just a few seconds, he straightens his shoulders, adjusts his jacket, and heads off in the direction of his business tent, all without saying a word to either Santana or Brittany. Once he disappears from the intersection, the two girls find themselves alone.
"What was that about?" Brittany asks.
"I don't know," Santana says honestly.
She bites her lips into her mouth, considering for a moment. She wants to tell Brittany about her quarrel with Puck, but she doesn't know how to start the conversation.
Brittany notices Santana's preoccupation. "Something on your mind?" she asks, fixing Santana with a curious look.
Santana draws a deep breath, steadying herself. If she speaks too frankly about what happened, she may well start to cry again, and she doesn't want to do that—not when there's nothing to cry about now and not when her crying would only serve to upset Brittany. She searches for evenness in her own self and makes certain she has a secure grasp on it before she answers.
"When I went back to my tent last night, Puck was waiting for me," she says. "He was angry at me for staying out late, and he started shouting and saying awful things to me like you wouldn't believe—"
Lamplight worry ignites behind Brittany's eyes. "Are you all right?" Brittany asks, searching Santana up and down over her arms and face and—Santana notices—around the shells of her ears. Brittany takes a step toward Santana and sets a hand on her forearm. "Santana, was he angry at you because of me?"
Santana shakes her head. "No," she says. "No, it's just—he just—he thought that I was sweet on Sam Evans, that's all."
She tries to make the statement sound simple and nonchalant, amusing even, but she can't exactly manage it. Her words waver somewhere close to the end. She forces a laugh, but it comes out more nervous than mirthful.
Though she hadn't expected it of herself, Santana finds that telling Brittany about Puck's mistake so soon after confessing love to Brittany makes her feel unspeakably anxious, for she doesn't want Brittany to misunderstand or to have any reason to doubt her.
Even though Brittany hasn't yet said that she loves Santana in the same way that Santana loves her, Santana wants Brittany to know that she has all of Santana's heart—always—and that she doesn't have to share it with Sam or Puck or any of those other boys.
Santana's love is unconditional and true.
Something darts behind Brittany's eyes, quick like a fish through murky waters, there and then gone again when Brittany blinks. Brittany glances at Santana, away and then back, her gaze finally settling on where her own hand rests against Santana's wrist—at where the red thread tied at her finger touches upon Santana's skin. When she speaks, her voice is very quiet.
"He doesn't know you very well, does he?" she says.
(It's a big question fit inside a small one.)
Brittany is right, of course.
Puck doesn't know Santana hardly at all, and he doesn't care to learn her, either—not truly or in earnest. He has some skewed idea of Santana that didn't fit the lonely girl cooped up in the bachelor cottage and that certainly doesn't fit the happy girl who runs free at the circus.
Only one person has ever taken the time to know Santana, and sometimes Santana thinks that that person knows her almost better than she knows herself.
Santana had been so lonely in New York, so lonely on the trains that conveyed her to the West, so lonely at the circus camp, and so lonely in her own skin until she met Brittany, who always knows just where to find her and how.
Something inside Santana melts.
"Not at all," she says, reaching down to take Brittany's hand in her own.
Brittany's fingers tangle with Santana's. "So what did you tell him?" she asks, chewing her bottom lip, concerned for Santana in retrospect.
Santana shrugs. "I told him that I spent last night with you."
This time, her statement does sound nonchalant.
Brittany smiles with her eyes but not with her lips. She gives Santana's hand a squeeze. "He's not angry at you anymore," she affirms, starting to lead Santana away from the intersection of tents toward the mess pit.
"No," Santana agrees. "He's got a quick temper, but he doesn't stay angry for long."
Brittany nods. "He's always been that way."
It's a simple observation, but one that sparks a question in Santana's mind—a question that's nagged at Santana since Puck made his bizarre apology to her last night in their tent.
Santana supposes that if she and Puck were really married, she would know all sorts of things about him, like where he was born and what he dreamed about doing for his profession when he was a child and whether or not he likes sarsaparilla. As it is, though, she hardly knows anything about him at all.
While she had never cared to know much about Puck before, now she feels curious about him, if only because she wants to understand the strange promises he made to her last night when he held her to him in the darkness.
"Brittany," Santana asks, "was Puck born at the circus?"
Brittany shakes her head. "Nope," she says. "Puck joined up young—about a year after my mama died, I think. He was nine or ten years old, maybe?" Her brow furrows. "You mean Puck never told you about how he got here?"
She looks at Santana in the same way that Sam did on the first day that Santana met him—which is to say in disbelief that Puck would be so negligent in his duties toward Santana. She seems genuinely surprised that Puck wouldn't have told Santana how he got to the circus of his own volition, or, more precisely, that Puck doesn't feel keen to tell Santana all of his secrets in general.
(Santana remembers Brittany's breathless whisper on the farm cart.)
(Brittany loves to give her things.)
"No, he didn't," Santana says, starting to swing her hand and Brittany's between them.
Brittany shakes her head, displeased with Puck's omission, and leads Santana down another corridor of tents. Though she and Santana are seemingly alone, Brittany switches into a low voice and speaks close to Santana's ear, keeping their conversation just between them. She starts her story without prelude.
"Well, Puck had a daddy who only lived with him and his mama sometimes, but then one day Puck's daddy took everything out of Puck's house and went away. Puck and his mama were used to Puck's daddy leaving them every few weeks or so, but this time it was different because Puck's daddy never came home.
The people in Puck's town said that Puck's daddy had run away to join the circus because he was a rambling man and because Puck's mama was wearing her bustle wrong and he couldn't abide it again—only I don't know what that last part has to do with anything because it seems like Puck's daddy could've just asked Puck's mama to change her bustle around if it bothered him so much for her to wear it wrong. I guess that sometimes people don't talk to each other because it's just hard to say what they mean, though.
Anyway, Puck won't admit it to anyone, but he missed his daddy a lot, I think, because, after a while, he ran off, too, and left his mama behind.
Puck knew his daddy had joined a circus, so that's what he went looking for—only he didn't know that there was more than one circus out there.
He found ours, but his daddy wasn't with us.
When he turned up, it was our off-season, and he was half-starved to death. Sam's mama said he was the most ragged little uncivilized thing she had ever seen. That was right around when Arthur Adams got hurt, so Mr. Adams had the doctor he'd hired for Arthur to look over Puck until Puck was well again. Mr. Adams told Puck he could stay on with us until Puck found his daddy, and he even promised that he'd help Puck look for his daddy, if Puck wanted."
Brittany finishes her story with a shrug and then turns silent, letting Santana to think through it.
Honestly, Santana hadn't any ideas about how Puck first joined up with the J.P. Adams & Son Traveling Circus before she had asked Brittany her question, but even with her lack of expectation, Santana finds that she couldn't feel more surprised to learn the truth.
"Golly," she gasps, not sure what to make of what Brittany told her.
It's strange to think about Puck as a little boy, wandering lonely through the countryside in search of the circus. It's stranger still to think of how foolish and forlorn he must have felt to learn that there were more circuses in the world than he could count and that he had found the wrong one even after everything that had befallen him and all his looking.
Puck's apology from last night echoes through Santana's thoughts.
Without meaning to do it, she remembers back to the day when her father's lawyers were set to evict her from the bachelor cottage—of herself sitting beside all of her and her father's and her grandmother's worldly belongings packed into crates, inaccessible to her and piled at the front door, and the whole house empty around her. Puck found her sitting in the bay window of the parlor, looking out over the barren yard. He stared at her like she was the most tragic thing he'd ever seen.
Want to get away, ladybird? he'd asked.
The memory puts a lump into Santana's throat.
Two weeks ago, it would have overjoyed Santana to know that Puck wanted always to care for her—that he thought of her as his family though she had no family of her own—but now Santana can't help but feel as if she has been caught unawares and on the verge of doing something ungrateful, like a person given a very expensive gift for which she has no use.
Puck swore that he would look after Santana upon her father's grave, and so far he has kept to his word both brilliantly and stubbornly.
In her heart of hearts, Santana wishes that he wouldn't, though.
It would make things easier, in a way.
Suddenly, Santana finds that her mouth feels very dry. Guilt twists at her stomach like two tight hands wringing out a wetted rag. She searches for something to say, but can only settle upon a most basic question.
"So Puck never found his father, did he?"
Her voice sounds scratchy to her own ears. She expects Brittany to answer easily—to say of course he didn't—but Brittany never does just as she expects.
"I think he did," Brittany says thoughtfully.
Her answer surprises Santana perhaps more than anything else she's told Santana about Puck so far. Santana quirks an eyebrow, confused.
"Then why is Puck still here?"
Brittany mulls Santana's question for a long while, chewing it over as if it were hard candy in her mouth, but then offers a one-shouldered shrug. "Puck's daddy tried hard to lose Puck," she explains. "Mr. Adams found Puck again."
It should be a simple answer, but somehow it isn't, for when Santana hears it, she can't help but think back on how Puck looked when he first brought her to the business tent to meet Mr. Adams—which is to say as foolish and enthralled as a puppy that had fetched something to please his master.
She also can't help but think of all the times when Puck has seemed lonely or small in her presence, of his little boyishness, and of him hurt when she didn't care to look out over his lights.
For once, Santana thinks that she might understand something about Noah Puckerman.
(Every lost person just wants someone to find him.)
(Every found person knows how it is to love the someone who sought him out and finally brought him safely home.)
Santana feels a pang, just below her ribs. "Puck isn't a bad man," she says quietly.
Brittany stares at her, deep and reverent. "No, he isn't," she agrees.
Of course, Santana knows that she ought to think more of Puck for everything that Brittany told her about him, but somehow she can't help but think of Brittany instead, as always, for it strikes Santana then that one of the infinite things that she loves about Brittany is Brittany's ability to speak so wisely using so very few words.
It also strikes Santana that Brittany is a rare and wonderful sort of person to be able to say thoughtful things about Puck, though she has good reason to not like him.
"Thank you," Santana blurts out without thinking. Brittany's brow scrunches. Santana amends, "For telling me. Thank you for telling me about Puck."
Brittany smiles, only the corners of her mouth turn downward as she does so, rather than up. She wears light in her eyes but also something else, like concern for some difficulty a ways off in the future. "I'm glad that Puck's not angry at you anymore," she says earnestly.
She means much, much more than just that, though.
Her hand squeezes around Santana's, and it occurs to Santana then that sometimes we take care of others when it suits us to do so, and sometimes we take care of them regardless of the circumstances and even at our own expense.
Brittany Pierce is such a girl that she will stand before a board to have her blind father throw knives at her. She also possesses such a heart that she will stand by for other things if it means that the girl she loves has a tent over her head and food to eat and someone to answer for her in the eyes of the law.
Santana strokes over the thread ring at Brittany's finger, absentminded.
Noah Puckerman isn't a bad man, but.
(El amor es sufrido y es benigno. El amor no tiene el enviada, no hace sinrazón, no se ensancha.)
(Para siempre y por siempre, amén.)
Having no more reasons to procrastinate their chores, Brittany and Santana finally make their way to the mess pit and commit themselves to Ma Jones' charge.
Whereas normally Ma Jones would find something about Brittany and Santana to grouse at, today she seems in an unusually sunny mood and says nothing harsh to them at all. She doesn't thank the girls for volunteering their services to her, of course, but she does smile at them as she gathers supplies and moves everything over to the kitchen table, humming a tune that sounds suspiciously like last night's schottische song as she does so.
Though she gives Brittany and Santana highly unpleasant tasks to do—Brittany must polish Mr. Adams' best silverware using noxious ammonia, and Santana must strain weevils from the circus flour stocks with a sieve—she does so politely, by her standards.
"Now, Miss Brittany, don' forget to wash each and every fork and spoon twice over, once with the polish and once with the water, then dry 'em off good," Ma says, as breezy as if she were making friendly conversation instead of doling out hard work. "And Santana? Be careful. Make sure you don't miss nothing in there."
Ma's fine humor makes it difficult for Brittany and Santana to complain, the ponderousness of their assignments notwithstanding.
"It isn't so bad," Brittany says, though her eyes water when she takes her first whiff of ammonia, and she pulls a sour face once she sees how very many knives and spoons Mr. Adams owns on the whole.
Santana cringes as she sifts several fat, white larvae out of the nearest flour barrel and casts them down onto the grass. She shivers a bit at the sight of the bugs.
"Well, at least she isn't watching us too closely," she says, shrugging and casting a sidelong glance at Ma Jones from across the mess.
Brittany's expression turns from sour to sweet in an instant. "And at least she let me alone with you," she says with her artless lilt. "I like that."
Her statement causes Santana to perk up right away, for it occurs to Santana just then that Blaine the trilby tramp is nowhere around and that Brittany had wanted to tell her something earlier in the day but couldn't only for Blaine's presence. Santana's hand stills at its task.
"BrittBritt," she says, voice high and light.
Brittany looks up at Santana from her place at the table. Santana doesn't know how to ask for what she wants, but she makes a faltering attempt at it anyway.
"This morning on the ride into town, you said you had a secret... and we're alone now... so maybe..."
It surprises Santana when Brittany's face falls before Santana even finishes stating her question. It surprises her even more when Brittany cuts her off entirely.
Santana doesn't mean to panic, of course, but she finds it difficult not to do so considering her hopes concerning the nature of Brittany's secret and also the bluntness of Brittany's statement. Santana's eyes grow wide, and her voice comes out in a squeak.
Not ever—Santana can see that right away from how Brittany's eyes grow wide, too, and from how Brittany scrambles to answer her.
"No, no!" Brittany says quickly, setting her hand upon Santana's hand, curled over the edge of the flour barrel. "I just mean for right now. I can't tell you right now."
Santana calms for the clarification, but still feels confused. "Why can't you tell me now, Britt?"
Brittany could roll her eyes at Santana's neediness, but she doesn't. Instead, she smiles and shakes her head. "Because," she explains, just so, "it smells like silver polish, and there are weevils everywhere." She scrunches up her nose, half in apology and half to show her point.
The same copper penny feeling that Santana so often gets around Brittany flips over in her for Brittany's expression, but Santana still doesn't follow what Brittany means.
"What? Why does that matter?" she asks.
Now Brittany smiles in earnest, like Santana's just done something she finds particularly precious. A blush roses her cheeks.
"Because," she repeats, "I don't want that to be what you remember when I tell you my secret."
The promise in Brittany's voice causes Santana's flipped copper penny to turn somersaults like one of the Flying Dragon Changs on their trapeze until Santana feels altogether fluttery inside. She knows she shouldn't hope for too much, but Brittany has never disappointed her before, and she can't help but think that she's so, so close to getting just exactly what it is that she wants. She leans further across the flour barrel without meaning to do it.
"Give me a hint?" she pleads.
Brittany laughs at Santana's eagerness. "Nope," she says firmly. "Not until after chores."
"No eres justa, Britt," Santana pouts.
"Am so," Brittany says.
(Santana's copper penny flips and flips and flips.)
Santana has never taught anyone to read before, but she figures that it's best to start out with the alphabet, which was the first thing that her father taught her for her schooling. She draws out letters in the grass with her toes.
"That's an... M?" Brittany guesses, tracing over the long, converging lines with her eyes.
She wears the most precious, thoughtful frown that Santana has ever seen.
"Close," Santana says, a pricking feeling at her heart. "It's an N."
"N," Brittany repeats, writing out an N of her own upon the tabletop with her thumb so as to commit the letter to memory.
Santana smiles, pleased with Brittany's progress. After only just an hour of lessons, Brittany can already identify about half of the alphabet by sight, making very few mistakes, and is well on her way to learning the remaining letters just as quickly. Santana pauses to strain another sieve full of flour from her latest barrel and rubs her foot over the grass, erasing the N so that she can begin a new letter.
"How about this one?" she quizzes.
"That's an E for Evans," says Sam, swooping into the mess area with a heap of empty burlap sacks slung over his shoulder. He smiles at Brittany and Santana and tips his hat to them.
Like Ma Jones, Sam seems in a particularly happy mood, even by his usual happy standards, and he looks the part for it: his countenance seems almost burnished, scrubbed clean from its usual face paint after the morning parade except for one stray swatch of white upon the chin. His skin looks pink and his eyes look bright, even as he squints against the sunlight. All in all, he has a very pleasant affect.
Even so, not everyone seems pleased at his entrance.
"Sam!" Brittany complains, annoyed at him for his theft. She balls up her polishing rag and tosses it at Sam from behind, but it unfurls midway through the air and flutters harmlessly to the ground like a parachute, well off from hitting its mark or anything else, for that matter.
Sam has the decency to blush. "Sorry," he says, stooping to retrieve the rag before returning it to Brittany. "I didn't mean to steal your letters, Britt. It just looked like a fun game."
"It is a fun game," Brittany assures him.
Only Sam has stopped paying attention to her.
Santana follows his line of vision and sees, for the briefest second, his eyes meet Ma Jones' from across the hearth. For the first time all morning, Ma Jones stops humming her schottische. Shyness curls at her lips, and Sam looks breathless, admiring the roundness of her cheeks and the small, dark prettiness of her eyes.
"Ms. Jones," Sam says, tipping his hat to her, as polite as can be. "Where would you like me to set these sacks?"
"Oh, anywhere is fine," says Ma. Then, remembering herself and her authority, "Put them in the chuck."
"Sure thing," says Sam, tipping his hat again.
(She couldn't explain why if you asked her about it, but Santana likes it very much that, out of all the boys, Sam is always the one who volunteers to do work around the mess pit.)
Only as Sam walks off toward the chuck wagon does Ma Jones notice Santana's attention upon her. She straightens up. "Girl, I best see more sifting and less spelling or else you won't get a lick a' lunch," she warns, though somehow her voice sounds more flustered than threatening.
Santana tries not to smile too widely when she answers. "Yes, miss."
It doesn't take long before Ma resumes humming her schottische.
Sam lingers around the mess pit after delivering the burlap sacks to the chuck, shrugging and saying that he might as well do so, considering that there isn't much time left until the lunch bell rings anyhow. Santana knows better than to believe in his pretend insouciance, though: he clearly cares more for the company than he does the clock and watches the one far more carefully than he does the other.
Though no one despairs to have Sam about, he does end up getting in the way of both the women and their work, standing where Ma Jones' girls want to set this kettle or that Dutch oven and then taking up too much space at the table, resting his elbows right where Brittany had planned to lay out Mr. Adams' silverware to dry. He wears a dopey, apologetic smirk all the while.
"Sorry," he says when Santana nearly bumps into him, and she rolls her eyes.
(Sam wouldn't be nearly as much of a nuisance around the kitchen if he would just watch where he was going instead of staring after Ma Jones.)
Just before noon, Ma Jones allows Brittany and Santana to pack up their work and tells Brittany that she ought to wash up before lunch, on account of the ammonia. Brittany says, "Yes, miss," and she and Santana go off together, laughing as they round the hearth and slip under the shadows by the wagon.
"What letter does your name start with?" Brittany asks, tugging at the sashes tied on Santana's hips as if they were the cord to a dumbwaiter.
Santana smiles. "S," she says.
Brittany considers her answer for a moment. "And what letter does my name start with?"
"S and B," Brittany repeats, rolling the letters over on her tongue. "That sounds nice."
Santana's heart squeezes in her chest. "It does."
Once Brittany and Santana reach the chuck, Brittany ducks inside to procure a bar of tallow soap. She wets her hands in the washtub, making suds on her palms and scrubbing over her skin, and then holds out her hands so that Santana can pour a cupful of water over them above the grass, rinsing all the uncleanness away. Though neither she nor Santana speaks much as they work, Brittany wears her quiet, excited grin all the while, alight in the glow of her happy secret.
By the time the girls get back to the mess proper, Ma Jones has already rung the lunch bell and company members have begun to heed her summons, pouring in from the four corners of the camp in various states of costume and all clamoring for food.
Smoke hangs in the air around the hearth, white against the day brightness and sharp with pine resin. The kitchen smells of savory spice and summer heat. Though Santana waits for Puck to arrive, as far as she can see, he never does. His friends show up all together, laughing and punching at each other with that violent, masculine affection that Santana will never understand, but none of them mentions anything concerning Puck's absence.
"Is something wrong?" Brittany asks, watching Santana as she watches the boys.
Santana shrugs, not sure how to answer.
(She isn't sure if it's worse to see Puck or not to see him, really.)
By the time Brittany and Santana get their lunches, newcomers have taken over their places at the table, so the girls end up sitting on the ground, leaned up against the poles that support the blue awning. Sam, Finn, Kurt, Rory, David, and Blaine lunch just a few feet away from them.
The company has hardly even begun the meal when it happens.
Santana doesn't notice it right away—she's too busy passing Brittany their shared fork to pay much mind to anything else—but then she sees the boys sitting up on their knees, alerted like guard dogs to some disturbance on the edge of a property. Both Santana and Brittany look in the same direction as the boys, turning their attention to the heart of the mess, just beside the hearth. They kneel to see over the hubbub.
Ma Jones stands beside the fire, one hand drawn up to her mouth and the other hand pressed lightly to her belly against her apron. She seems as if she's just had a fright, like she spotted a snake in the grass or someone sneaked up on her from behind for once. Shane, the hulking supe with the pencil-thin mustache, crouches in front of her.
At first, Santana wonders if Ma Jones didn't drop something and if Shane didn't stoop to retrieve it for her like a gentleman, but then she scans for the dropped something in the dirt and can't seem to find it anywhere.
Just then, Shane reaches into the pocket of his dusty bib overalls.
Santana's heart realizes what's happening well before her mind does. It clenches in her chest.
Oh dear God.
"... and, of course, you know that I always been partial to you, Miz Jones," Shane is saying, "so I asked Mr. Adams if he thought you be fit to looking for a husband. And he said he don't know it, only I best ask you of it myself. So I asked him if I was to ask you, would he give me his permission for it, since you don't have no daddy to say nothing for you otherwise. He said I could have his blessing if I had enough money to keep a wife, so I showed him this ring I done bought you, and he say it was a fine one."
Here, Shane produces the ring from his pocket and holds it up for Ma Jones to inspect.
It's small and plain, probably more tin than silver. Though it bears no stone, it's still impressive, considering that Shane bought it on a circus salary—and particularly without him being on the lists. He must have saved for a very long time to be able to afford it.
"After that, Mr. Adams told me that if I was to ask you and if you was to accept my proposal, he would let you to me plain and put down two whole dollars towards our wedding because he feels so kindly disposed to you, and he wants to wish us well. So, Miz Jones, I know that I ain't quick or nothing and that a handsome miss like yourself don't have no reason to want for no husband, being as young as we are and you having such work to do as you have now, but I promise to do right by you. I'll marry you by the book, Miz Jones, and Mr. Adams said he can assent to that. He said he'd pay that two dollars to the preacher who gonna marry his Mr. Arthur to Miss Lucy this Saturday next, so as we can have a proper wedding that night, if you want it. Oh, please, Miz Jones, won't you say something?"
For the whole time Shane talks, no one else speaks a word. Once Shane finishes his speech, both he and everyone else in the entire mess pit stares up at Ma Jones, eager to know how she'll answer him—and one person more desperately than all the rest.
Sam Evans looks like a man who just took a gunshot.
All hope for himself has vanished from his eyes, and he wears a stark and awful sort of pain written over his face. His mouth hangs slightly open, and all of the ruddy brightness that tinged his countenance before lunchtime is gone.
He doesn't breathe and doesn't blink.
Ma Jones still hasn't said a word in reply to Shane's proposal. Instead, her gaze goes straight to Sam, knowing exactly where to find him amidst a crowd of hundreds. Everything seems to happen as slowly as honey pouring from a jar.
"Miz Jones?" Shane repeats again.
For once, Ma Jones seems at a loss for words and not at all like a war marshal or the Lady Justice or an archangel or any such proud and unconquerable thing.
Instead, she just looks very small and very young and absolutely heartbroken.
"I—," she falters, "I—I suppose—"
Ma forces herself to look back to Shane. She shakes her head, clearing out cobwebs and any recklessness that possesses her. Rules are rules are rules after all, and even the mighty Ma Jones can't escape them. A great weight settles over Ma, and her shoulders slump as if all the breath had just gone out from her.
"Of course, I will, Mr. Tinsley," she whispers.
(Has any person standing free under the open air ever looked as entirely trapped as she does?)
Santana forgets herself, watching everything happen, until it slips out.
At first, Santana thinks that she's said the words herself, but then she realizes that it's Brittany whispering at her side. She looks over and finds Brittany's brow furrowed and her hands wrung together tight. A sharp, hard pang runs through Santana, like sensation suddenly returning to a limb after it had numbed from cold.
She's never felt as sorry for anyone as she does for Sam Evans and Ma Jones, she doesn't think.
If Brittany were to marry one of the circus boys—and really marry him, not just for show or as part of some agreement, like Santana's agreement with Puck—Santana doesn't know what she would do. Even just considering such a thing causes Santana's heart to feel as raw as if someone had scraped it along stone or with a knife.
Vaguely, it occurs to Santana that she's only known Brittany for less than two weeks, whereas Sam and Ma Jones have known each other since they were children.
A lump forms in her throat.
(In such a world where two people can have the thing they want most together—in secret—torn away from them in an instant, Santana vows to keep close to Brittany forever and ever, no matter what.)
Just when Santana thinks that she might start to cry, Brittany's hand finds hers in the grass. Brittany's eyes look wet, too.
By now, Shane has slipped his ring onto Ma Jones' finger and stood up from the ground to embrace her. The circus company claps for the new engagement but otherwise offers only the most subdued celebration, by circus standards. No one says anything directly to either Shane or Ma.
Sam starts to rise from his place on the grass. He wears a steely expression, like he can see something coming from a great distance away and he plans to meet it, whatever it is.
Santana's heart speeds in her chest. What is Sam doing? There are rules, after all. She can imagine that he might walk away—to go off somewhere to have some time to himself—for that's what she might do if she were in his place, but she can also imagine that he might say something unallowable in anger or in hurt or in plain desperation, as well. Santana glances at Brittany, who mirrors her concern.
Sam doesn't do anything like what Santana imagined from him, though.
His hands form fists at his sides. He squares his shoulders and doffs his hat. At first, he doesn't have everyone's attention and a low current of babble persists throughout the mess, but then he clears his throat loudly as if he intended to make a speech, and everyone looks to him with curious eyes.
When Sam speaks, his voice sounds choked but even.
"Congratulations to the happy couple," he says, nodding stiffly.
After his, other voices chime in.
Sam sets his hat back on his head, tugging the brim down to shade his eyes. He takes a few steps away from the other boys before sitting down again on the grass, pulling his knees up near his chest and crossing his arms over them, holding himself in tight.
Though his expression is stony and his eyes gleam, he sheds no tears. He closes his eyes for a long while, mastering himself, breathing slow, deep breaths through his nose, and looks almost seasick, like something has tossed him about to and fro or like someone punched him hard in the gut.
No one says aught to him or pays him much mind amidst the commotion, though.
(Not for the first time, Santana hates that so many important things at the circus have to remain secret—that the most important things at the circus have to remain secret, actually.)
Two weeks ago, if someone had asked Santana if she had anyone in the world for whom she felt heartbroken, she would have said herself on account of her own misfortunes, for she was orphaned and alone in the Tenderloin district and without a friend in the world, except for Puck, who was hardly even a true friend to her at all.
One week ago, if someone had asked her the same question, she would have said Brittany because Brittany's father had boxed her ear and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Yesterday, she would have said Quinn Fabray because Quinn has to marry Arthur Adams when all she really wants to do is write a story.
Today, it's Sam for more reasons than Santana can count.
Santana wishes desperately that she could do something for Sam, for he has such a face that seeing him sad is all but intolerable to anyone with a heart. Santana looks to Brittany, wondering.
What should we do?
Brittany seems to share a mind with Santana, for she gestures to Santana to abandon their plates and follow her over to where Sam sits. They move quietly and quickly over the grass and flank Sam on either side, with Santana crouching down behind his left shoulder and Brittany mirroring her at the right. Sam only hears them when they're close enough to touch him. Brittany sets a hand on his back. Santana hasn't any idea what to say to Sam, so it pleases her when Brittany speaks.
"Sammy," Brittany says, voice small and gentle, "are you finished with your plate? Santana and I can take it to the washtubs for you, if you like."
"What?" Sam says, dazed. Then, "Oh, sure. Thanks, Britt."
He sounds dull and only half present, though Santana doesn't blame him for it. She would be somewhere far away, too, if she were him, she supposes.
Brittany's expression tightens. She curls around Sam, catlike, and sits down on the grass beside him, smoothing out her skirt. She rests her head on Sam's shoulder. Santana follows her lead, taking a seat at Sam's other side so that he sits sandwiched between them, though she remains upright and worries her hands in her lap, unable to touch Sam like Brittany does.
Both she and Brittany stare at Sam, long and deep and hard.
After a moment, Brittany says, "Santana and I were going to go to the horseracing track in town after the matinee—er, at least we were going to if I had asked Santana if she wanted to go and if she'd said yes. Puck says it's a fine place, and I've never seen it before. Would you like to go with us if I ask Santana and she says yes? Wait, hold on a second and let me ask her." Brittany leans around Sam to face Santana. "Would you like to go see the horseracing track with me after the matinee, darlin'?"
If Santana didn't still feel so sad for Sam and Ma, she would smile—and widely. Instead, she only nods. "I'd love to go to the horseracing track with you after the matinee, BrittBritt," she says.
Brittany's eyes turn fond. "That's swell of you," she says, turning back to Sam. "All right, Sammy, Santana says she'd love to go to the horseracing track with me after the matinee. Would you like to go, too?" Then, again, "Oh, wait, hold on a second. I forgot to tell Santana that you might go to the horseracing track with us, too. Be right back." She leans around Sam again. "Hey, Santana? I forgot to tell you that Sam might go to the horseracing track with us, too. Would it be all right with you if he did?"
This time, Santana can't help but smile—and neither can Sam, if only briefly and with sadness still deep in his eyes. They both chuckle at Brittany's silly talk but then quickly resume straight faces.
"Of course it would be all right with me, BrittBritt," Santana says. "Sam is a pretty decent fellow, and I'd be grateful to have his company."
"May I tell him that you said so?" Brittany asks, turning wilier by the minute.
Brittany turns back to Sam. "Santana says that of course it would be all right with her if you went along with us to the horseracing track, Sammy. She also said that you're a pretty decent fellow and that she'd be grateful to have your company and that she wouldn't mind it if I told you that she said so, which is why I did."
Sam chuckles again, though his face remains sad. He shakes his head and looks at the grass before meeting Brittany's eyes again. "Did she really say that?" he asks.
"Yup," Brittany says. "So would you like to go to the horseracing track with Santana and me after the matinee, Sammy? Maybe we can see some stallions. Racing horses are probably different from circus horses, I think."
Sam chuckles again. "They probably are, Britt. And I'd like to go with you and Santana to the horseracing track after the matinee."
Brittany's face lights up. "So will you?"
Brittany beams at Sam. "Good man, Sammy," she says. "Wait just a second more—I've got to tell Santana that you're going along with us to the horseracing track after the matinee." She leans around Sam, wearing a cat grin. "Santana, Sammy said he'd come along with us to the horseracing track after that matinee."
"Tell him that's dandy," Santana says, smiling back.
Brittany's face turns blank in an instant. "Santana," she says, feigning seriousness. "He's sitting right next to you. Don't you think you ought to tell him yourself?"
Santana laughs, in love with the most ridiculous girl in the world. "That's dandy, Sam," she says obediently, and everyone chuckles, gladdened by Brittany's nonsense game.
For the briefest instant, Santana forgets everything except for the simple pleasure of sitting side by side with her true love and the kindest boy she's ever met, laughing with them over a bit of nonsense. The sun warms her skin, and the grass feels fervent hot beneath her legs. She catches Brittany's eyes and then Sam's, finding light in them like the light in her. It's easy to believe that the world isn't altogether an awful place.
But only for the briefest instant.
All at once, Sam's smile goes out like light from a snuffed candle. His shoulders tighten, and the summer in him fades. He suddenly seems like a little boy lost somewhere. He shuts his mouth, settling into sadness like the countryside into winter.
Brittany and Santana's smiles disappear along with his.
"We're really sorry, Sammy," Brittany whispers, setting her hand on his arm.
It's as much as she can say, considering the rules.
Sam doesn't reply to Brittany—he can't, maybe. He swallows, nods, and tugs his hat down further on his brow. "I'll see you at the matinee," he says thickly, rousting himself from his place on the ground and heading away from the mess pit without looking back over his shoulder when he goes.
(According to the rules, Sam Evans ought to have whatever he wants.)
(According to the rules, Sam Evans can't have the one thing he wants at all.)
When Brittany and Santana turn to each other, Brittany's face is drawn and worried, and Santana knows hers looks the same. During Santana's first week at the circus, Sam was the boy who couldn't keep from smiling. Now he seems like he can't remember how to smile at all.
At the same instant, Brittany and Santana reach for each other, their hands twining upon the grass. They hold to each other's fingers so tightly that Santana can feel Brittany's pulse in her own skin. They don't have to speak a word to each other to know.
(In such a world where two people can have the thing they want most together—in secret—torn away from them in an instant, Brittany and Santana have vowed to keep close to each other forever and ever, no matter what.)
It's strange, Santana thinks, how the world can keep on moving at its same mad pace even after two good people have had their hearts broken in it. It seems to her that things should pause, or should change even, but they don't.
The company finishes its lunch, the kitchen girls resort to their washtubs, the warning bell tolls for the morning fair—was Ma Jones the one to toll it, Santana wonders?—the circus prepares for its upcoming show, and, having nothing else to do, Brittany and Santana retrieve both their own dishes and Sam's from the grass and take them away from the mess, hanging close to each other as they go.
When they reach the washtubs at the back of the chuck, the girls find Ma Jones' kitchen staff gossiping with some of Ken's supes, the lot of them whispering with such sibilance that they almost spit for it, leaned in close with their heads pushed together and all but ignoring the other circus folk who arrive to bus dirty plates.
It occurs to Santana that, at present, the kitchen staff giggles far less than they usually would; their conversation with the supes seems decidedly businesslike and even perhaps somber.
Not wanting to impose, Brittany and Santana dump their leftovers and Sam's into the slop bucket and hand the dishes over to the staff without speaking a word to the girls.
They don't manage to quit the mess area before they hear it, though.
Loud voices ring out down the narrow alleyway leading away from the chuck. The voices come from the business tent.
Brittany stills in an instant, and Ma's kitchen girls quit their whispering. Even the supes pause, dirtied plates still in hand. The recess behind the chuck falls silent. Santana realizes all at once both who speaks and about what.
"—but did you really think I would overlook the absence of such an important account? It's Incidental Expenditure, Jonah! I can't and I won't sign a damned thing until both I and my attorneys have seen the figures! I won't have you trying to swindle me—!"
"I didn't and I wouldn't dare! The absence of the account was an oversight on my part and nothing more, Russell, I assure you! I intend to make you a full partner. It wouldn't very well behoove me to withhold any portion of our spending from you, and especially not such a significant portion as that one!"
Santana can only imagine that Messrs. Adams and Fabray would feel very embarrassed to know how their voices carry down the corridor. They most certainly don't want an audience, and especially not one comprised of so many of their inferiors. Even in their anger, they don't mean to broadcast their conversation to supes and kitchen girls and Santana and Brittany—and yet that's exactly what they do.
"Then either you're a fool or your accountant is, sir! How much is it worth? Thirty-three percent? Thirty-six? You refunded every damn ticket in Storm Lake—!"
"—an usual occurrence if there ever was one! Now listen, I assure you that even taking Storm Lake's losses into account, this business is a profitable one, and it will be even more so once we no longer have to make payments to multiple railroads and can travel only along your lines and with your discounts! Even if you think poorly of my bookkeeping, Russell, please don't doubt my intentions! I'll remind you that my Arthur's future rests on this deal as much as your Lucy's does! We're going to be family! Family! Think of the wedding!"
"I require the account by tomorrow evening at sundown! No later. And I want it notarized."
"But, Russell, you can't expect—"
A new voice enters the conversation, cutting into what Mr. Adams has to say. This voice is young, female, and familiar—Quinn's.
"Please, Daddy! Be reasonable! Even if Mr. Adams were to send for the account by telegraph, they wouldn't be able to get the figures here by tomorrow evening. We're on the frontier, after all. I'm sure it was just an oversight that the figures weren't part of the original report, like Mr. Adams said. He's treated us so nicely since we've been here, Daddy, and everything else seems to be in order."
Mr. Fabray says something else, but Santana can't hear what it is exactly. A quiet settles over everything, both in the direction of the business tent and behind the chuck wagon. Santana spares a glance at Brittany, who frowns and worries her bottom lip between her teeth. The kitchen girls and supes seem similarly concerned.
Finally, Mr. Fabray speaks again. "Very well," he says. "But I will require the figures before I sign anything, including a marriage certificate."
Mr. Adams says something in response to Mr. Fabray, and Quinn laughs her false, airy laugh, prompting the men to join in with her. The voices become increasingly difficult to hear as their party seemingly moves farther away from the direction of the chuck, until finally the talk fades out both altogether and all at once. Maybe someone closed the flap to the business tent.
Though it seems that Messrs. Adams and Fabray have reached an accord for the time being, Mr. Fabray doesn't act as if he trusts Mr. Adams very well at all for it—a notion which causes Santana no small amount of internal distress to consider.
On the one hand, it worries Santana to think that Mr. Fabray might decide against investing in the circus, and particularly since Mr. Adams has yet to fill his outstanding debts to the company for their missing paychecks. On the other hand, Santana can't help but think of Quinn and how it would be best for her if she didn't have to marry Arthur Adams in the end.
A feeling of foreboding settles low into Santana's gut.
Ever since what happened in her own case at the bachelor cottage, she's learned to distrust attorneys and their work, for it seems that the whole legal system a way of stripping everything from a person, even when that person has done nothing wrong.
Of course, Santana knows very little about business or money herself, but it seems to her that if only Mr. Fabray realized how very many people were counting on him to buy the circus, he might be more willing to make the deal.
It would only be Christian of him, after all.
Santana hasn't learned enough concerning Mr. Adams' personal character to say whether Mr. Adams is a good or a bad man, but she has learned enough concerning the circus folk to say that, whatever their rough edges, they're as good of folks as any and that they don't deserve to have trouble come by them just because two stubborn persons can't seem to reach an agreement concerning their whole livelihoods.
"Shucks," Brittany says, breathless.
Though Santana has a mind not to speak concerning what she and Brittany overheard to anyone except for maybe Brittany when they're in private together, Ma Jones' kitchen girls don't seem to share her discretion. By the time the voices fade from the air, the kitchen girls have already begun gossiping again and calling for their friends to come behind the chuck to hear the news. The supes don't behave themselves much better.
Santana has no doubt that the entire circus will know about Mr. Adams' business with Mr. Fabray before the show bell rings for the matinee.
(Sometimes secrets are secrets for a reason.)
Santana and Brittany leave the mess area with linked pinky fingers. They walk together through the cool-dark shadows along the family tent row, avoiding the open sun as if it were a disreputable stranger who meant to do harm to them. They speak nary a word aloud, though Santana doesn't doubt that both of them have a preponderance of thoughts which weigh upon their minds.
Brittany watches her and Santana's outlines stretching long and tall near their feet and merging with the tent shapes and the lighter spots of shade cast under the wispy clouds in the sky. She watches the trees in the distance and the horizon and everything but what's directly in front of her.
Santana watches Brittany, following her lead.
When the girls stop outside of Brittany's tent, Santana takes Brittany's left hand in both of her own, petting over Brittany's thread ring. "Can you tell me your secret now?" she asks.
Brittany considers Santana for a long while, searching Santana's eyes as one would a crowded room for one person in particular—like Mr. Perrault's prince scanning for Cinderella at the ball. After a minute, Brittany shakes her head.
"Not yet," she says, giving Santana's hand a squeeze, "but soon."
It's a promise, Santana knows.
She trusts Brittany to keep it.
"Soon," Santana repeats, drawing Brittany's hand up to her mouth and kissing over Brittany's knuckles so delicately that she can feel the creases in Brittany's skin upon her lips. She closes her eyes just for a second and makes a wish.
When she opens her eyes, she finds Brittany staring at her, queer and reverent. "Just put it all in the show, darlin'," Brittany says.
"Brittany—?" Santana starts, but Brittany answers the question before she can ask it.
"Daddy did his best throwing at the first show we put on after Mama died," she whispers. "He hasn't ever thrown as well since, but that night, he did really good. Even Mr. Adams said he did."
Concerning her own mother's passing, Santana feels next to nothing except for the most inchoate sort of wishing that it hadn't happened. The truth is that Santana never knew the woman and never wanted for a parent beyond Papa or Abuela growing up. Even so, it doesn't strain Santana's imagination to consider how things must have been different for Brittany, losing a mother she loved and depended upon, and especially at such a place as the circus, where everyone sees sadness, but no one will speak about it.
Santana wants to say a million things to Brittany but settles on one. "I'll bet he did really, really great, Britt."
For Santana's word, Brittany's sad smile turns into a glad one. Her cheeks and brow flush with warmth that Santana can feel as well as see. Instead of answering, Brittany stands on her tiptoes and presses a kiss to Santana's forehead. Her lips linger on Santana's skin, and Santana closes her eyes to the sensation, trying hard to memorize it.
"Thank you," Santana says.
Brittany doesn't move back from Santana before replying. She just mumbles something against Santana's skin, lips still printed to the same spot that she kissed.
"What was that?" Santana asks.
Brittany retracts, settling back down onto flat feet. "'You're welcome,'" she says, wearing her small, queer smile. She glances at Santana and then away, a strange twinge to her voice.
(What she mumbled didn't sound anything like "You're welcome" at all.)
Before Santana can ask Brittany to explain, Brittany gives Santana's hands another squeeze and then releases them, disappearing into her tent as quickly as if it were by fairy magic.
Somehow, Santana thinks she knows what Brittany tried to say even if she didn't catch Brittany saying it.
After fetching her tablecloth and tambourine from her and Puck's tent, Santana scurries to the midway, checking the marquee outside her gazebo to make certain that it still has its last line blocked out—it does—before sliding into her seat just as the bell rings for the fair.
Though Santana waits for Ken to arrive and assume his usual post on the pitch, he never does. She wonders if he isn't busy sending a telegraph for Mr. Adams.
His absence both disconcerts and gladdens her.
Before Santana met Brittany, she had never much considered that something or someone could be two ways at once. According to her reckoning, a thing was either good or bad, whole or incomplete, available or not, clear or obscure, with no valence to it or give.
Now she knows better than to think so plainly, though, for in her own self, she has learned to feel many very different feelings all at once and often in extremity.
At the moment, she feels both anxious to know Brittany's secret and surprisingly—wonderfully—calm not knowing it, or at least with Brittany not saying it aloud. She also feels sad for Sam Evans and Ma Jones and worried about the circus and wary of Puck but grateful for and sweet on Brittany, too. She's both happy and sad, moored and adrift, at peace and in flux.
It would startle her to be so many opposite ways all at the same time, except that Brittany has taught her that it's all right just to be sometimes.
And so Santana is.
Like she did yesterday, Santana can't help but daydream about Brittany as she starts to read palms. She tells a woman forced into her gazebo by two unruly teenage sons to mind the boys' mischief at the same time that she thinks of ways to sneak in more reading lessons for Brittany around their chores. She prophesies that a young collegiate man home for the summer ought to continually study his books during his holiday diversions if he wants to impress his professors upon his return to university while imagining what it will be like for her to go with Brittany to the horseracing track after the show.
She gives her third reading to an elderly businessman and pays no more mind to it than she did to the others—she's off somewhere, wondering if she and Brittany will have time to steal kisses together before their rendezvous with Sam—as she promises the man that his own prudence and forthrightness will be a credit to him throughout his career, and particularly if he seeks to settle all his debts in full before his imminent retirement.
It isn't until the very end of her reading that Santana starts to pay attention to what's happening, and only then because something unusual happens—namely, the old businessman thanks Santana very much for her work and slides something across the table toward her under his hand.
"For you, my dear."
"Keep it for yourself and don't spend it all in one place, hm?"
Only when the old businessman offers Santana a kindly smile does she take in his aspect for the very first time: he's withered like a raisin, with pale skin almost so white as to match his hair, itself alabaster. He sports a thick, yellowing mustache over pink lips and wears a handsome gray suit with sterling silver cufflinks and a pretty checkered cravat. He holds a black velvet hat in his lap. All in all, he's dressed very finely, like the antique version of Mr. Adams, though perhaps a bit less flamboyant.
Before Santana can say anything more to the man, he presses the something into her palm and curls her fingers closed around it and his own fingers closed around hers. Though he only holds her hand for a second, Santana can't help but to notice how smooth and dry his fingertips are. His touch reminds her very much of Abuela's.
The something feels body warmed, soft, and thin.
Santana's eyes widen. She wants to ask the man what he means by giving her money, but she knows that it would be vulgar for her to do so.
The man stands up from the table.
"Thank you," Santana says, not sure what she can say otherwise.
The man smiles at her again and winks. He sets his hat atop his head. Without another word, he threads himself into the crowd, vanished amidst a forest of shoulders and chests and blocking bellies in an instant.
Right on cue, the show bell rings.
While the more part of the throng that surrounded Santana's booth begins to disperse, moseying off in the direction of the big top, some of the patrons who stood closest to Santana's table and watched the old man give Santana her tip linger to see if she'll perhaps reveal the bill in her hand to them.
They want to know its sum.
Whereas one week ago, Santana might have showed her patrons what it is they desire to see simply out of deference, today she refuses both to meet their eyes and to open her hand. Instead, she stares at her tablecloth, focusing in on the blue, green, fuchsia, and gold until her patrons realize that they had better hurry over to the big top to get a place in line if they want a good seat for the main show.
Santana waits until these last stragglers go to unfurl her hand.
The paper is a grayed white, older than the one-hundred dollar note that the late Mr. Hammond offered to Santana in St. James, but still in fine condition. It's folded into thirds and has pretty, ornate embellishments all along its borders. With curious fingers, Santana pulls at its corners, opening it like a gift.
When she sees the "5" she gasps.
Five whole dollars?
When she sees the "0" after the five, she suddenly can't breathe.
Brittany was rich when she had a nickel in Storm Lake. Now, Santana gapes at the bill she holds stretched out between her two hands. There must be some mistake.
Fifty whole dollars.
Her first thought is that the note must be counterfeit—that the old man gave it to her as a joke or even to get her in trouble—but then her eyes find the red seal from the U.S. Department of Treasury imprinted on the left corner, the serial number, and the intricate illustrations of General Washington crossing the Delaware River and of the Ladies Justice and Liberty and Victory in league together and of a patriot soldier kneeling in the woods. The bill bears the date 1891, and it is as real as Santana is.
Never having had any money to her own name, Santana doesn't possess even the first idea as to what she ought to do with such an impressive sum.
Except for that she does.
The thought comes to her almost as quickly as the money did.
She could pay Puck back.
She could pay Puck back for all of his expenses on her account if she were to give the note to him—for the money he paid for her boarding in the Tenderloin district and for her train tickets to the West and for the inn in Omaha and for her meals and for her safety.
Whatever pittance Puck seized from Santana last week at the dole can't even begin to cover her debt to him, but a fifty dollar bill would cover it all at once and more.
Santana pulls the bill taut between her thumbs, smoothing out its crinkles and examining its face. It seems like such a little thing, so weightless and silly, even. It isn't beautiful like fine artwork or as material as a book. Compared to Santana's grandmother's coins from Puerto Rico, it hardly even seems authoritative.
Funny to think that it could change so many things, then.
"Little missus! Didn't you hear the show bell? Go on now! Clean out your booth!"
Ken has arrived to collect Santana for the matinee at last.
Santana crushes the note in her fist the instant she hears Ken's voice, hiding it away from him on impulse. Though Ken told her on her first day reading fortunes that she was welcome to keep seventy-percent of whatever tips patrons presented to her for herself, she somehow doesn't trust his word. Ken might confiscate the tip, or at least take thirty-percent of it for himself, never mind that he didn't even act as her talker on the bally today. Santana hates to think that she would have to relinquish even fifteen of the fifty dollars to Ken, let alone the entire sum. She wants to keep the note to herself—a secret—at least for a little while longer.
She wills herself to maintain an even face and looks up from her lap.
"Sorry, sir," she says, catching Ken's eye from where he stands outside her gazebo. She rises and gathers up her tablecloth and tambourine, keeping the money wadded against her palm as she works.
When Ken turns his back to her, Santana hesitates for just a moment, wondering where she ought to stash the bill during the show. She considers stowing it in her tablecloth but dislikes the idea of leaving such a valuable thing unattended under a bench somewhere when she goes inside the big top tent. After a second's more deliberation, she tucks the note into her corset between her own breast and the cloth, hiding it out of sight.
All at once, she feels adventuresome and rebellious, like how she imagines a heroine in a penny dreadful might be. Girls like her aren't supposed to have fifty dollar notes and they certainly aren't supposed to hide fifty dollar notes on their persons.
"You coming?" Ken grouses.
"Yes, sir," Santana says.
Only as Santana exits her gazebo does the thought occur to her: What if she decided to not give her money over to Puck just yet, or at least not all of it? She does owe him a debt, of course, but having money to her name also provides her with some security—with a certain sense of autonomy heretofore unknown to her.
As long as Santana retains her new wealth, she isn't entirely dependent on Puck.
(It's a very grand idea, having some freedom from him.)
Santana adjusts her corset, checking the feeling of the paper against her skin, before following Ken in the direction of the big top. She can always decide to remit the note to Puck later, of course. There's no harm in her keeping it for a few days, at least, though—no harm in that at all.
Rachel Berry stands on tiptoe, hugging herself in close and peering over the backstage area. When she catches sight of Santana, she drops back down onto flat feet but doesn't really relax at all. Her eyes seem slightly crazed. Somehow, she reminds Santana of a clockwork toy wound up so tightly as to spring its cogs.
"Have you seen Noah?" Rachel asks as soon as Santana gets to within speaking distance of her.
Her question is a sharp one.
Santana quirks an eyebrow. Yesterday, she and Brittany poked fun at Rachel on the train. Is Rachel snipping at her now on account of that incident or in response to all the bad news for the circus? In either case, Santana hasn't seen Puck—not since early on in the morning. She shakes her head.
"He's probably with the other boys, getting ready for the knight sketch."
Rachel huffs a sigh. "Well, he had better be," she says. "We mustn't make any mistakes today."
"No mistakes," Santana agrees, taking the opportunity to duck away from Rachel and over to Mrs. Schuester's girls to collect her veil and flower.
By the time Santana rejoins the queue at the back of the big top, Ken is already ushering the "maidens" inside the tent and Rachel has resumed not speaking to her. A weird nervousness hangs in the air, like everything happens just on the brink of something, close to an invisible edge that everyone knows about but that no one can see.
The strange charge follows the girls inside the big top and lingers throughout the show.
Somehow, it seems as if there are almost two circuses—the one, bright and gay, viewed through the eyes of the patrons, who know nothing about circus secrets and who only seek simple diversion; and the other, strange and furtive, petulant in the sidelong glances of the company, who know everything about everything but can't speak a word concerning it aloud, even amongst themselves.
Brittany and Santana dance together during the knight sketch, with Brittany spinning Santana in circles, causing her skirts to billow like laundry windblown on a line. The girls turn, beautiful and dizzy, wearing show smiles for the crowd, and the audience adores them, cheering raucously until the knights appear.
Despite Rachel's concern, Puck doesn't miss his cue. He performs crisply and well, as do all the other boys around him. Indeed, the whole company seems spot-on, well-practiced in their motions and with a certain sort of magnificent exaggeration to their playacting.
Put it all in the show, Brittany said.
Of so many deft performances, the one that catches Santana's eye the most is Sam's.
After the knight sketch draws to its end, after the Flying Dragon Changs brave their precarious heights, after Will the Ringmaster resumes the stage to announce the Equestrienne Coterie, the clowns fumble out into the ring to steal his hat. Amongst them are augustes, fools, tramps, and harlequins, and one particular boy whose face finally for the first time matches its sad makeup.
Sam is brilliant and comic.
It's he who plucks the top hat from Will's head and then the cane from Will's hand. He jams Will's hat atop his own hat—a smart and dapper stovepipe over a rumpled, pathetic thing—stacking them up double and then apes like he's the ringmaster, directing this clown to go here and that clown to go there and even jogging over to the band to harass them about how they play their music.
With great prepossession, Sam directs the shaggy maestro to slow down the tempo of the band's march, turning it from a triumph to a funeral dirge. He coaches his fellows to move slowly and to change their smiles into frowns like his and then scolds the audience for laughing at him, shaking Will's cane to show them his seriousness, pretending that he prefers sadness to everything else there could be.
Santana can't help but laugh, too, seeing a sad clown conduct a sad circus.
"You ill-behaved derelict!" Will shouts, snatching his hat from Sam's head and then yanking the cane from his hand. "I'll hang you upon the flag pole upside-down!"
The audience roars with delight.
Though Sam seems glad for their applause, he never once cracks a smile.
Even once the clowns leave the stage, Santana can't help but remember him and how he looks. She feels a great rawness in her heart and thinks, without meaning to do it, about how Ma Jones fares back in the kitchen.
(She wonders, in a vague sort of way, who allows Ma Jones to rest when her heart breaks for Sam Evans?)
When the time comes for the gypsy act, Santana finds the strange twang of the band's song and knits herself to it, dancing from somewhere beyond herself. Puck circles about her, devil red in firelight, and even Rachel looks eerie and dangerous, most unlike herself, with the revolving blaze from her flail catching the sheen of her eyes and the shadowed places on her face. The song and the flames transform the three of them until they are as real gypsies, true revelers in fire.
Santana spins and spins until she almost can't think, the cheers of the crowd the only thing tethering her to the earth.
Though Santana frets throughout the knife throwing act, no harm comes to Brittany, and Mr. Pierce aims true.
In fact, the whole matinee goes well, with nary a mistake in it by either man or beast, much to the delight of the patrons, who offer up most generous applause for the final parade. The circus folk wave out goodbyes until the last of the music, until they get outside the big top, until there is no more stage beneath them, until they've stepped outside the show, and they've nothing left to do for it—until everything is done.
Only outside the wonderland of the big top does Santana stop to question her own plans for the remainder of the afternoon. As a first thing, she doesn't know where to meet up with Brittany and Sam for their outing to the racetrack. As a second, she realizes that the three of them probably don't have permission to leave camp. As a third, she worries that Puck might object to her running off—and especially in the company of Sam Evans.
She frets as she hands her tablecloth and tambourine over to Puck, worrying her hands together and watching him with shifting eyes. She fully expects Puck to try to take her back to the white city with him and holds her breath, waiting for his word.
"Thanks, ladybird," he grunts, stuffing her things in amongst his own. He shoulders his satchel and looks off beyond the white city, scanning the horizon. After a second of thought, he shakes his head, clearing cobwebs. "I'll see you later," he says.
Though his inattention surprises her, Santana doesn't stop Puck when he goes. Instead, she loiters at the back of the big top, hanging out in the backstage until she's almost the last person left in it.
"What are you playing at?" Ken growls, noticing her as she skulks beside the benches.
"Nothing, sir," Santana says quickly.
Ken's eyes narrow. "Well, how's about you go do something for once, huh?" he says, shooing her in the direction of the dressing tents. He acts almost pleased to have caught Santana stepping out of line.
Santana waits until she has her back turned to Ken to roll her eyes. "Yes, sir," she says again, going right along. It seems to her that even on days when she has little to do with Ken, she can't help but get on his bad side.
As it turns out, waiting for Brittany and Sam at the dressing tents proves much more profitable to Santana than waiting for them at the big top did.
Within minutes, Sam exits the men's tent, his face scrubbed mostly clean of its paint, except for a few smudges of boot blacking about his mouth and chin and some smears of black and blue and rosy pink powder paint along his shirt collar, stained in by his sweat. He greets Santana with a dull wave.
"Are we still on for—?"
"—I think so."
They both stare at each other, amiable but unsure as to what else to say in the absence of Brittany. Sam stuffs his hands in his pockets and shrugs his shoulders. Santana looks anywhere but at him, watching a cricket brave the grass around her ankles and then a bird dart from one copse of trees to another in the distance.
She wonders if she shouldn't feel guilty for spending time with Sam after Puck worried that she was sweet on him, but then she finds that she can't bother to care.
Sam Evans is harmless, and Santana Lopez is sweet on somebody else; if Noah Puckerman thinks anything different about it, he can go soak his head.
Really, if Puck were even half a real friend to Sam, he would know enough to pity the poor boy rather than to feel jealous of him anyhow.
Before she can think better of doing it, Santana says, "I never really thanked you for helping to take down my tent last week, Sam. It meant a lot to me that you would do a good turn on my account, even when I was all but a stranger to you."
Sam considers Santana for a moment, his hands still deep in his pockets. He still can't muster a smile, but his eyes are gentle. "You're welcome, Ms. Santana," he says quietly, never removing his gaze from her.
For the briefest instant, Sam looks as if he wants to go on, but he doesn't manage to do so before Brittany appears around the corner of the sideshow tent, changed from her show costume back into her tatty sundress.
"Hey, darlin'!" she says, sidling up beside Santana. "What's the good word? Has Sammy been keeping you company?"
While Santana knows that she probably oughtn't to smile too widely around Sam—no person who's sad with good cause wants to find himself surrounded by happy people—she simply can't help but do so and breaks into her most unencumbered Brittany-grin.
Luckily, Sam doesn't seem to mind.
"It's Santana who's been keeping me company," he says kindly.
Brittany gives Sam a stout nod, as if to tell him that she's glad to hear of it or maybe to tell him that she isn't surprised. "So are you ready to go see some racehorses?" she asks.
"Sure thing," Sam says.
Neither Brittany nor Sam mentions anything about asking permission from any person in authority to leave the camp, so Santana doesn't bring it up, either. Instead, she just goes along with them as they set out down the midway pitch in the direction of the main road. Brittany and Santana link pinky fingers, and Sam walks beside them, hands firmly in pockets. The girls take two steps to his every one. Though they all meet eyes from time to time, no one speaks aloud because there isn't need to do so.
Yellow wildflowers and sprigs of brushy, red weeds thrive along the roadside amidst the tall grass, and a breeze blows in from the west, though nothing as strong as the one in Ackley. Bugs and birds chirrup from the prairie. Everything seems clement, lively, and green.
The road to Independence twists and bends, following along what Santana assumes is a sizable river or lake just off in the distance. Though their little party passes by several riders on horseback and a single buggy, none of the traffic stops to trouble them, despite how strange they must look as two barefooted girls and a boy in clown shoes, all walking abreast down the road together.
After several minutes, they happen upon a small, wooden footbridge that passes over a creek, and Brittany peels away from Santana to peer over the rail into the water. She stands on tiptoe, hair hanging down around her face like the boughs of a weeping willow tree. Sunlight reflects upon her spun gold.
Santana doesn't notice herself staring at Brittany until Brittany catches her eye. A blush rises to Santana's cheeks. "It's a shame that Mr. Halberstadt isn't here," she says, trying to explain herself. Then, when Brittany quirks an eyebrow, "Someone should make a photograph of you, Britt, just the way you are now."
"Someone should make a photograph of the frogs," Brittany demurs, pointing over the bridge.
At her word, Santana and Sam join her in looking into the creek. Sure enough, they see several sleek, yellow leopard frogs, streamlined and stippled, slipping in and out of the water, darting along the weeds, and making circles where they submerge. Santana watches Brittany watch them, honed in on the way that Brittany's eyes follow this frog and that.
Amongst so many other things that she loves about Brittany, one of the things that Santana loves the best is that Brittany can find delight in hidden things that no one else would even notice.
Santana nudges Brittany with her elbow, and Brittany looks at her, eyes reverent and deep. Neither one of them speaks, but something passes between them like an electric current. Brittany's fingers smooth over Santana's arm on the rail, and Santana feels a thrill knowing that sometime later today—maybe after this adventure into town is done—Brittany will finally tell her her secret.
After watching the frogs, Sam, Brittany, and Santana make quick time to Independence, which stands only a mile or so off from the white city in the end. Though Santana had worried that they might perchance encounter some difficulty in locating the horse racetrack, it turns out that their destination stands just a short distance from First Avenue and is plainly visible to any person coming into town along the main road, its pennant flags flying high above the street fronts.
It looks like a fairytale castle, magnificent against sky blue.
As she and Santana and Sam draw closer to the racetrack, Brittany starts to bounce with the same candy shop excitement that Santana so adores in her, suddenly walking more on the balls of her feet than on the flats of them and squeezing Santana's finger with her own. Sam regards Brittany with a tenderhearted, knowing look. Santana all but melts because of her.
"Are you ready to see some racehorses, Britt?" Sam asks.
Brittany nods. "Do you think they can run faster than our zebras?"
It's a funny question and one that neither Santana nor Sam has considered before, Santana knows. Sam shrugs. "Maybe," he guesses.
He looks like he wants to smile, but can't.
Brittany considers his answer for a moment, chewing her lip and thinking on the matter, and then says, quite seriously, "I'll bet you my dinner biscuit that they can't."
Now Sam does smile, if only for a second. "You're on, Miss Pierce," he says, extending her his hand so that they can shake on their stakes.
(The fact that Brittany can hold onto Santana with her left hand and shake on her and Sam's wager with her right somehow both pleases and delights Santana probably more than it ought to.)
(She likes that she and Brittany fit together and so very well, too.)
After making his bet with Brittany, Sam seems to perk up a bit. Though he still isn't happy, he is game for an adventure. He leads the way from First Avenue to its adjacent Twelfth Street, whereupon he and the girls discover the track.
Seeing the place up close, Santana realizes that it is not unlike the inside of the big top in structure—comprising tall bleachers and poles with pennants atop them and a shorter grandstand, plus adjoining stables. The track bears what must be a very recent coat of brilliant whitewash. The sign above the grandstand reads RUSH PARK KITE TRACK.
Though no one stands in queue outside the grandstand, many people mill about the property, which is obviously a focal point of the surrounding blocks. Considering that no one outside their party seeks entrance to the track, Santana can only presume that there won't be a race today—probably on account of the circus coming to town, as she reckons it.
How, then, will Brittany and Sam ever settle their bet?
A man in a bowler hat and rolled shirtsleeves sits on a stool outside a gate of metal turnstiles leading into the track proper, his feet propped up on a bucket. He reads a newspaper and smokes a handsome brown Peterson pipe. When he sees Brittany, Sam, and Santana approaching him, he sets down his things on the small table at his side and ambles to his feet.
With a wily grin, Brittany gestures for Santana and Sam to follow her over to the man, who seems to be the gatekeeper into the park.
Before they can as much as greet him, the man at the gate stops their trio from going any farther, putting out an arm to bar their way. "Hold up," he says, gesturing to a sign hanging above the turnstiles. It reads NO PUBLIC ENTRANCE in large painted letters. "You need a ticket to see the track."
Sam's hand moves automatically to his pocket. "How much would three tickets cost?" he asks, reaching for his wallet.
The man casts a quick glance at Sam and Brittany, but then his eyes linger on Santana. He looks over her hair and skin, though not her face. His lip curls into a sneer. "More than you've got," he says smugly. He stands before the turnstiles, obstructing the way.
For a second, Sam seems confused—his face blanks and brow furrows—but then recognition dawns behind his eyes. He sets his jaw and straightens up, shoulders squaring. Though he's usually one of the gentlest circus boys, all of a sudden, he seems primed for a fight.
Santana stops him before he can start, not wanting him to get into trouble on her account.
"Sam," she says, "it's all right. We don't have to go inside."
Brittany chimes in. "It's all right, Sam."
It takes a full second before Sam unballs his fists at his side. He and the man meet eyes but don't speak to each other. The man still wears his awful sneer, and Sam still looks angrier than Santana has ever seen him. It all has very little to do with the racetrack, Santana knows.
Very slowly, Sam adjusts his hat and turns back toward Brittany and Santana, allowing them to lead him away. As they go, they hear the man laugh and resume his post at the turnstiles. Santana tries not to let it smart.
Rules are rules are rules, after all.
Sam starts muttering before he even gets out of earshot from the man. "Rotten gilly," he says, jamming his hands back into his pockets with force. "There are only two places where a dog like him belongs. One's the alley and the other's Hell, and the first place is too good for him—"
"Sam!" Brittany says, startled, Santana thinks, not so much by his coarse language as by the dangerous look on his face, so unlike his usual sunshine. She reaches for Sam's arm. "It's all right! It doesn't matter—"
"It does matter, Britt!" Sam says harshly, flinching away from Brittany's touch. When Brittany stiffens at his side, he immediately looks sorry for being short with her. His expression softens and his voice turns quieter. "It does matter, Britt," he repeats. "We all wanted to see the track and now some self-important gilly won't let us inside it, and all for no good reason. This was supposed to be an outing for us, but now it's ruined."
"It isn't ruined," Santana says quickly.
"No," Brittany agrees, though her voice wavers.
Sam doesn't dispute what small comfort the girls offer him, but he does resume his glum look from before. He extends his elbow to Brittany, and she latches onto it, Santana walking at Brittany's other side, all three of them in a row. Sam kicks at the gravel on the road with his oversized shoes, scuffing it along.
"You finally look like a sad clown today, Sammy," Brittany says quietly, and Sam nods, keeping his eyes downcast to the dirt.
(Santana knows, and she knows, and she knows: when one can't speak concerning what troubles one's heart, one feels pain all the keener for it.)
Just then, a billow of foul air carries by on the breeze and all three members of the little trio halt, making sour faces at the stench of it, covering their mouths and noses with their free hands. It's the unmistakable mephitic reek of warm horse manure—and lots of it.
Though Santana couldn't have imagined a stranger source of inspiration for herself than that, she suddenly finds that she has an idea.
"You don't need tickets to see stables," she says all at once.
Brittany's eyes light right away, but Sam doesn't catch Santana's suggestion.
"Beg pardon?" he asks.
Santana points in the direction of the stables on the far side of the racetrack. "So we can't get into the park," she says, "but I'm sure we can walk around the stables, if we like. We could talk to some grooms and ask about how fast racehorses are so that you and BrittBritt can settle your bet. We walked all this way, so we may as well try it."
Sam's glum look disperses. "Why, Ms. Santana, that's a fine idea," he says, wheeling around in a circle to face their party back toward the stables. "Shall we, ladies?"
And so they do, and so they do, and so they do.
Truth be told, there is nothing especially glamorous about stables, and the ones at the racetrack scarcely differ from the ones at the circus, except for their permanence, in the first case, and their portability, in the second.
Of course, the stables at the racetrack are impressive in their size and boast a vast population of handsome brown thoroughbreds. All the same, they do stink of horse body and waste grass and are so filthy on the inside that a person would do better not to consider how so.
Sam, Brittany, and Santana don't actually enter the stables themselves all the way; they only duck their heads through a door to see the internal goings on from a distance. Afterwards, they resort to exploring the paddocks outside the stables proper, watching as several young grooms put various horses through paces.
From their perches along the fence, the little trio has a very good view of the thoroughbreds, with their handsome, lean hocks and arrow chests and coats as shiny as new pennies. Brittany wears a delighted smile, and Sam looks strangely serene.
Having observed the horses for quite a few minutes, Brittany makes a concession: "They probably are faster than our zebras."
Sam looks up at her. "How do you figure?" he asks, curious considering that they have yet to see the horses run at any pace faster than a trot.
"Well, they've got longer legs than zebras do," Brittany points out, gesturing at the closest stallion, "and things with long legs can move much faster than things with short ones—that's why Methuselah can always beat me when I go along beside him, even when I run and he just walks."
Sam smirks. "Don't tell that to Stevie," he says, "or else he'll say that I cheat at our footraces."
Brittany gives Sam a serious look. "You can't help being tall, Sam," she says matter-of-factly. "It's just who you are."
(It's a simple thing to say—but, then again, not really.)
Their group falls silent for several more minutes until Sam muses, "Mr. Adams should rent out a zebra to the stables for an exhibition race against one of these stallions. Even if the zebra lost, it would still make good money for Mr. Adams, and everyone would have a fine time watching the race. Mr. Adams could charge whoever owns the stable a hundred dollars for use of the zebra, and then he could take Britt's tip about the zebra's stubby legs and bet against his own animal to make another hundred dollars off it."
Brittany breaks into a smile. "How very clever of you, Samuel," she says in her false proper accent.
Santana smiles, too, and mimics Brittany's speech. "A capital idea!"
Just then, one of the grooms leads his horse close to where their trio sits and overhears their conversation. He's a small, nervous-looking fellow with bright red hair and dull, almost swollen eyes. He glances up at Sam, expectant. "What's a capital idea?" he asks, interest piqued. "Do you have a tip on a horse?"
Though he speaks to Sam plainly, his words mumble together. He doesn't sound particularly intelligent to Santana's ear, though she supposes she oughtn't to judge, not knowing the boy beyond what he's just said.
Sam shakes his head, obviously taken aback that the groom would make note of him. "No tips," he says quickly. "We were just talking about how a racehorse would measure up to a zebra."
The groom nods as if the matter at hand is the usual sort of thing that one might consider when looking at a thoroughbred. "Did you go see that circus up by the Wapsipinicon earlier today?" he asks. "I hear they have zebras."
Though they probably oughtn't to do it, both Brittany and Santana giggle, amused that they've somehow managed to hide in plain sight without that being their intention. Did they ever see the circus! Sam chuckles, too, but then turns kind. "We actually come from that circus," he says, indicating his own clown shoes and Santana's gypsy costume.
"Wow!" says the groom, flabbergasted. He looks over their clothing and aspects with a new sense of wonder, as if they were transformed before his eyes simply for Sam's word. "I was going to go see the show this evening, since I've got a few cents to spare."
Sam nods. "Well, you really ought to do it," he says. "We've got zebras and some elephants."
Brittany chimes in. "The elephants are really swell."
"Shucks," the groom says. "I've never seen an elephant." Then, "Wanna pet a racehorse? Come here, Bourbon."
He leads his horse up to the fence by its rope. For as impressive as the horse looked from a few yards away, he seems even more so in close proximity. He stands taller than the top of Santana's head at his shoulder and has dark, expressive eyes that make him seem sage.
While Sam and Santana hang back, wary of the strange animal despite his handsomeness, Brittany doesn't hesitate to lean forward over the fence post and stroke up his long, bony nose, following the grain of his coat.
"Hey, Bourbon," she says, and Bourbon snuffles in response.
Santana's heart gives a tug in her breast, and she reaches for Bourbon, too, petting him in the same even way that Brittany does. "Hey, boy," she says, and Brittany flashes her a pleased smile. Santana's heart tugs again.
(Being with Brittany helps Santana feel brave in ways she might have never done otherwise.)
Sam allows the girls to make their introductions to Bourbon before he reaches over to give the horse a scratch behind the ears himself. Though Sam wears a pleasant expression all the while, there's something in his eyes almost like circus-loneliness, but not just. Santana thinks it might have something to do with missing someone or at least with wishing that someone were near.
Bourbon seems to sense Sam's sadness in his own animal way; he nuzzles against Sam's hand and sniffs at the cuffs of Sam's jacket. For his part, Sam appreciates the kindness.
"That's a good fella," he mumbles. "You're all right. You're all right."
After bidding Bourbon farewell and reminding the groom to wave at them from the bleachers should he attend the evening circus, Brittany, Santana, and Sam head away from the racetrack and stables, turning back down First Avenue on their way out of town. Since it's not yet half past five o'clock according to Sam's pocket watch, they go rather slowly, in no hurry to return to camp, moseying along like sightseers on holiday.
Brittany and Santana hold pinky fingers, and Sam walks just a little bit behind them, hands in his pockets, clown shoes scuffing along the dirt. Though Santana worries that Sam will perhaps wear a hole through the toe of his shoe, kicking the ground with every other step, she doesn't say aught to him about it—in the first place, because it isn't her business to tell such a person as Sam Evans what he ought and ought not to do, and, in the second place, because she's caught up in playing a game which requires some degree of concentration on her part.
"I see... the letter I four times right there," Brittany says, pointing to the wall of a brick building whereupon the words LOWEST PRICE ONLY, BEST STOCKING IN FOOD, GOODS, & CLOTHING are painted in large, Roman letters.
"That's right," Santana says, smiling at Brittany's cleverness at the same time that she searches up and down the street for another letter to add to Brittany's quiz. "How about... G?"
"There were a few on that wall," Brittany says, wearing her cat-smile.
"No fair using the same words twice, Brittany Pierce!" Santana protests. "It's against the rules."
Brittany counters, "No fair making up rules on the spot, either, darlin'!" and reaches over to tickle Santana's side, putting an intolerably wonderful feeling into Santana's skin and belly.
Though other pedestrians occupy the street on either side of them, Santana still can't help but shriek and flinch away from Brittany's touch like a giddy schoolchild. She giggles and spins around Brittany's back, almost making a full about-face toward Sam.
It's then that she sees it.
"Oh, Britt," she says, "come look here!"
She gestures for Brittany to follow her as she jogs from the street to the promenade, leading Brittany to the window of a ladies' clothing shop. Though he seems confused by Santana's sudden change in direction, Sam follows along after her and Brittany, appearing behind them as they step up to the glass.
Santana points to the object that demanded her attention where it sits on display in the window: a white hat with a brim so broad that it swoops down like a cascade, too floppy to support its own weight. Bouffant pink feathers grow up like rhododendron blooms about the cap, and the purple hatband bears an ivory brooch emblazoned with the image of a racehorse paused mid-stride in his gallop going down a track.
The hat's label reads LADY'S DERBY BENGÈRE HAT: $9.
If someone were to look at Brittany from inside the shop through the window just then and see her reaction to the hat, that person would think that she were experiencing an angelic vision.
Her expression is absolutely reverent. "Wow," she whispers, pressing in close to the window.
"I'd buy it for you," Santana says conspiratorially, answering a question that Brittany hasn't asked. It thrills her just to speak the words, knowing that she could buy the hat, if Brittany really wanted it.
(She shifts and feels paper against her skin. She shifts again and sees Brittany and feels something else entirely.)
"Nine whole dollars for a hat?" Sam says, incredulous.
Santana starts at the sound of Sam's voice; somehow, she had forgotten he stood behind her, even though very few seconds have elapsed since they stepped onto the promenade together. When she glances at Sam over her shoulder, she finds him shaking his head.
"You could buy enough feed to give a real horse breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a week with nine dollars," he says wryly.
Just then, Brittany pipes up.
"I found it," Brittany says brightly, and Santana turns back to see Brittany pointing at the hat's label through the windowpane. Brittany's finger moves between the S in the first word and then the B in the second. Brittany couldn't look more satisfied with herself if she were to have struck gold.
Santana grins, dimple-deep. It's a silly thing, Santana knows, but somehow it doesn't feel silly at all. Despite the terrible things that have happened both to and around her throughout the day, happiness wells up inside her as though it were water overfilling a cistern.
"Have you been looking for our initials all day, BrittBritt?" she asks, touching a hand to her heart.
"Maybe," Brittany says slyly, singsonging the word. She bumps her hip against Santana's at her side, nudging her. "They were on that wall sign, too, but I didn't say anything about those ones because I was too busy with I and G."
"You learned all that in one day, Britt?" Sam asks, genuinely impressed. "Ms. Santana must be a very fine teacher."
Though what Sam says compliments the both of them, Brittany seems to hear it all for Santana and grins, looking upon Santana with such fondness and pride that Santana almost expects a kiss from her for it. Brittany reaches for Santana's hand to tangle their two pinky fingers together again. "Isn't she just grand that way, Samuel?" she says, putting on her false proper accent.
(What she says sounds just exactly like something else.)
Santana couldn't blush more if Brittany were to actually kiss her with Sam watching. "Britt!" she squeaks, covering up her face with her free hand.
Sam still wears gentleness in his eyes. "She's swell, Britt," he says approvingly. He wears a queer expression, like he just tasted a sweet thing upon his tongue after so many other things that were sour.
The closer their trio draws to the circus camp, the more Sam seems to wilt. He walks like a man going to his own gallows, and Santana knows why; there isn't really much time left before the evening fair, and once the evening fair has ended, the evening show will begin, and then will come suppertime, when the whole company will gather at Ma Jones' mess pit, and Sam will have to see her again and then begin to see her in a new way altogether.
(Santana felt a scraped-bone ache in her heart when she thought that Brittany didn't love her back. She can only imagine what she might have felt if she had known that Brittany were to wed some boy who couldn't love Brittany half as much as she.)
The girls flank Sam on either side, not wanting him to walk alone. They go along in silence, enveloped by the loudening whir of bug buzzes on either side of the road as the afternoon waxes long. Santana fidgets, not certain what to do with her hands without Brittany holding them. It surprises her very much when Sam begins to speak.
"I was thinking," he says as they come upon the footbridge, "that I could maybe—maybe leave the circus—only I wouldn't have anywhere to go, would I?"
His voice sounds very small and choked. He doesn't look at either Brittany or Santana when he talks but instead keeps his gaze trained to the bridge underfoot. He wears a grimace that he seems to want to pass off for a smile.
It's the closest he has come to discussing what happened at lunchtime aloud.
For a second, his words hang in the air, like the final note of bugled "Taps," sad, as dusk descends. His clown shoes rattle over the bridge's wooden boards, echoing upon the creek. The girls share a look around his person, their faces twin mirrors reflecting concern and surprise to each other. Santana wants very much to comfort Sam, but she doesn't know where or how to go about it.
(After all: wordplay and racetracks and biscuit bets are only worth so much to a boy who has a broken heart.)
It relieves Santana when Brittany answers Sam's question.
"There are other circuses, but they're not our circus, Sammy."
Brittany reaches out for Sam's arm like she did in town. This time, Sam doesn't flinch away from her but rather submits to her touch, docile, allowing her to link herself to him. He barks out a rough and mirthless laugh but doesn't make a reply to Brittany before Santana chimes in.
"They probably wouldn't hire you anyway," she says, following Brittany's lead. She dons her grandmother's accent, recalling the fortune she read for Sam on the train to Cherokee. "After all, no one wants a sad clown who always looks so happy, no?"
Her teasing earns another laugh from Sam, though this one is even more mirthless than the last. He reaches up with his free hand and tugs the brim of his hat further down over his eyes.
"I don't know if I'll have that problem anymore," he admits, and he would be joking, but. He swallows a lump and then goes on. "Somehow I thought that things would just always be the same, that nothing would ever change," he muses, looking off toward the horizon and then back at Brittany and Santana. His eyes settle on Brittany. "I guess things haven't been the same for a long while, though, have they?"
He seems to mean something about the whole circus, but Santana doesn't exactly know what that something would be. What she does know is that if there has ever been a sadder boy than Sam Evans anywhere in the world, she would hardly believe it. Her heart aches in her chest as if Sam's heartbreak had suddenly become her own.
"Oh, Sam," she coos, unable to stop herself before she, like Brittany, latches onto his other arm, linking herself to him, too.
She knows she oughtn't to do it, of course—oughtn't to touch him. After all, the rules say that she can't. If Sam had a mind to do so, he could have Ken chuck her clean out of the circus or even summon the police to take her away for overstepping such boundaries, she knows. People like him and people like her aren't supposed to become friends with each other, and what if they haven't, after all? What if Santana has only imagined it?
Her breath catches behind her lips, and she stiffens at Sam's side.
But then Sam sets his palm over her hand upon his arm, holding her to him.
His touch is warm and mild.
When Santana dares to look at Sam, she finds his face tight and eyes glossy. He bears no malice in his expression but rather a desperate sort of gratitude instead. He swallows, hard and doesn't speak a word.
Brittany buries her face in his jacket sleeve on his other side. "Oh, please, just don't join Barnum & Bailey's circus," she mumbles into the corduroy. "Blaine says that their clowns like to make little children cry and that Mr. Bailey would sell his mother if he thought he could make a buck off her." She nestles against Sam's shoulder.
Sam doesn't laugh because Brittany isn't joking. Instead, he sets his other hand on Brittany's hands, crossing his arms over himself as if in embrace to hold both Brittany and Santana at his sides. "I won't join Barnum & Bailey's, Britt," he says quietly.
He keeps hold of Brittany and Santana all the way down the road.
Only when their trio reaches the border of the white city does Sam extricate himself from Brittany and Santana and start to walk ahead of them. Their party makes it just a few steps into camp before it meets an obstacle.
"Hey, you lot! Where have you laze-abouts been? I had work for you, Evans! And you girls should have been in the kitchen! Supper won't cook itself!" Ken hollers, waddling towards them through the wagon bay.
After nearly two full weeks of annoying Ken by both everything she does and doesn't do, Santana doesn't mind his diatribe for her own sake, but she does wish that he wouldn't shout at Sam and Brittany, neither one of whom deserves his meanness—and especially not Sam, who already has a broken heart. She opens her mouth, fully prepared to take the blame for distracting her friends from their chores.
She doesn't get the chance to say anything before the warning bell rings for the show, though.
"Sorry, sir," Brittany says quickly, breezing by Ken toward the heart of the camp. "But we have to go get ready for the fair!"
They couldn't have had better timing if they had planned it that way.
Santana makes a brief stop at her and Puck's tent to collect her things for the fair. While there, she hides her fifty dollar note deep inside her valise, tucking it in beside her "missing tarot cards" in the toe of her shoe.
(If Puck only were savvy to about half of the things that Santana kept hidden from him, he would realize that he scarcely knows her at all.)
At her gazebo, Santana tries to give every patron good news, for it occurs to her that each one of them probably harbors some private heartbreak about which the world might never know. She promises love and fulfillment and happy returns. She repeats the advice to be kinder, more thoughtful, wise, and full of compassion, again and again in different words, feeling as if she's somehow talking to herself rather than to strangers.
When it comes time for the evening show, she gathers up her tablecloth, watching the light grow long upon the midway pitch, dusk somewhere just beyond the trees, waiting to make its debut. The same warm breeze that's carried through the countryside all day plays at her hair, lifting it from her shoulders, and she closes her eyes to it, just for a moment, making a wish.
She meets up with Brittany for the knight sketch, the both of them veiled in blue. As they dance at the center of the ring, Santana smiles, filled up with the same gladness that she can always feel for Brittany, even when all else is grim around them.
"What is it?" Brittany asks her, curious and wily as she sets Santana into a spin and pulls her in close again right afterwards.
It's a silly secret and one that Santana has told Brittany before, but.
"I love you," Santana whispers in Brittany's ear, her body curling into Brittany's, finding place against it.
When it comes time to give out favors to the boys, Santana wishes she could hand hers over to Sam, but she feels compelled to present it to Puck instead, for, after all, she did vow to treat him with kindness. He's watched her through the whole performance, smiling his idiot smile. His eyes are full of hopeful wanting.
(Santana has nothing to give him but wilted cupplant and a friendly smile.)
It's after the knight sketch that it happens.
Will the Ringmaster takes the stage, holding his hat in one hand and his cane in the other. The lights shine down upon him, and he squints, hard, drawing a hand up to his brow to shield his eyes from the brightness, as though it were somehow oppressive to him.
For a second, he seems not to know where he is. He takes an ambling step forward, squinting at the audience, before straightening up just the slightest bit.
Even odder still.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he says, a funny slosh in his voice, as if he were water carried in a wobbly bucket. "Please kindly direct your attention to the coolies on swings, who don't speak a damn lick of English but can fly like clay pigeons and fall twice as hard!"
The audience reacts with equal parts gasps and laughs, and Santana balks from her place at the back of the big top. In all her ten days at the circus, Santana has never once heard Will deviate from his usual speeches unless it were to ad-lib after some mix up in the show, and particularly not to say such horrible things.
A part of the audience starts to boo Will, but he waves his hand at them, as dismissive as if they were gadflies. Though the stage lights have already shifted up to illuminate the trapeze, Will refuses to vacate the ring below, instead holding his ground and leaning on his cane for support.
"That son-of-a-gun is drunk," says a voice from behind Santana. She turns to see Puck come to investigate all the jeering from the big top. He steps up behind her shoulder and peeks through the aperture in the tent. "Well, I'll be."
"What should we do?" Santana frets, increasingly nervous as the audience all but ignores the Flying Dragon Changs in favor of hurling more abuse at Will.
"Get off the stage, moron!" someone shouts.
"You drunkard!" someone else heckles.
Puck shrugs. "Our jobs," he says simply. "Unless ol' Willy passes out cold, it's on with the show, same as usual, ladybird."
But it isn't usual at all.
Will remains in the ring throughout the entire trapeze act, and when the limelight switches back to him, he recoils from it, photophobic. He's supposed to introduce the Equestrienne Coterie and cue the clowns, but he doesn't seem to remember his duties. The audience boos again, loud and turning meaner by the second. Will squints, his eyes all but hidden beneath his brow.
Luckily, Santana and Puck aren't the only ones who've noticed Will's inebriation.
Without waiting for their cue, the clowns rush into the ring. Rather than turning cartwheels onto the stage and stirring up harmless mayhem, they charge Will en organized mass, with some of the younger clowns snatching Will's hat and cane away from him while the biggest clown—David—grabs Will up by the knees, and several other clowns help to lift Will clean off his feet. David slings Will over his shoulder like a gunnysack.
"Let me down, you cocksuckers!" Will bellows. "We've a show!"
Will starts to beat at David's back, but Mr. Evans grabs his fists, subduing him. Blaine does the same to Will's feet before Will can start to kick. The audience cheers for the clowns and their boldness, and especially when the troupe begins to hustle Will off stage and then out the back flaps of the tent.
"Well, I don't blame the poor bastard for drinking," Puck says at Santana's side. "If I were married to his missus, I'd probably be twice as drunk as he is now every goddamn night."
As it turns out, Puck well may be the only person at the circus to look upon Will's drunkenness with so much forgiveness.
The clowns wrestle Will into the backstage area, forcing him to sit down on one of the benches beside the fire while he continues to shout threats at them—"I'll fight every last one of you incandescent sons of bitches! I'll choke you out!"—and flail about. Only when Ken and some of the bigger supes, including Shane, Finn, and the fellow who harassed Santana on the train with David, surround Will on his every side does Will cease to throw punches and instead start to ask what's the meaning of all this.
In the meanwhile, Mr. Evans rushes back out to the ring. Through the tent flaps, Santana hears him launch into Will's speech, picking up as if he hadn't just had to collect a drunken man from the stage, abduct him to the outdoors, and then fill in as his understudy, all in one go.
"Our esteemed patrons, I present to you the Most Elite and Accomplished Sylvesteri Equestrienne Coterie of St. Petersburg!"
Though it relieves Santana to see that the show can survive even with Will otherwise indisposed, she feels a certain sense of dread in observing how the audience doesn't particularly seem pacified, even with Will offstage.
Earlier today, Mr. Adams promised Mr. Fabray that the total loss in Storm Lake was an unusual occurrence.
The man himself arrives in the backstage at the exact instant that Santana remembers of him, as if she had somehow summoned him by her thoughts. He wears his scarlet suit and cuts a stunning figure against the setting sun. If he is a lion, then he has come here to stake his kingdom. He takes long, hard strides and balls his fists at his side. When he approaches, Ken turns to him, as excited and nervous as a little jackal that hopes to nibble up scraps left over by a bigger predator.
"We got him, sir," Ken reports, gesturing to Will on the bench as if Mr. Adams hadn't already seen him there. "He's here, sir!"
Mr. Adams ignores Ken altogether, pushing through the circle of cross-armed supes and clowns, stopping just in front of Will. Though he had been yelling just a minute ago, Will falls silent the instant he sees Mr. Adams, jaw slackening. His eyes blear and lose focus, like he can't quite recognize who Mr. Adams is or reckon why Mr. Adams has invaded his space.
"What're—?" he slurs, but Mr. Adams doesn't allow him to finish.
Mr. Adams yanks Will up by the lapels in a single motion, holding Will pinned between the bench and his own body. Mr. Adams moves roughly and furiously, taking Will entirely by surprise.
"What—?" Will stammers again, but Mr. Adams won't have it.
"You notorious sot!" Mr. Adams roars, giving Will a sound shake. "Have you any idea what you've just done? Have you any inkling of the damage you've caused, you miserable, addlebrained, inebriate cock-up?"
He whirls Will around as though they were dancing, letting go when he has Will facing the fire. The clowns and supes gathered about part just in time to avoid having Will land on them. All the ladies in the backstage area gasp, including Santana, and Puck whispers "Oh, shit!" taking a step back. Will hits the earth hard, his left shoulder driving into the dirt and head stopping just before the hearth.
"I'll have to give a full refund to every last patron!" Mr. Adams shouts. "They're already clamoring for it! We'll be lucky if the mayor and town council don't ban us from this stop permanently or press charges against you for profanity and public drunkenness! Russell Fabray will likely book the first train back to his mansion in the East! You couldn't have waited for two hours, could you, you worthless souse?"
"Jonah," Will mumbles, starting to peel himself up from the earth just as Mr. Adams takes a menacing step toward him. He holds up his hand, as if he expects Mr. Adams to kick him in his prone position. "Jonah, please!"
Mr. Adams towers over Will. "You won't perform tomorrow, and you'll forfeit all of your salary for the next month to make restitution for tonight's losses. If that doesn't sit well with you, you know where the train is. Maybe if they're feeling generous, the normal school will have you back again."
Will sits up to his knees. "But Theresa and I were counting on that money to—," he complains.
"And these people were counting on the money from tonight's show and from the success of my negotiations with Mr. Fabray!" Mr. Adams thunders, making a wide gesture to all the circus employees in the backstage area.
For the briefest instant, a look of pain crosses his face, and he seems as if all the hope has gone out of him. He spares a glance at the lot of his employees, at the clowns and the supes and the seamstresses—and even at Santana and Puck. He opens his mouth, as if to make an apology to them for what had happened, but no words come out.
He has no comfort to give them.
He offers a stricken look to Ken. "Man the ticket booth until we've paid back the last dollar in full. Take down any complaints from the public. If there are any of the better men of the city who have words to say to me, send them to the hotel. I'll be with Arthur," he says.
Ken nods. "Yes, sir," he gruffs.
Without another word, Mr. Adams departs from the backstage area, headed quickly and purposefully in the direction of the sideshow and dressing tents. He moves like a lion with blood on his paws, a flare of scarlet against the darkening night.
The rest of the show takes place without incident. Mr. Evans continues his duties as impromptu ringmaster, repeating Will's lines just as well as if they were originally his own. No one falls. No one misses a cue. Every knife lands at its perfect place in the target. Everyone wears brilliant smiles, though not one of those smiles is genuine.
In the end, Mr. Adams' pocketbook takes a hit to the price of $1850 after he dispenses refunds to every single member of the evening audience. It takes another hit to the price of $82 when the sheriff's department issues the circus a fine for public vulgarity on account of Will's coarse language.
With everything done, Ken comes away from the ticket booth bearing a stack of nearly fifty notations listing out written complaints from various citizens of Independence, including one from a very influential pastor who says that what happened during the show is "the grossest sin against God" that he has ever witnessed in all his born days.
After the show finishes and the midway clears of patrons, the company members still stand out on the grass, huddled in little groups around the big top as they wait to perhaps hear some more news on how their business fares. Santana waits with them, cloaked in night shadow, wondering in her ignorance how it is that a circus dies.
Is it all at once, with the tent flaps open one day and closed the next, or has this circus been dying all along, even since before Santana signed herself to its lists?
("I guess things haven't been the same for a long while, though, have they?")
Eventually, the mess bell rings for what must be a second or third time in the distance, and everyone seems to realize all at once that they're late to supper. Puck appears at Santana's side, seeming somehow more present than he's been all day, even when they talked before. He doesn't mention anything about what happened with Will, even to lament the refunds.
Instead, he adopts a very formal air. "Would you do me the honor of perhaps accompanying me to dinner, my lady?" he asks, bowing deeply to Santana before offering her his elbow.
For a brief instant, Santana wonders if Puck isn't making fun of her, but she detects nothing but earnestness when she looks into his eyes.
"Oh, um, of course," she stammers, somehow startled by Puck's polite new demeanor.
(She's never known him to have manners before.)
Puck seems pleased as Punch with Santana's answer. He grins and links her arm through his, gesturing in the direction of the white city. "This way, my lady," he says, starting to escort her off the pitch and toward the billboard partition.
Though Santana must admit that she finds Puck's new refinement not altogether disagreeable, she also can't seem to figure out the wherefore and why about it. Will this be a permanent change in Puck, she wonders, or is it only Puck's way of trying to make up for how he treated her last night in their tent—a good turn that will end almost as abruptly as it begins?
When they arrive at the mess pit, Puck leads Santana over to the table, pulling out the bench for her with another deep bow. "If you would like to take a seat, it would be my pleasure to bring you your meal, ladybird," he says, still perfectly genteel, though a devil smirk has begun to creep up at the corners of his mouth.
Santana flushes, flustered by all of the attention Puck pays to her. She flushes even more when she realizes that Brittany and Sam have appeared at the table just in time to witness Puck's genuflection before her. Embarrassment warms Santana from the insides out, and she looks desperately to Brittany, worried that Brittany might somehow get the wrong idea about everything.
Sam smirks at Puck from across the table and makes a point to meet his eyes before leaning down to pull out the bench opposite Santana's and offer it up to Brittany. He lowers his voice and puts on a perfect imitation of Puck's diction. "If you would like to take a seat, Miss Brittany, it would be the greatest honor of my life to bring you supper," he apes.
Brittany rolls her eyes and sets down on the bench. "Don't be rude, Samuel," she says shortly. Then, "Yes, you may bring me a plate, if you're nice about it."
Puck chuckles, amused that Brittany would scold Sam for lampooning him. He reaches across the table to clap Sam on the shoulder, jovial.
"Look at you two," he teases, "bickering like a married couple! You know, Sammy, seems like nearly everyone's gettin' hitched lately, what with me and ladybird in New York and Arthur and the Fabray girl and now that Negro supe and Ma Jones on Saturday next. You and Brittany ought to just make it all official, while we're at it. Mr. Adams might even let you borrow the preacher man once everybody else has had a turn with him. Brittany's got you wrapped around her finger, and we've all known you two were meant for each other since the start anyhow. Might as well get hoppin' on it so that we can all be old married folks together someday."
When Puck first started talking, Santana felt her heart sink hard like a heavy stone into a pond. The more he continues to talk, the worse she feels—flustered, on the one hand, for reasons she can't even explain, and worried, on the other, that Puck might well cause Sam pain with his careless words.
Sam doesn't want to marry Brittany, and everyone here but Puck knows it.
Brittany and Santana both cringe at once, concerned for Sam's feelings and for other things, and Santana glances over to Sam, wondering how he'll react to Puck's goading. She finds that he wears an even expression and seems strangely nonplussed about everything.
He smirks. "Not a chance, Puckerman," he says, calm and self-assured.
Puck screws up his face and glances at Brittany, as if checking her for some hidden defect he had never known about before. "Why the Sam Hill not?" he asks, confused as he can be. "You too scared to ask Old Man Pierce for her?"
Sam laughs and shakes his head, entertained by Puck's idea or at least by the silliness of it, given away to real mirth for maybe the first time since lunch. He wipes his mouth with his hand, feeling out his own smile as though he had forgotten the shape of it. It takes him several seconds to recover, but once he does so, he looks up, staring across the table—not at Puck, but at Santana.
He meets her gaze and holds it. When he does so, Santana's heartbeat speeds, though she doesn't know why. She asks herself again, not for the first time in the day, what Sam might be doing.
There are rules, after all.
When Sam speaks, he chooses his words very deliberately.
"Because Brittany could only ever marry someone she really loves," he says, as simple as if it's the truest thing he knows.
He doesn't wait for anyone to reply before he steps away from the table, gesturing for Puck to follow after him.
"Come on," he says. "Let's go get these ladies some food."
Puck heeds Sam's word, ducking away from Santana without another look back at her, apparently none the wiser for what Sam has said.
Santana's heart beats out a race beneath her bones. For as much as she doesn't dare to look at Brittany after what Sam said, she also can't seem to look anywhere else. She chances a peek across the table and finds Brittany doing the same thing back at her.
Brittany wears a brilliant blush over her cheeks and ears and nose.
All at once, it occurs to Santana that Brittany Pierce feels copper pennies and taut strings and so many wonderful ineffable somethings for Santana just the same as Santana feels them for her—and so much so that even Sam Evans can see it.
Though she had suspected that Brittany loves her since their ride to the Onawa train depot herself, Santana still feels strangely comforted thinking that someone else suspects that Brittany does, as well—and not just anyone, but Sam Evans, a boy who was swaddled with Brittany and who knows Brittany better than perhaps anyone else at the whole circus camp.
Santana's heart swells, full to bursting, in her chest, as if it were overstuffed and coming apart at its seams. Santana feels so, so sweet on Brittany and also grateful to her and for her and about her.
Why hasn't Santana properly kissed Brittany yet today? It's a crime or a sin or worse.
"What?" Brittany says, still bashful, even minutes after Sam's quip.
Santana wants to answer a million things, really, but instead she grins her Brittany-grin and shrugs. "You're just wonderful, is all," she says.
Brittany giggles, flustered. "Well, you're just not Hugo," she replies.
Santana would lean across the table and kiss Brittany right then, but she can't, as Puck and Sam return just at that moment, bearing four plates of food between them. For a second, Santana stiffens, unsure of how to act around Brittany now that Sam knows that she and Brittany are in love with each other.
Unlike Santana, Brittany doesn't miss a beat.
"Take my biscuit," she instructs Sam, moving it from her plate to his as he sits down beside her on the bench.
Puck pulls a sour face. "What did he do to deserve that?" he asks, jealous only because Sam got the biscuit and not actually because he wants the biscuit for himself.
Brittany wears a blank face. "He gave me a good tip about a zebra," she says, just so.
(If Puck only were savvy to about half of the things that were hidden from him at the circus, he would realize that he scarcely knows anything about anything at all.)
Santana feels like she as she did as a child when she would wait for her grandmother's pasteles to come out of the oven at Christmastime—impatient with the giddiest sort of wanting. It seems to take forever for everyone to finish their meals, and especially when Puck and Sam go for seconds. Santana fidgets on the bench, needlessly rearranging her skirts and worrying her hands together.
"You have someplace to be, ladybird?" Puck teases, nudging her with his elbow.
All the while, Brittany watches Santana from across the table, staring at her with wide, curious eyes even as Puck jaws on and on to Sam about the inanest things. From time to time, Brittany fidgets herself, and Santana wonders if Brittany isn't just as excited to tell her secret as Santana is to finally hear it.
When at long last the boys finish their meal, Sam offers to take everyone's plates over to the washtubs and says that he's going to turn in early for the night. The girls help to stack all the dinnerware up in Sam's arms and wish him sweet dreams.
As soon as Sam goes away, Puck turns to Santana. "Ladybird?" he says, gesturing in the direction of their tent.
Santana hesitates. Though she's made an honest effort to submit to Puck as much as she can throughout the day, at present, she finds herself most disinclined to do so.
"Actually," she says, "could I maybe walk Brittany to her tent and then meet you back at ours? I just want to wish her goodnight."
Puck considers Santana's request. "Do you want me to go with you?" he asks.
Santana shakes her head. "No, you go ahead and get ready for bed. I won't be too long, I promise."
Her answer seems to satisfy Puck. "Sounds good to me 'cause I'm whupped," he says, standing up from the table. He stretches out his arms above his head and speaks through a raucous yawn. "It's been a long day."
"Goodnight," Santana tells him.
Puck smiles his idiot smile. "Goodnight," he says back.
As he starts to walk away from the mess, Santana's heartbeat picks up. It seems to take him a very long time to shuffle out of the mess pit, and his every step is almost agony for Santana, who just wants him to be gone so that she can lead Brittany off into the shadows and finally hear what promises to be the best not-a-secret secret there ever was.
Once Puck disappears into the darkness at last, Santana offers Brittany her elbow. "May I walk you home, BrittBritt?" she asks.
Brittany smiles. "You may," she says, accepting Santana's arm.
As they head off in the direction of the chuck wagon, Santana keeps her eyes peeled for Ma Jones, but sees Ma Jones nowhere. Usually, Ma is the first person into the mess pit and the last person out of it, but, of course, Santana supposes that this isn't a usual night.
Brittany and Santana go along in silence, crossing the firelight glow from the hearths before slipping into the shadow just beyond the wagon. Though the air cooled considerably with the setting of the sun, it's still a warm night, and balmy. They stroll along the family tent row, arm in arm, until they happen upon Brittany's tent.
Santana's heartbeat reaches sprint pace.
"Britt?" she starts, not sure of how to ask for what it is that she wants.
But rather than answering Santana, Brittany throws up her arms into a vast stretch instead. She yawns, like Puck did. "I'm so tired," she says. "I think I'll just go right to bed."
Santana pulls a face. "What?" she asks, suddenly panicked. Has Brittany actually forgotten that she promised to tell Santana her secret today? "But, Britt, you—I—"
Even through darkness, Santana can see Brittany smirk. "Something on your mind, darlin'?"
It takes Santana a full second to realize that Brittany is teasing her.
She shakes her head, both amused and not. "Oh, no you don't, Brittany Pierce!" she says. "You promised that you would tell me a secret this morning, and I've waited patiently all day to hear it. You're not getting out of it now."
Brittany laughs. "This is what you call patient, huh?" she teases. "You must have asked me about it three or four times already."
"I have not!" Santana complains. "One or two times, at most. Come on, BrittBritt. Please? Please?"
Santana bounces slightly on her toes and reaches for Brittany's hands, holding them to herself. Of course, Santana knows she's acting silly, but, then again, so is Brittany. Santana's grandmother would scold Santana for begging, but Santana doesn't care—and especially not when her tactics seem to work.
Brittany softens and bites her lip, suddenly bashful. "Santana," she says sweetly.
(Santana had never liked her own name until she heard Brittany say it.)
In the next second, Brittany's resolve seems to break. She leans forward, surpassingly gentle, and purses her lips, reaching for a kiss. For as much as Santana's heart and mind have waited all day to hear Brittany's secret, her body has waited for Brittany to kiss her for just as long and with just as much eagerness. Her breath hitches and her eyes flutter closed.
Brittany doesn't kiss Santana.
Santana waits, but the touch never comes. After a second, she opens her eyes just in time to see Brittany running off down the tent row, checking over her shoulder to make sure that Santana sees her go.
"Brittany!" Santana shrieks, starting off at a sprint.
"Shh," Brittany warns, drawing a finger to her lips. She wears her wiliest grin.
Brittany runs just a few paces ahead of Santana, not trying to outstrip her altogether but rather just to lead her along. She runs out past the billboard partition, traversing the borders of the white city and entering into the tall grass fields that sprawl behind it, taking one small hill and then another, laughing, giddy with something, until Santana laughs, too.
She starts to slow down as she reaches the crest of the second hill, turning back to look over her shoulder at Santana, illuminated by the fat gibbous moon just behind her on the horizon.
Unlike Brittany, Santana doesn't slow down at all.
Instead, she launches herself, closing the distance between herself and Brittany and wrapping her arms around Brittany's waist in a great bear hug. She doesn't exactly mean to knock the both of them over, but she does it anyway. Their feet tangle up beneath them and they dance, awkward, until suddenly they're both on the ground, jolted but laughing so hard that they can scarcely breathe.
Before Brittany can even as much as consider the possibility for escape, Santana rolls, straddling her in one quick motion, pinning her down at the hips. Santana's hair hangs like a dark curtain around them. Brittany gasps, surprised.
"Please, Britt?" Santana says. "Please tell me your secret?"
The moment changes at her word.
When Brittany meets Santana's eyes, she wears the ghost of her last smile, but also a searching look, deep, thoughtful, and wise. For a second, Santana feels that Brittany can see everything in her and feels utterly naked, like a new land, unsettled and open for exploration. Brittany reaches up and traces the edge of her thumb along the curve of Santana's face, following her jaw.
"I love you," she says, just so.
Of course, Santana had half-expected to hear the words all day. Even so, she almost can't comprehend their meaning now. Santana loves Brittany, but what does it mean, love? Is what Brittany feels the same as what she does? The same passionate generosity?
(The same wanting to give of all of one's best things?)
"You love me?" she whispers, not meaning to question it but wanting to hear Brittany say the words again and to explain.
Brittany seems to know.
She smoothes over Santana's cheek.
"I love you, Santana. I love you more than I've ever loved anyone else in the whole world," she says in her wonderfully plain way, and, in the next second, she sits up, pressing her mouth to Santana's in a delicate kiss.
Their lips pop as they pull apart.
"Yeah?" Santana says.
"Yeah," Brittany says back. She reaches up and presses on Santana's shoulder, signaling for Santana to lie down on the grass, which Santana does. Brittany rolls on top of her, fitting their two bodies together, and kisses Santana again, this time deeper.
Santana speaks without thinking.
"Then why didn't you tell me?" she asks, mumbling against Brittany's lips.
Brittany pulls back. "What?"
Santana considers. She doesn't want to spoil the moment, of course, but it does niggle at her, somewhat—the idea that Brittany could love her so much without saying anything about it, even after Santana confessed her love to Brittany first.
"Why didn't you tell me after I told you?" Santana repeats. "And why couldn't you tell me today after lunch?"
She hates how small and pathetic her voice sounds. She knows it doesn't matter, really—not now that Brittany has told her—but she also can't help but wonder if maybe she did something wrong. Does Brittany know something about confessing love that she doesn't? She doesn't ever want to overstep with Brittany or to embarrass her.
Brittany fixes Santana with a serious look.
"Because I didn't want to scare you," she whispers, telling another secret.
"Brittany?" Santana says, not quite sure what she means.
Brittany strokes Santana's hair with the back of her hand. She leans down and presses a kiss to Santana's brow and then looks up at the sky as though she were reading a speech written in the stars. When she speaks again, her voice is louder than before.
"You told me that it scared you when we became friends so fast and that you didn't know how I could like you so much. I didn't want you to think that I only said 'I love you' because you said it first or that I'd said it for any other reason than because I really, really wanted to.
I think that sometimes you have a hard time accepting it when people give you nice things because you don't believe that you deserve them, but you do deserve them. You deserve every nice thing. I wanted you to believe it. I wanted you to feel happy and to know that I mean it—that I love you so much—because that's how it made me feel when you told me that you love me.
I know that sometimes you don't understand how someone could want to be around you because your daddy and Abuela kept things from you and then they left you alone, but I would never, ever do that to you. You know that, don't you? You know that I'll always stay with you, for as long as you want me. I love you, Santana, and I've loved you for a long, long time—probably since that day when I dressed you up like Cleopatra in the dressing tent. Or wait! Maybe since the day when we kissed in the big top. Or maybe before that—"
Brittany shakes her head, laughing her bashful, silent laugh. She looks at Santana, earnest.
"I've wanted to tell you so many times. I couldn't do it with words, but I did in other ways. Did you really not know?"
Santana grins, in spite of herself. "I think I did know," she admits, both surprised and not surprised to realize that it's true. Her copper penny feeling flips endless somersaults. "I love you, Brittany Pierce," she says, reaching up to nip Brittany's lip.
Brittany laughs. "I love you, too," she says.
A warm feeling spreads out between the both of them. Brittany buries both of her hands in Santana's hair and leans down at the same time that Santana sits up, their lips meeting in a way that steals Santana's breath. Santana opens her mouth against Brittany's, and Brittany follows her lead, smiling as she slips her tongue past Santana's lips. Santana groans, feeling more at home and safer than she has all day.
They kiss for a long while, working their lips together and tasting the contours of each other's mouths. Their breath turns shallow and quick. Eventually, Brittany retracts from Santana with a sigh.
"If I keep kissing you like this, I won't be able to stop," she says.
"Then don't stop," Santana suggests, setting her hands on Brittany's hips.
She feels almost dizzy from loving Brittany so much, drunk on their privacy here in the dark. Something thrums inside her, and she can't help but grin.
Brittany laughs and stops Santana from petting over her waist. "Santana," she says seriously, "I don't want to get you in trouble again."
Santana wants to pout, but she knows that Brittany is right. Puck was so angry with her last night. She doesn't want to provoke him again.
"Okay," she says, kissing Brittany more chastely this time to show her deference.
Brittany smiles and shuffles off of Santana's lap, lying down beside her in the grass, and both girls sigh, more contented than they could perhaps explain. Brittany cradles her head against one arm and looks into Santana's eyes. Santana reaches out, stroking over Brittany's hipbone with her free hand.
"We're like sweethearts," Brittany mumbles, dreamy, "only more somehow."
(That's just it, Santana thinks.)
(That's their happy secret.)
It occurs to Santana then that this is what she really wanted, more than just to hear Brittany speak her secret aloud: to feel the true peace of them being together, in love and knowing it plainly. It's what she'll want for the rest of her life, really.
After everything that happened today, it's the happiest ending she could have asked for.
When Santana returns to her own tent, she finds Puck already asleep on his mat, curled up upon the ground. She hums a happy note and removes the bangles from her wrist, one by one by one. Even when she lies down on her cot, she wears the widest smile.
She loves Brittany Pierce more than anything in the world.
Brittany Pierce loves her back.
Author's Note: It takes a village to tell this story. I couldn't have made it through the first part of this chapter without my incredible beta Han, who understands this story better than I do and whose input is so beyond helpful. She talked me through an inordinate amount of panicking while this chapter was in its nascent stages; I appreciate her more than I can say. #brotp: with the u and everything
I also couldn't have made it through this chapter in general without some special pinch-hitting beta work from the one and only Dr. Ruth, who stepped in at the last minute to help. Seriously, y'all should go leave some love in her Ask box at doctoruth on tumblr, if you feel obliged. She came in at the last minute, plowed through all thirty-odd thousand words of this puppy and left me the most astute and careful comments I could have ever wanted. She is amazing in every way and I am very much in her debt.
Also, a round of applause for my awesome Spanish translator Lu, a linguistic goddess in every sense of the words. Her prompt responses to my queries and the careful thought she puts into her translations save my life in so many ways.
For general information purposes: A person having 50 USD in 1898 would be roughly equivalent to a person having 1389 USD now—which is to say that it would be a considerable amount of money for a teenager to have all to herself.
Santana translates what she tells Brittany during their word game herself.
As for the other stuff...
(El amor es sufrido y es benigno. El amor no tiene el enviada, no hace sinrazón, no se ensancha.) : (Love is patient and it is kind. Love doesn't envy, doesn't boast, and isn't proud.) [1 Corinthians 13:4 Reina Valera Bible 1862 Ed.]
(Para siempre y por siempre, amén.) : (Forever and ever, amen.)
pasteles : a traditional Puerto Rican dish eaten at Christmastime, first developed by the Taíno Amerindians and later adopted by European settlers. While traditional pasteles are made from either from plantains or yucca and wrapped in plantain leaves for cooking, Santana's grandmother had to alter her recipe due to a scarcity of ingredients in America. In New York, she made "sweet potato pasteles," filling the husk and pulp of sweet potatoes with nuts, beans, and meat.