Note: This chapter contains intense situations and potentially triggering material. If you need to know the nature of the trigger, please PM me and I can tell you what it is, no questions asked.
Chapter 14: An Honest Woman
Friday, July 8th, 1898: Kenyon, Minnesota
When the old gardener died, Santana wringed her hands so hard that soon she couldn't play the piano anymore for the ache in them—that's why Abuela decided to make Santana lay the cards again.
When Abuela died, Santana sickened. She lost her appetite and forgot how to laugh. Almost immediately, the dark started to scare her, and she remembered the monsters that haunted her childhood nightmares, appreciating for the first time how awfully long one night could be. Only with great difficulty could she silence her thoughts after sundown. She fell asleep only by accident—tumbling into dreams with a book in her lap, like Alice down the rabbit hole.
(She never felt rested afterwards.)
Every evening, she would beg Papa to stay with her after supper, though she had known better than to do so since she was a child. During the daytimes, she felt so lonely that she even invited the new gardener boy, Puck, inside the house for lemonade and rolls. She either talked too much or not enough. Her face turned gaunt. Eventually, she stopped reading—that's why Papa finally made her lay the cards for him.
When Papa died, Santana didn't have time to pick up any strange new habits; she carried guilt around in the pit of her belly, like she had swallowed a stone.
No matter how she tried, she couldn't reckon why it was that everyone she most trusted had turned out to be wrong about everything in the end.
Santana didn't have a gift.
Cards weren't only cards.
Death didn't come for everyone.
(Just everyone but Santana.)
(Everyone Santana had loved.)
It's the sick, stone feeling that stirs Santana from her sleep—that and the chill in the morning air. It's too cold and too dark. Brittany isn't with Santana anymore. Without meaning to do it, Santana groans.
Puck hears her.
"You awake, ladybird?" he hisses through the darkness, his voice somewhere below her and off to one side.
Santana forces herself to sit up and turn toward him. Her body feels lonely without Brittany and worn out from crying, thick in the throat and sore in the ribs. She rubs fists against her closed eyes and sees stars blaze against the blackness.
"Where's Britt?" she mumbles, her voice scratchy and raw.
Puck shifts, maybe sitting up from his mat. Santana hears him wipe his face, cleaning sleep from his eyes. "Old Man Pierce came looking for her around midnight," he explains. "He didn't think it was right for her to spend the night in my tent. We're just lucky I was still sitting outside playing Bezique with Blaine or else he might've given me a licking. Anyway, Brittany said she'd find you at breakfast, ladybird—no worries."
For a second, silence prevails. Santana sets her feet down on the grass and breathes deeply, steadying herself. Puck moves again upon his mat, probably shifting to his knees. Santana can't ever remember it being this cold in the morning in all the time since she's been at the circus; she shivers and wraps her arms around herself. It almost doesn't seem like summer anymore.
Finally, Puck draws a whistling breath through his teeth, steeling himself for something. "I could maybe talk to Mr. Adams for you, if you like—about the cards," he offers tentatively. "Maybe we could get you a crystal ball or a planchette board instead."
He tries to take on a light tone, like what he's said isn't any great thing.
But it is.
Of course, Puck's offer shouldn't take Santana so much by surprise. For all his rough edges, Puck is often kind to Santana and even reckless in his care for her, to the point where if Santana were a different person, and Puck were a different person, Santana would probably feel very grateful to Puck for everything he had done for her since her father's death. As it is, Santana feels grateful to Puck for this one thing, at least.
(She knows how he hates to disappoint Mr. Adams.)
Though he can't see her face, Puck senses Santana's shock. He shuffles, crawling over to the cot and setting his hands on Santana's knees. He makes no pretense at lightness anymore.
"You'll probably have to keep up the act for a while yet, ladybird. It took a few days to get your cards here. I imagine it'll take more than a few days to get you a replacement prop, too. And we'll have to eat the cost of the cards, I'm sure. This circus ain't made of money, and it won't be even after Mr. Fabray signs them damn papers. But if it's worth it to you, it's worth it to me." He pauses, wetting his lips, and then squeezes Santana's knees. "Things will get better soon, ladybird, I promise."
Yesterday, it astonished Santana very much to conclude that she had somehow become friends with Ma Jones without realizing it. Today, it astonishes her even more to conclude the same thing in regards to Puck.
Gratitude wells in Santana's chest, and, giving not a second thought to it, she throws her arms around Puck's neck, hugging him to her. Puck obviously hadn't expected Santana to embrace him and stiffens in her arms.
"Thank you, Noah," Santana says, holding Puck close to her.
It takes a full second for Puck to relax. He lets out a breath against her skin, and his hold loosens on her knees. He sounds as surprised as Santana feels.
"You're welcome," he says, reaching up to slowly, hesitantly, give Santana a pat on the back.
Santana shivers while Puck tears down their tent, her face still damp from her morning wash, shirt and skirts billowing against the wind. Thick clouds obscure the stars and the moon above. Puck fumbles to dig up the tent stakes from the ground, his fingers clumsy from the chill in the air. By the time he finally succeeds in piling all of the tent gear together and gathering his and Santana's luggage, almost everyone else has quit their tent row.
"Come on, ladybird," he coaxes, offering Santana his elbow.
Puck and Santana arrive at the mess pit to find it much more dimly lit than usual. The hearth fire struggles against the wind. Shane Tinsley crouches alongside it, attempting to build up the flame with a poker, rearranging the kindling here and there.
"I'll get it, sugar," he promises as Ma Jones passes by him, carrying a coffee pot.
Ma winces at the endearment, but Shane doesn't seem to notice.
"Have a seat, ladybird," Puck says, steering Santana onto the bench at the table. "I'll go grab you some breakfast."
Santana is about to tell Puck that she doesn't feel hungry when Brittany appears, coming up beside Santana from someplace off across the mess pit. Even in the wavering firelight, Santana sees the tiredness in Brittany's features—the pout at Brittany's lips, the sullenness at Brittany's eyes.
It wouldn't surprise Santana if Brittany hadn't slept a wink last night.
"I'm sorry I had to leave," Brittany apologizes, dropping down onto the bench, taking Santana's free hand in her own. Her voice is quiet and low.
Over the past few days, Santana has become accustomed to feeling two ways at once rather regularly, but now she doesn't just feel "two ways;" she feels all sorts of things—undeserving of anything nice or comforting; but also needy and childishly wanting for Brittany to hold her; ashamed of her curse; guilty that Mr. Remington won't ever breathe or walk or be again; suddenly worried that Mr. Remington might have a widow and children somewhere; anxious for Puck to speak to Mr. Adams about her card reading; distrustful of the world; hurt; unsure of everything but just one true thing.
Were they alone, Santana would have already thrown herself into Brittany's arms or even laid herself down in Brittany's lap to rest. As it is, she latches onto Brittany's fingers, twining their hands together on the bench.
It isn't exactly what she would like to do, but it will do, and it's enough.
"That's all right," Santana says.
Brittany understands. She squeezes Santana's fingers and offers Santana a very soft, very tired smile, watching Santana with something even more than her usual careful attention, searching Santana's face the way a headwaiter might search a wine goblet for cracks, sensitive to even the slightest sign of distress or fissure in the glass.
(Santana has never seen a person seem so concerned for the welfare of someone else.)
Were they alone, Santana imagines that Brittany would probably want to ask her how she slept and whether or not she had bad dreams. As it is, Brittany remains silent until Puck returns with Santana's breakfast and then only offers to "scooch in" so that Puck can have a seat on the bench at Santana's other side.
Since Santana isn't especially hungry herself, she ends up sharing her meal with Brittany. Neither girl talks at all, though Puck goes on and on to Finn Hudson about all the preparations that the boys will have to make at their next camp, looking forward to the down day weddings.
In the confusion from last night, Santana had forgotten that today would be Friday and tomorrow Saturday and that Arthur Adams would soon marry Quinn Fabray and Shane Tinsley Ma Jones. Remembering the upcoming nuptials causes Santana's already tattered heart to snag on something in her chest. On impulse, she searches out first Sam and then Ma Jones amidst the company.
Sam sits with his family, Stacey and Stevie all but hanging from him as he attempts to eat his hotcakes. Sam's father talks to him about something, and Sam nods, only half-listening. A ways off from where the Evans family sits, Ma Jones moves a plate of hotcakes from the griddle to the serving table. Shane Tinsley offers to take the plate from her, but she bats him off as if he were a bad idea.
Anyone who didn't already know that Sam and Ma were heartbroken probably wouldn't be able to tell that they are, but Santana knows, and she can tell.
She sees it in the way Sam seems to shrink every time Shane Tinsley speaks to Ma Jones from across the mess. She sees it in the way Ma can't seem to stand still in one place even long enough to stir hotcake batter with her wooden spoon.
Theirs isn't the only restlessness in the mess pit, though.
Everyone seems in an uneasy mood, whether it's because of what happened to Mr. Remington last night or because of the foul weather this morning. Every time the wind whips, Ken curses, and Ma's kitchen girls get all in a dither. Low, surreptitious whispers hiss out from where people gather their heads close together in conference. It's a sideways glance here, a pensive look there. Thunder grumbles in the distance, and everyone starts to clear their plates, whether they've finished eating or not.
On the way to the wagon bay, Santana overhears Finn Hudson mumbling to Puck: "—said that she predicted everything exactly how it was! He swore on his life that he heard her tell that reporter that he'd have romance and make secret deals, and then you heard what was in the papers last night! What if she's, I dunno, a witch or something? All I'm saying is that I'd not cross her if—"
(The stone in Santana's stomach sinks lower.)
Puck elbows Finn hard in the ribs and snarls at him through gritted teeth. "Shut up, idiot! If she's a witch, she's only half of what your ma is. There ain't nothin' wrong with her!" he insists.
Though Puck speaks through his teeth, his voice carries enough for Santana to hear it, and he seems to know as much. When he glances over at Santana, he wears a guilty look—not because of anything he's said but because of Finn's accusations. Santana can tell by the look on Puck's face that he hopes she didn't overhear his and Finn's conversation. All at once, he is very much his little-boy self, his eyes large and anxious, his expression sorry.
Santana tries to pretend she doesn't know that Puck and Finn were talking about her, but—
A wail cuts through the air, deep and guttural, almost as loud as thunder.
It takes Santana one second to realize that the wail doesn't come from a human being and another to find the sound's source; the elephants stand in file on the far side of the wagon bay, towering over the various vehicles arranged upon the grass. Methuselah tosses back his massive head and arches his trunk toward the sky. He lets out another mighty bellow as more thunder rumbles from the clouds.
Usually, the elephants lead the morning exodus from camp without incident, following their handlers' commands both immediately and perfectly, but today the herd seems reluctant to take its leave. Methuselah stamps his great tree trunk legs, setting himself between his cows and his handlers, who jab at him with long, sharp sticks and shout in a language that Santana doesn't understand.
Methuselah is a shadow and a monolith against the darkness. He shakes his saber tusks, rebuffing the men, who look so small and fragile in comparison to him that they could well be toys in his nursery if he were a human child. Deborah and Bathsheba trumpet at Methuselah's heels, taking their cues from the old bull and refusing to move, no matter how much the circus staff prods at them from afar.
Considering that only a few hundred yards stand between her and the elephants, Santana can't help but startle.
Throughout all her time at the circus, Santana has never known Methuselah be anything but gentle; she doesn't like to see him so agitated and fears what might happen should he rebel against his handlers outright.
She isn't the only one who feels that way.
Brittany stiffens at Santana's side, and Puck and Finn halt in their tracks. Momentarily, both boys' eyes turn wide as if they'd never seen the elephants misbehave so badly before, but then Puck recovers himself, switching out his fear for meanness in a trice.
He punches Finn hard in the bicep. "There's your bad hoodoo!" he snarls, pointing at Methuselah.
"Ow!" Finn cringes, touching at his hurt.
Santana looks to Brittany, wondering if the girl who knows more about elephants than any other person at the circus understands what's so upset them. Brittany wears a fretful expression, biting her lip and furrowing her brow.
"They don't like walking around during an electrical storm," Brittany mutters, gesturing to the clouds that churn behind Methuselah's silhouette. "Their heads are closer to the lightning than everyone else's. They'll calm down once we're on the train." She considers the situation for a few seconds longer before finding Santana's hand again. "Come on, darlin'," she says, leading Santana towards the closest wagon.
Not everyone seems to think that Methuselah's commotion is so harmless, though.
As Santana and Brittany take their places in the bed of the wagon, Santana overhears other circus folk around them talking along the same lines as Puck, saying that a spooked elephant is a sure sign of bad luck to come.
"Old J.P. is crazy if he thinks today's shows will go over well. What do you want to bet there'll be some sort of calamity?"
"Animals can tell these things, you know."
"Ain't nothing good will come of this."
"Probably the ghost of Roderick Remington that's got the elephants so skittish."
"There's something unnatural in this camp."
Santana cowers against the side of the wagon box, keeping close to Brittany. The stone in her stomach weighs even heavier than it did when she woke up. Finn's right, for once—Santana accurately predicted more than just Mr. Remington's death. Her whole reading for Mr. Remington was spot-on.
Maybe there is something unnatural in the camp.
(What does it mean when a sham of a fortuneteller tells her fortunes true?)
Brittany guides Santana's head onto her shoulder, holding her close as Puck and Finn clamber onto the wagon behind them. Methuselah continues to bellow and stamp in the distance. When the earth quakes, it's impossible to say whether it's from the elephants or from the thunder.
Despite their protestations, the elephants do come along with the rest of the processional, though only as their handlers jab sticks into their flanks to make them walk.
(Santana can hardly stand to look at either the men or the elephants.)
Blustering winds follow the circus to the train depot, chasing the company members quickly through downtown Elma. It takes a few minutes for the yardmen at the depot to ready the train for circus cargo, and during the lull Santana, Brittany, Puck, and Finn meet up with Blaine, Rory, Sam, and Kurt. All eight youths board the same train car, whereupon the boys immediately breaking out a tin of chaw—Kurt abstains, and the rest partake—and a deck of playing cards for euchre. Brittany and Santana settle into the corner nearest the game.
"You can lie down, if you like," Brittany says, offering up the sling of her skirt as a place for Santana to rest her head.
Santana gladly accepts Brittany's invitation, feeling much like she did as a child when she was hurt or sick and longed for someone to hold her. She nestles down against tatty blue, closing her eyes just as the train begins to move.
Brittany hums a little bit. "If the boys weren't here, I'd sing you a song," she says softly. She strokes through Santana's hair, absentminded.
"I thought you said you didn't sing by yourself," Santana mumbles.
Brittany pauses for a second, considering, and says, just so, with a shrug, "I could sing for you."
(For a moment, the stone in Santana's stomach disappears. All she feels is love.)
Santana drifts in and out of a shallow, dreamless sleep while Brittany strokes her hair, only stirring as bright shafts of sunlight start to shine through the open boxcar door. Santana opens her eyes to find the euchre game still in full swing, Rory tucking stray cards under his suspenders and Puck cussing so floridly that it surprises Santana she didn't wake sooner.
Blaine checks his hand against the trump. "Gentlemen, I'm out," he says, leaning back against the cabin wall, setting his cards down passively at his side. Puck and Finn boo his decision, but Blaine waves off their jeers in polite dismissal, opening his jacket to produce a folded newspaper from within his waistcoat. He holds the paper aloft for the other boys to see and then shakes it out to read from. "Mr. Berry very kindly donated this to me after breakfast," he says, smirking from beneath the brim of his trilby hat. "Let's see what's happening in the sporting world, shall we?"
"Is there a National League game today?" Finn asks, suddenly excited.
By now, Brittany has begun to shift above Santana. She doesn't remove Santana from her lap, but she does lean forward, grabbing for something, her belly pressed down against Santana's ear.
When Santana realizes that Brittany is after Blaine's abandoned cards, she spares Brittany the trouble of bending over, reaching out to claim the hand from her better angle, handing the cards to Brittany from below. Though she can't see Brittany's face, Santana knows that Brittany smiles as she begins examining the suits.
"Thank you, darlin'," Brittany says, and Santana feels her gratitude as much as hears it in her words.
Blaine answers Finn, "Indeed there is! The Boston Beaneaters will engage the Philadelphia Phillies in Philadelphia, coming off a loss there yesterday—"
Puck interrupts, speaking around a fat wad of quid, "The Beaneaters will wallop Philly! I'll put down a dollar on it for anyone who's in."
"You're already down two dollars," Sam reminds him.
Brittany taps Sam on the oversized clown shoe. "I want to play in Blaine's place," she announces.
"You can't play cards," Finn scoffs.
"Who says she can't?" Sam challenges, daring Finn to make more of it.
For an instant, everyone falls silent, and all of the boys except for Sam eye Brittany warily, though none of them seems up to the task of explaining why it would be vulgar for her to join the game.
Blaine pulls down the brim of his hat, hiding himself so that he doesn't have to make the decision regarding his cards. Puck rolls his eyes, altogether annoyed with the debate. Finn and Rory seem stupefied, like they can't believe Sam would want Brittany to play. Kurt bites his lip, uncomfortable. Sam wears an uncharacteristically mean look, like he'll pop anyone who tries to prevent Brittany from doing as she pleases.
(Santana suspects that lately Sam has probably had about enough in the way of rules keeping people from doing things that make them happy.)
The boys in opposition to Brittany playing fumble, but then Rory seems to settle on a good answer to Sam's question. "She can't pay up!" he objects, indicating the dollar bill protruding from his shirt pocket.
"Neither can Puck," Sam counters.
Everyone oohs and Brittany fans out her cards in her hand as if she were a gambler.
Puck has the decency to shake his head. "Let her play," he concedes, blushing.
With a nod to Puck, Brittany snatches Blaine's trilby hat from atop Blaine's head, transplanting it to her own. She puts on her false proper accent. "I've got my hat," she says, cocking the trilby at a jaunty angle and giving Santana a nudge in her lap, "and I've got my good luck charm. Bets are off, gentlemen."
The boys let up another chorus of oohs, and Finn elbows Puck hard in the ribs. "Bet you wish you had that good luck charm for yourself," he teases.
"Shut up," Puck says, still blushing.
Santana can only imagine what her grandmother would think of her, lying in the lap of the girl she loves while the girl gambles and boasts with such a ragtag gang of fellas. Of course, Santana doesn't mind the situation much herself. She likes being close to Brittany, peeking up at the cards from the safety of Brittany's lap. She feels secure and wanted.
(She could stay where she is for forever and a day.)
Brittany has no idea how to play euchre, but she doesn't seem to mind.
By midway through the game, she's collected Rory's corncob pipe in addition to Blaine's trilby hat; she bites the pipe between her teeth, unlit and with no tobacco in it, and carries on like a high stakes gambler.
"Alone!" she calls, noting the trump.
Her gaming partner, Sam, starts. "Are you sure, Britt?" he asks, sending her a nervous glance over his hand.
Brittany nods, laying down a Jack beside the trump card on the boxcar floor. All of the boys around her groan; the Jack is the wrong color.
"Britt," Sam says gently, "that's not a match. You should take it back."
"Oops," Brittany says, retrieving her card. She tries again, laying down a Jack of the correct color. The card also happens to match the trump suit. The boys all groan again, this time for a different reason.
"How does she do that?" Finn complains, throwing down his hand in despair.
Brittany looks at Santana, still nestled in her lap, and winks, her cat-grin smug as can be. Santana smiles as Brittany collects the trick and takes another pretend puff on her pipe, as pleased as if she had won the hand on purpose or by strategy rather than just blind luck.
Since departing the depot at Elma, the train has rambled through acres and acres of sprawling cornfields and vast, untended prairie. The sun has steadily risen higher in the sky, warming the earth and illuminating the euchre game through the open boxcar door.
But then the train travels over a sloping hill, descending into a forested valley.
And then it passes under cloud cover.
Suddenly, it's dark again inside the cabin. Thunder cracks outside the car.
"Goddamn it!" Puck curses, looking out the boxcar door at the seemingly endless sea of tumultuous storm clouds spread out over the sky. "I thought we'd left the storm behind in Iowa."
Kurt shrugs. "I guess it's dreary in Minnesota, too," he says gently. "Maybe it will clear up by the time we reach Kenyon."
But it doesn't clear up.
When the train rolls into the depot not a half-hour later, the sky is still gray in all directions, and the sun is nowhere in sight. It's an oppressive kind of gloom, so thick that it traps heat in the air between the earth and the sky. Though no rain falls, thunder grumbles overhead at intervals and lightning crackles along the horizon. Santana knows nothing about the science of weather aside from what she's read in books, but she expects a deluge at any moment.
After Brittany returns Blaine's hat and Rory's pipe to their rightful owners, she and Santana join Puck and Sam on the back of a flatbed cart into town. "If it rains, I'll give you my hat, ladybird," Puck offers, casting a wary glance towards the sky.
It doesn't rain, though.
Still, almost no one from Kenyon turns up for the parade.
The city itself is handsome, with a very wide dirt main street and paved sidewalks. The stores and businesses are made of brown brick, and an electric light hangs above the primary intersection in town, suspended by cables.
Of the small number of people who do turn out to see the circus processional, most of them are day laborers, wearing rolled sleeves and overalls, though there are also a few well-dressed townsfolk, hiding under pretty preemptive parasols, with fine velvet hats and rounded shirt collars. The lot wave at the company members and tip their caps.
With so few people to take in the parade, the company mostly sticks to their wagons; the acrobats don't tumble, the jugglers don't balance their batons, and the clowns don't make mischief. Everyone seems to wait for something that may not even happen.
"It's payday today," Puck remarks as the processional turns a corner, starting down a smaller road in the direction of what will be their campsite.
He's right, of course.
As soon as the parade approaches the white city, Santana can see it—company members hopping down from their vehicles, plodding over to the flatbed cart where both Mr. Adams and Ken wait for them. The scene is somehow stunning, the grass electric green beneath the iridescent gray of the storm. Mr. Adams wears his Kelly green suit, but rather than blending in with the forest at his back and the turf all around him, he stands out as if he were the moving flap on a page from one of the pop-up books Santana so enjoyed as a child.
Seeing Mr. Adams doesn't bring Santana any enjoyment, though.
Either because the last several addresses Mr. Adams made to the company have resulted in her own discomfort or because she still feels twitchy and unsettled following the events of the previous evening, Santana somewhat dreads hearing what Mr. Adams has to say today. She can't recall if Puck told her that it were unusual for Mr. Adams to make a speech to the company before he paid them or not. Somehow, she suspects that it is.
His presence does not bode well.
Santana looks to Brittany for reassurance, but Brittany seems just as wary of the situation as she does. The girls disembark from their cart in silence, allowing Puck and Sam to help them down onto the grass. Wind slithers through their hair and ruffles their skirts. Despite the early hour and the lack of direct sunlight, the earth seethes with heat. Rings of sweat rim Puck and Sam's shirts, and Santana feels just as oppressed by the temperature as the boys look.
By the time Santana, Brittany, Puck, and Sam join the throng, Mr. Adams is already speaking in his lion's roar.
"—the tragedy that befell our friend, Mr. Remington, last night. The Howard County authorities assure me that they'll prosecute the villain responsible to the fullest extent of the law. They now believe that their suspect may have mistaken Mr. Remington's friendliness towards his wife on our midway for something unseemly and other than it was.
Of course, I find it best not to dwell on tragedy.
As I'm sure you're aware, today is Friday, and since it is Friday, it is also payday. As you recall, I spoke to you frankly last week concerning the leanness of our times and the virtue of patience. This week, I ask you to please continue to show restraint and understanding as I—"
A chorus of boos drowns out the rest of the sentence.
"Bad form, Adams!" someone shouts.
Mr. Adams waves his hands for the company to be quiet, and Ken assists him, yelling out "Shut up! Shut up!" until the crowd swallows its complaints.
Says Mr. Adams, "This week I can offer you more notes payable. I can assure you that once Mr. Fabray and I have finalized our arrangements, I'll be able to remit your salaries to you in full. You shan't want for anything. You have me at my word."
"And a lot of good that does us, bub!" someone jeers.
It sounds a lot like the Bearded Lady.
Santana doesn't especially worry about her own unfilled paycheck, but she does fret that Mr. Adams has once again broken a promise to his employees. Some people in the crowd seem outright distraught at the news that they'll have to go another week without pay while others shake their heads, thoroughly discontented. Santana presses closer to Brittany, as jittery as she was when Methuselah refused his handlers earlier in the day.
Puck wipes a hand down his face, exasperated. "Son-of-a-bitch," he curses. He pauses for a second, resigning himself to not having a paycheck, and then says, more placidly, "I'll go collect our notes payable from Kenny, ladybird. You can stick here with Brittany." He sounds distinctly glum.
As Puck, Sam, and most of the other people nearby start to fan out, Santana and Brittany share a look. For as much as Santana doesn't want Quinn Fabray to have to marry Arthur Adams against her will, part of Santana can't help but think that the wedding can't happen soon enough. She finds Brittany's eyes a vivid blue, like the half-light trapped between the clouds and the earth.
"Daddy won't like this too much," Brittany mutters but doesn't say anything more.
Mr. Adams makes his exit from the wagon bay as soon as he finishes giving his speech to the crowd, handing his brown, leather attaché over to Ken before marching off in the direction of the business tent. A queue forms in front of Ken, and Brittany and Santana wait off to the side, unsure whether Puck means to return to them once he's claimed his and Santana's notes payable or not.
Santana has it in her mind to run off to someplace private with Brittany as soon as they're able to, if not to kiss then at least to hold each other for a spell. Her arms all but ache to hold Brittany, though she couldn't explain how if she tried. From the way Brittany keeps touching at Santana's wrist, Santana guesses that Brittany feels the same as she. The girls wait patiently for the crowd around them to dissipate.
But it doesn't dissipate.
Or at least not entirely.
Even after everyone has collected their notes payable from Ken, the majority of the company still lingers in the wagon bay, standing around in little clusters and speaking to one another in murmuring tones. Puck briefly returns to Santana's side to tell her that he'll take their things to their tent. He kisses her head before departing again. He's one of the only persons to enter the white city proper.
After a minute, Ken barks, "To work with you, you laze-abouts!"
"We'll do the work we've been paid for!" heckles one of the supes.
Ken's face turns a most hideous, blotchy shade of red, like an uncooked sausage hanging in a butcher shop window. He balls his fists and snarls, "I'll have down the names of any man who isn't pulling his load!"
"If you can spell 'em!" comes another taunt.
Many of the people still in the wagon bay laugh at Ken's expense, though many others—including Ma Jones' kitchen girls, Mrs. Schuester's seamstresses, and a handful of supes—begin to move, going toward the white city even as they continue to grumble. Brittany and Santana remain where they are, waiting for someone to call out and claim them for the day, but no one does.
Nerves flitter in Santana's stomach. She feels the same displaced sort of anxiety she did when her father's lawyers brought movers into the bachelor cottage to put everything into crates and take away all the furniture—like she'll be in the wrong place no matter where she stands. It baffles her that so many people would willfully defy Ken's orders and shirk their responsibilities. What will happen when Mr. Adams gets word of this insubordination?
Brittany brushes Santana's elbow, getting Santana's attention. "You okay?" she asks.
"What?" Santana says stupidly.
"You're blinking a lot," Brittany explains. "Would it make you feel better if we got ourselves some work to do? Let's go ask Ma Jones if she would like some help fixing lunch today."
Normally, Santana wouldn't be one to volunteer for chores if given the opportunity to spend the day with Brittany enjoying leisure time otherwise, but at present the idea of having something to do and someplace to be soothes her more than she can say. Brittany always knows just the thing, and Santana loves her for it. Santana slides her hand down Brittany's wrist to link their pinky-fingers together.
"I'd like that, BrittBritt," she says honestly.
Brittany smiles, knowing, and leads Santana off in the direction of the white city.
Ma Jones assigns Brittany and Santana to assemble sandwiches for lunch and does so with much less fuss than Santana might have expected. She neither chastises Brittany and Santana for coming in late to the mess pit nor praises them for choosing to do work when others have decided to lay off for the day. She sets the girls down in front of a spread of various ingredients, outfits Brittany with a cheese knife and Santana with a paring knife, and cautions them not to put too much mayonnaise on the bread. Her voice sounds somehow quieter than usual.
(Santana couldn't read her, even with a cipher.)
While Ma's kitchen girls chatter on the other side of the mess, Brittany and Santana stick to themselves, speaking quietly to each other. Brittany seems to know that Santana needs to keep her mind busy as well as her hands and so plies Santana with questions about reading to give them something innocuous to talk about.
"So can the letter A can say two sounds or three?" Brittany asks, slicing off some cheese from a brick.
Santana tallies in her head. "Four," she determines.
"Four?" Brittany repeats, thoroughly daunted.
Santana nods. "There's a short one like at the beginning of the word apple; a long one like at the beginning of the word ape; another short one that sounds like uh, like in the word afraid; and one where it sounds like aw, as in all," she explains.
Brittany's eyes widen. "Golly," she says, turning the new information over in her mind. "Apple... ape... afraid... all," she repeats to herself, testing the sounds out on her tongue. "Apple... ape... afraid... all." She looks to Santana. "There are three A's in your name, aren't there? Two apples and one afraid?"
Santana grins, spreading mayonnaise over a halved roll. "Right," she says. "And there's an A in your name, too."
Brittany scrunches up her nose.
(A sweet pang plays through Santana's chest, like a high, clear note on a piano.)
"What kind of A?" Brittany asks. "I don't hear it."
"That's because most people don't pronounce it, I think," Santana says. "But if we said your name phonetically, it would be an apple A. Or an afraid A. It depends, I guess."
Brittany mulls Santana's reasoning. "What's phonetically mean?" she asks.
It takes Santana a few seconds to reckon how to relate the concept. She spreads more mayonnaise in the meanwhile, and Brittany waits patiently for her to speak. Finally, she says, "When something is spelled phonetically, it means that each letter stands for one sound. There are no silent letters."
Brittany's eyes turn even wider than before. "There can be silent letters?" she asks, staggered.
Santana laughs, "In English, yes."
Brittany slices more cheese. She shakes her head, disapproving. "It might take a really long time for you to teach me to read, Santana," she mumbles.
She sounds embarrassed of herself in the same way that she does whenever she mentions that her work failed to meet Mrs. Schuester's high standards or that no one around the circus trusts her with important things. The reservation in her voice causes Santana's heart to ache.
"Not once we get you a book to read out of," Santana reassures her. "It will all make more sense once you can actually see some letters and words. I mean, you've learned a lot already—very quickly, too. I'm sure if we could get you a primer, you'd pick up all sorts of words in no time. Pretty soon you'll be reading me translations of Dostoyevsky."
"God bless you!" Brittany says, trying to joke Santana's compliment away.
Santana won't let her do it, though. "You'll be reading by the end of the summer," she says seriously, holding Brittany's gaze. "You're a really good student, Britt."
The more Santana talks, the more the doubt melts from Brittany's features, replaced by a warm, soft, adoring look. Brittany glances from Santana's eyes to Santana's mouth and then back again. A small smile curls her lips.
"Santana," she says sweetly, blushing around the ears.
"It's true," Santana shrugs. "Plus, I bet if you were learning to read in Spanish—where the spellings all make sense and there are hardly any silent letters—you'd have everything down already."
Brittany reaches across the table, twining her fingers with Santana's. "Maybe you can teach me that next," she says, only mostly joking.
(She always gives Santana the most thoughtful gifts.)
Clouds continue to churn with thunder and occasionally flash with lightning overhead as the girls spend the next hour-and-a-half assembling nearly four-dozen sandwiches, working efficiently as they converse. The atmosphere crackles, energized, dark, and kinetic, causing the Minnesota grasslands to come alive, rippling and flittering with changes in the air.
Eventually, Shane Tinsley and Matt arrive on scene to turn down the blue tarp over the mess pit in case of rain. Ma Jones thanks the supes for their help but won't meet Shane's eyes as she wishes him goodbye upon completion of his chore.
As the supes tromp back toward the white city, Ma comes over to the table where Brittany and Santana work. She shakes her head, clearing cobwebs, and seems uneasy about something.
"Santana," she says, resting one hand on the table, staring down at the slats between the boards as if they were points on a map and she a spy planning how to infiltrate some new country, "Mr. Adams ordered some special groceries for tomorrow. He's having oysters and crawdads and fresh plums for cake brought in on the morning train. They'll be delivered to the store in town. I have to go to pick them up after breakfast, and it'd be right handy if you could come with me. You could invite Miss Brittany to come with us, too, and then we won't even have to ask Mrs. Schuester along."
Ma won't look at Santana until after she says her piece, and when she finally does look, she wears the same tentative, imploring expression that she did when asking Santana permission to sit nearby while checking over the potatoes. There's a pout at her lip and a depth to her eyes, like the shaft of a well. Santana still isn't accustomed to Ma Jones approaching her in an attitude of supplication, and it strains her heart to think that Ma would be afraid to ask her for such a simple favor. It also occurs to her for the first time that Ma seems much more comfortable talking to her than to Brittany.
(Santana supposes that rules are rules are rules.)
(Ma leaves it to Santana to request that Brittany join them.)
Had anyone else asked Santana whether or not she would want to relinquish her free time on a down day, Santana would have rolled her eyes at the person and said of course she wouldn't.
But this is Ma Jones, whom Santana feels keen to please.
Even though Santana would like to spend her entire Saturday alone with Brittany, hidden away in some far corner of the camp, she's willing to give up at least a few hours to help Ma, as needs be. After all, Santana had wanted to be Ma's friend for the longest time, and now she is, and now Ma has sought out her assistance specifically. Ma could have asked any one or more of her own kitchen girls to attend her at the store, but she didn't.
It strikes Santana that there must be some reason why.
Santana flashes Brittany a questioning look, asking without speaking if Brittany would consent to going into town with Ma tomorrow. Brittany nods that she would. Santana smiles at Ma, kindly.
"We can come with you, sure," she offers, trying to make it no great thing.
Santana fully expects that her answer will relieve or even gladden Ma, so it surprises her to see Ma actually turn even more skittish for her word. Ma picks at a spot on the table with her fingernail and glances between Santana and Brittany, as if she can't stand to look at the pair of them for too long all at once.
"If y'all are handy afterwards," she says in a very small voice, "I could probably use some extra help around the mess, too. There'll be heaps of food to make and flowers to cut. I suppose y'all could probably tend with the other gals during the evening, too, if y'all wanted to."
It takes Santana several seconds to realize what Ma has asked of her.
(Santana had never supposed that she would be anyone's bridesmaid.)
Ma frames her request so that it's not even a question—more of a suggestion that Santana and Brittany can either take or ignore. There's a hesitancy in her that seems so very familiar to Santana. Is Ma also a person who can't bring herself to hope for good things for fear that she won't ever have them? Ma picks at the same spot on the table, like she can't precisely tease it out.
Santana's heart squeezes in her chest. Part of her wonders what it means that Ma Jones, who's been at the circus for so many years, would choose a girl she barely knows to join her bridal party, but another part of her thinks she understands. After not having any friends for most of her life, Santana has learned how very easy it is to grow deeply attached to certain persons over the course of just a few days.
Though she could scarcely explain as much aloud, Santana understands friendship as a sort of continual hope that good things—the selfsame good things in which she has so much trouble believing otherwise, in fact—will happen for the people she holds dearest to her.
The more she learns about the youths of the circus—not just their details, like where they were born or when they joined the company, but their little things, like what makes them laugh or what they secretly wish for when they think that no one else is looking—the more impossible it becomes for Santana to not wish well for them.
(Maybe that's what affectionate love is, after all—to learn to adore counting the infinitesimal parts and pieces that make up the great whole.)
Two weeks ago, Santana never could have imagined that a girl like Brittany existed in the world and much less that she herself could fall in love with a girl like Brittany so shortly after meeting her, and yet that's exactly what happened. Two weeks ago, Santana never could have imagined that she'd have friends in persons as diverse as Sam Evans and Rachel Berry and Ma Jones, and yet that's exactly what happened, too.
Now Santana can scarcely imagine what it might be like to go without Brittany and their friends.
Santana feels so very fond of all of them.
Though it pains Santana to think that Ma will have to marry Shane Tinsley though Ma loves Sam Evans instead, Santana wouldn't want to leave Ma alone on such an important day—not when Ma seems to want her and Brittany about.
Not when Ma seems to need her friends.
Santana checks again with Brittany before speaking on behalf of both of them. "Of course," she replies, reaching down to set her hand upon Ma Jones' hand on the table, her red thread ring resting over Ma Jones' tin one. She finds the quick of Ma's pretty, dark eyes. "We'd love to," she says softly.
(She couldn't speak truer words if she tried.)
It would seem that only about half of the circus company does any work before the bell rings, and yet everyone still turns up for lunch, with some people arriving at the mess pit even before they are summoned there, taking shelter under the blue tarp and claiming places at the table in anticipation of rain.
Nothing much has changed about the weather since the circus arrived in Kenyon. Storm clouds still contort overhead, sensuous and thick. Lightning lingers along the horizon. The grasses shiver despite the warmth of the wind. It's a hot day, never mind the gloom, with summer heat stagnant between the earth and heavens.
Though the atmosphere feels charged for something, as of yet, nothing happens.
Not a single raindrop falls.
Whereas Puck has spent the last few days running off to town between shows, today he arrives for lunch at the same time as Sam, Finn, Rory, Kurt, and Blaine do, apparently having spent the morning working on some project with them.
"Who knew Little Hummel could replace a split axle so quick?" he says, patting Kurt hard on the back.
Kurt coughs at the strong contact but seems pleased with Puck's compliment. He blushes and smiles, feline. "De rien, de rien," he says.
Puck opens his mouth again, perhaps to make further comment concerning Kurt's skill, but stops dead when he spots Santana standing just a few feet in front of him. Suddenly, he becomes sheepish.
"Howdy, ladybird," he says, taking off his hat in greeting.
He flushes, even though there's nothing to flush about.
Santana can't figure out why Puck seems so abashed to stand in her presence. She can only suppose that Puck must have been about to say something vulgar to Kurt or that Puck had already done so as they entered the mess pit. He probably didn't want Santana to overhear whatever it was. As it is, he won't look at any one part of Santana's face; his twitchiness makes her nervous.
She waves to Puck but doesn't speak to him.
She presses closer to Brittany.
With so many people already seated at the dining table, the circus youths claim a long spot of ground for themselves and eat flopped over on their sides, their plates laid out in front of them.
Though Santana would expect Puck to want to sit close to her, he doesn't. Instead, he makes a point to situate himself between Finn and Sam on the far end of the group, his back turned to Santana.
Santana can't help but wonder if Puck doesn't still feel a bit guilty about his and Finn's conversation in the wagon bay this morning or if it might have hurt his feelings when Finn teased him on the train about Santana being Brittany's good luck charm but not his.
Though Puck tosses a few glances Santana's way throughout the meal, checking on her in the same way that a man afraid of missing an appointment might check the time on a clock, he doesn't make any effort to beckon her over to where he sits.
(Of all the people Santana calls "friend" at the circus, Puck is the one she understands least of all.)
With Puck far away and no one else paying much attention to them, Santana and Brittany are free to talk at their leisure. Santana finicks at her sandwich, losing herself for a moment in the way Brittany's pretty mouth lifts when Brittany smiles. Her hankering to hold and kiss Brittany hasn't gone away since morning.
"Britt," she says softly, so that none of the boys overhear them, "I'm sorry we'll have to do chores all day tomorrow. I just thought we should probably pitch in, since Ma asked." She offers Brittany a pout. "I didn't mean to give up all our free time."
"That's okay," Brittany assures her. "I didn't think we'd be able to get out of working tomorrow anyway, not with so much going on. We're just lucky Mrs. Schuester didn't find us first. I heard some of Ma's kitchen girls talking, and they said Mrs. Schuester is making a fabric backdrop for the couples to say their vows in front of tomorrow. If we listen really closely, we could probably hear her hollering about it right now."
"You mean she's not taking lunch?" Santana asks, quickly scanning the mess pit to see if she can spy Mrs. Schuester anywhere. When she can't, she puts on an expression of mock concern. "It's that bad, is it?"
"It's the worst," says Brittany, pretty mouth lifting into her cat-smile. She pauses for a second, biting her lip, and then ducks forward, speaking close to Santana's ear and in a very quiet voice. "During the dance tomorrow night, let's run away together, just you and me. We can go off into the woods or find someplace to hide out."
Excitement sparks in Santana's belly and her breath hitches, something inside her catching for Brittany's sudden proximity to her. "There'll be a dance tomorrow?" she asks stupidly.
Brittany smiles against the shell of Santana's ear. "Sure thing," she whispers. "It'll be a down day and a wedding. There's got to be a dance after a wedding." Then, breathless, "Santana, will you dance with me before we slip off?"
Santana matches Brittany's whisper and Brittany's expression. She puts her own face closer to Brittany's ear. Her grin grows wider with each new word she speaks. "I'd love to," she says, "and I love—"
"It's rude to whisper in a crowd," Rachel Berry announces, appearing above Brittany and Santana with a plate of food in her hands. She sits down beside them on the grass, despite not having received an invitation to do so.
The fact that Santana refrains from groaning aloud is a tribute to her and Rachel's budding friendship.
Rachel prattles all through lunch about how she might like to change her aria for the Little Malibran sketch midseason in order to keep her performance "at its most avant-garde and relevant."
She claims to feel very conflicted as to whether she ought to choose part of an Italian opera or part of a German opera for her replacement solo, opining that Italian operas are more artistic than other operas on the whole but suspecting that the Scandinavian population of the Midwestern route might more appreciate a selection "in homage to their heritage."
Though Santana makes certain to nod at appropriate intervals, she also plays a game with Brittany wherein she and Brittany take turns making increasingly silly faces at each other whenever Rachel turns away from one or the other of them.
"Santana, have you even heard a word I've said?" Rachel grouses when she catches Santana crossing her eyes and sticking out her tongue at Brittany about midway through a very detailed explanation of Wagner's genius.
Santana smirks. "Aren't you the Little Malibran of Seville?" she asks Rachel teasingly. When Rachel stammers, she rolls her eyes. "Okay, so if you want to be authentic, you should sing something from Barbieri."
When Rachel acts surprised that Santana would know such an obscure composer, Santana can't help herself. She flashes Brittany a wicked smile, clears her throat, and puts on her silliest, most overly-flourished operatic singing voice, mimicking an old song her father used to play for her on the gramophone in the parlor. She clasps her hands together as if she were a prima donna at the Met.
Niñas que a vender flores vais a Granada,
no paséis por la sierra de la Alpujarra
Hay un bandido que
con todas las niñas
Santana can only manage to maintain her silly singing for half the verse—mainly because Brittany looks at her so imploringly, wanting her to really sing like she did yesterday in the tent. Unable to deny Brittany anything, Santana switches to her true singing voice as soon as the bandit enters the song, allowing the last note to ring out, pure.
The song isn't an aria, and it doesn't even contain solo parts, but Santana doesn't especially care. After she finishes her performance, Brittany looks at her as if she were made of gold, and Rachel's mouth falls open so widely that someone could drive a stagecoach down her throat just as easily as if it were a tunnel.
Santana considers both expressions marks of her victory. She laughs, pleased with herself. "I could always teach you the Spanish, if you like," she offers, giving Rachel a stout pat on the kneecap.
She and Rachel must truly be friends now because, after a beat, Rachel laughs, too.
Only a short while later, thunder clears its throat overhead, and the circus youths rise, bussing their cleaned plates to the tubs at the back of the chuck. Everyone looks to the sky, searching it for rain.
For the last little while, Santana had been able to forget the guilt in the pit of her belly in favor of merrymaking with Brittany, but now that she and Brittany have once more to part from each other before the show, she feels the guilt starting to sink low in her again.
She doesn't want to have to read tarot on the midway. She can't abide causing another death, not when she's drawn that loathsome card for two persons already in the week. She pulls away from the rest of the group, stopping to catch her breath just beyond the trisection of tents where she and Brittany first met.
Brittany walks only a pace behind her. She comes right up to Santana, taking Santana by the hand and fixing her with a serious look.
"Not too many people will turn up for the fair today," Brittany says consolingly, a promise in her voice. "And the ones who do will get caught up in the acts at the front of the midway, I'm sure." She pauses for a second, biting her lip, before carrying on at a lilt, "I hear that there's this human not-a-target who's going to put on a show like they've never seen just at the start of the pitch. She might have stolen some sandwich ingredients from the mess pit just now."
When Santana scrunches up her brow, both surprised and confused by what Brittany has told her, Brittany flashes Santana her mischief-making smile.
"Maybe she's going to have her daddy throw knives through two halves of a roll with meat and cheese in-between them to make a sandwich on the backboard," she says, shrugging as if it's no big thing. She becomes increasingly teasing and droll as Santana starts to match her smile. "I'll bet he can do it, and I'll bet that the gillies from Kenyon would much rather see that act than have their fortunes read to them on a day like today."
(If anyone claims to have loved someone more than Santana Lopez loves Brittany Pierce at this instant, Santana would never believe them, not even if they swore it by every power in the universe.)
Santana means to thank Brittany and to tell Brittany how brilliant she is, but what comes out of her mouth instead is mostly a squeak: "You would do that for me?"
Brittany brushes over Santana's wrist with her thumb. She smiles like Santana's just asked her the kind of question that doesn't even warrant asking. "I'd do anything for you," she says, just so. "I'd steal a thousand sandwiches, if it would help you at all."
Santana smiles, dimples deep in her cheeks. "Brittany, that is the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me," she peeps, her voice sweet and high, like it only ever is on Brittany's account.
Brittany laughs. "Well," she says, shrugging, unable to explain anything more than that.
For a few seconds, the girls smile at each other, dopey and adoring. If they didn't have to hurry onto the midway for the fair, Santana would probably drag Brittany behind the nearest tent and kiss her breathless.
"Britt," Santana says suddenly, starting to lead Brittany out from the trisection of tents again. She looks left and right, checking both ways, before guiding Brittany back out into the main corridor between the tent rows, "how come I never knew you had an act during the fair before?"
"What?" Brittany asks.
"I never knew you and your daddy had an act on the midway," Santana admits. "I've never seen you out there."
"Really?" Brittany says, scrunching up her nose.
(A sweet pang plays through Santana's chest, like a high, clear note on a piano.)
"Really," Santana affirms.
Brittany smiles at her, like she somehow finds it precious that Santana hadn't known about her act. "That's probably because we only work the midway on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday," she muses, swinging her and Santana's linked hands, continuing to walk along, "and our act only lasts for the first half of the fair. I don't even stand in front of the target for it. I just throw apples and handkerchiefs and rope into the air and Daddy aims for that stuff. It riles up the crowd pretty well. Afterwards, we have to go get ready for the show—sharpen up the knives again, you know?"
She stops at the place where she and Santana must part ways, still holding Santana's hand in hers for just a second longer. She bites her lip, just looking Santana over as if she can't ever see Santana enough.
Now Santana is the one to blush, hot under Brittany's close attention.
"That sounds like a fun knife throwing act," Santana stammers, still tripped up on how wonderfully kind Brittany is and how thoughtful and clever, too.
"It is fun," Brittany says in a way that means We should maybe practice it sometime.
Both girls breathe in, giggly and breathless. Santana doesn't know how it's possible for one person to go from feeling so anxious to so cheerful so quickly—it's all Brittany's doing, though, of course.
For as thoughtful as it was for Puck to offer to speak to Mr. Adams on Santana's behalf, the truth is that Puck doesn't understand why Santana so hates reading tarot to begin with. Though he'll help Santana not have to read tarot in the future, he supposes that she'll just have to get by if she has to read it today. Brittany understands why Santana hates reading tarot, though. And Brittany knows that it's important for Santana not to have to read tarot today, just like it's important for her not to have to read it any time ever.
(It's Brittany Santana trusts to take care of her.)
Brittany is right: very few people from Kenyon turn up for the morning fair. Only a handful of schoolboys and some old folks with bumbershoots dare to brave the outdoors under such imminent threat of rain. No one even bothers to form a queue outside Santana's booth, and, after a while, Ken even gives up on standing watch over Santana's act, wandering away and grumbling to himself about having "more things to do than Lucifer but half the devils to do 'em with."
Santana strains her ears listening for sounds of laughter or shocked gasps coming from the fore of the pitch, but she hears nothing but the low complaint of thunder muttering overhead. Still, it still brings a smile to her face to imagine Brittany offering up sandwich ingredients to her father for a target. She can only imagine Mr. Pierce's confusion and Brittany's insistence. How did Brittany even get the sandwich stuff to the midway? Did she put it in her satchel?
A familiar crushed-gravel voice cuts through Santana's thoughts.
"You're giving readings today?"
It's barely even a question.
It's Quinn Fabray.
Quinn wears a beautiful snarl, eyes bright with the same vivid green that carpets the Midwestern countryside beneath its thunderstorm shroud, features sharp with the same wicked loveliness of a knife blade, beveled and ready for the cut. Quinn bears her teeth and breathes like a combative animal, fixing Santana with a glare.
"I want a reading," she says, hard and raw.
Two weeks ago, if a mad rich girl had ordered Santana to give a reading, Santana would have obliged her immediately, without question or complaint.
Not now, though.
Not when Santana and Quinn are alone, and Santana can set her own terms for their exchange without Ken hovering over her shoulder for once.
Santana meets Quinn's eyes. "I won't read cards for you," she says. "It's palm or nothing."
Though she doesn't don her grandmother's accent, Santana sounds so much like her grandmother—so firm and sure—that for a moment she doesn't know herself. Gone is the girl who cowers before the rules. In her place, there's a protector, someone who won't allow Quinn Fabray to ask for something that could harm her.
What Santana says isn't open for debate.
She refuses to flinch or to look away from Quinn.
Quinn isn't accustomed to people like Santana refusing her things. She glares at Santana for a second longer before finally submitting. "Fine," she says, taking her place in the chair in front of Santana's table, repositioning her skirts around herself with such vigor that an onlooker would think they had offended her.
When she extends her hand to Santana, she does so with quick, agitated movements. She isn't angry at Santana, though. The object of her anger is somewhere far away—and it's something bigger than Santana, bigger than the circus.
Now that she's sitting level with Santana, Quinn breaks their eye contact, as if she can't stand to hold Santana's gaze; she glances off to the side as if there is something terrible at Santana's back that she doesn't want to see. She blinks and blinks and blinks again, despite the gloom of the day, eyelashes pale and pretty upon her cheeks.
More than ever, Quinn looks like the heroine from a Russian novel, a second off from throwing herself beneath the undercarriage of a passing train or being sent away in exile onto the ceaseless Siberian steppe.
It occurs to Santana that on the first day she met Quinn, Quinn scoffed at her act, calling it black magic and hocus pocus. How curious, then, that Quinn should demand a reading from Santana now—and so insistently, too.
Santana takes Quinn hand in her own hands. She doesn't wait for Quinn to look back at her before asking, "Why do you want a reading? You don't believe in them anyway."
Her voice is much softer and quieter than before, all of the firmness gone from it now that she no longer has the need to fight against something.
Though Quinn wets her lips and swallows, she still sounds hoarse when she speaks.
"I need—," she starts, throat snagging. She finally looks at Santana directly for the first time since sitting down at the table. Her eyes shine, but no tears fall to her face just yet. "I need you to tell me that I can be happy," she says. "I need you to tell me that it will be all right, that—that—"
Her voice breaks with a silent sob, and she curls in upon herself, resting her brow against her forearm, covering her face with her free hand. Her shoulders wrack, and she breathes in gasps, like something has stabbed into her and she can't manage to take in enough air around it.
It's an awkward motion, for Santana still holds Quinn's hand in her own, and the girls sit close to each other, with only a tabletop between them. All the same, it wouldn't be right for Santana to let go of Quinn, and so Santana stays fast, remaining in her place, thumbs pinned over the creases in Quinn's palm.
To an outside observer, it would look like Quinn were a penitent and Santana the priest offering her communion.
"Please," Quinn pleads, sitting up and looking into Santana's eyes again. "Please tell me I'll be able to live with myself. Tell me I can learn to love him. Lie to me."
It should be an easy request to fill.
(What is the circus but a city built of colors and lies?)
The truth is that Santana Lopez hardly even knows Quinn Fabray.
They've bumbled into each other a half-dozen times around the circus. Santana's offended Quinn and stolen Quinn's book and not known how to act when she found Quinn sobbing under the billboard partition. Really, Quinn is mostly a stranger to her.
So who is Santana Lopez to say that Quinn Fabray couldn't learn to love Arthur Adams and live happily as his little wife?
Santana smoothes over the creases in Quinn's palm, the heart and lifelines, which for all Santana has learned at the circus are still as foreign and meaningless to her understanding as if they were hieroglyphs carved out in stone in a dead language. Santana steels herself and summons up the wherewithal to tell Quinn Fabray what she wants—no, needs—to hear. The words all but tumble out of her mouth.
Santana might have slapped Quinn and hurt her less.
Quinn's jaw drops, and she wrenches back, attempting to snatch her hand away from Santana. Without meaning to do it, Santana clamps down, holding Quinn fast. Quinn gasps but hardly seems to take in any air.
"I'm so sorry," Santana says meeting Quinn's eyes at the same time that she runs against upon that invisible wall inside of herself. "I just can't."
How many lies has Santana told since leaving New York? She lied about marrying Puck. She lied about being an Italian gypsy. She lied to strangers as she read their palms. She lied about losing her cards, about having chores to do, about not feeling well. She's even lied in a roundabout way, by omission, by allowing Puck to think that she hasn't given her heart to anyone, when really she has given it to Brittany a thousand times over on each new day that they spend together in the white city.
When Santana first arrived at the circus, Puck told her the truth didn't matter anymore, but Santana knows now that he was wrong.
It matters more than anything.
Santana has learned what the truth means from blue eyes and warm hands, from the press of naked bodies and the vibrancy of laughter against the shell of her ear. She's learned it each time Brittany has whispered "Can I tell you a secret?" and then shown Santana some special new part of herself. She's learned it as Brittany's held onto her every hope and care so watchfully and delicately, like whatever Santana chooses to give her is the most sacred thing in the world.
She's learned it in other ways, when the youths of the circus have made it plain to her how much everyone wants for something and how very human it is to yearn for some great thing beyond the self—a compassionate understanding that connects individual to whole.
When Santana gave herself over to a life lived in lies, she was a lonely little girl in an emptied-out bachelor cottage, convinced she would never find anything better than the deception offered to her, but over the last two weeks, she's discovered that there are so many more wonderful, more perfect things.
Maybe circus magic in itself is neither fair nor foul.
Maybe sometimes it's all right to allow people to see only what they wish to.
But lying about important things, like happiness and love, is entirely something different.
When people lie about love, Sam Evans has his heart broken, and Ma Jones makes an engagement to a man who doesn't make her sing. Puck ends up looking like a fool, and Santana and Brittany must sneak about and hide whatever brings them joy. Santana's father never marries Santana's angel mother. So many people spend their lives lonely.
Santana knows it's different with Quinn—that Quinn isn't in love with someone other than Arthur Adams and that Arthur Adams most likely isn't even in love with Quinn himself. Even so, anything that a person loves with her whole heart, whether it's Brittany Pierce or writing newspaper articles, means the world and deserves the truth.
It matters more than anything.
Though Quinn would pull away from her, Santana latches onto Quinn's hand. "I can't lie about that. Not to you," she says, unable to explain anything more before Quinn wrenches away from her.
She expects to see more of the scathing anger with which Quinn faces the world hot behind Quinn's eyes, but she doesn't. Instead, not for the first time since they've met, Quinn looks at Santana like she's seeing her anew—like there's something in Santana she hadn't expected to find. Quinn breathes her heavy, trapped-animal breaths and stares at Santana for what seems like a long while.
Another silent sob breaks in Quinn's throat.
A first tear traces down Quinn's cheek.
Then, all at once, Quinn Fabray is gone.
No one else turns up to Santana's booth during the fair, and so Santana sits for many minutes, listening to the distant peal of thunder. The earth blooms, jungle-thick and verdant all around her. She wonders if it will ever rain in Kenyon.
(She wonders if she just did a bad thing.)
When the show bell rings, she gathers up her belongings quietly and quickly, folding over her peacock-colored tablecloth and burying her cards and tambourine inside it. She fixes her sashes and readjusts her bangles. Even though Quinn went away from her booth crying, Santana feels almost the same today as she did yesterday after reading tarot for the old woman.
When she turns up in the backstage area, it surprises her to find the place very sparsely populated. Some of the clowns are missing, as is the entirety of the Sylvesteri Equestrienne Coterie. Mrs. Schuester and her seamstresses are also nowhere on scene. In fact, no one is dispensing flowers or veils, as they ought to be. Santana's shock must show on her face because Puck immediately flanks her, as if to preempt her saying anything aloud concerning the situation.
"We've scrapped the knight sketch for today, ladybird," he tells her in a low whisper. "We're just gonna do the opening parade, like we did before. You still remember the steps?"
"Sure," Santana says, floored that so many people would willfully skip out on the show. "Won't Ken have everyone who's skiving red-lighted?"
"That's the scuttle," Puck says darkly. "I think they figure Mr. Adams can't afford to fire all of 'em. I'll be damned if he don't make a few examples of these jackasses, though. We're just lucky the audience is smaller than usual today. I poked my head in the tent, and less than half of the rows are filled. You could hear an echo in there."
For Puck's word, the same uneasiness that Santana felt in the wagon bay this morning flitters in her belly again. She doesn't like the idea of so many people making trouble for Mr. Adams and themselves. Will the missing company members really lose their jobs for holding out?
Santana makes a quick scan of the backstage to see which of her acquaintances—if any—are unaccounted for. "Rory isn't here," she whispers.
"He sure ain't," Puck says even more darkly than before.
Thunder rumbles overhead and the final show bell rings.
With so many performers not present, the matinee runs strangely, discombobulated and much shorter in duration than usual. Everything takes place in one ring as opposed to spread out over three. Everyone seems in a flap, unsure of when to enter the big top and when to exit it.
Though some of the absentee clowns, including Rory, do eventually turn up in time for the baseball sketch, the Equestrienne Coterie never makes an appearance, and Will skips over their act in the show entirely, as if it had never existed.
Kurt is one of only two jugglers to take the stage following the lion taming act, and the Flying Dragon Changs fill in for some of the missing contortionists thereafter, turning somersaults and bending their bodies into fantastic shapes on the ground, somehow seeming much stranger than they do suspended midair on strings.
Just like yesterday, Will remains listless and uninspiring as he narrates the show. He barely bothers to chase after the clowns when they steal his hat, and he couldn't seem less surprised when Rachel lingers on stage following the gypsy act for her Little Malibran shtick. Even from far away, Santana can see that he isn't shaven and that his eyes look tired, ringed with reds and violets. His tone is flat, his antics worn-out.
It's difficult to believe that he purveys "the most magnificent spectacle between this nation's two fair oceans" when he seems so unenthused about the whole affair himself.
Perhaps thankfully, perhaps not, Puck was right when he said that the audience was smaller than usual today. Hardly anyone sits up in the cheap seats, and only a very few persons occupy the first few rows on the bleachers otherwise. It's impossible for Santana to tell, but it seems as if the people closest to the rings look decidedly unamused.
It isn't difficult to guess why.
Throughout the whole show, Santana feels jumpy and slightly dizzy, like she can't keep up with what's going on. Following the gypsy act, she perches herself at the back of the tent, restless and waiting for Mr. Pierce and Brittany to take the stage after Rachel.
Stevie Evans appears at her side. "It isn't a good circus day," he observes, watching as Rachel holds her note, waiting for her goblet to break.
When Santana flinches, Sam takes note from across the way.
"Stevie!" he calls. "Don't you bother Ms. Santana!"
Stevie turns away at Sam's beck.
"He's not bothering me—," Santana starts to say, but then Rachel's glass shatters, and the crowd applauds.
Santana's heart jumps in her chest.
She forgets what's happening behind her as Will announces the knife throwing act and the Pierces appear from the darkness of the wings.
Mr. Pierce still walks with his limp and wears even a heavier scowl than usual, if possible. At first, Santana thinks he might be in a foul mood because he missed out on another paycheck this week or because so many company members have shirked their responsibilities and made for a bad show, but then she sees him wince against the electric lights as if they burn his eyes.
He has a headache.
(Stone guilt sinks low in Santana's belly, all the way to the bottom.)
Though Brittany had been joking and upbeat with Santana when they parted ways after lunch, she seems to realize the severity of the situation now. Unlike yesterday, Brittany doesn't play tricks in the ring or take extra time to charm the audience. She performs her duties quickly and without flourish, arranging the satchel at its place on the ground and taking her mark before the board, at military attention in her pose.
She straightens up immediately and fixes her father with an entreating look.
"Oh God," Santana says, covering her hand with her mouth.
"Ms. Santana, are you all right?"
The voice startles Santana almost as much as the goings-on in the ring do. She turns to find Sam and Stevie standing just behind her, peeking into the big top through the aperture in the tent canvas from over her shoulder. Sam's hand hovers just over her back, reaching out to touch her in comfort.
"May I?" he asks, taking special care to ask Santana's permission with Stevie watching.
Santana nods absently. "Sure," she says.
Sam sets his hand on Santana's back, holding her in place. His touch is warm and stabilizing.
"May I?" Stevie asks, opening up his arms.
"Sure," Santana says again, and Stevie throws himself around her waist, hugging in close to her. He's tall enough that his head nearly reaches Santana's collarbone, but short enough that he can fit comfortably at the curve in her side. He rests his face against her, settling into stillness.
With the brothers Evans standing watch around her, Santana turns her attention back to the big top just in time to see Mr. Pierce take his paces at Will's instruction. Though Mr. Pierce's injury is now three days old, he still limps along as if it were fresh, cringing each time he sets even the slightest weight on the pad of his foot. When he finally reaches his appointed place, he requires several seconds to recover, breathing heavily and sucking in whistling breaths through his teeth.
Santana stiffens, and Stevie holds her tighter.
Mr. Pierce throws, stumbling forward with the lob. His knife doesn't make its full rotation, not before it reaches the board, not before—
Santana closes her eyes.
She hears the thud before she sees the knife skitter across the dirt at Brittany's feet, nowhere near where it ought to have landed. It comes to a halt near the center of the ring.
"It bounced off," Sam says, thumbing at Santana's back. "Britt's all right."
Brittany is all right, but Santana doesn't know for how much longer she will be. Even with all of Mr. Pierce's botched throws to date, Santana has never seen him fail to rotate a knife all the way before, and neither has she seen him fail to land a knife in the target. His last miss may have been his worst one yet, and it was only his first throw for the act.
"Come on, Britt," Santana pleads, wrapping her arms around Stevie and holding him to her.
Mr. Pierce's second throw hits home but lands far to the left of its intended destination. Mr. Pierce winces on the release and winces again when the blade embeds in the board. He draws a hand to his face, wiping it, and Santana shudders.
(He isn't supposed to break eye contact with Brittany, not until the first round of the act is over.)
Throws three, four, five, and six land, but none of them are particularly accurate or beautiful. While the audience doesn't boo Mr. Pierce, they certainly don't cheer him, either. He wipes his face again, covering his eyes with his palm and hiding from the light.
When Brittany scurries over to procure the apple from the satchel, Stevie whisper-hollers at her through the shadows.
"Brittany! Brittany! Are you okay?"
"Stevie, don't interrupt her," Sam warns.
His caution is unnecessary; if Brittany hears Stevie, she doesn't lift her head to the sound of his voice. She moves efficiently and without pause, gathering up her supplies and resuming her place before the target for the second leg of the act.
When Brittany and Mr. Pierce resume their eye contact, Santana can't help but notice the way Mr. Pierce twitches, like he can't keep from blinking or as if he has dust caught under his eyelid. It takes him several seconds to steady himself and regain control of his face. He wears a painfully hard expression, like all the clay in him had dried out and turned to stone.
Brittany nods her head and raises her hand.
Santana flinches before Mr. Pierce even moves.
The knife hits the edge of the board with the flat of its blade. There's the fast, glancing ting of steel ricocheting from wood. The knife spins off to the side, landing ten feet from the front of the ring. Santana's stomach seizes, knotting. She flinches and so does Stevie. The audience lets out first a collective gasp and then a murmur.
"No worries, folks!" Will reassures them, as if he has any authority to say so or power to control the outcome of the act.
If Santana weren't so worried for Brittany, she'd bristle.
Mr. Pierce regains his balance. He breathes heavily, as if he had just run for a long distance under the hot sun. Thunder cracks above the big top, loud enough that the audience rustles in their seats, unnerved. Sam presses even closer to Santana, breathing near to the top of her head. Stevie looks up at Santana, but she won't look away from the ring herself.
Mr. Pierce heaves his next throw. From the instant the knife leaves his hand, Santana knows it's a bad one. She can tell, with horrible dread stillness in her belly, that this is it—that this is the throw that will finally hit Brittany.
The queer thing is that Santana can't scream, and, unlike all the other times, she can't close her eyes. She can only watch as the knife moves down, not up—as it carves a straight descent through the air, heavy and without rotation. Her gaze can't even outpace the blade. She can't look ahead to see if Brittany will manage to move out of the way. She can only see that Mr. Pierce has misaimed, awfully and entirely.
A metallic glint drives deep into angel white.
The audience screams.
Santana's knees give out from under her.
For a split instant, she can't see or hear anything; something sinks in the back of her mind, and she feels the sick displacement of freefall. But then arms catch her up, one pair strong, the other small. She doesn't hit the ground. Sam and Stevie hold her, but she can barely even fathom them. She's boneless, brainless, her heart out in the ring.
Immediately, Santana searches for Brittany and finds her crouched in the strangest, contorted position, one knee on the ground, her other leg skewed in a weird, uneven twist. She's still upright, but just barely. She reaches across herself, holds the edge of the board with one hand. Hard light haloes her in vivid white.
Santana searches for red.
Sound and breath and knowingness return to Santana all at once, in a rush, as if she had just emerged from being underwater.
"She's all right! She's all right," Sam's babbling in her ear. "Britt's all right! He didn't hit her! She's all right!"
He sounds almost hysterical with relief, if such a thing were possible. He holds Santana under her arms but starts to lower her to the ground, sinking down at her back so that they both collapse in a heap. Stevie holds Santana at the waist and goes along with them. The little boy doesn't speak but searches Santana's face with wide, worried eyes.
Santana won't look away from the ring.
She can only watch Brittany.
The knife protrudes from between Brittany's legs, cut clean through Brittany's skirt, pinning Brittany to the backboard. It didn't hit any part of Brittany's body, though. She must have moved her legs out of the way at the last second. She must have dodged.
Santana's pulse thunders so loudly in her ears that it drowns out the sounds of the storm overhead, and she almost feels sick for it.
She's relieved and exhausted, heartsick and belatedly terrified, sad and dizzy, nauseous and winded, exuberantly happy and in love, all at once. A sob breaks her throat just as she sits down on the ground, her skirts fanned out around her, Stevie Evans all but in her lap, and Sam Evans at her back. She knows she shouldn't cry because everything turned out all right—because Mr. Pierce didn't hit Brittany after all—but she can't maintain composure.
She hates it that Brittany's blind father has been lobbing knives at Brittany's head for years. She and Brittany should have practiced the act yesterday instead of hiding out in her tent. She shouldn't have been so selfish as to keep Brittany from doing something that would save Brittany's life. They have to master their act so that they can show it to Mr. Adams and Brittany can live. They have to take over the knife throwing act so that Brittany can throw and Santana can stand in her old dangerous place.
Santana covers her mouth with her palm to muffle the sound, a deep pain in her chest that robs all her breath away. She doesn't know what she would have done if something had happened. She feels so stupid and so helpless; Sam will probably scold her.
He doesn't, though.
"It's all right, Santana," he says, moving his arms so that he embraces her from behind. "It's all right."
Stevie says, "You don't have to cry. Brittany's okay," and gives Santana a pat on the knee.
He's right, Santana knows.
Santana watches as Will and Mr. Pierce hurry over to where Brittany stands. Mr. Pierce yanks the knife's hilt from the board with a grizzly strength, pulling Brittany into his arms, and Will turns to address the crowd, assuring them that "Miss Brittany has made it safely through."
Even from so far away, Santana can see that Brittany's shaking. There's a deep rip through her skirts and a tremor in her hands. If something worse had happened—
(Santana can't breathe.)
Santana cries only with her breath and not with tears. Though her eyes shine, her face remains dry. After a few moments of Sam and Stevie rocking her and telling her things will be all right, she's able to stand.
The boys lead her over to the fire, setting her down on one of the benches, coaching her to take deep breaths and reminding her again and again that Brittany came to no harm. There's a quiet sort of empathy in Sam, like he understands what it's like to feel helpless and unable to do anything for one's beloved.
Santana supposes that he probably does understand, in some ways.
She's grateful to him when he offers her a drink of water from one of his family's canteens.
"Thank you," she says, though her insides still tremble.
Luckily, Puck doesn't notice anything having to do with Santana until she's started to calm. He somehow missed the whole commotion with Brittany while he stood on the far side of the backstage area having a very animated, whispered conversation with Rachel. Now he glances at Santana, surprised to see her away from the aperture in the tent but oblivious to the fact that she had been crying with Sam and Stevie Evans wrapped around her like quilts.
Puck daren't look at Santana for very long.
He's back to being edgy around her, just like he was at lunchtime.
He only meets her eyes for half a second, murmuring to Rachel that he has to go fix the torches and turning his back on the whole backstage, setting down to fidget at his staff.
Brittany and her father don't join in the grand exit parade, and Santana supposes that they've probably already gone back to their tent so that Brittany can change out of her torn costume and Mr. Pierce can elevate his foot.
It takes all of Santana's self-discipline not to run out of the big top and all the way to the family tent row the instant the matinee ends just to check on Brittany. She wraps her arms around her body and bites at her lip, forcing herself to remain in one place while Puck gathers up the gypsy gear.
Puck won't meet Santana's eyes for the whole time it takes him to outfit his satchel. When he finally stands up, he offers her only the quickest glance. "I've got to go, um—," he fumbles. "—I've, well. I'll find you later, ladybird, all right? Take is easy until then."
At any other time, what Puck says would strike Santana as a strange goodbye, but at present Santana can't force herself to think about anything having to do with Puck—not when her heart and mind are halfway across the camp with Brittany.
(Really, there's nothing wrong with Puck, as far as circus boys go, but Santana just can't fuss about him. She never has been able to.)
She only feels glad to see Puck go.
Santana waits just a few seconds after he takes his leave to take hers, setting off from the backstage area with all the haste and direction of a bullet shot from a pistol. She flies over thick grass and bare ground, scrabbling over loose rocks and almost turning her ankle as she sprints between derelict tents on the way to the family tent row. She makes it there in what must be record time, ignoring the searing ache in her side and how she thirsts for breath.
When she skids to a halt in front of the Pierce tent, she doesn't bother with propriety or keeping her voice down.
"Brittany?" she calls through the canvas.
She hears nothing.
Her thoughts swirl.
Where would Brittany be if not in the Pierce family tent with her father? Maybe looking for Santana at Santana and Puck's tent? No. Maybe getting her damaged costume to Mrs. Schuester to repair? After all, Mrs. Schuester will only have a few hours to sew up the tear before the evening show.
Santana dashes off in the direction of the dressing tents.
She and Brittany must have crossed paths without her realizing it, she reckons.
(Will it ever rain in Kenyon?)
As Santana happens onto the midway, she passes by Rory and Blaine in conversation with David and Matt and another companion—the same fellow who had bothered Santana on the train to Mankato with David.
At first, Santana thinks that the five boys might be discussing the unusual turnout at the morning matinee, but then she realizes that they're locked in argument, the burly supes aligned against the much smaller clowns.
Blaine still wears his face paint from the show. He holds his trilby hat in his hands, his usually slick hair messy with sweat and curly under the day heat. He situates his body between Rory and the supes like a barrier. Rory stands a pace behind Blaine, fists balled at his sides. His face is red but already cleaned of its decoration. Of the three supes, the one who gave Santana so much trouble on the train stands closest to Blaine, towering over him, chest puffed up. David and Matt flank this fellow as though they were his guards.
"—came back, didn't I?" Rory is defending himself.
"Guys, he didn't mean any harm! He'll be there for the whole night show!" Blaine chimes in.
"Y'all know what happens when we don't do half our work for the day?" the big supe challenges, giving Blaine a shove in the chest, pushing him back just as easily as if he weighed nothing. "Ken would fire us and requisition half our belongings to 'pay damages'!" he shouts. "What y'all clowns do? Skip out on half a performance, make a few little kiddies laugh, still stay on the lists, get paid twice as much as we do for doing less work?"
"Hey, back off 'em!" Matt warns his companion.
"Yeah, come on, Zeke!" Blaine implores, putting up his hands in a gesture of peace.
"Shut up, you little prick-eater!" the big supe—Zeke, Santana supposes—shoots back, slapping Blaine's hands down. "I'll back off when this little bog-trotter's half-whipped for only doing half-work for the day!"
Given another second, Santana feels certain that the boys will start to fight. She also feels certain that, if it comes to a fight, Blaine and Rory will be lucky to survive it—which is why it actually gladdens her when Ken appears from around the curve of the big top, already hollering at his workers.
"Come on, now!" he gruffs. "To work, all of you!"
His face is such an awful shade of purple that no one dares to argue with him. The supes and the clowns disengage from their confrontation, backing down from it immediately and allowing Ken to scatter them with a wave of his undersized bowler hat.
Santana takes a similar cue, not wanting Ken to scold her for standing about, and darts inside the ladies' dressing tent without thinking twice of it.
Immediately, Santana sees a half-dozen seamstresses working frantically to stitch together a long, white curtain of brocaded fabric, all of the girls arranged in a row, seated on stools around a makeshift table made up of overturned crates.
At first, Santana wonders what their project could be, but then she remembers her and Brittany's conversation from earlier in the day: the brocaded fabric is part of the backdrop for the weddings. It's Mrs. Schuester's wedding present to Mr. Adams' son.
The seamstresses look up from their task as Santana enters their presence, but Santana doesn't have the chance to ask them if they've seen Brittany before someone else appears.
Theresa Schuester herself.
If Mrs. Schuester is surprised that Santana would dare to enter her domain uninvited—and particularly considering that, at their last meeting, Mrs. Schuester slapped Santana across the face—she doesn't show it in the least.
A positively smug look curls her lips.
"Just the girl I wanted to see!" she says, honey only mostly masking the arsenic in her voice.
She traipses over to a work table and plucks up a folded-over heap of white fabric from it. At first, Santana worries that it's more brocade for the wedding backdrop, but then Mrs. Schuester explains.
"Brittany Pierce ripped her costume! I'd make her sew it up herself, but we need it done before the evening show, and I don't suppose that she'd be quick enough at the job to make the deadline. You, on the other hand—you'll do fine."
She smiles at Santana, malicious.
"It only has to preserve Miss Pierce's modesty, so don't worry about making it pretty. A blind stitch through the back will work perfectly well. Don't dawdle about it."
Without waiting for Santana to respond, Mrs. Schuester thrusts Brittany's show costume into Santana's arms and reaches into a nearby bin, rustling out a sewing kit and adding that to Santana's pile, as well. Even if Santana wanted to object, the expression on Mrs. Schuester's face says that she won't hear it. Her eyes are even madder than Santana had remembered them being.
"Remember," Mrs. Schuester chides, "it needs to be done before the show. Do—not—let—Brittany—Pierce—distract—you!" she says, jabbing her finger hard into Santana's chest.
Santana winces and is about to retort that that won't be a problem seeing as she can't seem to find Brittany anywhere, but then she decides better of it. Even in her nervous state, Santana knows it wouldn't be wise to try Mrs. Schuester's patience today—and especially not with the whole circus already on edge.
Looking into Mrs. Schuester's mad eyes, Santana can't bring herself to say "Yes, ma'am," so she offers only a stiff nod instead. Thankfully, Mrs. Schuester doesn't seem to mind Santana's silence. She dismisses Santana with a flippant wave of her hand, as though Santana were a dog, and Santana makes her exit from the dressing tent posthaste.
In a certain way, Santana supposes that if someone had to conscript her into doing chores, it was for the best that those chores would benefit Brittany. Still, she hates that Mrs. Schuester has managed to cut her search for Brittany short and hates being separated from Brittany even more.
She feels so off-balance, like the horizon is spinning, and she knows she won't find her center again until she's wherever Brittany is and both of them are safe.
Workload in arms, Santana heads back out under the open sky, flinching when she notices that the day has turned darker since she entered the dressing tent. While it still has yet to rain in Kenyon, the clouds overhead are ceaseless and ominous. They move quickly, like boats caught on a current. Santana hurries her pace, eager to reach her tent.
Her hope now is that if she returns to her tent to sew, Brittany will find her there eventually. Still, she can't help but fret about Brittany in the meanwhile. After all, she can only imagine how shaken up she would have been if she had stood in Brittany's place.
What if Brittany is afraid or upset or crying? Santana's heart aches in her chest.
If Brittany doesn't find her first, Santana will just hurry up with the sewing job and search for Brittany afterward. She won't go to the evening fair until they've seen each other, until she can hold Brittany in her arms and see that Brittany is all right for herself. If Brittany isn't all right, they won't go anywhere.
(Mr. Adams and Ken and the company can choke on their show, for all Santana cares.)
As Santana approaches her tent, she only just remembers to call out before going inside.
When no one answers, Santana opens the flap and ducks inside. She finds the tent cabin gloomy but thankfully unoccupied. Her only consolation for having to work in the near-dark is that her stitching doesn't need to be pretty—just functional. It will be white thread on a white costume. No one will even be able to see it from the stands.
Leaving the door open behind her so as to allow as much light into the tent as possible, Santana drops down onto the ground, setting her sewing kit at her side. She makes certain to keep Brittany's costume in her lap so as not to stain it on the grass, knowing how Brittany frets about keeping it clean.
Since leaving the dressing tent, Santana's heartbeat has slowed, and her breathing has evened out. She's calmed somewhat. But still, her hands tremble. She can scarcely smooth the costume's fabric down over her thigh.
"Goddamn it!" she curses, borrowing one of Puck's favorite blasphemies. "Settle down," she commands herself, struggling to unbutton the leather pouch and pick out a needle and thread for her work. "Settle down, settle down. Breathe. Breathe."
No matter how Santana attempts to thread her needle, her hands won't cooperate. She struggles at the task for five full minutes, missing the needle's eye again and again, and only manages to accomplish it after wetting the tip of the thread in her mouth.
Another several minutes pass before she can tie a knot in the thread.
When at last she cinches her knot into place, she closes her eyes, trying to remember what a blind stitch looks like.
All of her grandmother's old sewing lessons seem a million miles and years away from her, like something she's only read about in a book and hasn't lived for herself. Was there ever such a place as the bachelor cottage? Such a life wherein the greatest challenge in a day was trying to darn ripped fabric?
(A world beyond the circus?)
The blind stitch is actually a simple one, once Santana makes herself remember it. She smoothes out the torn part of Brittany's skirt over her lap and checks to see how deep the cut runs. As suspected, she finds that it goes all the way through not only Brittany's outer skirt, but Brittany's petticoats, as well. The straight fabric on the outer garment will be much easier to sew than the frilly fabric on the inner one, but neither job should prove especially difficult once Santana sets to them.
Santana readies the needle in her hand and breathes in deeply between her teeth.
With the tremor still only mostly worked out of her hands, she inserts the needle into the outskirt, pushing it carefully through to about an eighth of an inch. It's difficult to manage her work, and she shakes even worse pulling the needle out than she did putting it in. She mismeasures the second puncture and has to reset. The first stitch has to be small; the subsequent stitches will become progressively larger and then smaller again, so that the final stitching pattern will have an oblong shape, like a white willow leaf.
"Come on," she coaches herself, guiding her needle through angel white.
She sets her first stitch.
Her work should only get easier from here.
But it doesn't.
The instant she inserts the needle to start the second stitch, she feels a sharp jab in her index finger and flinches away from the pain, dropping the needle at once. She shakes her hand to numb the pain on impulse but oughtn't to do it, for as soon as she does so, two drops of bright red spatter onto the white of Brittany's costume.
Immediately, Santana stiffens.
Two weeks ago, Santana wouldn't have thought anything about bleeding onto fabric except to worry about leaving a stain, but now dread wells in her chest, enough to almost make her sick.
Red blood on shooting star white can't bring anything good with it.
It's got to be worse than a bad news moon, than a wailing elephant, the evil eye, or having a gilly in camp between shows.
The practical part of Santana knows it would be silly for her to fret about it.
(But the part of Santana that doesn't think but only feels hunkers down, waiting.)
Santana tries to scrub the blood from Brittany's skirt in the steel washbasin, but the water is too tepid to lift the stain.
Thankfully, the stain itself is small enough that it will hardly be visible to the circus audience from their vantage point in the bleachers. Even more thankfully, the flounce of Brittany's skirt will probably obscure the stain to most people standing nearby her. Perhaps most thankfully of all, if Brittany were to have the skirt laundered, soap might remove the stain entirely.
Still, Santana still very much regrets making the stain in the first place. She hadn't wanted to dirty Brittany's costume, if she could help it. She'll have to apologize to Brittany once they're together again.
Needle prick notwithstanding, Santana actually finds it relatively easy to repair the tear in Brittany's costume once she gets to it. The blind stitch is a simple one, and Santana soon falls into the same sort of trance that always overtakes her when she's at her handiwork. Her fingers know how to move without her giving much conscious thought to how to move them. She pauses whenever thunder rolls and listens continually for the patter of rain on the tent canvas but never actually hears it.
Maybe a half-hour passes, maybe more time than that, but, whatever the case, Santana finishes her chore long before the warning bell rings. She repacks her sewing kit and gathers up Brittany's costume, pausing to suck the tip of her pricked finger, which has long since stopped bleeding, though it still throbs with phantom pain.
Santana isn't keen to return to the dressing tent to face Mrs. Schuester again, but she knows better than to give Mrs. Schuester the runaround on a day like this one, when everything at the circus is already in such disarray.
With the costume and sewing kit tucked under her arm, she retraces her steps back to the place from which she came. Lightning fractures down the sky, spreading out into a long, vivid latticework. Warm wind tries to rob Santana of the load that she carries under her arm, but she holds tightly to it. The earth and sky groan like old people settling down to rest in their rockers. The storm threatens like it has all day, but nothing comes of it.
Usually, it's rare for Santana to encounter many people on her hikes across camp between shows. Company members tend either to stick to their own tents or to have chores of their own to do in the diverse parts of the white city. Seldom does anyone just lounge about.
Not so today.
Though the journey from Santana's tent to the dressing tents is not a particularly long or circuitous one, she passes no fewer than a dozen company members standing idly out-of-doors.
Some of these people watch the sky, waiting for rain that may or may not come, while others of them divert themselves, playing card games in groups of twos or threes, reading newspapers, smoking pipes, entertaining their children, talking with their heads pressed close together.
When Santana passes by the idlers, they stare at her with a coyote kind of scrutiny, uncertain as to how to regard her. There's a hard resolve in their expressions. They've made their choice and will stick to it. Even if Ken were to come barreling in with threats, Santana suspects that most of them wouldn't budge an inch.
Santana tries not to look on any faces for too long, not wanting to draw attention to the fact that she's doing work while others are not. She doesn't mean to make trouble. She's just following Mrs. Schuester's orders, after all.
Receiving a paycheck from Mr. Adams has never made much of a difference to Santana anyway; as long as she has a roof over her head and food to eat and can be with Brittany, she thinks life is swell.
Santana doesn't disparage the other circus folk for feeling slighted, though. She can only imagine how it would be to have a wife and child in need of support and nothing to support them with.
Crossing under the billboard partition, Santana hurries inside the ladies' dressing tent. She scans to see if Mrs. Schuester is about—she isn't—before heading over to one of the seamstresses at the end of the makeshift table. It's a girl Santana recognizes from the Independence Day spectacular, one of the attendants who applied the bootblack to Santana's face.
"Can you please make sure this gets to Mrs. Schuester?" Santana asks, setting the costume and sewing kit down on the table.
The girl smirks at Santana like she knows what Santana is playing at, trying to avoid speaking to Mrs. Schuester directly. The girl laughs. "No problem, cookie," she says, and the other girls around her laugh, too.
Two weeks ago, Santana might have shouted at the girl for making fun of her, but now she finds that she doesn't especially care what the girl has to say. She offers the girl a very tight, very false smile. "Thank you," she says, voice surfeit with false kindness, turning on her heel and hurrying out of the dressing tent before Mrs. Schuester can spot her.
Not knowing how much time she has left before the warning bell rings for the afternoon fair, Santana decides to find Brittany as quickly as possible, if only so they can see each other for a few minutes before they have to perform.
Though Brittany wasn't at her tent immediately after the matinee, Santana suspects she might be there now, perhaps tending to her father, and so starts off in the direction of the family tent row, taking a straight path to her destination so as to avoid too many unwanted encounters with the company along the way.
Feeling perhaps a bit more cautious than before, Santana stops outside the Pierce's tent once she reaches it, listening for Brittany rather than shouting for her to start out. The camp is much noisier now than it was earlier, with wind and distant human and animal commotion covering up whatever small breathings that Santana might perceive through the tent wall. Though she can't be certain, Santana doesn't think she hears any sounds coming from behind the canvas and so sneaks around to the side of the tent where Brittany's cot is located. She pauses for a second, waiting to pick up on rustlings or murmurs.
For a second, Santana allows herself to imagine what it would be like if Brittany's wish from yesterday could come true—what it could be like if she and Brittany had a tent of their own, where they lived together.
What a kinder sort of world it would be if Santana could slip through the tent flap at her leisure and find Brittany waiting for her in a place that belonged to the both of them jointly? How much better would life be if they could dwell in place where they both belonged, if Santana never had to skulk outside of a tent that belongs to Brittany's father, hoping not to wake him as she determines Brittany's whereabouts?
"Britt?" she hisses, face pressed close to the tent wall.
Santana sighs. It occurs to her then that maybe someone conscripted Brittany into doing chores, just like what happened with her when she had the misfortune to happen upon Mrs. Schuester in the dressing tent.
Since Santana didn't encounter Brittany anywhere on the course of her travels between her own tent and the business side of camp, she figures that if Brittany has found work somewhere, it's likely in the mess pit.
Maybe she even volunteered.
(It's in Brittany's nature to offer help to people who need it before they even ask.)
Electricity charges the air, lifting flyaway hair strands from Santana's neck and face, nipping with static sparks at the undersides of her bare feet, and wind moves the tall grasses in currents, sending ripples across the prairie. Though the day is still oppressively hot, Santana shudders, disconcerted by the way the Minnesota countryside seems to live and teem all around her.
When she arrives at the mess pit, she finds the space more densely populated than she might have expected it to be, with Ma's kitchen girls at their usual posts around the hearth and a rabble of supes, clowns, and sideshow freaks gathered at the dining table, huddled under the blue tarp in anticipation of rain.
The odd thing is that no one in the mess pit seems to be working, not even the kitchen staff.
And Ma Jones is nowhere in sight.
At the center of everything sits Puck, Rory at his side. Puck holds his wooden eagle head in one hand and a whittling knife in the other. He makes long, sure strokes down the eagle's beak with the knife blade, shaving curlicue chips away and smoothing out his carving, careful not to lop off the eagle's nostrils as he goes.
Rory leans in close to Puck, talking to him in a furious whisper. He wears a scoffing expression, his face uncharacteristically hard with derision. Even though Santana can't pick out Rory's words from where she stands, she can well enough discern the nature of his discourse.
He did ignore Ken's orders to get back to work, after all.
Puck tolerates Rory's ranting, though perhaps only momentarily, furrowing his brow and setting his jaw, stern. He acts almost as if he were waiting for Rory to say something overbold or blatantly untrue just so he could pop him for it. In a certain way, he reminds Santana of an old dog humoring an obnoxious puppy. If Rory speaks one word against Mr. Adams rather than against just the awfulness of going without pay, Santana feels certain that Puck will lay Rory out flat on the dirt.
Before today, Rory had always struck Santana as a placid boy, dopey and eager just to go along with everything, but now she sees that he has thrown in his lot with the most discontented workers at the circus.
(Will Rory even bother to turn up to the evening show at all tonight?)
As surprising as it is to Santana to see Rory lumped in with the members of the company who refuse to do their work, it surprises her even more to see Puck spending his time with them, too. Doesn't Puck have work to do? Shouldn't he have chores to finish at this hour? What about his mysterious business off in town? Has he given that up so soon?
Usually, Puck isn't one to ignore the needs of the circus.
At the same instant that Santana spots Puck, he seems to spot her, as well. He holds up a hand to Rory, silencing the boy at once, and discards his whittling on the bench at his side. As Santana draws closer to Puck, he stands, doffing his hat in greeting to her.
Only once he's on his feet does Santana see that he isn't wearing his gypsy costume. He's changed into his street clothes, as if today were a down day. He must have swapped his outfit before Santana went back to their tent to sew Brittany's costume.
"Puck, what're you—? What's going on?" Santana stammers.
She feels as disoriented as if someone had spun her in circles and then bidden her to walk a straight line afterward. Puck crushes his hat between his fingers, kneading at it. He wears neither his idiot smile nor his devil smirk.
"Santana," he says, stopping before Santana, just beside the hearth.
Never has Santana run up against the invisible wall inside herself so quickly before.
In all the time they've known one another, Puck has never called Santana by her given name to her face, and has only ever spoken her given name aloud on the few occasions when he's made introductions for Santana at the boarding house and when she first arrived at the circus.
Back at the bachelor cottage, before Abuela died, Puck mostly called Santana nothing at all.
Once, he had forgone trimming the rosebushes because he hadn't wanted to disturb Santana, who had been reading under their shade when he arrived with his sheers. When he explained to Santana's father the reason why the bushes were so long and unkempt, he referenced Santana obliquely as "the little miss."
But beyond that, it was nothing.
He hadn't dared to address Santana directly.
After Abuela died, Puck found Santana crying in the garden one day, Rob Roy spread out in her lap and tears hot on her cheeks. He'd stooped down beside her and offered her his idiot smile.
"What's a sweet ladybird like you doing crying like that?" he had asked.
His question had stopped Santana's tears and gotten her to laugh a bit.
(Back then, she had only wanted someone to find her. For a second, she had thought that that someone was Puck, back before she had known that finding someone involves so much more than just stumbling upon her when she's hiding.)
From then on, Puck had had no other name for Santana than that one. It was always "ladybird this" and "ladybird that," to the point where sometimes Santana wondered if Puck had forgotten her given name altogether or so disliked it from the start that he'd put it out of his mind at his soonest possible convenience.
To hear Puck call her by her given name now after so many countless "ladybirds" have taken wing from his lips stops Santana in her tracks. Dread punches through her with an iron fist.
Santana isn't sure what Puck's up to, but she knows she doesn't like it. If he's calling her by her given name, there must be a reason for it, and that reason can't be anything that will please her once she knows what it is. Santana's intuition already has an idea of what the reason is, but her mind doesn't want to process it.
"Wha—?" Santana tries to say to preempt Puck if she can.
But she can't.
Everything happens slowly, like a story sequenced out in kineograph: Puck drops to one knee. He sets his hat on the ground at his side. His eyes turn little-boy soft and imploring. He reaches into the pocket of his slacks, hands disappearing from sight for what seems like forever.
Santana can't breathe.
When he produces a small, lacquered box from his pocket, Santana almost wants to laugh at the awfulness of the joke.
He can't be.
He opens the box at its hinges, offering up its contents for Santana to survey. Inside, she finds a dainty band of light-colored gold with no stone but settings placed for one. It must have cost Puck at least ten dollars to buy or maybe more—a small fortune. Santana's heart seizes in her chest but not for any giddy reason.
"Santana," Puck repeats, not daring to meet her eyes but speaking in a loud, clear voice so that everyone gathered in the mess pit can hear him very plainly. "I wanted to do this yesterday, for your birthday and all," he says, almost by way of apology. His voice is tight and gruff, "—and I wanted to buy you a bigger ring with a real diamond in it or at least a ruby or an emerald or something half as pretty as you are, but I would have had to save for another five years, and Mr. Adams has already been kind enough, letting me take work in town over these last few days to put down a payment for this band. I figure I can always buy you a stone later, whatever kind you like. But I knew it weren't every day when we'd be someplace where they wouldn't mind hitching up two folks like you and me and where there'd already be a preacher around, you know? Kenyon is our stop, Santana. It's you and me, from here on out."
For the first time in minutes, Puck chances a glance at Santana's face. Whatever he sees in her expression, he misreads. Grossly. He quickly diverts his eyes again.
"I don't mean to embarrass you," he says more quietly, "but in the end, it don't even matter, I figure. The folks around here know you're a good girl and that sometimes you've gotta make due with what you've got until life catches up to you. In any case, I'll make an honest woman of you, Santana. It don't matter that it weren't official at first because it will be now, even Mr. Adams thinks so. I'm going to do right by you.
Back in New York, I told you that if you chose to come along with me, then that was it, it was as good as done, and I meant it. Now I know you don't feel quite the same way as I do about things, but I think that could change, if you'd just give me a chance.
You make me feel like a better man every day I know you, and I could make you so happy.
I love you, Santana.
And I'll take care of you from now until the day I die. I want us to be a real family, to grow old together. So will you please, maybe, give me the honor—"
Oh sweet Jesus.
Oh Dios de los cielos y San José y San Mateo y todos los ángeles.
"—of being my wife? For the honest truth this time? Before God and the law and everybody? Say yes, and we can get hitched up tomorrow, right after the other two weddings. Mr. Adams gave his permission. And after the season ends, I'll take you to Niagara Falls for a proper honeymoon or maybe to Vienna, even. Just say yes, Santana. Please."
When Puck finally locks eyes with Santana, he couldn't be milder at all.
He's the little boy who has endeared himself to Santana on certain rare occasions over the course of their acquaintance and the generous man who saved her from a destitute life after her father's lawyers evicted her from the bachelor cottage, as well.
He's the new gardener who first called Santana "ladybird" near the Sweet Williams to make her smile and the charming thief who stole a copy of the Scribner—the one with Santana's favorite story in it—from out of the moving crates in the front foyer and gave it to her as a gift on the night when he checked her in at the Tenderloin boarding house and left her there to stay.
He's still got the poor man's haircut that Santana gave him the other day between shows and the clumsy, unpracticed sort of adoration in his eyes that's been there ever since he and Santana quarreled in their tent and he realized that he needed to be gentler with her.
As far as circus boys go, Noah Puckerman—this Puck—is one of the best of them.
Santana Lopez never has been able to fuss about him.
She hadn't wanted her name to be his name even before she met Brittany. She had never wanted Puck, only needed him. And now she's not even certain that she can go on needing him anymore.
Not if it means this.
Santana just wants Brittany and has since her second day at the circus. She doesn't want Puck or Sam or any of the circus boys. She doesn't want anyone in the world but Brittany at all. Brittany was the someone who really found Santana in her hiding places. Santana fell in love with Brittany so easily and completely that she didn't even realize that she was in love at first; she had only known that she felt happy and safe and hopeful in a way that she had never felt before, not even when she lived with her family in New York, back before tarot cards and funerals and curses existed in her world.
Now that Santana does know that this grand, passionate, ceaseless feeling—that what she feels for Brittany—is love, it's her one true thing.
When Santana first arrived at the circus, Puck told her the truth didn't matter anymore, but Santana knows now that he was wrong.
It matters more than anything.
Guilt grips Santana's throat in a stranglehold. She had been prepared to tell Puck beautiful lies for years or a whole lifetime even if he would have only allowed her to do it, if he hadn't ruined everything by falling in love with her.
Foolish, foolish boy!
Santana almost wants to hate Puck for his mistake, except that she knows now that no one can help who they fall in love with. She only wishes that it hadn't been her for him—that it would have been someone who could love him back.
How queer it is that the girl who brings death with her wherever she goes has never once broken someone's heart until now.
Puck's mouth opens, but he can't seem to either inhale or exhale. He looks stabbed and stunned, his eyes shifted to one side and his jaw hung slack. He blinks almost a dozen times in just a few seconds. His shoulders slump and he immediately lowers his hands, still holding the lacquered box, so that his knuckles rest upon the earth, and he can lean on them for his support.
He looks like he's died because Santana said no.
"Noah, I'm sorry," Santana chokes out.
And then she's gone.
Her feet carry her when her head can't think and when she can't hear anything but her own pulse pounding hard in her ears. She staggers out of the mess pit, only vaguely aware of the crowd gawping at her as she goes.
On the periphery of her consciousness, she knows that this is it—that she's just severed her tie to the circus by refusing Puck's proposal. Now that everyone knows that she and Puck were never married from the start, Mr. Adams cannot permit her to remain on the lists. It would be his disgrace because of hers. He'll have to turn her out on the street before the evening show in order to save face.
Puck won't ever want to see Santana again.
Strange as it is, though Santana has wept more tears over the past two days than any girl of her age has any business weeping, she doesn't feel any need to cry now. Somehow, her present circumstances seem inevitable. There was never any question as to whether or not Puck would eventually learn that Santana couldn't love him. It was always only a matter of time—a question of when he would learn it and how.
In a grim way, Santana supposes that today is as good a day as any for Puck to finally hear the truth from her.
The further away she gets from the mess pit, the more and more a high, hot clarity seizes her.
For the first time since she stumbled into the mess pit and Puck proposed to her, Santana can think clearly and with decision. She knows that she has only one path to follow and one place where she must be now.
(Wherever Brittany waits, Santana will find her.)
Santana crisscrosses the tent rows, turning corners and sprinting down narrow alleyways. She wonders where she ought to look for Brittany first. At her and Puck's tent? In the big top? Back on the family tent row? She stumbles to a halt just a few yards from the billboard partition, wanting to get her bearings before she proceeds in her search, but then something catches her attention.
The babble of a crowd carried on the wind.
Raised voices just in the distance.
Santana turns toward the sound. It comes from the other side of the billboard partition—the commercial side of camp. She shifts her head slightly, peering between the breaks in the partition to look out onto the midway.
It's then that she sees it.
What must be the majority of the circus company has amassed upon the midway pitch, thronging and shouting out in abusive cacophony. A garble of expletives and complaints roar up from them. They shake their fists and writhe against one another, as if someone has busted in the gates of hell and let all the devils out at once.
Though Santana wouldn't expect to find Brittany participating in a mob, she still can't help but wonder if she oughtn't to look for Brittany in the crowd anyway. After all, maybe Brittany feels as curious as Santana does about what's going on here. Maybe Brittany is with her father or with Sam, caught up in the rabble of circus employees.
Without a second thought to it, Santana ducks under the billboard partition, which casts no colors under stormy skies. She enters the crowd just at its back, slipping in between countless elbows and arms. Only when she bounces on her tiptoes, bobbing up and down as though she were trying to remain above the waves while wading out to sea, can she espy the source of the commotion.
Mr. Adams stands at the head of the midway pitch, perched on an overturned crate, silhouetted between the heavens and the earth. He shouts at his employees, and they shout at him, both parties drowning out one another's words. Mr. Adams' face burns scarlet beneath his dark beard, like someone had boiled his head in scalding water. He shakes his fists and gestures as if to shoo a bothersome pack of roving dogs from his house porch.
The persons at the front of the mob seem outright hostile toward Mr. Adams while the persons at the back of the mob nearest to Santana appear much more tentative and undecided concerning how to regard him.
Santana searches the crowd for any hints of sunshine gold or starlit blue, but finds it difficult to see more than a few feet to the front of her at a time. There are so many bodies and so much motion that it's almost impossible to keep track of any one person or thing for more than an instant.
When Santana catches a flash of blonde just a few yards ahead of her, she almost cheers for it.
But then she realizes that it isn't Pierce-blonde.
Sam and his father stand observing the mob rather than participating in it. Both men appear sullen and tight-jawed. Neither one of them speaks.
They're not the only persons Santana recognizes among the crowd, either: the Bearded Lady and Famed Giantess of Akron tower over many of the men around them; and the severe, hawkish matron of the Sylvesteri Equestrienne Coterie shouts out over the din in her hard, craggy language. Santana thinks she can pick out Matt, David, and Zeke near the front of the mob, close to Mr. Adams.
Blaine Anderson stands only a few yards away from Santana. He spots her through a break in the crowd and hails her at once, starting to move toward her at the same time that she moves toward him.
His face still bears stains from his clown paint, his nose redder than it would be naturally but no longer such a bright shade of cherry. His cheeks are ghostly pale under a film of powder white. He looks like the afterimage of a clown, fading from visibility on the undersides of someone's eyelids.
"Santana!" he says, tripping over to her and grabbing her by the arm, tethering them together against the surges of the crowd.
"What's going on?" Santana shouts, her question all but swallowed up in the angry roar on all sides of her.
Neither Santana nor Blaine stands tall enough to see over the heads and shoulders of the mob flatfooted, so it's doubtful that Blaine has taken in much more of this scene than Santana has in the commotion. Even so, Santana hopes that Blaine will at least be able to tell her something about what's happening here—and maybe something about where she can find Brittany, as well.
"It's the Fabray girl!" Blaine answers, yanking Santana out of the way of a thrown elbow.
For his word, something pricks inside Santana. With everything that had happened since the matinee, she had forgotten about the awful, honest palm reading she had given to Quinn Fabray at the morning fair.
If something's happened to Quinn since then—
It can't be, though.
Santana didn't read her cards.
She didn't even read Quinn's hand.
"What about her?" Santana asks.
She casts a worried glance to where Mr. Adams stands at the head of the pitch. The roar that surrounds her and Blaine may well deafen them, as several hundred people shout both over one another's voices and the rumblings of the thunderstorm all at the same time. Everything inside the mob feels hot and close and hectic. When Blaine next speaks, Santana can barely hear his voice and must watch his lips in order to discern his words.
"She's gone missing! Ran away!" Blaine answers. "And Mr. Fabray told Mr. Adams that he won't sign the papers if there's no wedding! That means we won't be paid again!"
A portly, baldheaded man in work overalls standing just beside Blaine and Santana turns to Blaine and smirks. "That don't just mean we won't get paid, kid!" he says bitterly. "It means there won't be a circus!"
The bottom drops out from Santana's stomach. "Jesus," she gasps, holding onto Blaine by both arms. She feels the same lurch that she does whenever the morning train first starts up along its tracks. Quinn ran away from the circus? From her father? But where did she go? How could she?
(There are some kinds of mistakes that can't be undone, Santana knows, she knows, she knows. Did Quinn just make one? Did she?)
Santana wants to ask Blaine how Mr. Fabray and Mr. Adams know that Quinn ran away and if they've summoned the authorities to search for her yet, but just then the commotion coming from the front of the mob grows louder, demanding both Santana and Blaine's attention. Santana focuses in on the noise, listening until she can pick out individual words from it.
"The warning bell should be ringing right now, you miscreants!" comes the familiar roar. "Any man who doesn't take his post shall forfeit his employment on the spot! I won't pay you to do nothing!"
"You don't pay us anyhow!"
Santana has certainly heard company members mock Mr. Adams before but never like this—not with such contempt plain in their voices or such disregard for his position and authority in their words. Santana envisions a mighty lion beset by jackals, battling them with his great paws though they overwhelm him by sheer numbers and the quick snaps of their keen chops.
"You'll test me?" Mr. Adams bellows, puffing up so that Santana can just see the top of his head over the motion of the mob. Thunder snarls at his back. "So be it, then! The following men will have a half-hour to vacate the circus grounds, and after that I'll summon the police to have them arrested for trespassing and loitering."
He produces something from his waistcoat pocket—or at least Santana thinks that he does. Santana can't see what the something is, though.
"Golly," Blaine whispers, close enough to Santana's ear for her to hear it.
Mr. Adams gives the names: "Hudson, Finn! Kemper, Peter! Podinsky, Rolf! Tinsley, Shane!"
The mob lets up an animal chorus of indignation, and the four men Mr. Adams named appear in view as the people closest to them step back, revealing where they stand. Though Finn Hudson has his back to Santana, she can imagine his expression: stunned and hapless. She thinks she hears his voice.
"You can't do this! What about my mother?"
Someone else—maybe one of the other men who just lost his employment—chimes in with another complaint that Santana can't discern. Several more members of the company shout out in protest, but Mr. Adams shouts back at them.
"It's final!" he bellows. "And you're all fools if you think I won't list more names yet! Now you men who are no longer under my employ ought to go collect your things! You haven't long before the townsfolk start arriving for the show or before I have the police after you!"
One of the four men yells out a very vulgar word just as a peal of thunder rings out over the scene, so deep and resonant that it almost seems to quake the earth. In the distance, a great wail sounds; Methuselah in distress again. The word, the thunder, and the elephant wail all echo together, the mob falling strangely silent as these three sounds take ownership of the air.
Everyone stops their commotion. In that instant, the crowd seems to realize at once what's happening—what's happened—that Mr. Adams has just discharged four supes from his employ, and that he will likely discharge even more supes or maybe even performers in the next few minutes if anyone dares try his will.
Since her arrival at the circus, Santana has often wondered whether or not Mr. Jonah P. Adams is a good man. She still wonders that even now, looking up between two sets of shoulders to see his face blanched back to its original color, his features gaunt and haunted as he stares out over his company, breathing heavily through his nostrils, a great, invisible weight rested on his back.
For a moment, Santana remembers Mr. Bulwer-Lytton's Glaucus, motionless and seething in the arena, his lion subdued but his fate uncertain. She recalls how, in the book, just at the moment when Glaucus received his reprieve, ash and stone began to spill down over the doomed white city all around him.
She knows that Mr. Adams has had what he considers to be his moment of justice now, but will it even matter at all, she wonders—will it matter now that Mr. Fabray won't buy half the circus?
"Forget this!" Finn yells, kicking out at one of the derelict crates lining the midway, sending it sprawling over the grass. "I'm out of here!"
There's an ugly twist in his features and tears in his voice. Though Santana hadn't ever known Finn well, she does still pity him. Stone guilt nags in the pit of her stomach. Is it her fault that he just lost his job? Did something she has said cause Quinn Fabray to run away from her impending future? Santana can hardly stand to think that all of this—the death throes of the circus—might somehow be her doing.
An invisible knife twists deep within her.
Finn storms off down the midway, people in the crowd parting to let him through. The two other unemployed supes whom Santana doesn't know also go away, grumbling and cursing, slapping their hats against their legs in frustration, until suddenly only Shane Tinsley remains at the head of the pitch. Momentarily, Santana wonders why Shane won't make his exit, too, but then Shane extends his hand to something—to someone.
Ma Jones stands on the edge of the crowd, her hands balled in her apron.
She looks dumbstruck and suddenly heartbroken all over again.
Shane mumbles something to her, his voice too soft for Santana to hear, though both the crowd and Mr. Adams have turned almost entirely silent by now. Shane opens and closes and opens his hand, expecting Ma Jones to reach out and take it.
Ma doesn't move.
She's run up against an invisible wall inside herself.
Shane speaks again, this time louder so Santana can hear him: "Let's go get your things," he says, gesturing again for Ma to take his hand. He waits for her, patient.
Santana stands up on her tiptoes, and Blaine places his hand on the flat of her back to help her keep her balance, holding her up as if he were the ballerino to her ballerina en pointe. From her new vantage point, Santana can see Ma Jones clearly. She knows as soon as she looks on Ma's face.
Ma doesn't want to go with Shane.
Ma glances between the crowd and her fiancé, knotting her hands deeper in her apron. Even from far away, her eyes look wide and uncertain. A stitch furrows deep in her brow.
Gone is the war marshal. Gone is the archangel. Gone is the woman who Santana once thought invincible.
In her place stands someone who Santana recognizes as she would her own old reflection in a mirror: the girl hugging herself in the foyer of the empty bachelor cottage, everything she'd ever known shunted into boxes and crates, labeled for storage and resale.
There's a boy holding out his hand to her, telling her that they haven't any more time to wait, that they must go, that it's time to say goodbye to the house and everything in it.
She doesn't want to take his hand.
(And she never wanted him or his name.)
Santana draws a hand up to her face, covering her mouth. She can't breathe. If Ma Jones goes away with Shane, it will break her heart. People are supposed to run away to join the circus, not run away from the circus once they've joined it.
"Mr. Tinsley," Ma stammers. "I don't—I don't—"
Santana doesn't know precisely what is in Ma's mind, but she can intuit it well enough. Ma's sentence trails away as she forces herself to think about rules, propriety, and practicality. She furrows her brow even more than she had done before, uncertain how to express herself or even if the rules permit her to do so.
A surge of indignation wells in Santana on Ma's behalf. How dare Shane Tinsley try to make her—to make the mighty Ma Jones, who rules over the mess pit as a queen!—leave the circus when he lost his measly two-bit job but she still has hers and is irreplaceable in it?
"She doesn't have to go with you."
If Santana didn't recognize the voice speaking them right away, she would have thought that she had said the words aloud herself.
Sam Evans parts the crowd, taking a few steps toward Ma Jones, stopping where she can see him. He wears a steely expression, his jaw still set and his demeanor still sullen. He also looks impossibly tired and so much older than he did two weeks ago. He fixes Shane with a look that isn't menacing, just serious.
"Mr. Adams didn't discharge her. Just you."
Shane starts to rebut. "Ain't none of your—," he says.
"She doesn't have to go with you!" Sam repeats, his statement overpowering Shane's, a surge of frustration behind it. The crowd jitters with excitement, but then Sam seems to shrink. He softens. "Not if she doesn't want to," he says, uncertainty seeping into his voice. He turns to Ma herself. "You don't want to... do you, Miss Mary?"
Sam looks as soft and small as if he had just asked Ma Jones a very different question altogether.
It had never occurred to Santana that Ma Jones might have another name than Ma. Somehow, she had never thought to ask. She supposes that it would make sense that Sam might know Ma Jones by her real name, though. After all, he's the boy who really sees her when she's invisible to everyone else. He's the boy who finds her in her hidden places.
Ma Jones falters for a second longer, her eyes darting between Sam and Shane, scanning over the crowd, and finally glancing at Mr. Adams, situated to her side. Her expression turns from one of confusion and entrapment to something else that Santana can't read. She looks back to Shane.
"Mr. Tinsley, I'm sorry," she says, quiet, "but I won't be going with you. You're a fine man, and you have been good to me, but the circus is my home. Ever since my daddy died and my mama brought me here when I was just a little girl, this is where I've belonged. It's where my friends are—and my family. I have a job to do here, and I am good at it. I know it don't seem like much, cooking and looking over a kitchen, but I take pride in what I do. Ain't no one better than me at this job, and it would take a bigger fool than me to give up something so good. I wish you well, Shane. I hope you find yourself a missus someday, but that girl just ain't me. You can have your ring back"—she slips it from her finger—"because I'm staying here. I'm staying at my home."
She extends the ring to Shane, taking a few tentative steps toward him.
He holds up his hand to stop her. "Don't," he says, unable to meet her eyes.
But Ma insists. She closes the distance and presses the ring into Shane's extended palm, curling her fingers over his to close it in his fist. For a second, her touch lingers. If Santana had to guess, she would say that Ma had given Shane's hand a squeeze. Shane nods at her and pulls away, lowering his arm and setting his hat on his head. He keeps his gaze on the dirt as he takes his leave, following the same path that Finn and the other discharged supes took through the crowd.
Ma Jones winces to see him go.
By now, Santana is more than accustomed to experiencing multiple emotions at once, so it doesn't surprise her to feel both an ache in her heart and a skip in it. She doesn't envy any girl who has to hurt a good boy just because he isn't the best person for her, but she also couldn't be gladder that her friend Ma Jones has decided to remain at the circus after all.
Though the whole situation still seems so dire, for a second, Santana allows herself to wonder if maybe Ma staying isn't a bon token—if maybe it means that something might turn out well in the end and that there's a chance for the circus yet.
The mob answers Santana's question sooner than she might have liked.
"So what? We've got our cook?" someone shouts. "That don't change a thing if Adams don't pay us! We won't work for free, Adams! We'll strike!"
"Strike!" someone agrees.
"Strike!" comes a third.
"You can't fire all of us, you weasel! You won't have nothin' left!"
"Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike! Strike!"
Whatever happiness Santana had felt because of Ma Jones winnows away in an instant, leaving only the ache in Santana's heart behind in its wake. More guilt and anxiety seize Santana as the mob breaks out in more shouting and commotion. Blaine yanks Santana down onto flat feet, pulling her back as some of the men in front of her start to throw out the arms and make motion, nearly knocking into her.
"Are you going to join the strike?" Blaine shouts, glancing between Santana and what's happening at the head of the mob.
It hadn't occurred to Santana until Blaine asked that just by saying so, she could join the strike. Blaine himself seems torn, his expression wide and worried. Maybe he wouldn't want to strike if it were put to him, but he probably also doesn't want to become a blackleg now that a strike is inevitable. He's so small and unassuming that the other men could easily tear his limbs off if he tried to break the line.
Maybe it would have mattered what Santana thought about the strike if she had accepted Puck's proposal and was going to be his little wife.
But she didn't.
And she isn't.
The high, hot clarity returns to her, and she comes to a sudden realization: this isn't her fight. Ma Jones may have decided to remain at the circus, but Santana doesn't have that choice to make and hasn't even a tent in which to spend the night now, not after refusing Puck. The invisible knife in her belly twists harder. Maybe the circus was never really Santana's home at all. Maybe for her home has always been just one person.
"Where's Brittany?" she shouts, ignoring Blaine's question.
"What?" Blaine asks, confused.
"Where's Brittany, Blaine? I need to find her! I have to go to her!" Santana explains, searching frantically over Blaine's shoulders even as she clings to him, as if Brittany might have somehow appeared somewhere nearby since last Santana scanned the crowd.
Blaine's mouth falls open and his eyebrows knit together, but he doesn't have the chance to answer Santana's question before something else happens towards the front of the mob.
"What's he doing?" someone bellows.
A hand just a few yards to the front of where Santana and Blaine stand flies up and they follow where it points to see some movement at the front of the crowd. Instantly, both Santana and Blaine are on their tiptoes again, dancing to try to see who the "he" in question might be and what he's doing to draw attention to himself.
The whole mob shouts abuse and shakes their fists. Someone at Santana's back jostles into her, but she ignores the hit, immediately regaining her balance after a small stumble. Methuselah lets out another loud, baleful bellow from somewhere just beyond the big top, and lightning splits the sky. Santana raises herself up as high as she can, and only then does she see it.
Pierce-blonde moving to the front of the mob.
It isn't Brittany.
It's Brittany's father.
For an instant, Santana doesn't understand what's happening. She sees Mr. Pierce cutting through a violent tide of shoulders and elbows and hard slaps to his back and ribs. People pelt him as he passes, and he winces but doesn't halt or even pause. Like Puck, he's changed back into his street clothes following the show. He isn't facing Santana, so she can't see his expression, but she can read his posture; it's mean and stubborn, with stiff shoulders and a thrown-out chest.
When he pushes through the front of the mob but keeps going, Santana suddenly knows what he's up to.
He's breaking the strike line.
He's joining himself with Mr. Adams.
Mr. Pierce sidles up right beside his employer and leans over to say something into Mr. Adams' ear. Mr. Adams gives a sharp nod. The two men stand side by side, forming ranks. It occurs to Santana that even Ken is nowhere in sight now. It's just Mr. Adams and Mr. Pierce against the world.
Then, a blow.
The person at Santana's back hits into her again. The force of impact knocks Santana back onto flatfeet and expels all the breath from her. She reels, pain pulsing at her shoulders. It was a bone-on-bone belt, elbow to spine. For an instant, she reels, but then Blaine catches her at the arm, steadying her, and she finds Mr. Adams' voice over the din again.
"—knows where his loyalties rightly ought to lie, I'll have him and his daughter as my guests at the hotel tonight! You ruffians stay here and try to organize your strike, if you like, but I'll tell you now that there's no such thing as a circus union! I'll have anyone loitering on these grounds not doing his work arrested come tomorrow morning at first light! Anyone who destroys my property shall be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and be made to recompense for damages! I'll remind you that, except for in a few cases, I own all tents and structures in this camp and that the food and provisions in the chuck wagon belong to me, as well! I won't tolerate thievery—or disloyalty! You dumb animals have forced my hand!"
Santana can't breathe. Air never returns to her lungs following the blow. Mr. Pierce and Brittany will spend the night with Mr. Adams at the hotel? Everyone arrested? Mr. Pierce a blackleg? Mr. Adams withholding food? Her thoughts swirl and her stomach swoops.
"If you'll sink my circus, I'll sell it all off for parts!" Mr. Adams threatens. "Mr. Bailey might need new tent canvas when he returns to the States from his European tour! I'll get him the big top, the domiciles, everything! I won't lose it all! I can't!"
It surprises Santana to hear tears in Mr. Adams' voice.
She can no longer see Mr. Adams—just catch his snatches of his words over the dissonance of the crowd. Though Santana doesn't know why, Arthur's face appears in her mind. She sees his sad, pretty eyes and long features. Is Mr. Adams a bad man? She remembers him acting as ringmaster, substituting for Will, the way he smiled under the electric lights, his eyes all but disappearing behind his lifted cheeks.
"Yeah, you go ahead and leave, Adams!" someone shouts, and Santana knows then that Mr. Adams has begun to make his exit from the midway, probably with Mr. Pierce in tow.
Panic grips her.
She tries to run, but something holds her fast at her arm—Blaine.
"Where are you going?" he shouts. "Santana!"
"I have to find Brittany!" she says, frantic.
She expects Blaine to resist her—to tell her that she's being foolish and that Brittany has to go to the hotel with her father now—but he doesn't. He relinquishes the hold on her arm. His mouth hangs open, and there's a vacant look in his eyes. His face still looks ghostly under its paint. He might nod at Santana or he might not. She doesn't know.
She'll probably never see him again.
Santana goes by instinct rather than reason, pushing her way through the writhing masses until she finally breaks free from the mob. She doesn't pause before sprinting under the billboard partition, bursting through it into an alleyway on the southeast edge of the white city. With a jackknife step, she turns to the north, running in the direction of the family tent row, hair and sashes trailing after her like pennants at her back.
She passes by other company members, people who haven't joined the strike either because they don't know about it yet or haven't any intention to participate in it at all. Snatches of news reach her ears—the gillies have begun to arrive from town. They're expecting an evening fair, a show. What should the circus do about it? How can they perform when half the company has given up on working?
Their problems seem far away to Santana, like a great landmark that had once dominated her view but has since faded into the background, shrinking to a distant point on her horizon. Now Santana has only one care, and that's to reach Brittany. She skitters onto the family tent row, halting hard just outside the Pierce tent.
"Brittany!" she yells, already reaching for the tent flap, propriety be damned.
The door to the tent peels open.
"Santana?" Brittany says, emerging from the darkness, pink-cheeked and with her brow screwed up in confusion.
Santana puts her hands out to stop Brittany from exiting the tent, nudging Brittany back through the door instead. She follows Brittany inside immediately, checking around the instant she steps over the threshold to see if she and Brittany are alone. Her heart beats on hummingbird wings beneath her breast.
Though it's shadowy inside the tent, Santana can still see its interior clearly. It's the first time that Santana has ever been inside the Pierce tent when she had some light to see by, in fact.
She finds the interior space of the tent divided into three sections, with her and Brittany huddled in the main "foyer" and the Pierces' sleeping space located directly behind them. At the back of the tent stands what looks like a very sparse "parlor area," where Mr. Pierce's backboard leans against a corner post and a low wooden stool sits just in front of a lightweight hickory rocking chair like a footstool.
When last Santana visited the Pierce tent under cover of night, a cloth curtain cut the "main room" down the center, dividing Brittany's sleeping space from her father's. Now someone has pulled that curtain back along the A-frame of the tent, making two compartments one. A similar curtain hangs along the horizontal beam that partitions the parlor from the rest of the tent, but it too has been pulled back.
No one occupies either one of the Pierce cots, but Brittany's pillow lies at such an odd angle upon its canvas sling that Santana wonders if Brittany hadn't been asleep on it up until just now. While Mr. Pierce's sleeping area appears spartan and undecorated, Santana notices some mementos upon the overturned vegetable crate where Brittany's toilette set rests—namely, Mr. Remington's newspaper article, folded down so that only the photograph at its center is visible, and the little sprig of trefoil, dried out and divested of almost all its flowers, only the stem remaining.
Both items rest propped against Brittany's washbasin, carefully arranged.
If Santana weren't so scattered, she might almost swoon for Brittany's thoughtfulness. As it is, she knows she hasn't any time to spare. "Your daddy isn't here, is he?" she asks, checking the whole space for a second time, wondering if she somehow might have failed to detect his presence.
Even under the indoor gloom, Santana can see that she has Brittany startled and confused. Brittany reaches out, wrapping her hands around Santana's forearms, linking herself to Santana. She thumbs over Santana's skin.
"No, he's not. Santana, what's wrong? What's going on?" she asks, flustered because Santana is so.
"Britt, he's coming," Santana babbles, grabbing onto Brittany's arms in kind.
Though Santana struggles against it, a sob breaks in her throat. She hasn't ever felt sorrier for anything before in her life than she does about the state of the circus now, not even for all her bad card readings put together. She didn't mean to ruin everything.
She didn't mean it at all.
She doesn't even know where to begin explaining what's going on. She knows that she's frightening Brittany with her strange manner and wild talk, but she can't help but do it. So much has happened since the matinee.
"Brittany, are you all right?" Santana blurts out, suddenly remembering the show and the botched knife throwing act. She searches over Brittany, checking Brittany's body for injuries, even though she knows very well that the blade only tore through Brittany's skirt. "Britt, God, I got blood on your costume. I tried to mend it, but I stuck my finger with the needle. I'm sorry. I just—are you all right?"
Brittany shakes her head, brow still scrunched. "I'm fine," she says. "I did like you said and hid Daddy's medicine, but then he got a really bad headache before the show. He couldn't see straight, and it put off his throwing. After the show, Sam's mama tried to make him lie down, but Daddy said he needed to get new medicine. He went to talk to Mr. Adams about ordering some from a catalogue—"
That's why Mr. Pierce was on the midway.
The new information jogs Santana.
"Britt," she interrupts, "something bad's happened. I talked to Quinn Fabray this morning and what I said upset her. Quinn ran away from the circus, and now Mr. Fabray won't make the deal with Mr. Adams. The company found out, and they've gone on strike—only your daddy, Britt, well, he crossed the line. He stuck with Mr. Adams and now everyone is cross at him. Mr. Adams said that your family could stay at the hotel tonight, so your daddy's coming to get you right now. You can't go, though, because if you do, you won't ever see me again. Puck asked me to marry him—"
"He asked me to marry him for real this time, but I told him no because I don't love him—Britt, I love you—and I just couldn't. Now I can't stay at the circus anymore. Mr. Adams will send me away, I'm sure. Once he knows, once they all know—"
Brittany stops Santana with a touch. She moves her hold from Santana's arms, placing one hand on Santana's waist and pulling their hips close together. At the same time, she reaches up with her other hand, tracing her knuckles under Santana's jaw as softly as if Santana were made of porcelain and might break at any instant. Concern lines Brittany's eyes but also something else.
"Bless your—," Brittany starts, breathless, but then changes. "You wouldn't marry Puck because of me?" Her voice is all but a squeak. She doesn't sound incredulous, just awed and infinitely grateful, so much so that Santana's heart could probably break for it. Brittany draws a gasping breath. "Thank you," she says, "thank you."
In the next second, Brittany throws her arms around Santana, gathering Santana up in the kind of embrace that overwhelms everything.
Suddenly, all that Santana can see and feel and breathe is Brittany, the windswept-campfire-apple-courage of her, the sweat in her hair, and the aliveness on her skin. Santana clenches her eyes closed, losing herself to the sensation of being home, home, home, in the one place in the world where she has ever truly belonged. Her ribs and Brittany's fit together like interlocking puzzle pieces. She and Brittany breathe against each other in a cycle. Santana can count out the pulse of Brittany's heartbeat against her own skin. She could stay here with Brittany forever in the darkness, if only the world would let it be so.
But time isn't on her side.
"BrittBritt," she breathes, about to say that they can't linger inside the tent, not with Mr. Pierce on his way to fetch Brittany to the hotel.
But Brittany already knows Santana's mind.
"Santana, we have to go," she says, holding Santana closer to her. Her voice is barely above a whisper. She nestles against Santana's neck, her lips pouting and her breath thin, both fearful and brave at once. "We can't stay here, darlin'. Not if they're going to send you away. I couldn't stand it. I have to be where you are."
Two weeks ago, Santana never would have believed that anyone could be so loyal to her. She was nothing—the kind of person who didn't even warrant the truth from her own father. She would never have believed that anyone would want to be with her, let alone that the most wonderful girl in the entire world would choose her over anything, never mind giving up everything for her sake.
A part of her still can't believe it.
But then she can believe it because it's Brittany—Brittany who makes all good things possible for her, her one true and perfect everything.
Santana shifts her hands, crossed at Brittany's back, and feels the thread ring on her finger move against her own skin. She sobs again against Brittany's hair.
"Are you sure?" she asks, hating the brokenness in her own voice but knowing that she must ask if she wants to be fair to Brittany. "What about your father, Britt, and Sam and everyone? If you leave with me, we can't come back. You could never go home."
Brittany draws one last thin breath against Santana's skin, and then all the fearfulness seems to go out of her at once, as if someone had extinguished it like a candle. When next she breathes, she does so surely. There are tears in her voice but not one modicum of doubt.
"I'm home wherever I am when I'm with you," she says.
(It's a resolution, a promise, and a thousand other things.)
Santana gives another sob, this one soundless and sharp, as she pulls Brittany closer to her. Oh what did she ever do to win Brittany Pierce's heart? How could a bad omen be so lucky as to have something priceless, to be the keeper of something as sweet and unfailing as this?
"I have fifty dollars," she chokes out, coming upon the thought suddenly, like one might happen upon an unexpected piece of furniture in a dark, unfamiliar room. "An old man gave it to me as a tip on the midway the other day at the fair. I'd thought I was going to give it to Puck, to pay him back for getting me to the circus. I'd forgotten about it until now, but, Britt, w-we can take it—you and I. We can use it to go somewhere—somewhere safe, somewhere where it's just us."
To her surprise, Brittany laughs. "You forgot you had fifty dollars?" she asks through her tears, chuckling. "Santana, you're rich."
Both girls laugh, though nothing is actually funny.
"Well," Santana says.
Brittany gives Santana a squeeze. She swallows hard enough for Santana to feel it, and then speaks more seriously. "Let's grab up some things here," she says, "and we can go to your tent. We could probably still catch an evening train. We could buy tickets."
She starts to pull away from Santana, drawing a hand to her own face to wipe her eyes and nose. Her cheeks appear pinked and wet muddles her starlit blue; Santana imagines that she herself looks much the same. Both girls laugh again, nervous. Brittany is about to extricate herself fully from Santana's embrace when Santana stops her.
"Where will we go, BrittBritt?" Santana asks, her question impossibly small, even though she and Brittany are alone together.
When Puck proposed to Santana, he said that Kenyon, Minnesota was one of the few places that would allow for someone like him to be with someone like her, but as far as Santana knows, there are no places that will allow for someone like her to be with someone like Brittany, not unless Brittany took a husband and Santana was their housekeeper or the nanny to their children, and even then it would be different.
For a second, Santana tries to imagine that kind of life, wondering if she could abide it. She loves Brittany enough that she would do anything just to be close to her, even if it hurt.
Brittany meets her eyes. "There are other circuses," she says, almost as if she knows what's happening in Santana's mind. Then, "Darlin', you're shaking."
Without another word, Brittany cups Santana's jaw in her hand and tilts Santana's face up, meeting her in a kiss. She catches Santana's top lip first, nods to shift to the bottom, and then nods again, capturing both lips at once. Santana immediately sighs into the touch, sinking into it and feeling anchored perhaps for the first time all day.
Briefly, she just allows Brittany to kiss her, too wound up and stupid to even kiss Brittany back, but then Brittany teases Santana's lip with her teeth, coaxing Santana into the motion. Santana's hands slide down Brittany's back, linking around Brittany's waist. Brittany kisses her with conviction, with more promises and trust. Santana feels that Brittany needs her as much as she needs Brittany. Both girls cling to each other, kissing sloppily, deeply, and honestly, again and again and again.
Slowly, Santana's body starts to loosen. Whatever tremor was in her dispels with each new kiss until finally it's gone.
"I love you," she mumbles against Brittany's mouth.
"I love you," Brittany echoes against hers, slipping her tongue past Santana's lips.
Santana's breath hitches and she closes her eyes tighter, trusting Brittany completely to guide her. They're going to run away together. They're going to find a place.
Canvas shushes against canvas, and the light behind Santana's eyelids changes all at once.
"Baby girl, come on! Grab your things! Let's—"
Mr. Pierce's desiccated voice dies away the instant he steps inside the tent.
(Whatever time Santana and Brittany had has just run out.)
Lightning flares outside the tent, illuminating the scene. Before the flash even fades from the sky, Santana and Brittany have sprung away from each other, but it's already too late.
Mr. Pierce has seen them.
"Britt—?" Mr. Pierce splutters, his jaw slack and his brow tightly furrowed, as if he were in pain.
He gapes, looking between Santana and his daughter as if he doesn't recognize either one of them, and stands directly in the front of the tent door, his hand still holding back the flap. In a way, he seems strangely boyish, like a child who's just witnessed something that exceeds his ability to understand. He also seems almost more hurt than shocked, like he had never expected that Brittany could keep a secret from him—and especially not a secret like this one.
"Daddy," Brittany says, all the color draining from her face and her eyes turning wide. "Daddy, it's okay. Santana and I—"
She reaches out for Santana, but her father forestalls her. Before Brittany can fully move, Mr. Pierce darts forward with all the speed and precision of a striking viper, snatching up her arm and yanking her, hard, toward him.
In that single instant, Santana sees in him a younger knife thrower—one with finer reflexes and more grace and agility than he has now. She also sees a father protecting his daughter from something he must fully believe is dangerous to her. Mixed in with her shock, Santana feels a pang.
Mr. Pierce jerks Brittany around to face him, his right hand ringing her left arm, tethering her to him. He half-snarls and half-despairs, "What're you doing with that nigger girl? What she done to you?" He looks crazed, his eyes flame blue and wider than Santana has ever seen them. He gives Brittany a shake, as if to start her speaking.
Brittany winces, both at her father's words and the tightness of his grip. She recoils, pulling away, though she has nowhere to go. Her father holds her fast.
Santana's heart beats in her mouth. She almost tastes the iron in her pulse. The whole tent burns as if with fire heat. Santana looks frantically between Mr. Pierce and Brittany. What should she do? She scrambles to find some excuse. It was her fault—she was the one to kiss Brittany! She rapidly feels herself coming up against that wall inside of her, shutting down.
Oh God, not now.
"She didn't do anything!" Brittany objects. "Daddy, I love her! I'm in love with her, and—"
Something breaks in Mr. Pierce.
His expression turns from one of confusion to one of rage.
No, wait—to one of fear.
His grip tightens on Brittany's arm, clamped down so hard that Brittany cringes. Vivid red and pain-white outline his fingers on her skin. He starts to give Brittany another jerk, pulling her in closer to him.
Seeing him, Santana expects to halt in place—to be helpless to do anything for Brittany like she was in Storm Lake when she and Brittany were at the mercy of the ruffians, or earlier today when she watched Mr. Pierce botch the knife throwing act, one lob at a time. Santana is never brave enough, not when she needs to be, not when it counts.
The rules say she can't do anything anyhow.
She sees fear bright in Brittany's eyes, a different shade of blue than has ever been there before. She thinks back to the night when Brittany's father boxed Brittany's ear, how Brittany must have looked then in that moment just precisely like she looks now, like she doesn't know the extent of the damage that her father might do to her in his frenzy.
(Back then, Santana had made a promise herself. To Brittany.)
"Don't hurt her!" Santana shouts.
She takes a step forward, not knowing what she intends to do beyond stopping Mr. Pierce from harming Brittany in whatever way she can. She is fearless and bigger than just herself, like something inside of her has risen up to take the charge. If Mr. Pierce raises one hand to Brittany, Santana swears to every devil, she'll—
Mr. Pierce's hand flies.
It happens in an instant.
The back of Mr. Pierce's fist connects hard with Santana's jaw. He cuffs her across the face. She sees a burst of white and both blunt and sharp pain flare against her mouth at once—the blow itself and then Mr. Pierce's wedding band, cutting like a blade into her skin.
Instantly, she falls, torqued to one side, her head driven down, the rest of her body following in a heap.
She yelps and closes her eyes just as something smacks solid against the right side of her skull—a tent pole. It rattles her teeth in her jaw. She sees more white.
Her hands and wrists and hip bite ground, her knee impelled into the dirt.
The same wooziness that sometimes grips her when she stands too quickly after lying down to read for a long while swallows her up, and she sinks into it as if it were a pool.
Everything in lurch.
Somewhere, she loses seconds. She's thoughtless and then swimming, fighting to surmount the dark, heavy squall that threatens to burst before her eyes. It's like emerging from underwater through waves, misjudging the break at first. Black then moonlight, black then free.
When she can see again, spots of white surround her. Her ears ring, and pain throbs in so many places on her body that she can't fully realize them all. She kneels on fours on the grass.
"Stay the hell away from my daughter!" she hears.
Feet move away from her. Mr. Pierce drags Brittany out the door. Santana reaches out, dizzy, stupid, and too slow. Brittany jerks against Mr. Pierce's hold, struggling against him. But Mr. Pierce is too strong. "
Let me go!" Brittany yells. "Let me go! Let me go!"
She beats at her father with her free hand.
Another wave of black threatens to swallow Santana.
"Santana!" Brittany screams.
And then Mr. Pierce has Brittany out the door.
Santana scrambles, sussing out her limbs, which are feet and which are hands. When she raises her head, black and white pulse around her head in fireworks and dying stars. She nearly swoons in forcing herself onto her knees and then her feet, grabbing at the tent pole at her back for her support only to realize that it came loose from its rut when her head hit it. Now the pole rests at a strange angle, no longer dug into the earth but rested against the tent canvas at a slant. It wobbles at Santana's touch, so she ignores it, righting herself on her own power.
"Brittany!" she screams, head and heart pounding together. "Brittany!"—as if her shouting would be enough to bring Brittany back inside the tent or to free Brittany from Mr. Pierce's grip.
Santana stumbles drunkenly out the front of the tent. It's turned darker outdoors. Thunder rolls.
Brittany and her father are gone.
At first, Santana can't see or hear anything clearly. Something blurs across her vision, and her ears ring as if with the needling drone of insect wings in flight. There's wet on her face. Her body disagrees with her, not wanting to be upright and moving, but her heart runs fast ahead.
"Brittany!" she calls out again, but no one answers her. Her voice is between a scream and a sob. "Brittany!"
Setting one foot before the other is as difficult a task as any Santana has ever faced in her life; the ground is strangely far away and wobbly beneath her. Something trembles deep inside Santana like a struck cymbal, shaky, displaced, and uncertain. She looks to the left and sees nothing. She looks to the right and sees two shadows, persons.
The shadow persons run toward her. One doffs his hat, the other holds up her skirts around her ankles. They touch Santana on the shoulders and at the elbows when they reach her.
"Santana, what happened? Your face!"
"We heard shouting."
The people are Sam and Rachel, come from somewhere between their two adjacent tents. Santana focuses in on their faces, blinking until she can make out their features. They're stricken and wide-eyed. Rachel won't stop gaping at something around Santana's mouth. Sam checks over Santana's shoulder, once, twice, and then three times, like something wicked might follow on her heels out of the Pierce tent into the night.
"Son, what's going on?" calls another voice, some distance off.
"It's nothing, Pop! Go back inside! Keep packing up!" Sam lies to his father.
Thunder almost drowns out his words, but Mr. Evans still seems to heed Sam's direction. Normally, Santana would care very much about who was near and who might hear her, but she hasn't any time to lose, not with Mr. Pierce already taking Brittany away. She latches onto Sam's arms, fully hysterical.
"Sam," she cries, "Mr. Pierce saw me and Brittany kissing! He knows, Sam! He knows!"
It's all the more she has to explain.
For the second time in two weeks, Sam Evans looks like a man who just took a gunshot. He turns pale and haunted in an instant, stilling where Santana holds him. His shock cedes immediately to fear, and his eyes dart to Rachel, checking her reaction to Santana's news. For a half-second, Santana looks along with him, expecting to find at least the usual judgment written into Rachel's expression, if not disgust or worse.
Maybe Brittany Pierce isn't the only person at the circus who gets to surprise Santana, though.
Rachel presses one hand to her own throat, as if trying to find a lost breath. Her mouth falls open into a short o and she forgets to blink. Though Rachel seems confused, she also seems anxious and heartsick—and not on her own behalf but on behalf of her friend.
"Oh, Santana, no," she says, breathless, taking firmer hold of Santana's sleeve with her free hand, as if to bear Santana up.
Though Rachel might deserve more explanation, Santana can't pause to tell Rachel anything more than what she has already said. Her heart pounds out murder upon her breastbone. Mr. Pierce knows that she and Brittany are in love.
"He'll hurt her!" she sobs, her throat so hot and tight that she can barely choke out the words. The blur across her eyes worsens, so that she almost can't see Sam and Rachel's faces anymore. "He'll hurt her because of me! We have to go!"
While Rachel still seems stunned, Sam doesn't miss a beat. "Are they going to the hotel?" he asks, remembering what Mr. Adams said on the midway.
Santana nods and tugs on him. "We have to go!" she repeats, frantic. Her skull feels like it might split down the middle. Every time it throbs, her vision blurs anew.
"Everyone's gathering on the other side of town," Rachel says, suddenly animate and useful again. Her expression is most queer. "No one wants to be here when the police turn up come morning. My papa and baba are hitching up a wagon. If we wait for them—"
"No!" Santana shouts. "No! We can't wait! We have to go! Mr. Pierce, he'll hurt Brittany because of me!"
"Maybe someone's got a cart hitched up already in the bay," Sam says.
He wears a tight expression, lips pursed as if he's sucking a hard candy in his mouth. Even through her tears, Santana can see him thinking. What will he, Rachel, and Santana do if they actually manage to catch up to Brittany and Mr. Pierce? Mr. Pierce won't simply relinquish Brittany into their custody because they ask him to do it. Will they have to break Brittany out of the hotel? Will Sam have to fight Mr. Pierce?
Santana can't wait for him to deliberate. She starts off in the direction of the wagon bay, never mind if Sam and Rachel will follow her or not.
"Santana!" Rachel shouts, running to keep up with Santana and Sam's strides, so much longer than her own. "Santana! Wait! If there isn't a wagon already hitched up to a team in the bay, you'll just waste more time! It would be better to wait and—!"
Rachel doesn't have the chance to finish stating her objections.
Just as Santana, Sam, and Rachel cross onto the main east-west avenue that divides the upper camp from the lower, someone else appears.
Three someones, rather.
Three someones in a wagon, already hitched to two circus horses and outfitted for a ride.
"Do you need a lift somewhere?" asks the male Dragon Chang in perfect, unaccented English. He gives the reins in his hands a little jig and wears an imploring expression, his brow scrunched and his lips pursed.
"We could make a stop for you," the older female Dragon Chang, his wife, asks, offering up a timid smile. When Santana and her companions don't respond right away, the woman's face falls, and she turns more somber. "The gilly police are coming," she explains, "and we don't intend to be here when they arrive. We're doing what's wise and leaving now. You're welcome to come with us."
The youngest Dragon Chang sits in the wagon bed in silence. She leans against a heap of luggage, arms folded across her breast. Though Santana can't be certain, she thinks that the girl might be crying. Every few seconds, the girl's shoulders quake. The girl neither looks up at Santana, Rachel, and Sam, nor acknowledges their presence at all.
All three acrobats wear their street clothes, of the same kind one might see people wearing along the sidewalks of New York.
"I'll be damned," Sam says, crushing his hat in his hands. "Son-of-a-gun!"
Santana knows his feeling.
Though this most recent turn of events shouldn't shock her—not when everything that has happened today has come as a shock, some even more awful than others—she still can't help but gape, her thoughts slow to process.
The Flying Dragon Changs speak English? And they have a wagon, ready to go to town? And they're willing to give her and her companions a ride? And they turned up just at the right instant? And they speak English? Does that mean that they understood everything that Brittany and Santana said to them yesterday while they were having tea?
Thunder cracks overhead, and, when it does, it seems to jolt everyone back into motion.
"Yes, yes," Rachel says vaguely, looking as if a very bright camera had just flashed before her eyes. She grabs hold of the wagon, preparing herself to board it. "We can go fetch Brittany," she determines, "and then regroup with everyone else back here—"
"Brittany and I can't come back," Santana interjects.
When Rachel whips around to face Santana, confusion and concern bright in her eyes, Santana feels a pang. A fresh sob breaks over her.
"We can't come back," she repeats, feeling the bitterness of her and Brittany's circumstances for the first time, "not now that everyone knows. Puck won't have me anymore, and Brittany's father, he—! No one will let us b-b—!"
More lightning flashes.
Her shoulders wrack and she covers her mouth with one hand. She can't keep from shaking.
"I can't believe this is happening," she keens.
She can't say anything more than that, mainly because she knows nothing beyond that simple point of fact: that she and Brittany must run. To where, with what, and how, she can't be sure. She only has to get to Brittany first, to save her. Won't Sam and Rachel see?
Santana fully expects her friends to protest her decision, to tell her that it's dramatic and foolhardy, to object to her taking Brittany away from the place where she grew up with them.
After all, Sam didn't want Ma Jones to leave the circus earlier today and fought against her going most vehemently, though he had almost no grounds on which to do so, and Rachel never approved of Santana and Brittany spending so much time together anyway.
Neither Sam nor Rachel knows anything but the circus nor trusts the world beyond the white city.
Why would either one of them like the idea of Brittany and Santana running off together into some great unknown?
Even the Flying Dragon Changs probably disapprove of Santana's intentions.
Rules are rules are rules after all.
"Then you've gotta be ready to go," Sam says simply, setting his hand on Santana's shoulder. "You go get your things, whatever you and Brittany need. The Changs and Rachel and I"—he checks for confirmation from Rachel and their drivers, continuing once he receives it—"will go grab some stuff to help us out when we get to the hotel. We'll get a blanket to cover up this wagon bed in case we need to sneak you and Britt out of town, some rope, maybe, for if we need it. You meet us down by the wagon bay in ten minutes. Be ready to go."
When Rachel speaks to Santana, her eyes are very sad—circus-lonely even—but her voice is soft and generous. "My father has a map of the Midwest in our tent," she says. "I could fetch it for you, if you like, Santana."
Had they any time to spare, Santana might throw her arms around Sam and Rachel and sob onto their shoulders for gratitude. She might tell them how much it means to her not only that they give a damn but that they don't hate her and haven't judged her at all. It should be impossible for Santana and Brittany to love each other in the way that they do, but Sam and Rachel don't seem to mind. They aren't fussed at all. Santana wants them to know that she won't ever forget them, no matter what happens after this, even if she has to go away into exile to the very ends of the earth. She licks her lips and tastes salt. Her throat tightens.
Sam Evans is the best boy she knows and Rachel Berry the most surprisingly kind girl.
"Thank you," she whispers, wishing that she could perhaps find better words to explain what she means.
But maybe there aren't better words after all.
Santana turns to the Dragon Changs perched on their wagon and nods to them, too. "Thank you," she says.
The man offers her a gentle smile and then looks to his wife in the seat beside him, sharing a knowing look with her. The younger girl in the back of the wagon sniffles, and another crack of thunder bursts over the prairie. The wind picks up.
Briefly, Santana feels like she did on her final day at the bachelor cottage, like someone has stolen the very ground out from beneath her feet, like she's stuck in freefall without knowing where she'll land. She reels.
People are supposed to run away to join the circus, not run away from the circus once they've joined it.
What business does a little yeller girl like her have taking flight with Brittany Pierce?
But then she remembers the fear in Brittany's eyes as Mr. Pierce dragged Brittany away from their tent. She remembers the promise that she made to Brittany and the unbreakable trust she feels whenever Brittany holds her. The invisible string around her heart gives its strongest tug yet in the direction of downtown Kenyon.
Santana Lopez takes off at a run.
No one tries to stop her on her way to her tent, but even so, Santana feels beset on every side. She trembles violently, like something has rung a bell deep inside her, the bell reverberating without end.
What if she can't rescue Brittany from the hotel? What if she makes things worse by trying? Even if she and Brittany succeed in escaping from Brittany's father, the circus, and Kenyon, where will they go? Is there any place in the world where she and Brittany can find peace?
(Lucky things aren't supposed to love bad omens.)
The thought of Brittany scared or hurt, holed up in some gilly hotel with her father screaming vitriol at her for falling in love with a nigger gypsy—Santana feels sick for it down to her guts. Her ribs wrack, and she sobs again, tears so hot upon her face that they almost burn. Her skull throbs with more pain, and she sees white.
Oh please, just let Brittany be okay.
Santana will give anything to anyone to make it so.
Please just don't let Brittany be hurt because of her.
She never wanted to cause Brittany any trouble. She never meant to break so many delicate things. She'll do anything to keep Brittany safe, if only she has the chance to do so.
She halts just outside her own tent.
"Puck?" she calls, praying to her shoulder-devil that he doesn't answer.
Methuselah lets out another bellow as lightning flashes in the distance, but Santana hears nothing from inside the tent.
She counts out one, two, three, four, five with no response and cautiously peels back the flap. In the brief instant before her eyes adjust to the lowlight, she fears what she might see. What if Puck has already taken their things? Ransacked her valise? Kicked everything in? Made chaos for her? Stolen the fifty dollars? She hears her own breath, wet and ragged against the darkness. Soon, she sees shadows, then shapes, and then details.
The interior of the tent is precisely how it should be, everything neat in its place.
"Oh, thank you," Santana gasps, clutching a hand to her heart, not precisely sure to whom she speaks, if to anyone at all.
She enters into the tent, head still throbbing and thoughts still swirling, cheeks and eyes swollen from so many hard tears, and hitches her skirts up to just below her knee, cutting around the cot and stooping down at the back of the tent, right beside her and Puck's luggage.
Immediately, as she sits down, a wave of dizziness subsumes her. For an instant, the air seems too thin, like there isn't enough of it.
Her skull gives another splitting throb.
Though it proves difficult to do so while crying and shaking, she tries to think through her mental inventory, arranging herself on the grass and beginning to rifle through her valise. She needs the fifty dollar note, of course, but it also might not hurt anything for her to take her other belongings, as well—her spare clothes, hairbrush, shoes, hat, and hidden treasures.
Maybe she should just bring along her whole valise.
She thrusts her hand into the toe of her shoe, checking for the hidden note. Her fingers find two types of paper, one worn and cottony and one sleek and layered. The first is the note, the second Mr. Berry's folded newspaper with the purple coneflower pressed between its pages.
The note is right where Santana left it.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Santana sets her valise on the three-legged stool at her side. She pauses, considering. Though it would have horrified her to do so two weeks ago, now Santana can't help but wonder if Puck has anything that it would be worth her time to steal.
While the moral part of Santana would hate to rob Puck—and especially after already breaking his heart today—the part of her that just wants to survive and to care for Brittany knows that she must afford herself every resource if she and Brittany are going to make it outside the circus.
Even with some money to their names, who knows where they'll have to go or what they'll have to do, traveling on their own?
With ginger, tremulous hands, she reaches for Puck's rucksack, starting to untie the knot.
In her shakiness, Santana's elbow knocks into something at her side—her valise where she just set it down on the stool—sending it sprawling onto the ground. With its top not yet refastened, some of the valise's contents spill out onto the grass. Santana jumps at the noise, her heart in her throat, and spins to survey the damage.
Her nightdress fans out under the valise, along with some other object.
Something pricks inside of Santana as if stuck with a needle.
She stiffens where she sits.
For a second, Santana daren't to look at the cards, but then lightning flashes again, illuminating the interior of the tent through the canvas, and suddenly she can't stand not to look. She finds that the cards have fallen out facedown, descending like rubble from an avalanche down the slope of a mountain from the inside of the valise. They're from her new deck, the Dotti that arrived from Ontario yesterday. Her insides flutter.
Immediately, the strange humor starts to possess her, even without her having touched the cards at all.
She knows that she oughtn't to look—that there isn't time, for one thing, and that she almost certainly won't like what she sees if she does look, for another—but she finds that she can't help herself.
It's like when she was a little girl, snooping through her father's surgeon's bag; the rules said that she shouldn't pry into his private things, but she so wanted to know him better.
She almost ached for it.
After years of only having Papa with her in the evenings and on the weekends, he was still mostly a beautiful stranger to her, like a person with whom she had ridden along a common streetcar route to and from work every day for years but to whom she had never spoken anything more than a "Good day" here and a "How do you do?" in passing.
She remembers peeling up the sterling silver case tucked into his bag's side pocket and opening it to find the unlabeled photograph of the pretty, dark woman, who was sad and young but with certain features and a countenance that Santana almost knew.
(Another somehow-familiar stranger.)
Though she hated herself for it, that photograph obsessed Santana, and she dug it out whenever Papa left his bag unattended at the door, staring at it, running her fingers over the frame, over the lines, until it almost made her sick from guilt and curiosity and longing just to look.
Eventually, she couldn't stand it. Always seeing something she could never have only through glass put too much pain into her heart. She stopped looking at the photograph for fear of forever being denied the thing she wanted most of all.
It was easiest not to hope.
Now, Santana quakes, her arms and hands and jaw chattering as if it were suddenly the bitterest winter month, despite the dry, stale heat inside the tent.
In such a world where a father can hate and misunderstand his own daughter for something as simple and perfect as love, can there ever really be a place for Santana and Brittany together? She remembers the fear and rage in Mr. Pierce's eyes. The pain in them. Can she and Brittany ever truly be happy and safe somewhere? Is there anyplace in the world for them?
Santana has never wanted anything more than that. All the lies, secrets, disappointments, and loneliness would be worth it if she could just have Brittany with her always, loving and being loved by her. Santana has never been able to believe in good things for herself. It's always been so difficult for her to hold her hope.
But with Brittany, anything seems possible.
Everything does, even.
Brittany is the exception to every rule Santana has ever known. Brittany looked across a crowded space and found Santana, though Santana was a stranger to her. She loved Santana fearlessly at first and then bravely later. Never once has she believed that Santana has a curse, even when Santana herself can't believe anything but that. When everyone else Santana has ever loved before has left Santana and gone away, Brittany promised that she would never abandon Santana or give her up, and Brittany has stuck to her word with perfect integrity.
"Please," Santana whispers, more tears welling behind her eyes.
Cards are only cards.
We all make our own ways in life.
Santana's grandmother swore with reverence that the cards didn't lie—that they would tell secrets to those who possessed the gift—and though Santana despairs of it, the cards have so far always told her true.
Though no man or woman on earth could say what the end of this day will bring for Santana and Brittany, the cards could say it. The cards would know. Either Brittany is right, and she and Santana can make their own fate, or else Santana's curse is too strong, and there will never be anything for her and Brittany but ruin and Death and an end.
Santana has to know.
She can't drag Brittany along with her into the darkness without knowing.
In the next second, Santana reaches out as if she were compelled to do it, gathering up her valise and searching inside its depths for something, something until finally she discovers what it is that she seeks concealed in the toe of her shoe: her first tarot deck, still hidden away, right where Brittany had told her to put it.
Pretty French designs sing up from the card faces in blues and reds and gemstone greens. The more Santana looks upon them, the more a languor overtakes her: her strange humor, darker and deeper than it has ever been before. Santana moves the deck into her lap. Her fingers smooth over the colors and shapes. She sets the valise aside.
She draws a breath, and, with trembling hands, she reads.
The deck on the ground is for Brittany, the one in her lap for herself. Santana doesn't bother to shuffle or split either set; she simply reads the cards as she finds them, let fate tell her whatever it will.
For Brittany, she flips the Fool.
For herself, she draws the High Priestess.
They're the first and last safe cards she'll lay; all others carry a risk.
Though she knows she's alone, Santana whispers the reading aloud, "These cards represent us, Britt." She reaches for another card upon the grass from Brittany's deck. "And these represent our selves, who we are and what we've asked."
She turns three cards in a row for Brittany: the Lovers, the High Priestess, and Temperance, a blonde-haired angel straining water from a stream. She lays three cards in a row for herself, drawing from the deck on her lap: the Lovers, the Fool, and the Devil, with his evil attention to detail.
It doesn't occur to her until after she has already done it that she has set Brittany's cards upside-down and her own right side-up. The one spread sits just above the other and to the side, like two same-colored squares in a checkered pattern.
That Brittany should be part of her and she a part of Brittany should perhaps surprise Santana, but it doesn't.
With shuddering breath, Santana turns the next rows. "This is what surrounds us," she says, turning three more cards for Brittany—the Hanged Man, Fortune's Wheel, and the World—and for herself—Judgment, Fortune's Wheel, and the Hermit.
When she had first begun this reading, a part of Santana had hoped that it would come to naught and that the cards would prove nonsensical, failing to match up. But now she sees them splay in mirror, familiar faces peeking up from along their edges, old haunts mapped out upon them in perfect geography, her and Brittany in compliment, always reaching for each other.
Is that a clown with his smile overturned? A ragged man, hidden away in the dark of his tent? The big top in its white and blue round?
(It strikes Santana—even spelled out in cards—that Brittany always thinks better of her than she thinks of herself.)
"What's in our dreams," she says, finding the Empress surrounded by Swords for Brittany and the Emperor surrounded by Swords for herself.
So many blades, so much trouble.
A fresh sob breaks over Santana and more tears blur her vision. She thinks of Mr. Pierce's bandolier, replete with knives. Her skull throbs. She almost can't see the cards through her own wet eyes and the shadows in the tent. "Oh God, Britt," she keens, wiping furiously at her face with an open hand.
She should stop the reading now, but she can't, not with the strange humor inducing her to go on, not with all of her grandmother's old hissings echoing in her ears. Her hands move almost of their own accord, though they tremble.
"What already is, as we know," she chokes, scrabbling to pick up and flip Brittany's next three cards and then her own. Her thumb leaves a print of something upon the cards, but she can't tell what it is, not through her own tears and the gathering darkness. It's hard enough just to see the cards for what they are.
For Brittany: Judgment; the Heirophant, poised between heaven and earth; and the Hermit again.
For herself: the Hanged Man, the Heirophant, and the Empress.
Do these figures pass between Brittany and Santana's spreads? Do they walk right out of Brittany's circus and into Santana's, as if it were all one?
The elephants wail outside the tent, or maybe the lions roar; Santana can't tell anymore. The thunder has become too raucous and overwhelming.
"Our hidden things, even to us," she says, reaching for the cards spilled farthest from her for Brittany and producing the Devil, the Eight of Swords, and the Emperor, and then finding the Magician, the World, and Temperance for herself.
The more evil she discovers lurking in the cards—around every corner of the circus—the faster her heart beats. It won't matter, none of it will matter, as long as Santana doesn't draw the one card she hates more than anything. Let disasters come if they will, let there be secrets and lies. She and Brittany will face it all.
Just not Death.
"Please, please, please," Santana whispers, tears dripping from her cheeks to the blades of grass around her skirts, to the cards in their harlequin colors. "Please, Britt."
Thunder busts overhead and Santana lays down the future. For Brittany, she sets the first card and immediately shrieks, clamping a hand over her mouth: the Ten of Swords—a body laid out under a blackened sky, ten blades stuck into the back. She lays the next card: the Tower, struck by lightning and in flames. And the next: the Three of Swords, with three blades pierced through a beating heart.
"Oh Jesus!" she sobs, rocking back and forth where she sits. Now she has to know, as if it were the ending to the most important book she might ever read. She turns her own cards: the Ten, Eight, and Queen of Swords, all blades and entrapment, all danger. "I'm sorry!" she cries, almost gagging on her tears. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"
Santana would give up the reading right then, but she knows that doing so would profit her nothing.
Whatever will be, will be, whether she sees it or not.
La Muerte viene para todos.
It's as if some spell enchants her, binding her to the cards, to the story that they weave. She must know the ending, even if there's nothing she can do to alter or allay it. Dark, kinetic energy moves her hand for the final turns.
I love you, Britt, she thinks, unable to speak aloud anymore.
She lays two cards for Brittany and then two cards for herself, joining their spreads together at the corner with the final card shared between them: the Magician and the Sun, the Sun and the Tower. Her heart won't even dare to beat. Maybe, maybe—
She believes in one good thing.
Lightning flashes, illuminating the tent.
She sees the thumb stain on the edge of the card, shared between both spreads.
She sees the card itself.
Author's Note: All the thanks to my diligent, talented, attentive beta Dr. Ruth. She is wonderful in so many ways and elevates my writing to levels I could not achieve on my own. Working with her is such a pleasure. Also, my gratitude to Han, Lu, and Sadie for their continued support. I dedicate this chapter to the lovely and talented Virginia of brittanart, who has very much enhanced my writing experience through her art.
Niñas que a vender flores vais a Granada,
no paséis por la sierra de la Alpujarra
Hay un bandido que
con todas las niñas
are lyrics from the bolero of Spanish composer Francisco Asenjo Barbieri's 1854 zarzuela opera Los Diamantes de la Corona. The lyrics say:
You girls that go to sell flowers to Granada,
do not come over the Alpujarra mountains
There is a bandit there who
with every girl
has a game—
Oh Dios de los cielos y San José y San Mateo y todos los ángeles : Oh God of Heaven and St. Joseph and St. Matthew and all the angels
La Muerte viene para todos : Death comes for us all