Chapter 13: Birthday Girl
Thursday, July 7th, 1898: Elma, Iowa
Santana can't sleep—not after parting from Brittany for the night with stolen kisses, "heaps and for keeps," and promises of tomorrow-tomorrow, all underneath a curtain of countless country stars.
The heat that seeped into her skin as she kissed Brittany earlier in the day settles deep in her belly and paints thoughts through her head about the touches she and Brittany plan to share before the next matinee. She remembers Brittany's kisses against her lips and along her jaw and nibbling her ear. She imagines Brittany kissing down her neck and at her shoulders, chest, and knees, and her heart jumps. She squirms upon her cot.
Puck makes animal noises where he sprawls upon his sleeping mat just off to the side of Santana, but she ignores him. For hours, she skims along the top of sleep, chasing after Brittany somewhere between thought and dreams, remembering each one of Brittany's smiles and trying to parse out all of Brittany's little jokes and mysteries.
A thousand Brittany-questions circulate her thoughts. What was Brittany's first circus performance like? Why does Brittany like the food on the Southern route so well? How did Brittany first realize that she liked Santana differently than how one would like a friend? Who gave Brittany permission to be so entirely wonderful at all hours of the day and night?
Santana replays her every conversation with Brittany from throughout the day in her mind, both the giddy and the somber. She thinks of Brittany's father's elixir. She thinks of the knife throwing act. She thinks of Brittany's mother. She thinks of Brittany with white light spilled through her hair at the peak of the afternoon. She thinks of all the things she would like to do to keep Brittany safe, to keep Brittany well.
(If she ever truly dreams, it's only of Brittany dancing her away into Fairy.)
For the longest time, Santana can hear the night outside the tent: the little cheeps and peeps of bugs and the wind rustling through the grass like a cat curling at human ankles. An owl calls mournful somewhere at the brink of the forest. Even the stars seem to reverberate in their celestial places. Though her body rests, Santana's mind and heart can't stay themselves. She waits for morning and waits for Brittany, her girl in secret blue and promise white.
She awakens to a kiss.
It isn't a kiss upon Santana's lips—just on the back of her hand.
It also isn't a kiss that Santana wants—it's far too wet and scratchy with stubble.
"'Morning, ladybird," Puck says, pressing his mouth against her hand again through the dark. "How about I bring you breakfast in bed? You could stay here, and I'd come back with hotcakes and coffee for you."
Normally, Santana wouldn't be opposed to going without Puck's company for a spell or to staying abed as long as possible, but today she can't seem to start her day fast enough; she wants to be to the mess pit and with Brittany as soon as she's able.
She wipes her wrist on her skirt, cleaning it. "That's all right," she declines. "Just let me wash my face and teeth, and we can go to breakfast together. I'll be not a minute."
Though Puck seems surprised that Santana would refuse his kindness, he doesn't question her decision. He nods and leaves Santana to herself, stepping outside the tent to give her her privacy.
As Santana washes her face and teeth and combs through her hair with her horsehair brush, she can't help but shiver with a certain sort of nervous excitement, both restless and eager to see Brittany all at once. Despite her promise to Puck, she takes a long while grooming herself, wanting to look her best for the day, though she knows that Brittany finds her beautiful even when she has bootblack on her cheeks.
It seems to take Puck a thousand years to tear down their tent. Santana stands off to the side of him, her arms wrapped around her waist. She must glance in the direction of the mess pit one-hundred times, wondering if Brittany feels even half as impatient as she does for their rendezvous.
"Got somewhere to be, ladybird?" Puck asks, leaning against the wooden frame of the tent, already denuded of its canvas.
Santana shrugs but doesn't reply. An answer remains unspoken upon her lips.
(She has someone to be with.)
Breakfast smoke lingers lower than usual against the purple dawn, fogging the mess pit and forcing coughs and complaints up from the thick-throated company. The smoke clings to the humid air and needles at Santana's eyes until she finds that she must close them. She holds onto Puck by the elbow and bats at the smoke with her free hand as they make their way toward the spread. Around her, she hears utensils tin-clink upon plates and coffee cups thud, dull, against wood.
"Over here, darlin'!"
At Brittany's beck, Santana opens her eyes and spots Brittany just upwind of the smother and seated at the table, two plates set before her and already fixed with food. Though Brittany smiles at Santana, she also flitters with butterfly nervousness, glancing from the plates to Santana and back again before looking to something else.
A vase with a purple flower in it set upon the table just between the two plates.
Not a vase—the empty sarsaparilla bottle from Storm Lake.
Not just a purple flower—a coneflower like the one Brittany picked yesterday in the meadow.
Santana's heart all but collapses in upon itself in her chest, and she drops Puck's arm without thinking about it.
(It always surprises her that she can love Brittany more than anything else in the world and then suddenly love Brittany yet more still.)
"Brittany," she gasps, walking over to the table, her hand pressed to her heart. "When did you—? How did you—? What's all this for?"
Brittany offers Santana her shyest smile. She bites her lip. "It's for you," she says, gesturing for Santana to sit down alongside her. Then, with even a shyer smile, "Happy birthday, Santana."
The first question comes from Santana and the second from Puck, but they aren't the only ones to wonder. At Brittany's word, many of the people seated at the table—including Blaine, Finn, Rachel, Mr. Berry, and the quadroon manservant—all look up at Santana, suddenly curious about her.
It isn't Santana's birthday at all.
(It won't be for another month.)
Santana searches Brittany's face and finds the slightest bit of mischief just at the edge of Brittany's shyness. With anyone else, Santana would fret about not knowing what was in store, but with Brittany, Santana patiently waits for the reveal. Brittany wouldn't tell everyone that today is Santana's birthday if she didn't have a good reason to do so, after all. Santana meets Brittany's eyes.
So it's my birthday, hm?
When Brittany catches Santana's look, her smile changes balance. It shifts to mostly mischief and only a little shyness. "I just thought that the birthday girl ought to have a nice surprise at breakfast," she says in her lilting way.
"Shit, ladybird, you should have said something," Puck complains, chucking Santana's shoulder.
Rachel leans down the table. "Happy birthday, Santana," she says loudly enough for everyone within several yards of her to hear, including Ma Jones and the kitchen girls.
"Happy birthday," Blaine repeats, earnest as ever.
When Santana finally slides into her seat beside Brittany, she makes sure to sidle up as close to Brittany as possible, nudging their hips together and twining their ankles beneath the bench. She leans over to smell the coneflower—amber sweet, like pure honey.
"You are too much, Britt," she whispers, conspiratorial.
Brittany puts on her blank joker face. "Too much of what?" she asks.
Santana means to inflect some teasing into her voice, but somehow, when she speaks, her words come out soft and small, in the voice that only belongs to Brittany: "You know exactly what."
Perhaps it's only Santana's imagination, but the company seems much chattier than usual this morning. After Brittany announces Santana's "birthday" to the table, everyone gets to talking, the boys about the fishing in Elma, Iowa—the circus' destination for today—and Rachel about how she's managed to achieve a heretofore unknown level of control over her head voice. Brittany and Santana listen in on both conversations but contribute nothing to either one; they smile secret smiles at each other and hold hands under the table.
Santana couldn't feel happier if it were her real birthday.
When the meal draws to its close, Puck gathers up Santana and Brittany's plates along with his own and starts to reach for the sarsaparilla bottle, ducking around Santana's shoulder to grab it. "Say goodbye to your daisy, ladybird," he tells her, fingers closing over the bottleneck.
Santana rescues the bottle away from him with a single, quick swipe. "No!" she says sharply. "I want to keep it."
Puck flounders, opening and closing his mouth. "Ladybird—," he starts, faltering.
Santana knows that his objection is a practical one: preserving her "birthday gift" on the train ride will be difficult. She can perhaps keep the sarsaparilla bottle, if she wraps it in her old clothes and tucks it deep inside her valise. The flower won't store so easily, though. At best, it will only last the day. Puck isn't trying to be mean. Santana lets out a breath, relenting.
"I want to keep the bottle, at least," she amends. She sends a meaningful look to Brittany. "And if I had a book to my name, I'd press the flower between the pages and dry it. That way it would last for a long, long time."
"You could press it in my newspaper," offers a deep voice from down the table. Santana looks over to see Mr. Berry holding a folded copy of the Dyersville Commercial aloft. Mr. Berry extends the paper to Santana, wagging it once in his hand, enticing her to take it from him. Santana's shock at the gesture must show because Mr. Berry offers her a kindly look. "I've already read all I care to read of it," he shrugs, playing off his charity.
His expression is one of familiarity—warm fondness, even. He peers at Santana as if he knows her or at least knows something about her. At first, Santana thinks that Mr. Berry has decided to give up his paper for her because he feels obliged to treat her nicely on Rachel's behalf, but then she thinks his decision has to do with something else.
"Are you sure?" Santana asks before she can stop herself.
Mr. Berry smiles at her, his spectacles reflecting firelight. "Happy birthday, shaina maideleh," he says, standing up to pass the newspaper to Santana around the quadroon's back.
Santana accepts the gift with a nod of deference. "Thank you," she says quietly.
As Mr. Berry waves off her thanks and sits down on the bench again, the quadroon manservant pats him on the back, beaming. Both men smile, not just at Santana but at Santana and Brittany. For an instant, Santana wonders if she may have missed something in the exchange, but then Brittany motions for Puck to hand over Santana's valise, and Santana finds herself involved in the task at hand once more.
"Make it quick," Puck instructs, setting the valise down on the bench.
Santana mostly ignores him, taking her time to secure her things. First, she cushions the sarsaparilla bottle within her valise, rolling it up in the folds of her nightdress. Next, she sets the coneflower down between the pages of Mr. Berry's newspaper. Brittany kneels on the bench beside Santana, leaning on her elbows. She looks on with interest as Santana flattens the coneflower and smoothes its petals, choosing a place for it at the center of the paper.
T... D... C..., Brittany mouths out, reading the capital letters in the newspaper's title to herself.
Santana's heart flutters in her chest.
(Brittany always gives her the most thoughtful gifts.)
By the time Santana finishes securing her things, Shane Tinsley, Finn Hudson, Matt, and some of the other supes have already begun clearing away the blue canopy and unoccupied benches, tearing down the mess and loading supplies into the back of a waiting circus wagon.
"I'm going to bus our plates and give these fellas a hand," Puck says. "You ladies go on ahead to the wagon bay. I'll catch up to you."
Santana and Brittany link elbows as they leave the mess pit. As they walk, they trade sly grins with each other, electric with the same energy that kept Santana awake through the night. Only after they break away from the throng and find themselves separate from everyone else does Santana lean in close to Brittany.
"You know today isn't my birthday, right?" she teases.
Brittany shrugs, as matter-of-fact, as ever. "I figured it probably wasn't," she says.
Santana laughs. "So what's all this about?"
Brittany wears her shy smile. She shrugs again. "I just kind of want today to be perfect for you," she says softly, her voice flitting along like it always does, hopping from one phrase to the next like a bird from branch to branch. "You make me feel like something special is happening all the time, and I wanted you to feel that way, too. I wanted to start today with something special, but I didn't know how to do it without making everyone curious about what we were up to. Then I remembered that we're having a surprise party, and then I started thinking about what could happen if it were your birthday. I know Ken won't give you the day off or anything, but I thought that maybe everybody would treat you nice today if they felt like they had a good reason to. It's just a little thing, I know, but it was the best I could think to do, and—"
"It's perfect," Santana says, her invisible string giving a tug in her chest. "It's circus magic, and it's perfect."
With everyone's attention diverted elsewhere—to Santana's "birthday"—Santana and Brittany will be free to show each other an especial amount of attention, and in plain sight of the whole company, too. Puck won't notice a thing, and neither will anyone else. Not only is Brittany's plan brilliant, but it's also impossibly sweet and thoughtful, as well.
"Thank you," Santana says, squeezing Brittany's arm. Then, "You do make everything into something special, Britt. Everything's wonderful when I'm with you."
Though Santana can't yet see vivid colors under the darkness of the morning, she can still sense it when Brittany begins to blush. It starts with a headshake, Brittany curtaining her face with her hair, and ends in Brittany's silent, self-conscious laugh. For a few seconds, Brittany and Santana walk along in silence, but then they come up upon the wagon bay and Brittany seems to have one more thing to say before they rejoin the company.
"Last night, I couldn't stop thinking about everything," she admits, candid. "I was so excited for today, and then Daddy kept needing help because of his foot, so I barely slept a wink, but I don't mind. I feel so awake, I could dance."
By now, Santana is more than accustomed to feeling two ways at once about things. In fact, she almost expects to have it happen. Even so, the intensity of these particular two-way feelings surprises her.
On the one hand, Santana feels almost overcome with adoration for Brittany, grateful, happy, and even strangely relieved to know that Brittany's excitement for today matches her own. On the other hand, when Brittany mentions Mr. Pierce's injury, Santana feels a stab of dread drive deep into her and twist, for she suddenly remembers how much danger Brittany will be in at today's shows. Before she can stop herself, Santana takes firmer hold of Brittany's arm.
"Britt," she says, drawing them to a halt upon the grass. She waits until Brittany meets her eyes and then wets her lips, steeling herself. She knows that she's about to overstep a boundary but feels too much concern to hold her tongue. "W-what if you lost your father's elixir? W-what if you hid it?" When she sees Brittany about to speak—maybe to protest—she hurries, "It wouldn't have to be forever! It's just—it's just that that elixir isn't good for him. It's not real medicine. He shouldn't take it. If you pretended the elixir had gotten lost somewhere between here and our next stop, it would buy us some time. W-we could find your daddy a real doctor—someone who could really help him. We could help him."
Santana has never tried to advise Brittany concerning Mr. Pierce before, mostly because she realizes that it isn't her place to do so. No matter how much Santana loves Brittany, family business is family business. From her own experience, Santana knows that it's nearly impossible for an outsider to look in on someone else's family and to understand precisely what she sees in it.
(Blood runs so deep.)
Something trembles inside Santana, and she wonders if Brittany won't resent her for meddling in affairs that aren't her own. At best, she expects Brittany to politely decline her suggestion. At worst, she expects that Brittany will be cross with her for saying too much.
Brittany never does exactly what Santana expects, though.
Instead, Brittany fixes Santana with a queer look, almost as if she's trying to see through the early morning darkness, past the silhouette of Santana and into the very depths of her. Her eyes flicker between Santana's own, and she starts to walk again, leading Santana along at her side.
"Okay," she says just as she and Santana step beneath the shadows of the outer circle of wagons.
"Okay?" Santana repeats, amazed that Brittany would take her at her word without either question or complaint.
Brittany's eyes fill with something—a knowing, like the way the tides know the list of the moon or the earth the thrill of daybreak heat or the constellations their patterns in the night. Evenness spreads out over Brittany's look, permeating her bearing and breathing, enlivening her. Suddenly, Brittany seems to make a conscious decision, choosing to put her whole faith in Santana's word. She nods again, sure.
Since the day when they practiced the knife throwing act in the woods, Santana has known that she trusts Brittany completely and with her whole life. However, it only now occurs to Santana that the trust runs both ways—that Brittany trusts her just like she trusts Brittany, and, moreover, that Brittany trusts her more than anyone or anything else in the world, even more than Mr. Pierce or the goodness of people.
The realization steals Santana's breath away. She feels both entirely undeserving of Brittany's confidence and reverenced to have it and also like something sacred has happened without her knowing about it at first. She has Brittany's entire future in her hands—Brittany has given over to her fully and without flinching.
It isn't a reflexive choice on Brittany's part, and neither is it involuntary. Santana saw it in Brittany's expression.
Brittany has chosen to trust Santana above anyone or anything else.
(Something of Santana has nestled itself deep inside Brittany and made its home there, connecting the two girls in a way that has something to do with invisible strings and thread rings and above all their sweet, sacred, shared love.)
"I'll hide it," Brittany says solemnly. "It'll be a secret."
"A secret," Santana repeats.
For the briefest instant, the two girls meet eyes, and something passes between them like the still, unfathomable moment just before a knife throw. Though part of Santana wonders if she didn't just give Brittany bad advice, she doesn't have the opportunity to speak her doubts aloud before she and Brittany step out from beneath the morning shadows and Blaine starts hollering for them to join him on a nearby wagon.
Almost at once, the spell breaks, the gravity of the moment dissipating like the great letting out of a held breath.
Santana worries that the seriousness of her recent conversation with Brittany will mar their morning together, but it doesn't.
In fact, if anything, Santana feels even closer to Brittany now than she did before she suggested that Brittany hide Mr. Pierce's elixir, almost as if the invisible string that runs between her and Brittany's hearts has become shorter over just the last few minutes, connecting them even more closely than before.
Brittany seems to sense the closeness, too, and revel in it. She begins smiling again almost right away, as soon as she and Santana find themselves at the back of the wagon, abuzz with the rapt sort of giddiness that comes from having a happy secret.
As the girls sit nestled in the back of an old box wagon, Blaine and Rory just across from them and hay scattered beneath their skirts and feet, Brittany holds Santana's left hand between both her own, petting over Santana's knuckles. She curls around Santana in the dark, smiling into Santana's shoulder.
Hi, she breathes.
Hi, Santana breathes back, tickled by Brittany's touch.
They meet up with Puck at the depot and join him in a boxcar along with Blaine, Rory, and some sideshow freaks.
The same humid air from the mess pit has followed the circus all the way to the train; it causes the wooden floors of the boxcar to feel soft and clammy, of the same consistency as a used teabag, hours old. Puck coaxes Santana into the crook of his arm, fitting her body against his where he leans against the boxcar's corner. Santana coaxes Brittany's head into her lap, resting it in the sling of her skirt.
When the train first heaves forward along its tracks, Santana feels a flutter in her belly. Brittany smiles up at her as if she feels it, too. Though she and Brittany have yet to even kiss once today, Santana's body acts as if they had already kissed one-hundred times all in a row, her heartbeat drumming strong through her bones. Her insides feel slick and keyed for something. She squirms where she sits, not sure what to do with her stoked feeling in such a time and a place as this one.
"You all right, ladybird?" Puck asks, leaning over to press a kiss to her hair.
Santana swallows, nervous that Puck might somehow guess what she's thinking of, though she knows that he couldn't possibly do so. She strokes her hand through Brittany's hair. "Yes, thanks," she says, her words short and clipped.
Puck doesn't seem to mind Santana's curtness if he notices it. He kisses her head again, smiling his idiot smile into the kiss, and Santana focuses on the act of combing her fingers through Brittany's hair, gently breaking its little knots with her fingers. She makes long, slow strokes, starting at Brittany's scalp and moving down to the end of each lock.
When Santana's thumb brushes over Brittany's temple, a blush rises to Brittany's skin, not just at her nose and ears but over her neck and collarbones as well. When she meets Santana's gaze, her pupils have expanded to fill almost her whole eye.
"May I braid your hair, Britt?" Santana asks quietly.
"Anything you like, birthday girl," Brittany says, her eyes closing.
Santana starts to separate Brittany's hair into three strands, carefully parting it. As she strokes through the locks, Brittany almost purrs, her body entirely tuned to Santana's touch. Santana works for a long, long time, until the first rays of morning light catch the gilt in Brittany's blonde through the open car door. Santana weaves and resets, weaves and resets, counting along to the hard, happy beat of Brittany's heart.
By the time the train pulls into Elma, the sun has already risen, and sluggish warmth pervades every nook and corner of the town, creeping in, reptilian. The wooden planks on the depot platform heat the undersides of Santana's bare feet, as does the earth and the grass, even in shadows. The world is green in every direction, with lush trees and messy grasses that sprawl and spread like uncombed hair over the ground.
Once the supes put the circus vehicles in order, Puck asks Santana and Brittany to join him on a landau, along with Sam and Stevie Evans. The girls, of course, oblige him. It only takes a few moments for the circus processional to travel from the depot to the town, emerging through a natural tunnel of trees onto the main road.
Elma seems poorer than Dyersville or Independence did before it, more country and less town. The shop fronts are to a one made of wood, and many of them hurt for new coats of whitewash. One building reads RESTAURANT, another STORE, and another TOWN HALL. The citizens line the streets wearing overalls and calico, not nearly as gussied up as some of the other Iowans for whom Santana has seen.
Despite the modesty of their circumstances, the people of Elma appear thoroughly excited at the prospect of hosting the circus for the day. They stand along the sidewalks, whooping and hollering to see the clowns, jugglers, and acrobats. When Deborah lets out a bugling bellow, the crowd cheers and claps for her, shouting for her to do it again. Jesse St. James' lions roar and the citizens shriek with delight. Many people wave at members of the company as the processional goes by, with some of the little children even blowing kisses to Santana, Brittany, Puck, Sam, and Stevie seated atop the landau.
A group of little girls in bonnets starts up an impromptu chorus of "Hip-hip-hurrah! The circus is here!" just as the landau moves close to them, and Brittany gives Santana a tug on the sleeve.
"Come on, darlin'," she says, gesturing that Santana ought to follow her down onto the road.
The girls clamber off of their perch, paying mind not to snag their skirts on the mud flap as they go. The landau's slow pace allows them to disembark at will and they alight upon the ground already at a jog. The dirt underfoot seethes with heat, so they both move along on tiptoe, taking staccato spider steps and trying to stay in the shadow of the wagon.
Santana's bangle bracelets glint in the white sunlight, refracting rainbows upon her blouse and in the air. Reds, yellows, blues, greens, and violets stretch before her eyes in flaring prisms. Brittany takes hold of Santana's hand, dancing and then running her along.
At first, Santana doesn't know the reason for Brittany's haste, but then the girls catch up to Blaine and Rory turning somersaults at the flank of the landau. Brittany makes a quick lunge forward, a laugh bubbling up from the back of her throat, and seizes Blaine's wrist with her free hand, connecting him to her and Santana in a chain.
When Blaine flashes Brittany a quizzical look from beneath the brim of his trilby hat, Brittany shrugs in Rory's direction, gesturing for Blaine to take Rory's hand in turn. Though he doesn't seem to understand Brittany's reasoning, Blaine's painted face turns up into a lopsided grin, and he does as Brittany tells him to do, snatching Rory's hand into his own, adding a fourth person to the chain of three.
Brittany wears her widest cat-smile for Blaine's deference. She calls out to the boys still on the landau, "Down here, fellas! Come dance with us!" At first, Puck looks reluctant to heed Brittany's call, and even Sam seems a bit wary about what's going on, but Brittany persists in her entreaties. "We can't have a circle if you don't lend your hands," she says.
When Blaine and Rory join Brittany in hollering, Puck and Sam can't help but relent.
"Come have a dance!" Blaine shouts.
"Don't be bashful!" Rory teases.
Sam cracks the ghost of his old sunny smile. He shakes his head, amused, and starts to help Stevie down from the wagon bed to the street, taking the little boy under the arms and moving him as easily as if he were a sack of ingredients meant for Ma Jones' kitchen. Puck rolls his eyes but gives in just the same as Sam does, leaping down onto the road with aplomb.
Soon Santana finds herself linked to Puck on her right side and Brittany on her left, with Brittany holding onto Blaine, Blaine onto Rory, Rory onto Sam, Sam onto Stevie, and Stevie onto Puck. The group moves in a weird circle, listing both forward and in a round at the same time. Once they develop a steady rhythm, Brittany starts to singsong.
Ring a ring a rosie,
a bottle full of posie
All the girls in our town
ring for little Josie
It doesn't take long before Blaine and Stevie start to say the rhyme along with Brittany, and then Puck, Sam, and Rory, all in turn. Santana would like to join in with the group, as well, but she finds that she doesn't know the words to the song. Though she has heard of "Ring around the Rosie," she has never actually played it with anyone or learned the words from any of her books.
With some embarrassment—and a vague sense of wistfulness that things might have happened differently in her life—Santana realizes that the song is of the kind that children teach to one another on schoolyards and in nurseries.
Not wanting to feel left out, Santana listens in more closely to the rhyme, repeating every fifth word of it, laughing as the task of trying to memorize a new song and dance at the same time starts to make her clumsy. She trips into Brittany's side, and Brittany grins at her, enunciating the words more clearly so that she can follow along.
Ring a ring a rosie,
a bottle full of posie
All the girls in our town
ring for little Josie
The little children of Elma revel in the simple show, laughing and running down the street to follow the dancers in the procession. On the third pass, a new someone joins in the dancing—Rachel Berry, catching up to the group from a ways back down the road. She fits herself in between Puck and Santana, asking for permission with her eyes before fully entering the circle. When Santana nods at Rachel and makes a space for her to fill, a smile blooms upon Rachel's face. She sings a harmony to the group.
Ring-a-round a rosie,
a pocket full of posies
We all fall down
The same goodwill Santana felt toward her friends last night during supper wells up again in her heart. Until this summer, Santana hadn't any friends to teach her schoolyard games. Until this summer, she hadn't any friends at all.
After another turn, Kurt appears, using his juggling batons to part Sam and Rory's hands so that he can squeeze between them. Kurt wears a close-lipped smile, covering his teeth with his lips, and seems very delighted by the whole proceeding. Tucking his batons under his belt, he clasps hands with the boys on either side of him and starts to sing the same words as Rachel. His new lyrics confuse Rory and fluster Sam, who responds to the interruption by picking up the pace of the dance until the circle turns almost at a run.
A rush of dizziness washes over Santana, and she closes her eyes, feeling sun on her face, Brittany's hand in hers, and so much adoration for the youth of the circus that she can barely repeat the song for laughing so loudly.
After another spin, Rachel and Kurt's lyrics prevail. Everyone sings:
Ring-a-round a rosie,
a pocket full of posies
We all fall down
At the final word, Sam, Puck, and Kurt all lean down with all their weight, holding hard to the hands in their grasps, dragging everyone slowly down onto the road with them. Santana collapses in stages, falling first to her knees and then in a heap, tangled up in Brittany and Rachel and laughing so raucously that tears fill her eyes. Were her skirts not so thick, her fall might have hurt her. As it is, she feels as if she's fallen into bed. Brittany laughs beside her, golden, golden, golden.
"Come on," Sam coaches, scrabbling to lift Stevie off the road and urging everyone else to stand up with them. "Let's get out of the way before we burn ourselves on this dirt or the next wagon runs us over."
In the next second, Puck's hands fit to Santana's waist, and he helps her to her feet. He does the same for Rachel as Blaine helps Brittany. Santana feels another rush of dizziness when she meets eyes with Brittany from an upright position.
The braid Santana wove into Brittany's hair on the train has come almost entirely undone, and the flush in Brittany's cheeks and the brightness of her eyes speeds Santana's heartbeat. Under the flare of morning light, Brittany looks as romantic and striking as a painting by Messrs. Courbet or Géricault.
"How was it, birthday girl?" Brittany asks, breathless.
Santana can only smile out her answer.
Swell as swell can be.
At the game's conclusion, Santana piles back onto the landau along with Brittany, Sam, Stevie, and Puck. Soon afterwards, the circus diverts from Elma's main street, turning down a country lane. The white city rises in the distance, constructed on the banks of a dirty, brown creek. It takes a while for the processional to wade through the tall, thick grasses between the road and the clearing, and several of the shorter wagons stall in the brush along the way.
While some of the company members jump down from their vehicles to walk the remaining distance to the wagon bay from the road, Brittany, Santana, and the boys lounge on their landau, waiting to disembark until the last possible moment.
"That's a branch of the Wapsipinicon River—same one that was in Independence," Puck tells Santana, leaning over to point out the creek's pathway through the trees.
Santana smirks and nudges Brittany. "You think this part of the river has frogs, too?" she asks.
Rather than responding to Santana directly, Brittany smiles and sets a hand on the back of Stevie's head, mussing his hair from across the way. "I dunno," she says, putting on a silly voice. "I think we should toss this fella into the creek to check for us."
Stevie protests at once, ducking away from Brittany's hand. "No! Send Stacey in instead! Or Sammy!"
Though Sam hears Stevie's suggestion, he hardly seems fussed about it. He shakes his head, placid, and sinks back against the edge of the landau, covering his eyes with his hat. While Sam isn't as plainly forlorn today as he was on the day when he first had his heart broken, he certainly still isn't back to his usual upbeat self. He shrugs rather than smiles.
"It isn't up to me," he says matter-of-factly.
"Then who's it up to?" Stevie asks.
Sam shrugs again, subdued. "I suppose it's up to Ms. Santana," he decides. "After all, I've heard it's her birthday today, and that means she ought to get the say, don't you think?"
Stevie looks up at Santana, wide-eyed. "You won't throw me into the creek, will you?" he peeps, from the sounds of it already convinced that she will.
Santana has never spoken with a little child before—and especially not one with such a vested interest in what she has to say. She finds that she isn't precisely sure how to react to such a small, precocious person, and especially not one who seems so entirely serious about something so entirely silly.
Stevie doesn't look exactly like Sam does, but he does look enough like Sam that Santana can't help but feel some affection for him just by association. He has delicate features, like his and Sam's mother, a smattering of freckles, and a wide, expressive mouth. He stares at Santana like he's an accused criminal and she's the queen with the power to either pardon him or send him to the gallows.
Santana glances at Brittany for reassurance and finds Brittany wearing a cat-grin, thoroughly entertained by the whole exchange. Brittany gives Santana a nod, encouraging her to say what she will.
Santana swallows. "Well," she says slowly, "I would like to know about those frogs—"
"Oh, please, Ms. Santana, no!" Stevie begs.
Santana grins, "—but I wouldn't want to make you get your feet all wet on my account or have your mother cross with me, so I guess we'll just have to listen for the frogs from the banks. What do you say?"
"I say you're the nicest person there ever was!" Stevie cries, clapping his hands with as much enthusiasm as if Santana had actually issued him a royal pardon.
Before Santana can protest, Brittany interjects. "Isn't she just?" she says earnestly, fingers brushing over Santana's wrist. She flashes Santana an approving look just as the landau draws to a halt upon the grass.
"She is!" says Stevie, and, in the next second, he throws himself forward, wrapping his arms around Santana's waist and burying his face at her shoulder.
Santana immediately flinches, not because Stevie hurt her in any way but because he caught totally unawares; it panics her to have him so suddenly attached to her. She doesn't know what the rules say about situations like this one, but she very much feels as if she's done something wrong.
Heat rises to her cheeks. Stevie looks so pale against her dark skin. She holds her hands out to the sides, unsure as to whether she should extricate herself from Stevie's grasp or wait for someone to save her.
"Whoa, now, little man!" Puck protests, starting to reach for Stevie. "Be careful with my missus—"
He doesn't have the chance to either finish his statement or make Stevie move away before Brittany intervenes.
"My turn," she says gently, tapping Stevie on the shoulder as though she were cutting in at a down day dance. She smiles as Stevie peels away from Santana's body. "May I?" she asks, waiting until Santana gives her a nod before inserting herself in Stevie's former place, wrapping her arms around Santana and giving Santana a squeeze from the side.
It's a quick embrace, just long enough for Santana to absorb some of the heat that hides in Brittany's hair and radiates from her skin. Even so, it's enough to make Santana feel instantly calmer. She starts to breathe again.
Brittany retracts and offers a smile to Stevie. "It's good manners to ask before we put our arms around someone," she says, informative but not chiding.
"That's right, buddy," Sam says, motioning for his brother to follow him down from the landau.
"Okay," Stevie agrees, chipper, committing the new rule to memory.
In the next second, everyone begins to rustle, starting to disembark from the wagon, but Santana remains transfixed, watching Brittany. As Puck and Sam help Stevie down to the grass and send him off to find Mrs. Evans, a curious feeling blooms in the pit of Santana's stomach, spreading all the way to her chest. Santana doesn't understand it—she just knows that it has something to do with how gently Brittany treats small things. It makes Santana want to give Brittany gifts.
(Precious, delicate—the kind that one can't buy in stores.)
Brittany catches Santana's look and blushes for it. "He didn't mean any harm," she says, just so. "He's a good kid."
"He is," Santana agrees.
(What she really means is something else.)
For a second, Santana and Brittany smile at each other, suddenly shy, but then Brittany laughs her silent laugh and starts to shuffle toward the end of the wagon. "I wish Mr. Halberstadt could have been here to make a photograph of your face when Stevie grabbed you," she teases, gesturing for Santana to go ahead of her on the wagon bed. When Santana obliges her, Brittany continues, "You looked like he was pinching you instead of giving you a hug."
Santana's mouth falls open, and she scoffs, prepared to defend her reaction, never mind the truth in Brittany's words, but she doesn't have the opportunity to speak on her own behalf before Puck interrupts, reaching over to grab her by the waist and help her to the ground.
"She just doesn't like strange men making improper advances on her, is all," he says confidently, taking the opportunity to brush dust from Santana's shirtsleeves.
He couldn't possibly have guessed how well his joke would go over with Santana, Brittany, and Sam, who laugh and laugh, savvy.
Santana had expected, or maybe just hoped, that Puck would sidle off after helping her and Brittany down from the landau. She had also expected, or very much hoped, that she and Brittany would have the opportunity to sneak away from everyone as the company dispersed to do their morning work.
Neither one of her expectations comes to pass, though.
Instead, the company congregates around a particular flatbed cart, shielding their eyes from the morning sun with their hands and the brims of their hats. Mr. Adams occupies his usual perch atop the cart, already casting a dark shadow over the crowd, even so early on in the day. A familiar figure stands at his side: Roderick Remington, clad in a navy morning coat and the smuggest smirk that Santana has ever seen.
Mr. Remington holds onto his coat by the lapels and puffs out his chest, surveying the company in the same way that a boy in possession of a quarter-dollar might survey a barrel of penny sweets at a general store. He squints mightily against the daylight.
At the sight of him, something hardens in the pit of Santana's belly, turning to stone. Her fists ball at her sides. Puck, Sam, and Brittany seem to notice the company's congregation and the presence of Messrs. Adams and Remington at the exact instant that Santana does.
"Shit," Puck says, gesturing for his friends to follow him to the edge of the crowd.
The group scarcely reaches its destination before Mr. Adams clears his throat to quiet his employees. He waits for the company's chatter to die away, wincing for reasons that have nothing to do with brightness. For a split instant, he looks incredibly vulnerable, his eyes as sad and pretty as Arthur's. He rubs at his side under his jacket, as if massaging an old wound.
Once he has the crowd's attention, he speaks.
"Friends, you remember Mr. Roderick Remington of the Associated Press," he says, his voice tired and frayed around the edges but still loud enough to carry over the wagon bay. "Mr. Remington has returned to our encampment for the purpose of collecting more notes to aid in the composition of his article concerning our circus, which he is in the process of editing for publication.
I do not need to remind you that we here at the J.P. Adams & Son Traveling Circus & Menagerie hold Mr. Remington and his work in the highest esteem. I'm sure I can count on you, my dear friends, to show your kindest hospitality to Mr. Remington and to answer whatever questions he would ask you with the politeness, modesty, and forthrightness that the public has come to expect of our company. I'm sure that Mr. Remington will collect the information that he requires with no trouble at all! He'll feel of our Christian kindness and see our wholesomeness plainly written in our actions and our words.
Join me in welcoming Mr. Remington back into our midst! We're so very honored to have him with us—more honored than we can say."
Though Mr. Adams speaks in the imperative, Santana has never heard someone do more in the way of begging than he does now. For once, he seems less like a lion and more like a man at the mercy of one. He daren't breathe until the first patter of applause starts from the back of the congregation, and, even then, he scans the crowd, searching out every pair of hands, checking for enthusiasm behind the action.
Santana claps, though she isn't at all pleased to have Mr. Remington back at the camp, and Brittany, Sam, and Puck do the same as she. They all clap—the whole company—but with no jubilation or eagerness to their ovation at all.
(They just can't like a man who would double-cross the circus.)
"We'd all just do best to steer clear of that low-down, gilly son-of-a-bitch," Puck mumbles to his friends, casting a distrustful glance at Mr. Remington on the flatbed.
Santana is about to state her agreement when it happens.
Mr. Adams calls her name.
"Everyone to his work now!" he commands. Then, almost as an afterthought, "And if Mrs. Santana Puckerman is here, I need to see her right away."
Santana halts where she stands.
Since her arrival at the circus, Santana has spoken to Mr. Adams precisely once and come into direct contact with him only twice. Though his turn as ringmaster made her like Mr. Adams very much, she still hasn't any desire to speak with him in conference—and especially not when he sounds so decidedly stern.
Santana meets eyes with Brittany, hoping that Brittany might somehow know why Mr. Adams wants to speak with her. However, she finds only her own nervousness mirrored in Brittany's expression, with parted lips and worried eyes. Puck and Sam seem similarly startled and caught unawares. In fact, everyone around Santana stares at her with a mixture of concern and curiosity made plain upon their faces.
All at once, Santana feels the same hobbling dread she used to feel on the rare occasions during her childhood when her father would raise his voice at her.
(Briefly, Santana wishes that she could hide in her grandmother's clothes closet now like she did back then.)
Santana shrinks, wanting to sink into the earth.
"Go on, ladybird," Puck says, his voice wary through he chucks Santana's elbow in encouragement. "You don't want to keep him waiting."
Brittany gives Santana one long look in concurrence with Puck. She pets over Santana's wrist, both for reassurance and to tell Santana that she'll wait behind for her. Though Santana very much wishes that Brittany could hold her hand all the way up to the flatbed cart or at least give her a good luck kiss before she goes, she knows that she must both go alone and go now, as Mr. Adams called for her and no one else and will want her to hurry along.
With a nod to Brittany, Santana sets off, the congregation parting around her to allow her through to the front. As she walks, she wracks her mind, trying to recall anything she might have done to get herself into trouble with Mr. Adams recently.
Maybe the boy to whom she told an unfavorable fortune yesterday in Dyersville complained of her to Ken afterwards. Or perhaps Mrs. Schuester finally ratted Santana out to their superiors for making such a pert riposte in the dressing tent at Ackley. Or, heaven forbid, perhaps Mr. Remington told Mr. Adams that he caught sight of Santana with her hands and lips all over Brittany Pierce between two derelict tents on the Glorious Fourth.
It only now occurs to Santana how very many rules she breaks on any given day at the circus.
(Foolish, foolish, foolish!)
By the time Santana reaches her destination, Mr. Adams has leapt down from his perch; he stands on the grass, waiting for her, Mr. Remington and Ken flanking him.
"Mrs. Puckerman," he says, giving her a curt nod, "won't you step over here with me to have a word?" He gestures to where the first row of tents stands at the edge of the white city, just a few yards away from his and Santana's current position.
"O-of course, sir," Santana says, remembering to mind her accent for Mr. Remington's benefit.
Santana allows Mr. Adams to lead her into the shadow of a tent just far enough away from everyone to ensure some privacy. A tremor starts in Santana's jaw, and she bites her lips into her mouth, trying to still it. Knotting her hands, she waits, fully expecting Mr. Adams to reprimand her, at best, or to fire her, at worst.
"It came to my attention," Mr. Adams says gruffly, "that you have been the victim of a theft."
At first, the words don't register, and Santana still feels on the edge of panic, like an awful calamity will befall her in the next instant. Only when Mr. Adams continues to speak does Santana realize that he hasn't accused her of any wrongdoing—and also that he doesn't mean to either harangue her or dismiss her from the lists.
"It took longer than I would have liked to have a replacement set of cards brought in for you, but that's because they were imported from Ontario. I'm told they're of the finest Italian design—Dotti, if you're familiar," he explains, reaching into his jacket to produce the deck from the pocket of his waistcoat.
The cards come wrapped in violet velvet and tied with a silk rope. Mr. Adams extends them to Santana with a word of caution.
"I trust I don't have to tell you that these cards are not so very inexpensive, coming first from Europe and then from Canada, correct? Please do make sure to keep an eye on them. I don't want this set to disappear, do you mark?"
Santana cowers. "Yes, sir," she says, accepting the cards when Mr. Adams hands them to her.
She hopes that Mr. Adams will excuse her now, but he doesn't.
Instead, Mr. Adams casts a glance over his shoulder at Mr. Remington and Ken, the former leaned up against the flatbed cart on a lazy elbow while the latter speaks in a hushed, excited tone about something or other, making animated gesticulations. Mr. Adams fixes Santana with a grave look.
In a low voice, he says, "I also trust that if our esteemed guest should ask you to give him a reading today on the midway, you shall oblige him with all readiness and no funny business about the matter, correct? I trust that you will tell him all about what I'm sure will be his most profitable and agreeable future, won't you, Madame Rossetti?"
"Y-yes, sir. Of course," Santana stammers, agreeing on impulse.
Mr. Adams regards Santana for a second longer, checking her for that same unnamable something that everyone seems to seek in her but only one person ever seems to really find. After a second, Mr. Adams straightens up.
"That's a good girl," he says, more to himself than to Santana. He nods to Santana and then quits her company, walking back toward Mr. Remington, calling out in salutation. "Old fellow! How about I introduce you to my head clown, Mr. Evans? He trained under Dan Rice, you know—Mr. Dan Rice, who campaigned to become president!"
Santana turns the tarot deck over in her hands. She durst not unloose the rope to look at the cards. She can't—not when she knows that Death awaits her, hidden in with the rest. She gulps, her throat suddenly very parched. So intense is her focus on the object in her hands that she doesn't notice someone coming up beside her.
"Hey, ladybird," Puck says, appearing at her side. His eyes sweep over her and he finds the tarot deck in her hands almost immediately. "Oh! You got yourself a new deck of cards? Shucks! Give 'em here, and I'll put 'em in our tent before I head out."
"Head out?" Santana repeats dimly, disoriented by the sudden turn of events.
Puck nods, taking the cards from Santana's hands. He already holds her valise and his rucksack. "I've got business to attend in town again today," he says, a note of pride in his voice, the source of which Santana doesn't know. He ducks down, pressing a kiss to Santana's hair. "You behave yourself while I'm gone, and try to steer clear of Mr. Big City Reporter, if you can help it. I'll see you later, all right?"
"Sure thing," Santana mumbles, remaining rooted to her spot as Puck turns to leave.
While Santana likes the idea of Puck making himself scarce for the day, she still feels off-kilter, knowing that she might have to read cards later on at the fair. Her mind swirls with thoughts of tarot cards and mountebanks and dislike for Mr. Remington. Somehow she had forgotten that the Death card would come back to her.
(No se puede eludir la Muerte, Santana. Viene para todos.)
Only with great effort does Santana manage to tear her eyes away from where Puck once stood. She feels several minutes behind the times, like she's still stuck in the instant when Mr. Adams presented the cards to her. She shakes her head and looks out over the wagon bay, searching for the one sight that she knows can bring her back to the present.
Sure enough, Brittany walks toward Santana, hurrying over the grass, cloud shadows and light bathing over her in alternation, putting her first in chiaroscuro and then the whitest white. Her hair drinks in the sunlight, and she comes right up to Santana, like warm waves to summer shores.
"What did Mr. Adams say?" she asks, knitting herself to Santana's side, their hips fitting in close together. She pets over the bones in Santana's arm with the edge of her thumb. "Are you all right, darlin'?"
Brittany scans Santana's face in the same way one might scan a page for a particular passage in a very familiar book, going more by shape and feel than by word. Her own expression remains tight and concerned, and she bites at her lower lip and furrows her brow, serious because Santana is so.
"He, um—," Santana starts, but she doesn't have the chance to say one word more.
"Santana Puckerman!" calls a distant and familiar. "If Mr. Adams is done with you, you best get to my kitchen! I got potatoes that need attention, and your lazy self is just the one to give it to them!"
When Santana turns to find Ma Jones waving at her from the edge of the wagon bay, she all but deflates. She and Brittany had plans. Brittany seems to share Santana's sentiment because she chimes in right away.
"May I come along, too? I can pay attention to potatoes," she offers, taking a step forward.
Ma seems amenable to Brittany's offer, Santana can see it in the lightness of Ma's expression, but Ma doesn't get the chance to claim Brittany for the kitchen before someone else interrupts—namely, Mrs. Schuester, appearing from out of the dissipating crowd.
"Oh no, you don't, Brittany Pierce! I need you in the dressing tent sorting fabric swatches today," Mrs. Schuester shrills, marching forward with her skirt hiked up around her ankles. "I want you to divide them up by color and by size so that I can use them to mend holes in the clowns' costumes come this weekend." When Ma's, Brittany's, and Santana's faces fall, Mrs. Schuester smirks. "I'm certain that Mrs. Puckerman can handle those potatoes quite adequately on her own," she says, her voice dripping poisoned honey.
It had been three days since Mrs. Schuester had last dared to speak to Santana and Brittany, and Santana can't help but feel that she's only doing so now to spite them—to keep Santana and Brittany apart because she wants them to be miserable. Whereas Ma Jones genuinely wants Santana's help, Mrs. Schuester only wants to punish Santana and Brittany for defying her in Ackley. She sneers at Santana and Brittany's dumbfounded expressions.
Brittany lowers her eyes, defeated. "Yes, ma'am," she mumbles.
Ma Jones raises her eyebrows, silently asking if Santana won't come along to the kitchen with her now. Santana nods at her in deference. "Coming, miss," she says dully.
Santana and Brittany share one last long look, crestfallen not only to have their plans dashed but also to have to part from each other in a moment when Santana very much yearns for Brittany's comfort and both of them know it. Brittany bites her lower lip, frowning.
"I'll see you at lunch," she says softly.
"'Kay," Santana says, equally soft.
Her hand traces down Brittany's. For the briefest instant, their fingers tangle together, and red string slips against red string.
"No dallying, Brittany!" Mrs. Schuester huffs.
Brittany rolls her eyes before turning to answer the summons. "Coming!" she calls.
(Sometimes Santana can't help but wonder if she and Brittany will ever be able to make a plan without someone or something interrupting it.)
Santana first notices the weirdness in Ma Jones as she and Ma walk along to the mess pit together.
Normally, Ma would march in front of Santana, leading the way and grousing should Santana start to dawdle, but today Ma walks at Santana's side, hanging close to Santana, as if she and Santana were two small boats tethered together upon the water. Their shadows lap and overlap upon the earth, intermingling and swallowing each other up at intervals, with Ma becoming Santana and Santana becoming her and then both of them becoming something new as one.
Every now and again, Santana glances over to find Ma glancing at her. Ma wears an expression that Santana can't read, partly melancholic, partly shy, and partly veiled. Whenever Santana meets Ma's eyes, Ma quickly looks away, skittish in a way that Santana has never known her to be before.
Santana doesn't know why Ma seems so interested in her today—whether it's because of something she herself has done or something that's happened to Ma.
It surprises Santana when, after instructing Santana about how to check each potato for rot, Ma Jones actually sits down at the kitchen table across from Santana and joins her in doing the work. Ma doesn't say anything more to Santana than what she's already said, but she does meet Santana's eyes. Her expression asks a quick question.
Is it all right if I stay here with you?
It comes as a shock both that Ma would ask Santana's permission to do anything in her own kitchen and that Ma would want to sit with Santana rather than with the kitchen staff, per her usual druthers.
Santana glances at Ma's girls where they gather on the other side of the mess pit, chopping vegetables and kneading biscuit dough for lunch. They chatter so frivolously, silly and oblivious. Ma's eyes flicker with something; if Santana didn't know better, she would say it was nervousness that Santana might turn her away.
It occurs to Santana that when she first joined the circus, she wanted so very much for Ma Jones to like her.
Has she gotten her wish?
When did Santana become the type of person whose company Ma Jones would like to keep—the type of person whose company Ma Jones would prefer to that of her own kitchen girls? Who would have ever thought that the mighty Ma Jones would supplicate before someone like Santana, a newcomer to the circus? After all, Ma Jones has been at the circus since she and Brittany and Sam were small; Santana has been here only just two weeks, and Ma Jones has never much liked her until now.
All at once, Santana remembers what happened last night during supper: the way she and Ma Jones held hands while the circus youths sang to the stars. She remembers how Ma clung to her and wouldn't let go, nails pressing half-moon prints into the flesh of her palm, grip tight to keep linked in the chain.
It was Brittany who first showed Santana how much good just one outstretched hand can do.
Santana glances as the tin ring on Ma Jones' finger. Her heart squeezes in her chest, and she offers Ma Jones a small smile.
Stay as long as you want to.
Ma Jones smiles at her in return.
Santana and Ma work in a kind of silence all their own, pretending not to pay notice to each other though they most certainly do just that. Ma is much faster at her sorting than Santana is, but she doesn't seem to mind Santana taking her time. Every now and again, she'll glance up at Santana, checking to see that their arrangement is still amenable. She won't smile with her mouth, but her eyes shine, dark, deep, and grateful.
The girls' task is simple, though tedious: they toss the good potatoes inside a burlap sack leaned up against the table and the bad potatoes into an aluminum cooking pot on the tabletop, a makeshift rubbish bin for the time being. Hot starch smell pervades the air; the older potatoes feel spongy and porous to the touch.
It doesn't take long before Ma Jones starts to hum a tune, at first aimless and then growing into something recognizable.
Buffalo gals won't you come out tonight...?
She keeps her eyes downcast and doesn't speak the words aloud—only makes the melody deep from her chest and the back of her throat. Though the song is usually lively and gay, Ma puts it in a heartbreak key, turning it into something mournful.
Once she starts humming, she doesn't dare look at Santana directly or say aught to her; she just hums and hums from somewhere low inside her body, making it through all four verses and the choruses between.
Her voice never wavers but resonates thick with an audible melancholy. Her song soldiers along, following until the end, until she makes the last of her work. At the final note, Ma tosses a last potato in the aluminum pot and rises from her place.
At that moment, she seems to return to herself.
"Happy birthday, Santana," she says quietly, her gaze still trained to the table. "You can go wash up before lunch now, if you like."
(Santana feels an ache.)
By the time Santana washes her hands in the tub at the back of the chuck, Ma Jones has already rung the lunch bell and people have begun pouring into the mess pit from all corners of the camp. Whatever quiet yearning had seized Ma while she and Santana worked alone together has gone away; Ma is back to her usual self, shouting orders at her kitchen girls and fussing at anyone taking up too much space around her hearth.
(Ma Jones reacts to heartbreak by running ever faster, trying to do more and more to put it in the dust behind her.)
Santana searches the incoming crowds for Puck but doesn't find him. She searches the incoming crowds for Brittany and finds her right away.
"How was sorting fabric squares?" Santana asks, joining Brittany in the lunch line.
Brittany rolls her eyes. "Mrs. Schuester is cross with me because I can't tell the difference between polka dots and regular dots," she says, shrugging. "They're too confusing. How was paying attention to potatoes?"
Santana laughs at Brittany's joke. "Not so bad," she says truthfully.
Brittany nods, glad to hear it. "And what about Mr. Adams?" she asks, lowering her voice to a whisper. "I didn't get you in trouble with him, did I?"
Santana scoops a spoonful of creamed corn onto her plate. She waits for Brittany to do the same before answering.
"You didn't get me into trouble," she mumbles, "my curse did."
She gestures at Brittany to follow her away from the table out onto the open grass where they can sit at a distance from everyone else.
"Mr. Adams ordered me a new set of cards from Canada, and they arrived in the post today. He told me that he doesn't want any funny business. He wants me to do readings. He doesn't know that I can't read cards without drawing Death every time. He doesn't know that I kill people—"
"You don't kill people," Brittany says adamantly.
There's something almost like anger in her voice, not at Santana but at the very idea that anything about Santana could be wicked or wrong. It's as if Brittany can see the devil perched upon Santana's shoulder and she wants to scare him away in the same way one would a strange dog from a yard or a child's nightmare from the darkest recesses of a room.
Brittany motions for Santana to sit down beside her on the ground, and, once seated, both girls set their plates aside. When Brittany looks at Santana again, she does so wearing a most serious expression, her brow furrowed and her eyes the same sort of blue that dances in the hot heart of a fire.
"You don't kill people," she repeats, her voice softer though no less adamant than it was before. She reaches up to thumb along Santana's jaw. "Cards are just cards," she says. "We all make our own ways in life."
"Britt," Santana whimpers, eyes starting to fill with tears.
She wants to believe what Brittany tells her—she wants to believe that cards are only cards and that everyone makes his own fate—but she runs up against that same wall inside her that always prevents her from thinking anything good about herself. She feels something ripping in her chest, perforating like a sheet of paper torn down the middle.
In her mind, she sees her grandmother's face, eyes hard and filled with hatred. She sees her father putting on his hat and coat, wishing her goodnight at the door to the bachelor cottage for what would be the last time. She sees card after card laid out upon the table. She sees the old gardener, Mr. Bradley, and the young millionaire, Mr. Hammond. She sees Death in his cloak, his skeletal face laughing at her each time she makes the spread.
If she reads for anyone—whether it's Mr. Remington or some other patron—that person will die.
Brittany's expression turns even softer. She strokes over Santana's jaw again. When she speaks, she seems to do so around a lump in her own throat. "You read for Mr. Fabray, darlin', and he's still all right. Even if he weren't, it wouldn't be your fault, though." She reaches up, moving her hand close to Santana's face. "Be still," she whispers, and, then, with the gentlest touch, she plucks a tear from the curve of Santana's eyelash, catching it before it can run down Santana's cheek.
She moves slowly so as not to startle Santana and then smiles not in a happy way but rather to plainly state that she doesn't suppose that Santana could ever do anything truly insidious or harmful to anyone, whether it were on purpose or not. Everything about her manner says that she doesn't believe in Santana's curse one whit. She wipes Santana's tear upon the grass.
Another sad smile.
Brittany draws her palm to her mouth, pressing a kiss to it, and reaches out, touching her hand to Santana's face. Her stroke is so tender that Santana could be made of glass and Brittany would hardly leave a fingerprint upon her. The stroke is also sure, deliberate and unflinching. Brittany's pupils expand to fill her eyes, dark against tiger flecks and starlit blue. She allows her touch to linger, a ring of heat at the center of her hand surrounded by lesser heat. The kiss seeps into Santana's skin.
It's a small signal and one that no one will see from across the mess pit. It's secret and private, plainly not precisely what Brittany would like to do in this situation, though also the best she can do for now. Santana feels the kiss as though it were real. She shudders under Brittany's touch.
For the briefest instant, she does believe that she is good—that she can be good—because Brittany believes in her. For the briefest instant, she does believe that cards are only cards because Brittany tells her so, and Brittany would never lie to her or do anything to hurt her.
Warmth spreads out through her chest.
"Maybe I won't have to read cards today anyway," she says, clinging to that hope.
"Maybe you won't," Brittany agrees.
Briefly, both girls hesitate, their eyes reading each other's faces. Brittany looks from Santana's eyes to her mouth and back again. Her breath hitches, but she hangs. Santana does the same. Behind them, they can hear the babble of voices, the clatter of plates, the movements of five-hundred souls, all of them too near and present to permit them to do as they please. Brittany and Santana's hands twine upon the grass, their fingers messy together but their grips strong. It isn't precisely what they would like to do, but it will do, and it's enough.
Santana feels safe, moored.
Her one sure thing has her and will never let her go.
Puck doesn't rejoin the company for lunch, and he isn't inside the tent when Santana collects her things for the morning fair. What business could keep him away from the circus and in Elma for so long, she wonders? Whatever it is, she hopes that it will whisk him away again after the matinee—that it will occupy him long enough to allow her and Brittany their rendezvous.
Santana goes along slowly to the midway, clutching her new cards, tambourine, and peacock-colored tablecloth. When she sees that someone has repaired the marquee outside her gazebo so that it once again reads "MADAME ROSSETTI, GYPSY FORTUNETELLER: Reader of Both Palms and Tarot Cards," she blanches and tries desperately to repeat Brittany's reassurances in her mind over and over again like a prayer.
Cards are just cards.
We all make our own ways in life.
You don't kill people.
Maybe you won't have to read today.
But Santana does have to read.
It happens just as if someone had written out a script depicting her nightmares: Mr. Remington appears at the head of her queue almost as soon as the fair bell rings, holding the lapels of his coat and wearing his arrogant smirk.
"Madame Rossetti," he says unctuously, "so good to see you again. As I recall, the last time I visited the circus, I approached your table too late and didn't have the opportunity to observe you practicing your arts firsthand. I made sure to get here early today to remedy that situation. I see from your sign that you've added a new trick to your repertoire—you read tarot cards now, do you not? I'd be most obliged if you were to give me a reading so that I might report to my loyal readers concerning your prowess."
Santana gapes at Mr. Remington, half-convinced that his request is some sort of awful joke. Her heart squeezes into her throat. She chokes.
Mr. Remington seems to mistake her dumbfoundedness for something other than what it is. "Oh, pardon!" he apologizes. Then, "I—would—like—you—to—read—my—cards—good—woman," he says, very loud and clear.
All of a sudden, Santana feels dizzy and a thousand different ways at once: sick to her stomach, flustered, unwilling, compelled, angry, hopeful, and wary, among so many other things.
If Santana reads cards for Mr. Remington, then Mr. Remington will die. But maybe he won't die. Maybe cards are just cards. But maybe a curse is just a curse.
Mr. Fabray hasn't died yet and Santana read his cards eleven days ago. Then again, Abuela didn't die for a full month after Santana read her cards, and Papa didn't die for several weeks after Santana read his. They both died just the same, in the end, though.
Death comes for everyone, after all.
Maybe Mr. Fabray will die sometime in these next weeks. Maybe Mr. Remington will die, too, if Santana reads for him. Maybe Santana will die—be kicked out, dismissed, sent away—if she refuses to read for Mr. Remington. Mr. Adams made it very clear that he expected Santana to read for Mr. Remington if Mr. Remington asked her to do so.
Santana doesn't like Mr. Remington and hates what he's done to extort the circus and besmirch its reputation, but she most certainly doesn't want him dead—and especially not because of something she's done to him. She looks up to Ken, helpless, wondering if he might save her again today like he and Kurt saved her on the midway in Ackley.
But he doesn't.
Ken won't even meet Santana's eyes; he keeps his back turned to her, his thick arms crossed over the bulb of his belly. He stares off down the midway. Rules are rules are rules, even for him. If Mr. Adams says to treat Mr. Remington like a lord and king, Ken is obliged to do so just as much as Santana is, no matter how much either one of them dislikes it.
Santana's voice comes out hoarse and feeble. "Of course, sir," she says through her grandmother's accent, gesturing for Mr. Remington to take a seat before her.
She sweats under the heat of the day, and when she reaches for the cards at the corner of her table, they feel inexplicably sharp against her fingers, like knife blades. She sets the deck down before Mr. Remington.
"Please, you shuffle?" she says helplessly, her stomach knotting in tight upon itself.
Mr. Remington looks vaguely pleased at her request. He reaches for the deck, turning it expertly between his fingers, showing all the dexterity and skill of a career gambler. He smirks as he riffles the cards between his palms, the crowd around him pressing in to observe his technique.
"You cut the deck into three parts," Santana says, wringing her hands beneath the tablecloth, where no one can see her do it.
Mr. Remington nods. "Of course, Madame. Of course," he says.
Santana swallows and swallows but can't seem to wet her throat. Once Mr. Remington has parted the cards and handed them back to her—a first stack, a second, and a third—she sets them out upon the table, drawing a deep breath to steel herself.
"This card is you, sir," she says, drawing from the middle stack.
It's the last safe card that Santana will draw.
The Four of Pentacles.
Usually, Santana's strange humor doesn't start to overtake her until she's actually begun the reading, but today it passes over her quickly, like the first flickers of an electric storm crackling in the clouds above a field. It's dark and kinetic, and Santana can't tell whether it comes from within her or without.
Cards are only cards, she tries to remind herself.
Santana doesn't dare to look upon Mr. Remington's face as she draws the first three cards—representations of Mr. Remington's self. She lays out the Ace, King, and Three of Pentacles and in them sees a preoccupation with wealth and a rise to power. With some bitterness, she thinks that she could have told Mr. Remington those things about himself without aid from the cards.
(If only he had asked her for a palm reading instead.)
The next column represents Mr. Remington's immediate surroundings. In it, Santana finds Mr. Remington in a state of flux and dealing with the Hierophant—a man who is pillar in his community and who bridges heaven and earth.
Beyond these surroundings, Santana wanders into Mr. Remington's dreams, where she discovers yet more pentacles and treasure-greed interspersed with hope for luck and success, a desire for personal happiness, and glory shining from the corona of the Sun.
More pentacles—coins upon coins—appear strewn throughout what Mr. Remington knows concerning himself, and then comes the King of Swords, a ruthless figure.
Nothing so far shocks Santana.
Since Mr. Adams read the advance article to the company, Santana has known that Mr. Remington is a cruel, greedy man, preoccupied with his own personal gain and reputation. She has known that he's doing business with Mr. Adams. She had known that he would return to the circus.
The knot in the pit of her belly tightens, pulled taut.
For a fleeting instant, Santana wonders if this reading won't prove harmless after all—if it won't only tell her secrets about Mr. Remington that aren't really secrets at all.
But then she finds the High Priestess enthroned in Mr. Remington's unknown. And then the Lovers in his immediate future. And then the Devil.
And then Death.
This Death is multicolored, a skeleton with his anatomy highlighted in brilliant blue, red, yellow, and white. He leans upon his unwieldy scythe as a farmer would lean on a shovel, his spine hunched and his shoulders curled in exhaustion. He appears hand-drawn and hastily painted but still both vivid and menacing at once.
He's the last card in Mr. Remington's immediate future, and after him come the Ten and Seven of Swords and the Two of Pentacles—portents of violence, a quarrel gone wrong, all of Mr. Remington's greed and worldly concern for naught in the end.
Santana grips the tablecloth as she sets the last card in the spread. She swallows but can't seem to work her throat. She had forgotten to narrate her actions as she laid down the cards on the table and now she feels the weight of Mr. Remington and the crowd's attention heavy upon her. They want to know what the cards mean and also, undoubtedly, why Santana suddenly seems so pale and short of breath.
"Madame," says Mr. Remington, "won't you tell me my future?"
For the briefest instant, rage wells inside Santana.
She wants to stand up from her seat and shout at Mr. Remington for his avarice and dishonesty, telling him that the sins of his heart will lead him to his death. She wants to scream at him that he was a fool to come to her—a fool to return to the circus!—and that he should have left well enough alone and never treaded the midway pitch, not when his only intention in doing so was to take advantage of Mr. Adams and the company. She wants to yell until he understands that circus magic can be dangerous, that he has no idea what his meddling has done, that circus magic can be dark and great and that it sometimes hides things that have good reason to remain hidden.
Most of all, she wants to tell the man to run, to hide himself, to lock his person away somewhere and pray for his own soul day and night.
But of course Santana knows she can't do any of that.
Mr. Remington will die now that Santana has laid his cards.
La Muerte viene para todos.
Santana finally meets Mr. Remington's eyes, helpless to do anything to save either him or herself. Since she doesn't know when Mr. Remington will meet his end, she supposes that she must give him the most favorable reading possible for the sake of his article. In the event that he survives to press time, she wants him to write a favorable review of her work.
"Sir," she says, her voice frayed like old string, "you have laid out plans so that you might obtain riches and successes. The cards tell me you are shrewd and ambitious. They tell me you, how we call it, have dealings with powerful persons. I see here," she points to the Lovers, situated in the column that represents Mr. Remington's immediate future, "that you shall have romance." She moves her finger to the next column, solutions. "And here you shall make financial gai—"
"But what about this?" Mr. Remington interrupts, pointing to the Death card. He squints at Santana, daring her to say something of it.
"Is nothing," Santana tries. "I'm sure you just have short time with us at the circus, is all."
Mr. Remington smirks at Santana. "Are you certain, Madame?" he asks, quirking his brow.
He knows that Santana is lying—or at least that she's sidestepping the truth—Santana can see it in his face. The rules say that Santana must not lie to a man like Mr. Remington and especially not when he asks her a direct question. A bead of sweat slicks down Santana's wrist under her bangles. She swallows again to no avail.
"Sir," she says hoarsely, trying to work out how she should phrase the bad news. "The card is—"
When she falters, Mr. Remington seems almost delighted by her failure. He sneers like an animal that's just sensed a weakness in its prey. From out of his coat, he produces his reporter's ledger and pencil. He makes note of something, jotting his memo with a flourish.
"The card is Death," Santana whispers.
Mr. Remington nods and adds something to his note. When he finishes writing, he restores the ledger and pencil to his coat pocket and leans in close to Santana from across the table, as if he is about to tell her a secret.
"Madame," he says, "it's quite all right. I realize that your employer probably wouldn't like to know that you drew me such an inauspicious card, but you have nothing to fear from me. I like a woman with some nerve—and you have some nerve drawing such a card as this one for any patron, let alone such a distinguished one as myself." He winks at Santana and stands up from the table, straightening his morning coat, chuckling as if Santana had just told him a joke. "I don't mean any rudeness, but, to be most honest, I don't believe in your hocus-pocus anyway," he proclaims. "Your reading hasn't upset me."
The crowd around Mr. Remington has a good laugh at Santana's reading, and Mr. Remington drinks in the attention they pay him, glad to have it. He gives Santana a stiff nod before making his exit from her booth onto the midway; several of Santana's patrons follow after him as he goes.
Once Mr. Remington disappears from sight, Santana casts her gaze upon the cards on the table, checking over them again as if they were an arithmetic problem that simply doesn't add up. Looking on them, she feels a sense of foreboding that extends far beyond anything having to do with Mr. Remington or this one spread in particular.
She stands in the ruination of the flaming Tower, the Devil in the long shadow at her back, Death at her side like an old friend. Somewhere, the High Priestess laughs at her, keeping secrets. She doesn't know what any of it signifies—only that she dreads the cards now more than ever.
(What does it mean when a sham of a fortuneteller tells her fortunes true?)
Santana spends the remainder of the fair in a daze, feeling as uneasy as if she hung suspended between the swings on the flying trapeze. One moment, she clings to Brittany's words—to hope that Mr. Remington won't die because she drew him Death. The next, she finds herself dangling from a slipperier bar, knowing that, of all the persons for whom she's read cards so far aside from Mr. Remington, only one of them is still alive today.
Santana's grandmother, who knew so much about cards and curses and devils, swore on her deathbed that Santana could not read tarot without causing death, but Santana's true love, who knows so much about life and trust and Santana herself, has promised Santana that she's not to blame for what happens when she reads and that there's no fixed course for the world anyhow.
When Santana is with Brittany, she doesn't feel anything but good and whole.
But then there are the cards and four graves dug into the earth only after Santana laid Death on her table.
She reads three palms after Mr. Remington quits her gazebo, telling three rambling fortunes, each one more nonsensical than the last. All the while, she feels overheated and beleaguered, like she has a fever in her head. She must seem very unwell, for Ken doesn't even shout at her on account of her poor performance. He hustles down the midway after the show bell rings.
"Come on, little missus," he grunts, leading Santana over to where Mrs. Schuester's girls wait with their baskets full of flowers and multicolored veils, "we've got a show to put on. You hurry up and get your things." He pauses for a second, chewing on some notion. Under his breath, he mumbles, "I'll tell Miss Pierce to wait for you in the ring," and then waddles away in the direction of Brittany's backstage.
(For the second time, it occurs to Santana that Ken might actually be good at his job.)
It's the promise of Brittany that spurs Santana to move. She feels as if she's treading water—like Mr. Fenimore Cooper's Harry Mulford—only able to keep her head above the waves for hope of imminent rescue. Brittany is her girl in a lifeboat.
She collects a stem of fragrant bergamot and a green kerchief from Mrs. Schuester's seamstresses and finds herself a place at the back of the line leading inside the big top. The show bell has yet to ring, but she still feels rushed, pressured. Though she's done it a dozen times successfully before, she can't seem to tie her veil correctly today. She becomes so engrossed in her task that she doesn't notice Rachel flanking her until the last minute. Rachel sets a hand on her arm.
"You're knotting that so tightly that Mrs. Schuester will have to cut it off your head with sheers," Rachel warns, reaching out to stop Santana before she can make any more trouble for herself.
Santana's first reaction is to flinch away from Rachel and say something curt to her, but she stops herself short of doing so, remembering how very small Rachel seemed last night upon receiving an invitation to dine with the other circus youths. A balance has shifted between the two girls. If they're to be friends now, Santana knows that she must learn to accept Rachel's critiques as Rachel's way of showing concern. Santana softens and lowers her hands.
"Sorry," she mumbles.
Rachel shakes her head, kindly. "Here," she says, picking apart Santana's handiwork with her fingernail, separating fabric from fabric until the knot loosens. She gives Santana a look somewhere between reproving and pitying and refashions the cinch herself.
"Thank you," Santana says dumbly.
For the briefest instant, Rachel's eyes light as if Santana has just given her a special gift, but she quickly shakes it off, downplaying Santana's gratitude. "You're welcome," she says sensibly. Then, switching thoughts, "You wouldn't happen to know where your husband is, would you?"
I don't have one, Santana thinks at once and very nearly says so aloud, only to stop herself at the last instant.
"No," she says. "Why? Isn't he supposed to be with the fellas?"
"He's supposed to be," Rachel says, standing on tiptoe to look out over the backstage area, "but he isn't and Sam is worried that Ken will have some very harsh words for him if he shows up late to a performance today, what with Mr. Remington in the audience and all."
Until today, Santana had never considered that Puck's absences from camp could possibly have an adverse effect on her—for the less she sees of Puck, the happier she tends to feel—but now she wonders what might happen if Puck does skip out on a performance.
Mr. Adams made it abundantly clear that any employee who stepped out of line would find his employment immediately terminated, and Santana can't imagine that Puck would be exempt from that mandate, no matter how well Mr. Adams seems to like him. If Puck loses his job at the circus, then Santana would undoubtedly lose her job at the circus, too. And if Mr. Adams casts Puck out, then Santana will have to go with him.
Nerves flutter in Santana's belly.
(Not for the first time, she very much regrets tying herself to Puck with no way to set herself free from him.)
Rachel is too short to see over the backstage area even when she stretches, but Santana isn't and so takes to tiptoes herself, wringing her hands and wondering where Puck could possibly be.
She knows that Puck spoke to Mr. Adams before he started making his daily disappearances from camp, which means one of two things: either Puck asked Mr. Adams for permission to leave camp according to his own desires or Mr. Adams commissioned Puck to leave camp, perhaps on official circus business. Santana hopes that this latter possibility is in fact that case, as Mr. Adams could hardly fault Puck for showing up either late or not at all to a show if Puck had been detained running errands for the circus.
"Where are you?" Santana frets, watching around the curve of the big top for any sign of a freshly shaven head or the top of Puck's fire staff.
She never sees Puck coming.
But she does feel his hands on her shoulders as he swoops in from behind her.
"Excuse me, ladybird," he says in a rush, the heat from his body washing over her as he ducks into the backstage area, dripping sweat and without his gear satchel.
He moves like a flash flood, coursing in from nowhere and planting a quick kiss to Santana's hair before carrying on his way, swinging around Santana on the side in his hurry to join the other knights going into the ring. He isn't wearing his black shift, like he ought to be.
"Noah, where have you been?" Rachel nags. "Santana and I have been sick with worry for you! You missed the morning fair and you nearly missed the show bell! Where are your things? Didn't you notice the time?"
Santana expects Puck to blow Rachel's interrogation off with crudeness or a brainless excuse, but he doesn't. Rather, a look of panic crosses his face like a rabbit bolting over an open field. At first, Santana can't figure out what about Rachel's questions has Puck so scared, but then Puck's eyes shift, and suddenly Santana realizes that it isn't Rachel's questions that Puck fears at all.
For whatever reason, Puck doesn't want to speak freely in front of Santana. His gaze darts between Santana's face and Rachel's. He swallows, mustering some false bravado. "It don't concern you, nosy!" he snaps at Rachel, hurrying away before Rachel can complain about his meanness.
At that exact instant, the show bell rings.
Rachel looks indignant but neither especially hurt nor surprised by Puck's short answer. "It's not like him to show up late to a show," she mutters. She fixes Santana with an inquisitive look. "He hadn't told you what he was up to?"
Honestly, before today, Santana hadn't cared enough about Puck's mysterious disappearances to much consider them—she only felt grateful to have Puck away from camp during the day, affording her uninterrupted time with Brittany—but now she can't help but wonder what sort of business it is that Puck has in town and why he seemed so nervous to answer Rachel's questions in her presence.
Does Puck have something to hide from Santana?
She doesn't have time to consider the possibility before the queue starts to move and she and the other women file into the big top to join the opening sketch.
Entering the darkness of the big top feels almost like slipping underwater into oblivion; it steals Santana's breath and puts panic into her, as if she were drowning.
Only when Rachel takes hold of Santana's arm does Santana feel righted, like she suddenly has a keel and can keep herself going in a single direction.
All the same, it isn't until Santana spots Brittany standing near the back of the ring that the tightness in her chest finally dispels.
(Brittany seems to have been waiting for her.)
Though her invisible string tugs at her heart, Santana refrains from running to Brittany straightaway. Her own eagerness holds her at bay, like she wants Brittany too much to do anything for it. She separates herself from Rachel with a nod of thanks but remains where she stands, poised just on the peripheries of shadow along the back of the tent, waiting for Brittany like dry earth waits for rain.
Brittany doesn't disappoint.
She hurries over to Santana with sure steps, following the curved shadow along the inside track of ring until finally she meets Santana just at the border of darkness. Before Santana can even say anything, Brittany wraps her in a deep embrace, gathering her in and burying her face in Santana's neck. Windswept-campfire-apple-sweet fills Santana as she breathes against Brittany's skin. The band begins to play at just that instant.
"You look like you had a not-so-good fair," Brittany mumbles, rocking back and forth and swaying Santana with her. Her hold on Santana is sure and safe.
"I didn't," Santana says.
Part of her doesn't want to admit anything beyond that, doesn't want to say that she drew the Death card for Mr. Remington, for fear of somehow making the situation both realer and worse. Shame nags in the pit of her belly. Her grandmother's deathbed shouts play and replay in her mind.
La niña tiene un poco del Diablo.
"Britt," she pouts, "Mr. Remington, he came to my booth, and I— I—"
"You didn't do anything wrong," Brittany says, intuiting what Santana can't bring herself to say.
Brittany's voice is pervasive through the dark. Certain. She pulls Santana in more tightly, ignoring the music and the sketch going on around them. Her hands remain linked at Santana's back, and her ribcage moves against Santana's, the bones spreading and contracting, a liveliness in her pulse. There's something urgent in her.
"I didn't mean to, Britt," Santana confesses, throat turning thick.
Brittany doesn't respond right away; she holds Santana and dances them as if their little lifeboat were swaying on the sea. Her embrace is both firm and insistent, like she somehow means to impart her belief in goodness to Santana through touch in the same way one might share fire by touching two lighted candlewicks together.
Vaguely, Santana becomes aware that the knights at the fore of the ring have begun to make war. She allows Brittany to peel back from her somewhat, so that they both stand looking into each other's eyes, their arms still wrapped around each other. Brittany wears a concerned expression, her brow slightly furrowed and her mouth down-turned into a frown.
There isn't a smidge of judgment in her look, though.
She no more believes that Santana has a curse now than she did when Santana first told her about the curse in the field outside Mankato, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
"You know you're the sweetest person, don't you?" Brittany says, nudging her hips up against Santana's. "It worries you just to think you've done wrong, even when you haven't. Mr. Remington is still all right, Santana. He's alive and well as well can be. I'm sure he's up in the bleachers right now. He's probably writing nasty things about the two fair maidens who won't dance in the knight sketch at this very minute—er, at least he would be if he could see us from there."
If there is any person who can resist Brittany Pierce's sunshine, it isn't Santana Lopez. Santana gives a stifled laugh, her mouth starting to lift at the corners. "BrittBritt," she says, still refusing to let go, even as the blue knights overpower the black and the sketch draws to its close.
Brittany tilts her head down, so as to look directly into Santana's eyes. Both girls appear colorless under so much shadow, but Santana can sense the blue in Brittany, the earnestness of it. Brittany is sure and still like she is just before a knife throw.
"You'll be okay," she tells Santana, giving her a squeeze. "We're going to go give our poor crushed flowers to the fellas, and then we're going to go outside, and you're going to go have your bath day because it will help you feel better."
Santana can't help but really smile now. "You have my bath days memorized?" she asks, half-incredulous and half-delighted. Brittany shrugs, bashful, and Santana's heartstrings pull tight. Without thinking anything of it, Santana blurts out, "You should sneak out of your backstage and meet me there. We could have our surprise party."
Both girls react to Santana's suggestion in the same way, their eyes widening and their backs straightening up. For a second, Brittany looks the best kind of thunderstruck, and Santana knows what she's imagining because Santana imagines it, too: curtains, water, and wet skin, the thrill of standing nude beneath an open prairie sky with nothing to keep their secrets expect a thin partition of canvas.
(It may be the most stupidly brilliant idea that Santana has ever had, and she didn't even mean to have it.)
But then there's Rachel Berry, hissing at Brittany and Santana from a few feet away.
"What are you two doing? It's time to give favors to the knights!"
At Rachel's word, Santana startles, worried that Rachel might somehow see her thoughts spelled out in her expression. Brittany has the same reaction; she shakes her head, hiding her face with her hair.
Blushing, both girls extricate themselves from each other. They exchange shy smiles.
Without saying anything more, they start to walk over to the knights together. The temperature inside the big top soars under the electric lights—or at least it seems to soar by Santana's estimation.
Just before they reach the line, Brittany leans over and whispers in Santana's ear. "We can't have our surprise party now," she says, "but we will after the show." When Santana opens her mouth to inquire about the logistics of Brittany's plan, Brittany cuts her off. "I'll take care of everything, darlin'. I'll be waiting for you once the bell rings."
Brittany's promise makes Santana grin and stokes the heat in her belly. For as many bad things as have happened to Santana since Mr. Adams called her name in the wagon bay, she can't help but think that everything will be better once she and Brittany are alone together, sharing their secret touches.
Santana finishes out the sketch by presenting Puck with her cutting of bergamot and laughing along with the audience as Brittany goes to give Sam a stem of yellow cupplant only to have him produce a prop bouquet of silk flowers from his back pocket for her instead. Santana exits the big top with Puck grumbling about Sam being a showoff on one side of her, and Brittany fixing her with a very interested look on the other.
When they step outside into the afternoon light, Brittany pulls Santana aside. "Go have your bath day," she repeats. "And then look for me during the knife throwing act. I want to give you something else for your birthday."
Santana grins in spite of herself. "You know today isn't really my birthday, right?" she teases, amazed at how much she can adore one person.
Brittany shrugs and bites her lip, precocious in a way that causes Santana's heart to beat faster. "We'll see about that," she says, winking.
(If any person can resist Brittany Pierce's charms, it certainly isn't Santana Lopez.)
(Maybe most girls couldn't be dashing, but Brittany is dashing, and wonderful, too.)
The precociousness in Brittany's smile lingers in Santana's thoughts all the way to the stalls behind the dressing tents; sometimes Brittany drives Santana wild until Santana feels almost likely to swoon. Santana bites back a grin as she prepares her shower and doffs her costume between the canvas curtains, exposing her body to the sunlight and smoothing out her hair against the day heat.
Just as Brittany predicted, she instantly feels better once the water hits her skin—though she also feels a low throb in her belly, like she can't wait to meet up with Brittany after the show.
It's easy to imagine that her own hands are Brittany's hands as she rinses herself clean. Her fingers trail down her arms and at her navel, and her thoughts all but run away from her. She starts to envision what might happen should she and Brittany actually manage to evade Puck and their chores and find themselves alone together following the matinee. She doesn't know how much longer she can stand to go without kissing Brittany today. Her whole body wants for it in a way that she couldn't swallow or shake or will away if she tried.
When she lived at the bachelor cottage, Santana read books about love driving girls mad; she never supposed she would be one of those girls herself. She leans her forehead against the pole upholding the colander.
"Brittany Pierce, look what you do to me," she mumbles, laughing at herself for her lovesick hopelessness.
She waits for another minute until the last of the water from the colander drips down her skin onto the grass and then starts to ring out her hair. Not wanting to miss the show, she hastens to redress herself so that she can return to the big top.
Leaving the stall, she swears that she'll kiss Brittany breathless the instant they find themselves alone together.
Upon returning to her backstage area, Santana finds that Puck retrieved the gear for the gypsy act while she was off having her shower. At present, he stands beside the fire, prepping his staff and Rachel's flail for use, while Rachel hovers just at his shoulder, snipping at him to work faster.
No one seems to notice Santana happening upon the scene except for little Stevie Evans, who pauses in his play to wave to Santana from across the way, wearing a shy smile. Santana returns a wave to him before taking up her usual spot at the aperture at the back of the big top.
Will Schuester has resumed his regular duties as ringmaster following yesterday's suspension, and Santana arrives just in time to see him excuse Jesse St. James from the stage following the lion taming act. Supes rush out from the shadows to unshackle the big cats at the center of the ring and move them into great iron cages upon a flatbed cart instead. In the meantime, Will recites his lines without mistake but also without enthusiasm. He's not even half the showman that Mr. Adams is. The people of Elma don't know what they're missing.
Santana fidgets as Kurt and the other jugglers take to the rings, pins, batons, and balls cycling above their heads. Water from her hair drips down her back, keeping time against her skin like a clepsydra. Her anticipation mounts as Rachel's father and the quadroon manservant perform their illusions for the crowd; when the two magicians cause a piteousness of doves to burst free from their magic box, Santana's heart all but takes wing with the birds.
She waits with shorted breath for Brittany—both for Brittany's surprise and for Brittany's appearance as part of the knife throwing act.
When it comes time for the gypsies to perform, she almost can't bear to leave her spot at the aperture. Only when Puck gives her a stern look does Santana allow him to lead her inside the big top, where she dances well but dizzily. Santana falters near the front of the ring when her mind tricks her into seeing Mr. Remington in the crowd. It isn't him, of course, and, even if it were, Santana doesn't know why she should fear to see his face.
After all, she wants Mr. Remington alive.
(She wants Brittany to be right, for cards to only be cards, and for everyone to make his own way, in the end.)
Santana's nerves get the better of her during the Little Malibran act; though Rachel puts on a wonderfully comic turn before she starts to sing, Santana can only laugh just a little. She feels too wound up waiting to see what surprise Brittany has for her, on the one hand, and waiting to find out whether or not Brittany will make it safely through the knife throwing act, on the other.
When the Pierces take to the ring, Brittany's father walks with the same pronounced limp that he did yesterday, wincing every time he puts pressure on his injured foot. Brittany supports him under one arm, helping him along until they must part so that she can put their satchel into place and make her pose before the board.
While Will narrates the act to the audience, Santana wrings her hands and steps inside the big top, occupying an out-of-the-way place just at the edge of light and dark. Her heart beats so loudly that she wonders if Brittany and Mr. Pierce and Will can't hear it.
Maybe Mr. Remington could even write it into his article.
She forgets all about Brittany's surprise and thinks only of Brittany's safety.
Mr. Pierce makes his first throw wide and to the right—so much so that the knife only barely hits the target, embedding in the wooden backboard less than one half inch from the backboard's edge. The audience murmurs a complaint about Mr. Pierce's poor aim, but Santana can't help but cheer aloud; let Mr. Pierce throw his knives so far off target that they splash in the waters of the Wapsipinicon, for all Santana cares! Just let him spare Brittany his blades.
His second throw as not as inexact as his first, though it also lands wide, so far away from Brittany's shoulder that she would have to stand on tiptoe or jump up and down to touch it with her body. Again, the crowd murmurs, and Santana celebrates.
The third throw is true, the blade sinking into the target close enough to Brittany's left ear that the crowd applauds for Mr. Pierce.
The fourth throw likewise finds home.
And the fifth.
Santana holds her breath for the sixth throw, pressing one hand to her mouth and the other to her heart. Not for the first time in her life, she wishes she could believe in one good thing. She can't ask the devil on her shoulder to save Brittany because it doesn't seem right to do so, so instead she just whispers to anything that will hear her.
"Oh please, oh please, oh please."
She checks the connection between Mr. Pierce and Brittany, locked in fast attention.
The knife blade glints against electric white and wood absorbs the sound of steel. The knife wobbles above Brittany's head, high but safe in its right place, its blade reverberating from the strength in Mr. Pierce's arm.
When the crowd claps for Mr. Pierce's performance, Santana claps louder than anyone else. She knows that Brittany can probably hear her and that Mr. Pierce and Will Schuester can probably hear her, too. She doesn't care, though.
(Let Mr. Remington write her applause into his article, if he will.)
All that matters is Brittany's safety.
Brittany collects her father's bandolier from him and then sets about retrieving his knives from the backboard, showing the blades to the audience as she frees each one in turn. She wears a bright smile, and the spotlight catches in her hair, illuminating it so that it shines more white than gold. She returns the refitted bandolier to her father and dances over to the satchel on the ground, procuring the apple, as per the routine.
Though Brittany doesn't look up from the satchel, Santana knows that Brittany senses her—can feel her at one end of their shared invisible string, waiting and hoping through the dark. Brittany purses her lips and keeps her face downcast. When she stands up, apple in hand, she might cast a quick glance into the shadows at the back of the tent, but Santana can't be sure.
Now that Mr. Pierce has found his rhythm, his next few throws are sure and straight, despite his bum foot and upset balance. Even so, Santana can't help but hate to watch William Tell. "Oh please," she whispers, clasping her hands together so tightly that her bones ache. "Oh please, oh please, oh please."
It all seems to happen slowly.
At one second, Mr. Pierce makes a lunge, stepping forward with a mighty heave. The knife leaves his hand. It turns hilt-over-blade in midair. Mr. Pierce's ankle rolls. He bobbles on his follow-through. The knife hits the high point in its arc. It flashes, caught in the lights.
Santana's whole person seizes.
All the breath goes out of her.
She hears a thud.
Sees the shadow of the knife hilt wobble against a field of whitewash.
The audience applauds, and Brittany stands still.
The knife rests just a few inches above Brittany's head, dirtied with apple flesh and juice. The apple itself lies in halves on the ground on either side of Brittany. Flecks of fruit and wet surround Brittany's hair, the spatter version of an icon's nimbus, but Brittany herself remains pristine and unscathed.
Only once she sees that Brittany is all right does Santana manage to breathe, taking in a great gulp of air like a person resuscitated after nearly choking. She watches as Mr. Pierce regains his footing and Brittany steps away from the board. In the next second, she's clapping, giving such an enthusiastic ovation that her palms sting and her arms grow sore. She screams out Brittany's name though surely it will be lost to the noise of the crowd.
It isn't, though.
(Brittany always finds her.)
Before going over to join her father for their bow, Brittany turns to the audience and gives them a curtsey, holding out her pretty white skirt as if she were separating one leaf of bond paper from many. Then she turns to the back of the big top and with great purposefulness curtsies again, facing towards where Santana waits in the dark.
Santana knows from experience that though she can clearly see Brittany from where she stands, Brittany almost certainly cannot see her, for the glare from the stage lights obscures the back of the tent as though it were a cloth dressing partition, separating sides of a room. All the same, Brittany smiles her widest smile in Santana's direction, her eyes so bright and wide that Santana can spot the blue in them as easily as she would the blue of the sky were she out-of-doors. Brittany glows under a corona of white.
I love you, Brittany mouths out, exaggerating each word. Then, with great deliberateness, she draws an X above her heart with her hand, crossing it. With even greater exaggeration, she mouths out a new message, For you. She points with both hands to Santana—almost as if she could see Santana through the dark—and then blows a kiss.
(Has any girl ever received such a gift as Brittany Pierce's heart?)
Santana catches the kiss with both hands, letting out a little surprised laugh as she does so. Though Brittany already confessed to loving her two days ago in a field of Iowa wildflowers, Santana still can't imagine anything better than to have Brittany confess to loving her again here now or to have Brittany confess to loving her any day, really. Santana had never wanted anything more than to be loved, and now she is. To receive such a gift every day is almost more than she can comprehend.
Before Santana realizes what's happening, her vision blurs, the lights spangling through her happy tears, Brittany a blaze of shooting star white as she spins back around to face the crowd and take her bow with her father.
Though the audience has begun to quiet, Santana continues to applaud so loudly that she feels certain Brittany must hear her. Santana watches as Brittany scurries over to the satchel, picking it up and producing a towel from it in a single elegant motion before retreating after her father backstage, drying her head with the towel as she goes. Santana doesn't stop clapping until well after Brittany disappears into the darkness.
(If Santana has Brittany's heart, Brittany has hers just the same.)
Santana finishes out the show feeling like she could run from one end of the Midwest to the other on her own power, so excited and flustered and eager that she can scarcely keep from bouncing up and down on her toes.
It takes a molasses-paced eternity to make it out of the big top following the grand finale parade, and even longer than that for Puck to gather up his gear and square everything away in the backstage. Santana holds her breath, waiting to see whether Puck will go with her back to their tent or bid her farewell backstage, like he did yesterday.
He straightens up, wearing the gear satchel on his back. "Whew," he says, wiping his brow under the brightness of the sun. "I'm going to take the stuff back to the tent, and then I'm off again, ladybird. I'm sorry that I haven't been able to spend more time with you on your birthday, but I swear I'll make it up to you. What do you say I bring you back something from town so you'll have a surprise at supper tonight?" he asks, reaching out to chuck the underside of Santana's chin with his thumb.
Considering that it takes every ounce of self-governance that Santana possesses not to cheer out loud at the news that Puck will be scarce until evening, it's something of a miracle that she manages to answer him as politely as she does.
"Oh," she says, surprised at the generosity of Puck's offer. She can't imagine what Puck might get her for a birthday gift, being that he knows next to nothing about her. Honestly, the prospect of Puck giving her any sort of surprise makes her nervous. "Um, you don't have to."
Puck laughs and wears his idiot grin. "Sure, I don't have to," he says, petting over Santana's hair with his palm, "but if a man can't do something nice for his missus on her birthday—"
His sentence trails off, and he and Santana both laugh, though nothing seems especially funny. Santana wishes that Puck would take his hand off her head and be gone. She decides to give him a nudge.
"A man who can't keep his appointments probably can't do much of anything else right, either," she says, trying to imitate her grandmother's best scolding tone. She lifts his hand from her head, sidestepping. "You'd best get to town now. Go on! Shoo!"
Puck bites at his idiot smile with one eyetooth, laughs again, and shakes his head. He sets his hat on his brow and readjusts his gear over his shoulder. "Since it's your birthday, I suppose you ought to get the say," he defers, borrowing Sam's words from earlier in the day. "Take it easy, ladybird."
If Santana thought it was difficult not to cheer when Puck said he would be taking leave from the camp for the afternoon, she underestimated the great hardship that remaining in her place until Puck disappeared from sight would pose. With every step Puck takes away from the backstage, Santana's heart speeds in her chest until finally Puck's shadow retreats around the curve of the big top and she can't stay put any longer.
She bolts like a racehorse out of its gate, running so quickly that her feet scarcely touch the ground as she hurries off in the direction of Brittany's backstage.
"Brittany?" she calls, checking the faces of the handful of people who still occupy the space.
None of them are Brittany.
Kurt Hummel offers Santana a wave and a shrug from across the way, as if to say he doesn't know where Brittany could be.
Santana doesn't need his help, though.
She knows precisely where to find her girl and so sets off immediately, traveling by way of her own backstage area, past the dressing tents and across the midway pitch. She cuts beneath the billboard partition, and, after a quick turn, she rounds Mr. Adams' business tent and finds herself at her destination.
The family tent row.
A quick glance around reveals to Santana that she's alone; she hopes she can make it to Brittany before either Ma Jones or Mrs. Schuester detains her. Feeling the need to stay quiet, she sneaks down the way, just as quickly and carefully as one of Mr. Doyle's burglars.
When Santana reaches the Pierce family tent, she stops just outside the door, listening for the sounds of movement inside. She daren't call out for Brittany, lest Mr. Pierce hear her. Instead, she stills herself and listens, trying to distinguish between the distant din of the camp and any noise that might come from inside the tent.
If she strains her ears, she thinks she can hear something shifting around just beyond the tent door. She waits for a long while, her cheek pressed up against hot, white canvas, her hand rested along the nearest pole. Sunlight beats down upon her neck. She counts out ten, twenty, thirty, sixty, one-hundred.
Soon, Santana loses track both of her counting and of whatever shifting she had thought she'd heard. Somehow, Santana had expected Brittany to go straight from the big top to change out of her show costume. Hadn't Brittany said that she'd be waiting for Santana when the show ended? Perhaps she should have specified whereabouts.
Knowing that Brittany is much more likely to find her than vice-versa, Santana determines to wait for Brittany in her own tent and so starts out in that direction, chuckling at herself for her own eagerness.
By now, Santana's hair has dried, and her cheeks, brow, and shoulders all exude warmth, as if they had just come out hot from an oven. Butterflies flit through the grass and dragonflies seem almost to levitate above it. In the sky overhead, sparrows harass one another in dives and swoops. Summer in Iowa teems with animal brilliance, a flourishing liveliness that Santana has never seen anywhere else.
As Santana passes by the business tent, she happens upon a wide stretch of open grass—sand bluestem waving in ripples, whitehead caps upon a sea of paling green. Whereas normally the supes construct the white city in tight rows, here they've had to make an exception, adjusting for a slight decline in the terrain. As Santana emerges from the trisection of tents, she finds herself looking out over a strip of uninhabited prairie between the higher elevation camp and the lower.
Santana's heart knows what it is that she sees almost before her eyes do and thrills for it.
Brittany wades through the grass, immersed up to the hem of her skirt. When Brittany sees Santana, her whole face turns up into a wide, close-lipped grin. For a moment, Brittany stands still, as if she's too excited to either move or speak, but then her excitement seems to well over.
"Santana!" she calls, waving over the field.
(Everything in Santana stands at attention, like an audience rising to ovation.)
(She had never loved her name until she heard it spoken from Brittany's lips.)
Joy firework-flares in Santana's belly, and, before she knows what she's doing, she's taken off at a run, high-stepping over the grass and uneven turf, almost flying down the incline. Bluestem shushes against her strides and tramples beneath her bare feet.
Going downhill, momentum pushes her along until she sprints almost so quickly that she can't keep up with herself. Her skirt, sashes, and hair flow behind her like pennants. Laughter bubbles in her throat as she sees Brittany starting to run toward her, just as impatient as she.
The girls meet in the middle of the meadow, and though Santana tries to slow down, her legs still carry her on speed from the incline. Her feet lift from the ground.
As soon as Brittany sees Santana leap, she extends her arms, welcoming it. For a split instant, Santana experiences the breathless ecstasy of freefall. She shrieks and laughs as she and Brittany collide, her eyes widening and then closing tight just as body meets body.
In the next second, her legs wrap around the slimmest part of Brittany's waist, and her arms find Brittany's shoulders. Brittany catches her first at the bottom of her ribs but then shifts to hold her at the small of her back and under one leg.
It's an ungraceful coming together, and the force of it nearly knocks Brittany over backwards. She staggers, supporting all of Santana's weight. The impact hurts but only briefly before giddiness washes over both girls in a wave. They struggle out laughs, winded, and Santana slides into place on Brittany's hips, feeling Brittany's warmth against her breasts, belly, and thighs. Another thrill blooms in Santana's quick.
And then, she and Brittany are kissing.
It's all one single motion—the leap, the catch, and the kiss follow one from another, clumsy and unplanned. Santana's lips smash against the side of Brittany's mouth until Brittany finds her and guides her down so that they can properly reach each other, their noses pressed into each other's skin, their lips already working.
The kiss plays through Santana like a warm-up note, putting her in Brittany's key. Brittany hums against her mouth, and her lips tingle, body ebbing in time to her—no Brittany's—heartbeat. Santana's hands ravel in Brittany's hair, one at the nape of Brittany's neck, where heat and soft meet, the other behind Brittany's ear.
"Britt," she gasps as Brittany turns their kiss.
(She had waited for this moment all day.)
Brittany takes a fumbling step backwards, and Santana starts to slip down Brittany's body, her legs slinking past Brittany's hips. For a second, Brittany holds Santana aloft, with Santana's feet suspended just above the ground, grass tickling her ankles. Santana hardly minds her slow descent; it deepens her and Brittany's kiss, fitting them up closer against each other until they press together flush.
Santana feels dizzy in the best kind of way, drunker on Brittany now than she ever was on cider beneath a full moon. Slowly, Brittany sets her down, first on tiptoe, then on flat feet, until finally it breaks their kiss.
Brittany's lips and cheeks are pink and her expression wonderfully shy—almost as if she and Santana hadn't just run across a field to give one another a reckless, unencumbered kiss.
"Hey, darlin'," she pants, breathless and dopey.
"Hey," Santana pants back, just the same.
Santana's heart squeezes in her chest, and she reaches out to take Brittany's hand, wanting to keep touching Brittany now that they've found each other. She grabs hold of Brittany's fingertips, feeling Brittany's pulse through the pads of them.
"I was looking for you," she confesses.
Brittany gives a silly, lopsided smile, still stupefied from their kiss. "Yeah?" she gasps, trying to win back her breath. She readjusts her hand in Santana's, fitting their pinky fingers together. "I'm sorry I missed you," she says. "I had to put some things right for our surprise party."
"What kind of things?" Santana asks, quirking an eyebrow.
Brittany shrugs. "I didn't want anyone to interrupt," she explains, "so I just went and told Mrs. Schuester that Ma Jones needed us in the kitchen to help make supper right now. I was on my way to go tell Ma Jones that Mrs. Schuester needs us in the dressing tents when I ran into you. I wanted to make it before you missed me, but I had to change my clothes before I could go anywhere, so."
Santana's heartstrings give a tug in her chest. "Britt," she says earnestly, "you couldn't run fast enough to keep me from missing you when you're gone."
"Oh lands, Santana."
"Well, it's true."
Brittany seems more pleased by Santana's admission than embarrassed by it, really. She shakes her head, delighted.
"Will you come with me to give our excuse to Ma Jones?" she asks.
Santana grins. "Sure thing."
Ma Jones leans against her great, steel cooking pot, resting on her elbows. She wears a stoic expression, her mouth tight but brow even, as Brittany very convincingly explains that Mrs. Schuester requires both herself and Santana to inventory the costumes from the Independence Day spectacular before the costumes go into storage for the remainder of the traveling season.
Though Santana fully expects Ma to see through her and Brittany's fib or at least to protest that Mrs. Schuester can't take two potential helpers away from her in one afternoon, Ma accepts what Brittany tells her both well and without question.
"All right," Ma says, shrugging. "Just don't make too much trouble, you two."
"We won't," Brittany and Santana promise in unison.
(It has never been so impossible for Santana to keep from grinning before.)
With their cover in place, Brittany and Santana hurry out of the mess pit in the direction of Santana's tent, linked pinky finger-in-pinky finger and going along as quickly as they can without running.
Once they escape the mess pit and find themselves alone passing through the tent rows, they burst out laughing, delighted at their own ingenuity and the happiness of their secret plans. They shift to hold hands rather than just fingers. Everything seems so private and gay between them; Santana very nearly forgets that anything or anyone else besides her and Brittany exists in the world.
Brittany and Santana slip through the narrow alley between two tents, emerging into the small junction behind them, only to happen upon two other persons.
The two older Flying Dragon Changs, the fellow and the elder girl, sit facing each other on three-legged stools, a small folding table between them. Two matching teacups rest on the tabletop, as does a steel coffeepot. The acrobats wear their plainclothes rather than their show costumes. They're sharing afternoon tea.
In the instant before they notice Brittany and Santana's presence, the Changs seem almost as happy as Brittany and Santana do, caught in a moment of droll conversation; the woman laughs and covers her mouth, and the man pulls a precious face, scrunching up his nose. He's clearly just said something silly, either as a joke or by mistake.
But then he and his companion look up.
And then everyone halts all at once—the Changs at their table and the girls where they stand.
Both pairs of people stop laughing, and their smiles disappear from their faces, replaced by expressions of surprise. The whole situation seems very much like an intrusion, but it's impossible to say upon whom.
For a moment, no one moves.
But then Brittany step forwards, tugging Santana along with her and stopping just in front of the Changs' folding table. With her free hand, Brittany waves to the Changs. "How do you do, Mr. Chang? Mrs. Chang?" she says formally, as if they were old acquaintances who had encountered one another outside the opera or at the dinner club. She gestures to their coffeepot. "Spending a romantic afternoon together, I see? That's dandy, isn't it?"
The Changs stare at Brittany, their faces unreadable. They glance at each other and then look back at her. If Santana had to guess, she would say they were confounded. In all truth, Santana feels the same way.
"Britt," she says, "what're you—?"
Brittany indicates Santana at her side, holding up her and Santana's clasped hands. "As you can see," she says to the Changs, just so, "I'm out and about with Santana. In case you didn't know, we're in love—"
Momentarily, Santana thinks that her heart might beat so quickly that it will explode in her chest, but then she realizes what Brittany is playing at.
The Flying Dragon Changs don't speak English.
Brittany can say whatever she likes to them about her and Santana, and they'll be none the wiser for it.
It's a queer realization and a possibility that Santana had never really considered before. Though she and Brittany must keep their love for each other secret from the whole world otherwise, they can tell these two people about it, at least.
It won't do any harm.
In fact, it might do some good.
After all, Santana has often longed to show Brittany off to someone—to say without fear that it's Brittany she loves and not anyone else. Pretending to be married to Puck when she feels so committed to Brittany is such a burden. The prospect of being able to explain what's in her heart thrills her.
Suddenly, Santana finds that she knows exactly why Brittany decided to speak to the Changs in the first place. She grins and grabs Brittany's one hand in both of hers, wrapping herself and Brittany up more tightly together.
"—we're fantastically in love, actually," she chimes in, joy welling in her breast, "like in a storybook."
Brittany beams at Santana for her contribution to the conversation, but the Changs only blink, unable to understand why Brittany and Santana insist on speaking to them, though everyone present knows very well that they can't comprehend a word said in English.
"I know some people think that you two are brother and sister," Brittany says to the Changs, "but you're not, are you? You're in love with each other just like we're in love with each other, and I think you're a lovely couple."
"I do, too," Santana says truthfully, recalling the night when the lights went out under the big top and she glimpsed the lady Dragon Chang giving the fellow a kiss, rescuing him from the trapeze.
Brittany beams at Santana again before turning back to the Changs. "Anyway, I really want to go kiss Santana, so we're going to leave now. Enjoy your coffee or tea or whatever that is," she says, nodding at the coffeepot.
The Changs only stare as Brittany and Santana make their exit, their faces still blank and their posture stiff. Santana can only imagine what this whole encounter must have seemed like from their perspective. They probably think that Brittany and Santana are mad.
(They're probably right, just a little bit.)
Brittany and Santana scarcely make it to the next junction of tents before they start laughing again, doubling over and leaning on one another for support. Their exchange with the Changs wasn't really funny, per se—more wonderful than anything, wonderful to be able to speak freely with no secrets and no doubletalk for once.
"God," Santana laughs, "let's have tea with them more often!"
"We could have a picnic!" Brittany agrees, wearing her widest grin.
"How romantic!" Santana says, pretending to swoon.
By now, they've come upon Santana's tent row. Since no one is around except for them, Brittany gives Santana a twirl, as if they were dancing, and Santana's gypsy skirts flare about her legs like wings on a whirligig. As Brittany and Santana step up to Santana's tent door, excitement and nerves flutter in Santana's chest. She laughs again before suddenly her feet come out from under her, and she shrieks.
For an instant, Santana reels, disoriented and unsure as to why and how she finds herself above the ground, but then she feels Brittany's arms underneath her. Brittany has grabbed Santana up under her knees and at her back, carrying Santana as if she meant to rock Santana to sleep. At first, Santana scrambles, scared for herself, but then her arms find a place around Brittany's shoulders, and she stabilizes.
Brittany grins at Santana, with her eyes a wild blue. She waits until Santana nods that it's okay to proceed and then kicks the door to Santana's tent open just enough to shoulder her way inside. Canvas rubs rough upon Santana's limbs and sticks to her hair. She closes her eyes and ducks closer to Brittany, letting out a little squeak as she breathes in the campfire-windswept-apple-tinged scent on Brittany's skin. The light changes from bright to dim behind her eyelids.
In the next second, Brittany starts to let Santana down, setting her on the grass. Santana opens her eyes just as she regains her footing. Brittany quickly closes the tent flap behind them, sealing them in the brown lowlight of the indoors. They're alone.
When Brittany turns back around, Santana meets her with a grin. "What was that for, BrittBritt?" Santana asks, reaching out to take Brittany's hand in hers again.
Brittany shrugs, her hair falling into her face. "You seemed nervous," she says matter-of-factly, "and I felt nervous a bit, too, so I thought that maybe I should do something to make us not nervous anymore. Are you nervous now?"
Truthfully, Santana does still feel nervous. Though she's never been more eager to do anything in her life, she also can't help but fret about the details of this "surprise party."
After all, the last time she and Brittany shared touches in her tent, it was so wonderful—perfect, even.
What if this experience doesn't measure up?
While Santana has no doubt that she'll enjoy every minute she spends with Brittany, she worries that she might not be able to make Brittany feel good in kind. The thought of disappointing Brittany in any way is a dreadful one.
(Santana just wants to do right by Brittany always.)
She shrugs. "I still am, a little," she confesses.
Brittany nods, sympathetic. Her expression turns very soft as she draws Santana's hand up to her mouth, kissing Santana's knuckles just over Santana's thread ring and then Santana's palm, right at the center. She meets Santana's eyes, making sure that Santana is all right before she takes a step in closer.
Her free hand brushes Santana's hair back behind Santana's ear, uncovering Santana's face, and then tilts up Santana's chin. With exceeding gentleness, she kisses the underside of Santana's jaw, her lips feather-soft upon Santana's skin. Santana lets out a little gasp, amazed at how keen Brittany's touches already feel to her, despite their lightness.
Brittany kisses at Santana's pulse point, her lips working on every offbeat of Santana's mouse-quick heart. Only as Brittany moves in closer to Santana's body does Santana realize that Brittany's heartbeat is just as rapid as her own. All at once, she loves Brittany even more for trying to make her feel less nervous even though Brittany clearly feels nervous herself. She shows Brittany so by lifting Brittany's chin and pulling Brittany into a real kiss.
Unlike their kiss in the meadow, this one is sweet and graceful, with Santana standing just a bit on her toes to reach Brittany's mouth. When she and Brittany break apart, they're both grinning.
"Hi," Santana says.
"Hi," Brittany says back.
Without another word, Brittany leads Santana over to the cot, and both girls sit down, side by side, just like they did in Onawa. At first, Santana thinks that they might kiss again, but they don't—not right away. Instead, Brittany pats the sling of the cot, asking without speaking for Santana to lie down with her, and they do.
The cot is scarcely big enough to accommodate two full-grown people, even when both people are slender young women. Usually, when Santana and Puck share the cot, he lies underneath her so that both of their bodies can fit on the canvas. With Brittany, Santana lies on her side so that their knees press together and their faces draw so close to each other that Santana can see even the faintest freckles splashed across the bridge of Brittany's nose. Brittany reaches out and smoothes back Santana's hair, and Santana closes her eyes to the sensation.
"Talk to me about something, darlin'," Brittany mumbles.
Santana doesn't open her eyes yet. She shifts to allow Brittany more room to stroke through her hair. "Like what?" she asks.
"Like anything," says Brittany. "Like how about New York City? I've never been there, and it's where you grew up."
Santana opens her eyes. "You've never been to New York City?" she asks, surprised that someone as well-traveled as Brittany has never visited such an important place.
Brittany shrugs, bashful. "Our Eastern route runs through Upstate," she explains, "but there's no place to make camp inside New York City, I don't think, so we always skip it. Blaine says that New York City is a Barnum & Bailey town, anyhow—or at least it used to be before they hopped over for their European tour. They used to play Madison Square Garden. We always stick to the countryside. I've never been to any really big cities, but Blaine says they have buildings a hundred feet tall in New York and that the sidewalks there stretch for miles. Is that true?"
At Brittany's word, one of the songs Santana's father and his doctor friends used to sing around the piano enters Santana's mind. She grins at the memory.
"What?" says Brittany, shifting a bit so that she nestles under Santana, Santana lying across her chest.
Santana laughs. Rather than explaining her circuitous train of thought, she clears her throat. Leaning over Brittany, her hair swept across Brittany's breast and shoulders, she begins to sing.
East Side, West Side, all around the town,
the tots sang "Ring-around-Rosie," "London Bridge is falling down"
Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O'Rourke,
tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York
Santana can scarcely keep from giggling, even singing such a short snippet of the song. She's being silly, really—except that Brittany doesn't seem to think so.
When Santana stops singing, stifling laughter, Brittany's eyes turn wide. "Keep going!" Brittany insists, nodding her encouragement.
Though Brittany's enthusiasm shocks Santana, Santana isn't one to refuse Brittany anything. She swallows her laughter, and, after another nod from Brittany, finds the tune again, this time singing more in earnest, using her real singing voice, as though she were performing for her father and his friends in the parlor. She trails a hand through Brittany's hair and sings.
That's where Johnny Casey, little Jimmy Crowe,
Jakey Krause, the baker, who always had the dough,
pretty Nellie Shannon with a dude as light as cork—
she first picked up the waltz step on the sidewalks of New York
Things have changed since those times, some are up in "G"
Others they are wand'rers, but they all feel just like me
they'd part with all they've got, could they once more walk
with their best girls and have a twirl on the sidewalks of New York
Brittany smiles her most pleased cat-grin all the way through Santana's song. Only after Santana's last note fades from the air inside the tent does she move, quietly clapping her hands just over her own belly.
She gives a little cheer—"Yay!"—looking as delighted as delighted can be. Then she says, more seriously, "You have the most beautiful voice, Santana. I think I could listen to you sing forever."
The fact that Santana knows that Brittany means her compliment in all seriousness and not just as flattery causes Santana to blush even more furiously than she might do otherwise. Heat spreads out over her cheeks and brow, even reaching her shoulders.
"But Britt," she protests, "you listen to the Little Malibran of Seville sing every night—and Ma Jones sings most days. They both have much better voices than mine."
Brittany shakes her head. "Nope," she says surely. "Different voices, not better."
Santana's blush burns even brighter. She bites her lip. "You are something else, Brittany Pierce," she says, at a loss to explain how wonderful Brittany makes her feel.
"No, you are, Santana," Brittany returns, grinning for a moment before her expression shifts, suddenly turning somber. "How come you don't sing more often?" she asks. "I'd never heard you sing just by yourself until now. I didn't know you could."
Santana shrugs. "I dunno," she admits. "I usually only sing when I'm by myself because I don't want to bother anyone." Then, "Do you sing, BrittBritt?"
Brittany laughs. "I can sing all right," she explains, "but I'm better off with other people. I'm not like you or Rachel or Ma Jones."
"I bet you're better than you think you are," Santana says automatically.
Brittany laughs again and shakes her head. Instead of acknowledging Santana's compliment, she says, "I like learning new things about you, darlin'."
Santana agrees. "I like learning new things about you, too."
"Let's do it forever, okay?" Brittany says.
"Sure thing," Santana promises.
They kiss again, easy and slow, their mouths moving together in a perfect lazy sort of exploration, Brittany rolling Santana's bottom lip between both of her own. The kisses stir a nagging, bothered sensation in Santana's quick. Even so, she still feels nervous enough not to press it. Instead, she pulls back.
"I don't actually know much about New York City," she admits to Brittany, continuing their conversation. "I wasn't ever allowed beyond the garden at the bachelor cottage, really. I could see the city from my bedroom window, but I never actually went out into it except for when Puck brought me from the bachelor cottage to the boarding house, and then I was too scared to really take in much of anything. It was all a blur."
Though Santana never thought anything of it when she was growing up—not having other experiences to compare to her own—she realizes now that her childhood was a very peculiar one. With anyone else, she might feel too embarrassed to confess that she had been all but a prisoner in her own home. With Brittany, she feels comfortable enough to talk about her past, though still not quite certain how Brittany will react to hearing about it.
She searches Brittany's face and finds Brittany's eyes soft, her mouth sympathetic. "You were like a princess locked away in a tower," Brittany says, thumbing at Santana's wrists under Santana's bangles.
(Santana's copper penny gives a flip in her belly.)
"You're too nice to me," she says to Brittany, leaning down to kiss Brittany's cheek.
"Hardly," Brittany disagrees.
"No, you are," Santana insists, moving down to kiss Brittany's lips. "You're the nicest person in the entire world, Brittany. You're the kindest, sweetest, best everything."
Now the girls kiss deeply, Brittany's tongue running along Santana's as they move against each other. Santana remains propped on Brittany's chest, one hand at the cap of Brittany's head, the other at Brittany's side. Brittany's hand moves against Santana's back, shifting from Santana's blouse to the bare skin of Santana's shoulders. Her palm feels hot. Every time it shifts, it sends a shiver through Santana's body.
Brittany's other hand moves to the back of Santana's neck, guiding Santana's kisses against her skin. Under Brittany's direction, Santana kisses Brittany's mouth and jaw and the amazingly soft dint behind Brittany's ear. Brittany hums, "Uhm. Your kisses are so sweet, Santana."
The throb that has intermittently been in the pit of Santana's belly all day intensifies, putting her into a rhythm. After a minute, Brittany brings Santana back to her lips. She kisses Santana deep and long. When the kiss breaks, both girls pull away, breathless.
"Do you maybe want to take our clothes off?" Brittany asks, starting to sit up from the cot.
Santana grins, rapscallion. "Whoever invented clothes is an idiot," she says by way of agreement.
Though it would undoubtedly prove easier to undress while standing on the ground than it would while lying in the cot, neither one of the girls seems keen to move away from each other, even for the minute it would require from them to change their positions.
In order to maintain their proximity to each other, they maneuver awkwardly within the canvas sling, Brittany sitting up on her knees and sliding to the end of the bed where Santana's feet usually go when she sleeps while Santana remains in her previous spot. Brittany straddles Santana's legs.
"I'll go first," she says with a wink.
When Santana realizes that Brittany means to undress on top of her, her heart beats at a sprint. Though Santana has seen Brittany naked before and even lied flush against her when neither one of them was wearing any clothes, somehow the idea of watching Brittany disrobe while almost sitting on her lap causes Santana's head to spin.
"Okay," she says stupidly, reaching up to put her hands on Brittany's hips, anchoring Brittany to her body.
Brittany flashes Santana a wicked smile before loosing the sash at her waist and dropping it to the grass at the side of the cot, as if she were unwrapping ribbon from a Christmas parcel. Santana temporarily shifts her hands away from Brittany's hips, allowing Brittany to continue. With great precociousness, Brittany starts to peel up her own skirt, revealing her long, toned legs. She must take her chemise off right along with her dress because, the next thing Santana knows, she can see the place between Brittany's legs and a stretch of fair, unblemished skin leading up to Brittany's navel and the bottom of her ribcage. Excitement and nerves seize in Santana's chest as Brittany reaches behind her own head, about to free herself entirely from her outfit.
For the third time in less than an hour, Santana feels the ground slip out from under her. The fathomless thrill of freefall blooms in her stomach. In a fleeting instant, everything upends. She shuts her eyes on instinct but scarcely has time to brace before impact.
She lands hard on the ground, her skirts and limbs in a heap. Pain shoots through her wrist, and she yelps. Brittany lands half on top of her, legs in her lap. When Santana opens her eyes, she immediately sees what happened.
The cot flipped, probably when Brittany arched her back to discard her dress.
For a long while, neither Brittany nor Santana says or does anything. Vaguely, Santana wonders if either she or Brittany is hurt. When she determines that they aren't, she meets Brittany's eyes.
Both girls laugh even more raucously when they did when they managed to dupe Ma Jones or when they "took tea" with the Dragon Changs. They laugh from deep inside themselves, hard and until they almost can't breathe for it, the absurdity of the situation not lost on them. Santana clutches her belly. Brittany covers her face.
The fact that Santana had been so worried that her time alone with Brittany wouldn't be perfect somehow makes the moment even funnier to her.
"Are you okay?" Brittany laughs out.
Santana nods, unable to contain herself. "Perfect," she manages, flinging herself forward to wrap Brittany up in a hug.
For several seconds, she and Brittany laugh against each other's bodies, Santana's face in Brittany's hair and Brittany's ribs racking against her. When they finally compose themselves, they peel back, wiping at their eyes and taking deep breaths. A quick survey of the damage reveals the cot overturned on its side and Brittany's clothing constellated around Brittany and Santana on the grass but no trouble more serious than that.
"Do you still want to—?" Santana asks.
"Yes, please," Brittany says quickly.
Neither one of the girls moves to right the cot. Instead, Santana quickly and unceremoniously undresses on the ground, shucking off her bangle bracelets and disrobing from her costume layer by layer while Brittany crawls towards the back of the tent.
At first, Santana doesn't pay attention to what Brittany's doing, but once she unfastens her corset, she looks up to find that Brittany has rescued Puck's sleeping mat from the corner and begun unrolling it so that she can lay it out on the floor.
"Will that be big enough for two people?" Santana wonders.
Brittany flashes Santana a sly smile. Rather than answering Santana's question right away with words, she proceeds to unfold the sleeping mat further than Santana had ever seen it unfolded before. Apparently, the mat is really only a thick blanket doubled over. When Brittany opens it, it becomes as wide as Santana's bed was back at the bachelor cottage.
"Circus magic," Brittany says, pleased with her own trick.
Now that they're both naked and able to see each other in full, Santana allows herself to appreciate Brittany's body in the same way that she would the unfolding of a most wonderful story.
Her gaze trails over the rarest stretches of Brittany's skin—the spaces she doesn't get to see on regular days—tracing the rounds of Brittany's breasts, the suture in Brittany's belly, and the pucker of Brittany's navel, before glancing at Brittany's scars, the whiter one on Brittany's shoulder and the pinker one on Brittany's thigh.
Santana loves Brittany's whole shape and person, just like she loves Brittany.
She feels Brittany's attention on her the same way.
Without thinking about it, she moves forward onto the unrolled sleeping mat and pats her hand for Brittany to lie down on the mat beside her, as they had done before in the cot. Brittany accepts Santana's invitation, settling onto her side facing Santana. Both girls let out sighs, contented again following their fright.
"I lost my balance," Brittany says, as if to apologize for knocking over the cot.
Santana laughs. "At first I thought that I was just too dizzy from kissing you and that the room was spinning," she admits.
She expects Brittany to tell her she's being silly, but Brittany doesn't. Instead, Brittany blinks once, as if a camera has flashed very close to her face, and ducks forward, pressing a quick, deliberate kiss to the tip of Santana's nose. It's sweet and it's perfect and it's not at all what Santana had anticipated.
(A shiver runs through Santana's body from sheer adoration.)
(She had never realized how much she loves surprises until she realized how much she loves Brittany.)
Whereas normally Santana might ask Brittany what she had done that for, now Santana finds she knows exactly why. Unable to do anything else for it, Santana mirrors Brittany's action, ducking forward to give Brittany a peck in kind—only she aims her kiss for Brittany's lips.
It's a silly kiss, more funny than anything, and both girls giggle at the contact, Santana shivering again from the thrill of it. Brittany gives Santana's hands a squeeze and wriggles closer to Santana until their noses nudge together.
"Howdy," Brittany says, grinning her cat grin. A bright, pretty flush colors her cheeks. Her face hovers so close to Santana's that Santana could count individual tiger flecks in the blue of Brittany's eyes, if she wanted to.
Santana can't stop giggling for Brittany's cheekiness. She likes everything about this moment, from being close enough to Brittany to see the honey tone of Brittany's eyelashes to the major thrum that plays through her own body, a prelude to something. Her and Brittany's hands press against her navel, tethering their bodies to each other.
Brittany purposefully misaims her next kiss, catching Santana just at the corner of her mouth but not on it. Santana squirms beside Brittany and tangles their legs together more thoroughly.
"You're teasing me," Santana complains, and both girls laugh breathily.
Santana tries to lean in for another kiss just then, but Brittany pretends to be shy about it and squirrels away, blushing. When Santana shows disappointment, Brittany's fake bashfulness morphs into something else.
"No fair," Brittany says, dipping in to meet Santana's pout.
This time, she does so truly, pecking Santana on the lips and then leaning in again for something more lingering.
The second her lips pillow Santana's, Santana sighs, appeased. She opens her mouth, hoping that Brittany might take her hint, and Brittany does so, slipping her tongue past Santana's lips. At Brittany's cue, Santana opens her mouth even wider and allows Brittany to lead them, painting long, hot strokes wherever she can touch.
The stoked feeling kindled in Santana's belly from before flares into a real flame, heating her from the insides out. She hums to let Brittany know how well she likes the sensation and squirms again so that their breasts brush each other.
"May I touch you?" Brittany asks, running her hands up and down Santana's ribcage, kneading at the soft place just to the side of Santana's breast.
"Please do," Santana says. Then, "May I touch you, too?"
Brittany nods, "Sure thing, please."
They both move their hands at once, Brittany's fingers trailing up Santana's ribs to Santana's breasts just at the same time that Santana thumbs over Brittany's nipples. Santana breathes deeply, adjusting herself into Brittany's hands so that Brittany's palms curl over her. She shudders as Brittany begins to feel her and responds in kind, mapping out smooth-round-soft.
"These feel nice," Brittany says artlessly, massaging Santana's breasts again. She looks at them, delighted, a flush over her skin. "May I try what you did last time?"
At first, Santana doesn't know what exactly Brittany means, but then Brittany opens her mouth, and suddenly Santana remembers.
A thrill jolts through her.
"Please," she says, adjusting herself on the blanket so that Brittany is level with her breasts.
Brittany grins and angles her head, drawing her open mouth to Santana's skin. Her tongue is candy pink and warm. It slicks over the round of Santana's breast, leaving a wet trail after it. Eventually, Brittany finds her way and takes Santana's nipple into her mouth, laving over Santana's skin. Santana gasps, her own hands stopping over Brittany's ribs. She arches against the blanket.
Brittany looks wild, like the girl who first discovered fire.
The feel and the image and the motion of her take Santana in a rush.
"Oh," Santana whimpers, writhing with starched cotton underneath her and Brittany's animal heat pressed upon her everywhere else.
Brittany kisses her breast, open-mouthed, and then kisses it again, careful, slow, and purposeful, her nose nudging deep into Santana's skin.
"Britt," Santana whimpers again, the throb between her legs suddenly unignorable, "can you touch me, please?"
She reaches for Brittany's hands, which have found a place just at her waist, and tries to guide Brittany to where she means, but she finds her own movements clumsy and confused. She can scarcely think of anything except for the strokes of Brittany's mouth against her skin and her own need for more and deeper friction.
Luckily, Brittany understands Santana's words, even when Santana's wrists falter.
Brittany pulls away from Santana's breast, moving back up the blanket to kiss Santana's mouth, searching and fervent. She tastes like salt sweat and summer heat, like Santana mingled with her own self. When she pulls away from Santana, their lips smack loudly.
"Here," Brittany pants, reaching down to coax Santana's left leg up and over her own right hip. She wriggles her left leg between Santana's knees, propping them open wide enough for her hand to fit where it wants to go, and then kisses at Santana's neck again, working with more tongue than lips. Her heat feels urgent, though her kisses trail, lazy. She thumbs over the muscle that leads from Santana's hipbone down to the space between Santana's legs.
"Britt, please," Santana reminds her, kissing at Brittany's hair, though she can't entirely reach it, nuzzling her forehead against Brittany's. Her hands slip from Brittany's ribs to clasp at the small of Brittany's back. She hugs Brittany's body closer to her.
Somehow, Santana can scarcely believe what they're doing—how perfect it is and how wonderful it feels. Her whole body waits, keyed to Brittany's touch.
"Anything you like," Brittany whispers fervently. Her left hand stills over Santana's hipbone, anchoring Santana in place, and her right hand presses over the juncture between Santana's legs, mapping it out for just a moment before she ventures further.
Santana's body knows what it waits for now and somehow the anticipation makes the satisfaction sweeter.
Brittany's first touch, though glancing, feels like a miracle, and Santana's mouth falls open. Brittany's finger finds that perfect, aching spot almost right away, and Santana's hips slide to meet the sensation, keen for it. Santana's heart beats hard for Brittany, and Brittany kisses Santana's mouth and touches Santana again, this time with more pressure.
She starts to stroke in a rhythm.
Though Santana could already feel a slick between her legs, more obvious with every throb, the spot where Brittany touches only slicks as Brittany's fingers start to work over it, pressing faster and in little circles, sending starlight-shocks through Santana's body.
It feels amazing—Brittany's fingertip slipping through Santana, quick and persistent, pulling something out of her, dark but beautiful and sweet. Santana shudders and her breath turns thready.
"Oh, Brittany," she groans, her voice plump with so much sensation. She presses their foreheads together, both her and Brittany with skin damp from sweat. "God, Brittany... Brittany... Britt..."
Brittany quiets her with a kiss. "Shh," she whispers. She meets Santana's eyes, her pupils spreading out like midnight sky sprawling over the ocean, covering her irises. She wears a small, pleased version of her cat-smile. "You've got to be quieter or else someone might hear us. Put your face against my shoulder, please," she coaxes, helping Santana slide into place.
Her fingers never stop working.
It's hot, hiding behind a veil of Brittany's hair, but Santana loves the smell of Brittany, like wind and copper and the earth after rain, and she loves Brittany. For an instant, her mind clears of every thought, except for an awareness of how perfect Brittany's body seems against hers and how safe and cared for she feels, like Brittany could take her anywhere and it would be all right.
The animal want inside Santana would have her cry out, but she presses her lips against Brittany's collarbone, trying desperately to keep quiet. She still whines and keens at Brittany's touch, though she can't help but do it.
"Good girl," Brittany tells her, and she feels the compliment everywhere, right down to her quick.
Wet ribbons swim inside of Santana's belly, coiling ever tighter as Brittany winds her up. She wants for something, feeling empty, but also writhes because it's all too much, her hips rolling to follow where Brittany lists.
"Oh God!" she yelps, unable to stifle herself anymore. "Brittany!"
"Shh," Brittany tells her again, thumbing over her hipbone. She reaches up to stroke first her own hair and then Santana's away from Santana's face, as tender as if she were arranging flowers for a bouquet.
"BrittBritt," Santana whispers, minding her volume for the moment, "m-may I touch you, too, please? I think it would help."
She doesn't have to explain with what.
Brittany seems to know.
She kisses Santana on the lips, more slowly than she has in a while. "I'd like that," she says honestly, lifting her right leg to curl over Santana's back, opening herself for Santana to touch. "Kiss me, please," she says and Santana does, sucking Brittany's bottom lip between her own as her left hand finds the heat between Brittany's legs. She smiles into the kiss and Brittany smiles in return.
"Hey, Britt?" she says.
"Yeah?" Brittany answers, breathless.
"I love you."
"I love you back."
(If someone had dropped a thousand copper pennies into a wishing well, it couldn't feel as lucky and wonderful as this.)
Santana touches Brittany then, her middle fingers trailing through the wet-hot-slick at Brittany's center while her thumb goes straight to the swelled button waiting for her higher up. Brittany gasps into her ear and rolls her body, adjusting to the touch. Her fingers move against Santana.
And, oh God.
The girls move in mirror of one another, so that every time Santana presses her fingers to Brittany, Brittany does the same to her in return. At first, they start slowly, but then after just a few seconds, Santana ups their pace, already tuned and needing. They kiss each other, stupid and with open mouths.
"Oh God, you feel—," Santana moans. Her free hand moves from Brittany's back to the top of Brittany's hair, cradling Brittany's head and pulling Brittany in closer to her. She feels so tender toward Brittany and so perfectly in awe of her, too.
Santana gasps, unable to finish her thought. Shocks of brightness play along her spine and in her belly and down her legs. She watches Brittany bloom before her, unfurling like a flower finding sunshine heat. Brittany's mouth opens into an o, casting Brittany the most intense kind of beautiful, with reds everywhere and pinks. Brittany's brow knits together, and she keens.
Santana has never seen anything like her.
It's all too much.
Santana's heart beats out love, rapid, in her chest. She feels hot all over but also windswept, placeless and everywhere all at once. A golden feeling builds in her quick. It grows fast and strong, a current to carry her away.
She wants Brittany to go with her.
"Britt—," she starts, but she can't say more. Brittany draws another stroke through Santana and touches the perfect, aching part of her, just so.
A firework feeling flares in Santana's belly.
"Brittany!" she cries, surprised, filled, and taken over.
Her hips jolt of their own accord, and the feeling spreads out through her spine and to every inch of her, on her skin and in it. It's hot and sweet and throbs in waves, with brave punctuated bursts. Her toes spread and curl and dizziness crashes over her.
Though her own fingers still against Brittany, Brittany continues to work against her, rubbing and pressing, filling the feeling out until finally Santana gasps, "Okay," and Brittany heeds her, stopping the motion at once.
Shocks still fire over Santana's skin and deep in her belly.
She smiles, stupefied. "Can you feel that, Britt?" she asks, dopey and breathless. "That's it... that's you... Let me catch my breath. Then I'll take care of you."
Brittany returns her grin and kisses her. "You're so beautiful when you're like that," she says, a reverence in her voice. "I like it when you—"
She trails away, lacking words.
Santana laughs. "I can tell," she says, because she can—Brittany feels wetter and hotter between her legs than she did before, and her eyes are almost giddy, reckless. Brittany doesn't even blush. She only stares at Santana, adoring, waiting, and hopeful. Santana doesn't keep her in anticipation for long. "It should be your birthday tomorrow, Britt," she whispers, trailing a stroke along Brittany's center.
"Jesus," Brittany says, eyelashes fluttering against her cheeks.
Though Santana has so often felt clumsy of hand in her life, she doesn't ever with Brittany, not when Brittany curls to her touch, her face and skin and whole body responding to it. Brittany opens her lips in a kiss for Santana, and Santana leans forward to take it, tracing out the insides of Brittany's mouth with her tongue at the same time as her fingers slip against Brittany's center. She wants more than anything to give Brittany that same sweetness that still plays through her own body. She wants to return it, to share it perfectly.
Her lips trail from Brittany's mouth to Brittany's cheek. "You're so beautiful," she whispers, pressing a kiss just under Brittany's eye. "Does this feel good, BrittBritt?"
Brittany moans and arches again against Santana's fingers. "Yes," she hisses, biting down on her own lip. Her hipbones roll.
And that's when it happens.
Santana's fingers slip further back against Brittany's center, discovering a new deep place that Santana had never known about before. At first, Brittany winces and Santana worries that she's hurt her, but then Santana feels Brittany's muscles move around her fingertips, hot-feathery-wet-soft. Brittany shudders.
"Oh Jesus, Santana," she moans, clamping down at Santana's side with her left hand. "That's—that's—right there," she whimpers.
And so Santana moves.
Her fingers slip into the deep, wet place, past the first knuckle. She progresses methodically, exploring this wonderful new part of Brittany, loving the way that Brittany's body shifts around her, like it wants to take her in, to hold her close, to keep her touch forever. She strokes deep and firm, humming and kissing at Brittany's face while she works. For a second, she wonders if she could delve further in, but she doesn't want to cause Brittany pain—she would die first—and so decides against it.
She makes a particularly strong stroke and Brittany's eyes turn to liquid, suddenly more ocean than sky. Brittany's fingers move against Santana, though Santana had forgotten about them, and Santana gasps. She can feel Brittany winding up tighter, muscles flinching around her fingers, longer and harder than before.
"What do you need, Britt?" she coos, kissing Brittany's mouth again.
Brittany can't respond with anything more than gasping. She grinds against Santana's fingers, her whole body working toward that too bright, too big, too perfect feeling. Her brow furrows in determination and her lips twitch. Santana pets her hair and cradles the back of her head. Her heart is all for Brittany, sweet and swelled for her.
An idea strikes her.
"I've got you, darlin'," Santana whispers against Brittany's skin.
And that's it.
The deep part of Brittany shudders around Santana's fingers, hard, and Brittany lets out a cry, short and truncated.
Brittany's hips roll, knocking against Santana's, and her fingers curl, still brushed up against Santana's core. Her motion sends a jolt through Santana's body, though not so strongly as to send Santana over into that great, dazzling feeling again. Santana watches Brittany's mouth falls open and her eyelids close. She looks like a Bernini sculpture—in ecstasy—except for real.
"You're so beautiful, Brittany," Santana says, slathering kisses to Brittany's neck and at the crux of her jaw. "You're so perfect, and I love you so much."
"I love you, Santana," Brittany gasps out.
Both girls cling to each other until Brittany finally stills and can open her eyes. They breathe together and move their hands away from each other's centers. Brittany's muscles make one last squeeze over Santana's fingertips but then relax. Santana feels like she's just won a race. She wipes her hand against the blanket and grins her widest Brittany-grin, kissing Brittany everywhere that she can reach, and tasting the sweat on Brittany's skin, as well as that bright, new smell that only comes from touching.
Brittany laughs, golden and satisfied. "Wow," she says.
Santana smirks. "Yeah?"
"It should definitely be my birthday tomorrow," Brittany says, "and then your birthday again the day after that."
"I really like doing this," Santana reveals, conspiratorial.
And Brittany just nods. "It's like I can feel how much you love me everywhere," she agrees, and Santana's heart all but collapses for her honesty.
Without thinking twice of it, Santana ducks her head forward and presses a quick, deliberate kiss to the tip of Brittany's nose. Brittany laughs and responds in kind, though she pecks Santana's lips. Both girls giggle, foolish for each other but not minding it at all. Brittany wraps her arms more tightly around Santana's waist and pulls her in, breathing deep into their embrace. Her smile couldn't be wider.
"Can I tell you a secret?" she whispers as Santana begins to run fingers through her hair, smoothing it back and separating silk from silk. Santana nods her head yes and stares into Brittany's eyes, searching out the gold dust there as if she were a miner in a stream. She smiles and bites her lips into her mouth, waiting for Brittany to speak. Brittany returns her grin. "My secret is," she pauses for effect, "that I'd like it more than anything in the whole world, I think, if you and I could share a tent with each other, just the two of us."
It's a silly idea of course, but it tugs Santana's invisible heartstrings all the same.
"I would love that, BrittBritt," Santana says earnestly, pecking another quick kiss to Brittany's lips. Her whole body still hums with the happy, amaranthine feeling that Brittany wrote into her quick.
"Just you and me?" Brittany says, a light behind her eyes.
"Just you and me, forever and ever," Santana agrees, dopey.
They lie together in silence for a long while, their bodies pulsing to the beat of each other. Santana feels good everywhere and increasingly dreamy. She plays with Brittany's hand and hair and kisses the freckles on Brittany's shoulder, learning new parts of her.
"I feel all soft inside," Brittany says after a while.
Her words send a pulse through Santana's body—one that causes Santana's thoughts to skip. "I like it," Santana says quietly and after a long pause, unable to explain anymore than that.
Without saying anything of it, Brittany lifts up her head and moves it from the blanket to Santana's chest. She nestles close against Santana's neck and sighs, contented. Santana kisses her hair. "I like everything we do together," Brittany says, "—even chores—but I especially like doing this and then just being with you afterwards."
Santana chuckles at Brittany's artlessness. She runs a finger through Brittany's hair, starting at Brittany's scalp and moving all the way down. If she could have some power grant her a single wish, it would be for her to stay here with Brittany forever, safe, sleepy, and happy.
It doesn't take long before Brittany's breathing slows and deepens. Though her eyelids seem to want to flutter closed against Santana's skin, she fights against it.
"It's all right if you go to sleep, BrittBritt," Santana whispers.
"Okay," Brittany mumbles, pressing herself even closer to Santana's body. She closes her eyes and sighs, contented down to her bones.
Santana has never felt so fond of or loyal to or grateful for anyone or anything as she has about Brittany. Even if a thousand years were to pass, Santana knows that she would go on choosing Brittany and loving Brittany with her whole heart.
Strange though it seems, Santana doesn't remember what her life was like before she met Brittany and loved her. She only knows, in the vaguest way, that she used to be so lonesome then, back before she came to the circus. Brittany is right—everything that she and Santana do together is nice because they are together when they do it.
(Santana allows Brittany to lead her away into dreams, dancing into Fairy.)
When Santana awakens, the light inside the tent has changed. It's no longer the brown of early afternoon sun filtered through canvas but rather the gray of early evening. Her heart pricks in her chest, and she twitches, stirring Brittany.
What if they've missed the—?
The bell rings.
Whether it's the warning bell or the show bell itself, Santana doesn't know. She cringes as Brittany sits bolt upright from her chest, eyes wide and expression wild. "The fair!" Brittany gasps, scrambling to her knees.
Santana follows after, starting to look around at the mess of clothing that surrounds them. Her sashes lay strewn out beside the cot. She doesn't know what she did with her belt.
"Ken's going to kill us," she frets, snatching up her corset and starting to turn it right-side out.
Despite the panic of the moment, Brittany allows herself to grin. She ducks in, pressing a quick kiss to Santana's lips. "Worth it," she says, and both girls laugh because, honestly, it's true.
Before today, Santana had often wondered about Brittany's quick costume changes prior to and following shows. Now she sees that Brittany manages to make these quick changes by putting on both her dress and her chemise at once. Grabbing up her sash, Brittany scurries to her feet.
"I've got to go back to my tent for my costume," she says, leaning over Santana, peppering Santana's face with more kisses. She plants a peck on Santana's lips. "Thank you"—another kiss—"for everything"—and another.
Santana kisses Brittany back. "Thank you," she says and then kisses Brittany again.
Brittany forces herself to pull away, though not without whining as she goes. She looks almost as if she had stood in a windstorm, her hair in a spectacular state of disarray and her cheeks rouged with a deep burn. Somehow, the dishevelment wears well on her; Santana has never seen Brittany look so bright, vivid, and beautiful.
"I'll see you at the show," Santana promises, nudging Brittany toward the door and sending her off with another kiss.
Brittany grins, dopey. For a second, she looks as if she might say something, but then she decides against it. She shakes her head at herself and bites back her smile, disappearing out the tent flaps, sash in hand. Watching Brittany leave causes Santana's heart to flitter.
It takes Santana another several minutes to clothe herself, wash her face and hands in the steel basin, right the cot, and roll up Puck's sleeping mat so that she can restore it to its corner. As she gathers up her tambourine and cards, it strikes her that Puck never returned to the tent to fetch his gear, which either means that he's running late to the evening fair too or that the show bell hasn't yet rung. Santana hopes that the second option is in fact the case, as she can only imagine how furious Ken will be if two out of his three gypsies and the knife thrower's daughter turn up late to the same performance.
Santana's body is still abuzz as she exits her tent and starts off for the midway. Even though she knows that she'll likely hear it from Ken if it does turn out that she's late for the fair, she can't keep from smiling, all because of Brittany, Brittany, Brittany.
She makes it as far as the billboard partition before the second bell rings.
(It's still entirely worth it.)
While Santana feels embarrassed to have kept her patrons waiting for her, she's also glad to see them already in line before her booth when she arrives upon the midway, as their presence will protect her from Ken's wrath.
Ken glares at Santana as she slides into her booth but doesn't dare to yell at her in front of such a vast crowd. Santana hastily spreads out her peacock-colored cloth and cards upon the table. She only just manages to sit down before Ken ushers a first patron up to have a reading.
Whereas usually Santana's first readings go to young, ambitious men—braggarts and adventurers who want to know their fortunes and fight their ways to the front of her queue before meeker patrons can work up the nerve to do so—today her first patron is a crone.
The woman wears a fine dress of blue, gold, and red, but bears a wind-scarred face, as if she has spent all her life outdoors. Her cheeks and brow are deeply lined. Santana can see heartbreak etched into the woman's features along with laughter, withering anger, happiness, and confusion—a whole lifetime of hard emotions.
Santana guesses that the woman must be the same age as her grandmother was or maybe even older. The woman's hair is smoke and steel gray in alternation, her knuckles gnarled and bulging with arthritis. She doesn't wait for Santana to invite her to take a seat before she does so, and, once settled, she immediately leans across the table, seizing Santana's hand in both her own.
The touch is so sudden that it startles Santana, who isn't accustomed to patrons wanting to have physical contact with her.
Before Santana can say anything, the woman fixes her with a knowing look. "When I was your age, I too divined the feature, dear," the woman says, tracing over a crease in Santana's palm with the nail of her index finger.
The heart line.
Her words bear the slightest hint of an accent, but, from where, Santana doesn't know. Santana couldn't tell from just looking at the woman that she wasn't—that she isn't—that she's—
Heat spreads out over Santana's cheeks as she realizes that she had made a false judgment without meaning to do it. "Y-you don't divine the future anymore?" she stammers, barely remembering to mind her own accent.
"I don't," the old woman says firmly.
"Why not?" Santana asks before she can stop herself.
The old woman's expression sours. "I saw something I did not like," she says gravely. After a second's pause, she adds, "I would like for you to read my cards."
Following the morning show, Santana had managed to banish the events of the morning fair from her mind. Having spent such a perfect afternoon with Brittany, Roderick Remington and the Death card had been the furthest things from Santana's thoughts. Now that the old woman has asked for a tarot reading, the leaden dread Santana felt earlier in the day returns to her in an instant and her mouth and throat turn dry.
"A-are you sure you don't want palm reading—?" Santana stutters, tripping over her grandmother's accent, gesturing to where she and the old woman already touch hands.
The old woman apprehends Santana's anxiety. Her fingers curl over Santana's palm, and she smirks. "You don't want to read cards for me, dear?" she asks, seeming amused at Santana's unwillingness to do her job. Once again, her look turns knowing, "Has something happened with you, maybe? Something that makes you not dare to read?"
Santana gives a wry laugh, not because anything seems funny but because the old woman guessed correctly. "I saw something I didn't like," she says, repeating the old woman's own words. Though normally she would conceal the nature of that something out of a deep sense of shame for it, she feels obliged to tell this fellow fortuneteller the truth. She slips out of her grandmother's accent as though she were doffing a disguise and putting on her usual clothes. She gives another wry laugh. "When I read," she admits, "I always draw the Death card. And when I draw Death, my patron always dies."
To Santana's great shock, the old woman doesn't recoil or frown.
In fact, she smiles. "Why, I know you do, my dear," she says, her voice suddenly almost kindly. "My nephew who lives in Minnesota, he took in your act at St. James. He said you read for the richest man in town and drew Death for the poor fellow. The rich man turned up dead within the day. I was skeptical until I heard the town gossip after this morning's fair—they said you drew Death for the big city reporter." She leans in closely across the table, putting her face near Santana's. When next she speaks, she does so in an eager whisper, "My dear, you have a gift."
The old woman's statement couldn't unnerve Santana more if it were a threat. Santana shrinks back as though the old woman had slapped her and gasps, but the old woman clamps down on Santana's hand with a surprisingly firm grip, preventing her from making a full retreat.
Despite the strength of her hold, the old woman's expression is still surprisingly soft and kindly. "Please," she says clearly, keeping Santana's hand pressed between both of her own, "I am old, and I have seen so much. The cards won't speak to me, my dear. Not anymore. But you are young and have a gift."
She doesn't beg or make a scene; she just holds tight to Santana's hand, her weathered skin rough around Santana's knuckles and against her palm. Her eyes are dark like a moonless night, of a type that Santana hasn't seen since arriving at the circus. She isn't like Abuela—not really—but Santana can't help but connect the two women in her mind.
Santana remembers sitting at the table in the kitchen, the old gardener, Mr. Bradley, seated across from her, Abuela hovering at her shoulder. A tea kettle whistled from the stovetop, and sandwiches waited in the icebox for lunch.
As Santana drew her first cards, Abuela prodded her to explain what she saw, coaching Santana in Spanish as Santana herself narrated the reading to the gardener in English. As the strange humor overtook Santana for the first time, Abuela whispered in her ear.
Tienes un talento.
Weeks later, following a death, a heartbreak, and another reading, Abuela screamed new words at Santana. She told Santana that she would burn in hell.
Tienes una maldición.
Santana heard the new words many times as Abuela languished on her deathbed for a month. They blurred with the first words in her mind, until gift and curse became one and the same—interchangeable for the girl with a devil sitting on her shoulder.
Remembering Abuela's words causes a deep kind of shame for which Santana knows no word in English to grip Santana's stomach.
The old woman seated before her doesn't seem to see the ill in Santana's strange gift-curse. Somehow, she seems to see it only as good, even knowing what it is. How can someone who knows the power of the cards for herself, the darkness and the strangeness in them, the angels and the devils, look upon Santana with such hopeful supplication?
Something in Santana fractures and cracks.
Santana nods towards the cards.
"Shuffle," she directs without pageant and without pretense, not bothering to reclaim her grandmother's accent.
The old woman's eyes light, excited and grateful. She does as directed, taking up the deck between her gnarled fingers. With surprising deftness for a creature so withered, she folds the cards and breaks them, interspersing layers upon layers. Needing no further instruction, she passes the deck back to Santana in three parts, a first, a second, and a last.
There's no need to narrate this reading; both Santana and the old woman know the significance behind every card and column. They also both know that there's only one card that the old woman cares to see.
Santana lays the High Priestess.
(The last safe card in the deck.)
She lays Cups and Wands, the Moon and the Star, the World and Fortune's Wheel. As Santana sets down a half-dozen, then a dozen, then eighteen cards upon the table, she suddenly begins to worry that for the first time in her career, she won't draw the Death card—that her curse won't hold up. For an instant her mind reels. She sets another card. Then another. Finally, on the last turn.
The crowd around Santana's gazebo—Santana had forgotten they were there—expresses their shock and their thrill. She hears someone say "I'll be damned!" and another person exclaim "That's the second time today! I seen her do it at the first fair, too!" She doesn't care about their reactions, though. She wasn't reading for their entertainment.
At first, Santana keeps her eyes trained to the cards; she can't bring herself to look at the old woman, not when she knows how quickly a pair of eyes can turn from eager and inviting to hating and hard. But then the old woman reaches out and finds Santana's hand across the table again. She covers it with her own.
When Santana looks up at her, she sees gratitude written into the old woman's features.
The old woman's eyes shine, wetted, but no tears fall to her face. Trembling, she stands from her seat and motions across the table, coaxing Santana to stand with her. When Santana does so—dumbly, helplessly, unable to do anything else—the woman reaches out, cradling Santana's head in her hands, her palms warm upon Santana's ears and cheeks. The old woman purses her lips, closes her eyes, and, quavering, pulls Santana toward her. With all the reverence of a devotee at worship, she presses a kiss first to Santana's right cheek and then to her left.
"Multumesc, draga mea," she says, her brow rested on Santana's.
(Santana doesn't understand, but then she thinks she does.)
Normally, Santana feels awful after she reads tarot for someone, but, at present, she doesn't feel anything about it—not good, not bad. She reads palms for four people after the old woman goes away.
Having already given up the ruse that she has an accent, Santana is able to narrate her readings in unbroken English. Surprisingly, the people of Elma don't seem to mind having such an unexotic fortuneteller, perhaps because they already trust her prowess for having witnessed her work with both Mr. Remington and the old woman.
When the show bell rings and the midway pitch clears, Santana fully expects Ken to lay into her for arriving late to the fair, but he doesn't.
"Miss," he says in a very thick voice. He gestures for her to stand up and follow him to the backstage but daren't say anything more to her than that.
It takes a second for Santana to notice that his little beady eyes are wider than usual and another second after that to realize that he actually seems afraid of her. Considering that circus folk in general and Ken in particular are an immensely superstitious lot, Santana can only imagine that her exchange with the old woman struck a certain degree of fear into Ken concerning her and her abilities. She tries not to smirk too much as Ken refuses to even look at her crossing the midway pitch. He doesn't say a word to her as they pass into the backstage.
Just like at the matinee, Puck turns up only just before the show starts, this time dripping sweat and with dirt on his face.
"You can't keep missing fairs, Noah!" Rachel scolds him. "What will Mr. Adams say?"
"Nothing if you don't blab to him about it!" Puck insists, taking his place amongst the other knights.
Not for the first time in the day, Santana wonders what on earth could possibly keep the boy who loves the circus from performing at his job.
Whereas Santana felt like she was drowning going into the big top earlier in the day, now she feels as if she's coming home. She and Rachel pass through the shadows at the back of the tent and step forth into the lighted ring just in time to see Brittany spin a circle in her pretty white show costume.
The welling of emotions Santana felt holding Brittany in her tent after they had touched each other returns to her, filling up her chest and throat and blurring her eyes with tears. Brittany seems less to take in stage light and more to give it off as if she glows. Santana can hardly hurry over fast enough to join her. She throws her arms around Brittany's waist, gathering Brittany in from behind.
"Hey, beautiful girl," she mumbles against Brittany's skin. "I missed you."
Brittany grabs onto Santana's arms around her waist. "I missed you, too."
Earlier in the day, after Santana read cards for Mr. Remington, it seemed impossible to dance, but now it's easy to. Brittany twirls Santana, and her colorful skirts spin, a dizzy rainbow. Santana's heart beats out love in her chest.
(Everything that Brittany and Santana do together is nice because they are together when they do it.)
Following the knight sketch, Santana perches at the aperture at the back of the tent, almost dreamy with thoughts of Brittany. The sky overhead stains the most vibrant oranges and pinks, ablaze above the big top, and then slowly darkens to the most soothing shade of indigo.
After a while, Stevie Evans appears at Santana's side. He peels back the tent flap a bit further so that he can see the show going on inside the big top. Santana shifts to allow him more space.
"Have you had a good birthday, Ms. Santana?" he asks her after a few minutes. He doesn't look away from where the Equestrienne Coterie rides circles around the rings.
Santana searches herself. "I have," she says, not untruthfully.
Stevie nods, pleased for Santana. Several seconds pass before Stevie asks a second question, this time in a little peep of a voice, "May I take your hand?"
Santana smiles, "You may."
Wearing a wide grin not unlike Sam's, Stevie reaches for Santana's hand, taking it for himself as he and Santana continue to watch the show, silent but together.
When it comes time for the gypsy act, Santana wishes Stevie farewell and joins Rachel and Puck in the ring. Puck seems determined to make up for skiving the fairs and turning up late to the performances and does so by putting on what must be his most daring fire dance yet. He spins his lighted staff under his legs and above his head, turning it so quickly that it blurs into a streak of white against the air inside the big top. The audience gasps as he tosses his implement ten feet into the air and catches it while performing a whirl.
As the band plays the final notes of their mysterious gypsy fugue, Puck wears his most determined devil smirk. With firelight painting him hell-red and dogged, he takes a running leap and throws himself into a round-off, flipping feet overhead, touching his staff to the ground, righting himself, and blowing a great spate of flame into the air like a dragon.
Santana must prevent herself from applauding along with the audience. As she and Puck exit the big top together to make way for the Little Malibran act, she can't help but commend him. "Puck, that trick, it was—it was—," she babbles.
Puck smirks his devil smirk though his eyes seem bright. "I used to end every show that way, back before I almost burned my leg off," he says. "I hadn't felt good enough to do it until today. You think I should make it regular again?"
"Sure, I do," says Santana.
Puck grins at her. "You got it, ladybird," he says, reaching over to muss her hair as they part ways, him going over to sit beside the fire next to Sam and Mr. Evans and her taking her spot at the tent aperture, waiting for the knife throwing act.
While Mr. Pierce still bears his limp and seems as sullen as ever coming into the ring, Brittany must have taken a page from Puck's book, for she seems utterly determined to delight the audience—or maybe just Santana.
First, Brittany dances between the backboard and the satchel, adding little spins and pirouettes to her routine. Then, when she takes her place before the target, she puts on a great show of making funny faces at her father, lifting up her eyebrows and turning her mouth into strange shapes as they establish their eye contact.
For once, the Pierce's act comes across as almost more comic than dangerous. Even Mr. Pierce acts vaguely amused, shaking his head and biting back what might be the first smile Santana has ever seen him attempt to make as Brittany widens her eyes at the knives that halo her head, feigning like she hadn't expected him to throw them.
The audience laughs and laughs at Brittany's antics and so does Santana. When Brittany turns a cartwheel going to retrieve the apple from her satchel, Santana's heart blooms with adoration in her chest—and especially when Ken shouts from his place at the flaps to the big top, "Quit your monkeying, Pierce!" and Brittany's only response to him is to perform a handstand on her way back to the board.
After the show, Puck tells Santana to run along to the mess pit—he'll catch up to her later. Not needing him to tell her twice, Santana scampers over the grass, enjoying the cricket orchestra playing in the tall weeds along the tent rows and the brightness of the moon overhead, beaming down with a wide, white face. Her whole heart feels happy and her body light.
"Happy birthday!" Rory calls to her as she ducks past him entering the mess pit.
Santana takes a place at the table, sitting up on her knees as she waits for Brittany to find her. The whole company babbles, enlivened with the same high energy that powered the night show, everyone talking all at once and acting friendly towards one another. After not too long, Brittany appears around the back of the chuck, still gliding on tiptoe as if she were dancing.
"Hey, darlin'!" she greets, coming over to join Santana at the table. "How's—?"
She doesn't finish her question before a commotion on the edge of the mess pit interrupts her.
At first, Santana isn't sure what's going on. Whereas just a second ago, all the voices in the mess pit were lively and untroubled, now she hears strains of concern and distress. She can't pick out words at first. She looks to the source of the disturbance.
Hiram Berry stands just beside the hearth, holding a newspaper in his hands. Mr. Evans flanks him, as do Ken, Finn Hudson, and Blaine Anderson. The men all stand together, the quadroon manservant just a few paces off from them, hovering protectively beside Rachel. Mr. Berry taps on the newspaper with his fingers, as if to emphasize a particular passage. He reads aloud.
"'The Cresco Plain Dealer has breaking news! We have learned that celebrity reporter Mister Roderick Remington of the Associated Press has been brutally murdered while stationed in the city of Elma, Howard County. After reporting upon the visiting J.P.A. & Son Traveling Circus & Menagerie, Mister Remington took his supper at a popular dining establishment in town.
While waiting upon his main course, Mister Remington was accosted by one Mister J. Tiebert Callum, who accused Mister Remington before the whole dining room of having had improper dealings with Missus Tiebert Callum. When Mister Remington responded despitefully to Mister Tiebert Callum's indictment, Mister Tiebert Callum reacted by producing a Colt revolver from the pocket of his waistcoat and shooting Mister Remington at close range in the head. Witnesses report that Mister Remington was dead before he fell into his soup bowl. Mister Tiebert Callum attempted to flee the scene but was detained by two young waiters who grabbed him by the tails of his coat.
Since the town of Elma hasn't its own law enforcement, the Howard County sheriff's department has been contacted to manage the murder investigation. More word forthcoming on the details of the case, including discussion of Missus Tiebert Callum's whereabouts and her alleged involvement with Mister Remington.'"
The smile that had been on Santana's face dies away. Suddenly, she feels as if she had been the one shot in the head.
She drew Death for Mr. Remington's, and now just hours later, a man has murdered him.
She sinks down onto her bench.
Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.
Everything drains from Santana, including the color from her face and the happiness in her breast. She looks to Brittany, stricken, wondering if this isn't some sort of terrible delusion. That someone should murder Mr. Remington just after Mr. Remington was at the circus—it couldn't have been worse if Santana's shoulder devil were to have dictated the directions himself.
(Santana thinks she might be sick.)
Brittany gapes at Santana with the widest, most worried eyes Santana has ever seen, as stricken as if she herself had been the one to draw the Death card for Mr. Remington rather than Santana. Brittany reaches out to take Santana's hand but doesn't manage to say anything before Puck appears in the mess pit, stepping up beside the table.
He wears a very confused expression.
"What's going on?" he asks, glancing around in bewilderment at the company, everyone aflutter in response to Mr. Berry's news. "Ladybird, you all right? What happened? Are you feeling all right? Brittany, is she—?"
Santana laughs without meaning to. "I've killed Mr. Remington," she announces, in the same way one might say that she had forgotten to water the garden or to put sugar in her tea. She laughs again, strangled. "Britt, I killed Mr. Remington," she repeats.
"Killed Mr. Remington?" Puck parrots. "Ladybird, what the Sam Hill—?"
No one responds to Puck's questions. Brittany clambers off of her bench and climbs over the table, not wasting any time getting to Santana. She slides in at Santana's side, wrapping Santana in a tight, almost rib-bruising embrace. Her face is hot against Santana's, and she kisses Santana's ear in plain view of Puck.
"Oh, Santana," she says, pulling Santana in close to her. "Oh, Santana, no, no."
Whereas normally, Brittany's touch is enough to soothe Santana in an instant, Santana finds that, at present, nothing, not even being wrapped in Brittany's arms, can comfort her. Her whole body trembles. She's only vaguely aware of Puck setting something down on the tabletop and leaning over to ask Sam—recently arrived from the other side of the mess pit—what's going on.
As Sam mumbles out the details of Mr. Remington's murder, Santana catches snatches of the company talking about her—of Ken saying that he felt a wicked presence when Santana drew Death at the morning fair and some of Ma Jones' kitchen girls reminding everyone that the young millionaire in Minnesota died after Santana drew Death for him, too.
For a few hours, Santana had truly believed that cards were just cards and that everyone makes his own fate, but now Mr. Remington has proven her wrong.
Santana leans into Brittany's embrace and stares, seeing everything but comprehending nothing.
It takes her a long while to recognize what Puck set down on the table.
(A folded bath towel, tied up in a clumsy red bow.)
Santana doesn't feel hungry, so Brittany offers to take her back to her tent while Puck has his supper. The girls don't speak on their way out of the mess pit. They hold hands and walk along slowly, casting long shadows under the moonlight. When they descend the incline which separates the higher camp from the lower, Brittany gives Santana's palm a squeeze. Santana honestly wonders how Brittany can't be angry at or frightened of her. She perfectly predicted Mr. Remington's death. There's something wrong about her, a touch of the devil in her.
When they reach Santana's tent, Brittany pulls back the flap and ushers Santana inside. Darkness cloaks them so that they can't see each other's features, but Brittany moves skillfully through the pitch, removing Santana's bangles from her wrist and stooping down to unclasp the coin bracelet at Santana's ankle. Lifting Santana's skirts and petticoats up past Santana's knee, Brittany kisses Santana's kneecap, every part of Santana precious to her. She sets the jewelry upon the overturned vegetable crate and returns to Santana, standing before Santana and smoothing back locks of Santana's hair.
"Say something," she entreats, her voice soft and low.
Santana shrugs against the deep, needling pain in her chest. "I have a curse, Britt," she says simply, not sure what more there is to it than that.
Though she had tried to fight the notion ever since she arrived at the circus, Santana knows that it's no use. Every word that her grandmother ever screamed at her is true. She's a bad omen. She's cursed. She has a devil with her, so strong and evil and robust that she shan't ever be able to shake him. Whenever she lays cards, she'll put down Death, and whenever she puts down Death, she'll cause another person to die.
Santana didn't know Mr. Remington well, and what she did know of him, she didn't like. Still, she hates to think that he took a bullet to the head on her account.
Even the man who tried to blackmail the circus doesn't deserve that end.
(No one does.)
Santana expects that Brittany will try to tell her that her curse isn't real, that it doesn't matter, that there's no more connection between Mr. Remington's murder and Santana's cards than there is between what Ma Jones serves for supper and the latest political happenings at the capital.
But Brittany never does just as Santana expects.
Rather, Brittany waits a long while to speak, continuing to stroke through Santana's hair. Santana can't see Brittany's expression through the dark, though they stand facing each other with only a few inches between them, but she can imagine it, concerned, soft, and heartbroken for Santana's heartbreak.
Finally, Brittany says, "I don't know what it means that you always draw that card, Santana. I don't know why this happens to you. But I do know that it doesn't make you a bad person and that you're not doing anything wrong. My daddy dares death, your daddy fought it, and maybe you can see it when other people can't. I don't think that's all there is to you, though. You do so much more than that—so much that's good that you don't even see. I don't know if I believe in curses, but even if you are cursed, I don't care, anyway. I still love you no matter what you do or what happens. And I'd still let you read my cards any day. I trust you, darlin'."
Brittany's fingers tangle in Santana's hair, and, in the next second, she pulls Santana into a kiss. Santana had never thought that one could describe a kiss as being strong before, but that's what this kiss is—strong and sure, like Brittany means to hold Santana up by it, to keep her from falling. It steals Santana's breath away, the hard press of Brittany's lips against hers, the way their noses and chins crush together. Brittany's mouth tastes hot, and she nods into the kiss again and again until finally pulling away.
In a much smaller, quieter voice than before, she says, "If you need to cry, I'll just stay here. I'll hold you."
Somehow, Santana hadn't realized that she did need to cry until Brittany said so. Immediately, tears cloud her eyes, and a crack opens in her throat. "Britt," she chokes, as pathetic as a child gravely hurt. A sob breaks in her like a wave crashing hard upon jagged cliffs. She throws out her arms, wanting.
Brittany doesn't disappoint.
She catches Santana up, supporting Santana's weight, pressing the two of them so tightly together that there is scarcely any space between them. Her left arm wraps around the small of Santana's back, and her right arm moves to cradle Santana's head in her hand, stroking through Santana's hair.
"I've got you," she promises, stumbling with Santana over to the cot. "I've got you."
If it weren't already so dark, Santana wouldn't be able to see through all her crying. She allows Brittany to pull her up onto the cot, to lay them both down, Brittany underneath and herself curled in Brittany's lap. Brittany cradles Santana's head in her arms, pressing kisses to her hair and holding her. Never once does she try to shush Santana or dissuade Santana from tears. She allows Santana to fall apart, draped around her like a blanket.
Santana cries so hard and for so long that after a while she can't make more sounds. Her sobs run silent and breathless, and her whole ribcage aches with fractured-glass pain.
Santana cries for the old gardener, Mr. Bradley, who had only wanted to seek his fortune on good advice from whatever powers exist; she cries for Abuela, whose love for her so abruptly turned to hate; for Papa, who hadn't been superstitious at all but met his end just like the rest; for the millionaire in Minnesota and his reckless buggy ride; for the old woman who knew enough to come to Santana for Death; and even for Mr. Remington, the dead man who would have been the end of the circus if he had only lived; but most of all, Santana cries because beyond them is Brittany, who loves Santana senselessly, recklessly, and wonderfully, though Santana certainly doesn't deserve it.
"Don't ever leave me," she pleads. "Please, Britt, stay with me forever."
"I'll stay," Brittany promises, peppering more kisses to Santana's skin and hair. "I won't ever leave you, Santana. I've got you now. I've got you."
Author's Notes: I feel extraordinarily lucky to get to work with not one but two brilliant betas and an amazing Spanish translator. A thousand-million thank yous to Han for knowing the rules of my story so amazingly well and for going above and beyond the call of beta duty. A thousand-million thank yous to the wonderful Dr. Ruth for being so wonderfully insightful and such a good reader. She does so much and helps me to up my game in ways I can't even explain. A thousand-million thank yous to the fantastic Lu for translating for me. She always makes sure I say what I mean with the Spanish. Also, I dedicate this chapter to Alice. Happy birthday, bb!
This is chapter 13/15. We're almost to our journey's end, guys. Thanks for sticking with the story for so long.
(No se puede eludir la Muerte, Santana. Viene para todos.) : (No one can escape Death, Santana. It comes for us all.)
La Muerte viene para todos. : Death comes for us all.
Maldita : "Little damned girl"
Malagüera : "Evil omen"
La niña tiene un poco del Diablo. : The girl has a touch of the Devil.
Tienes un talento. : You have a gift.
Tienes una maldición. : You have a curse.