Her sister used to dance.
Britney had always been the troubled one, the laughing one, dancing and singing at all hours like some crazy girl. Ashleigh used to stay up nights, having to hear her. Kept awake to the beat of her sister's hands and feet as she moved, tapping rhythms on the walls that pounded in Ashleigh's veins, the blood in her temples and her hands and her feet beating in time.
It gave Ashleigh headaches. She could hear her sister dancing even when Britney was still like she should be. Something in her was always moving. Hair twisting into curls that wouldn't go straight or lie flat no matter what, fingers fluttering like leaves in a breeze.
She'd said once that Britney had to be an old-time voodoo girl, always dancing the way she did, and her mother had slapped her mouth shut with terror in her face. Said Ashleigh could never say that again. Her cheek had hurt all day, though the mark never showed. But at least their mother made Britney stop dancing for a week.
Ashleigh hadn't realized then how illegal magic was, how dangerous.
She knows now. She's had too many of her patients tapping their feet and humming and weaving braids with strands of someone else's hair to reach inside their heads and tug, too many who were in their rooms one minute and gone the next.
Someone else's hair, whatever earth they can find, whatever spices they can find -- Ashleigh would love to know their source for those. None of her patients should be able to find parsley, pepper, or juniper, or anything else they manage to get their hands on. Let alone cigars! -- anything they can use. The spices are the danger. It took Ashleigh a little while to realize how much trouble those could be. She was used to food being trouble, but not that kind of trouble.
Britney's old cookbooks -- real books, on real, fragile paper, not the synth-paper. Ashleigh had touched them once, then jerked her hand away as if she could be as crazy as Britney just from the contact. -- had taken over the house. She'd said nonsense about old-time food, how it was more real than what they ate now. What made food real, Ashleigh had always wondered, and put it down to Britney the baby being indulged too much. Ignoring danger signs like that... if Britney had gotten the help she needed when she'd been younger, everything would've been fine.
Even the names of the foods she read about were music, syllables dancing over her tongue. Gumbo, fatback, pot likker, hoecake, shortcake. Hoppin' John, candied yams, hushpuppies, okra, chitlins. Jambalaya, remoulade, roux, etouffee, maque choux, moonshine. Giblet gravy. Cobbler. 'Soul food,' Britney called it, and one of their worst fights had been whether food could even have a soul, or a soul could be nourished by what a person ate, and what it meant if food did. If it could. Ashleigh knows that's ridiculous, and eats her nutritious food like she should. It tastes of nothing on her tongue, safe and sane.
Britney laughing at her, even just in Ashleigh's head, always sounded like the slap of bare feet on linoleum, flat and rhythmic and hollow.
And the places Britney turned into songs... 'Tallahassee,' she'd sing, 'Slagtown, Louisiana, Alabam', Talladega, Everglades, Tennessee, Mississippi, Appalachia, Ozarks, Carolina, Greenbrier, Oconaluftee, Tombigbee, Cahaba, bayou, Decatur, Selma, Tangipahoa, Dancing Rabbit... '
They'd just go on, rhythmic and sing-song, places dead and gone that Britney went sniffing for and dug up, unearthing their names from the grave they'd been put into.
She'd find music anywhere. In the way she breathed, and in the way she walked, dancing between her steps.
Britney was a useful lesson for some of her patients now. The really troublesome ones who don't understand why the laws against their dance and their music are there, don't understand that they need the protection against how easy it is to lose control and run wild... those are always the hardest. Hard to look at them and see danger unless you have experience growing up with their type.
She's in the Palace to help them. These boys, these girls, who shine too blindingly bright and would break themselves open if she lets them. Their medication helps. Ashleigh wishes it didn't take so much, but she's not about to shirk her duties because they don't want to swallow their pills.
Some of them only get worse on the wrong dosage, and Ashleigh locks herself in her room while the Masks are on the move to deal with the troublemakers. That kind infects everyone else.
She never feels the urge to tap her fingers back-and-forth against a wall or her cart, or nod her head up and down in time with her breathing, sway her hips as she moves past the rhythms of normal movement. It's too easy to move into dance from there. Ashleigh keeps herself under control. She knows it would be easy to be corrupted; hadn't Britney ended in one of the Palace's precursors? The drugs Ashleigh uses are kinder than the ropes and leather straps still kept in spare rooms in the asylum. Really, it's silly for the children to fight taking them so hard.
Not so silly to fight the Masks, but by that point fighting is the worst thing they can do for themselves.
Ashleigh never looks away from the Masks' reflections of her face. She's not scared of them.
She never looks away from the eyes of the children she's here to help. She knows they think of her as an enemy. She knows, by the end, Britney had, too. It had been Ashleigh who had informed the doctors that her sister needed help.
It is Ashleigh who informs the Masks when her patients are beyond help.
She catches herself walking wrong, heel-toe heel-toe, like Britney balancing on a track, like that Monáe girl up on the table, and stiffens her spine and forces her feet to move properly.
There are eyes on her back, and Britney laughs in her head, holding out her hands as she spins. Subversion, trying to twist her into weakness and lack of self-control.
Ashleigh tightens her mouth, refusing to yield to that. She keeps walking.
Someone is humming behind her, and Ashleigh whirls, spotting one of the girls -- short, curvy, her straight hair curving around her face. Azia Deren, caught dancing in the streets and brought here three years ago. Ashleigh raises an eyebrow, demanding wordlessly to know what is going on.
Azia shrugs, a graceful careless move, and shows her flashing teeth in a sharp-edged smile. "You might as well keep dancing if you're not gonna run."
Azia takes a step towards her, and Ashleigh does not step back. She does not run. She does not dance.
One-two-three-four, exhale, one-two-three-four, inhale.
It takes until Azia begins to laugh for Ashleigh to realize she is breathing in time with the music drifting through the halls.