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scramble in the summer sky

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The thing about America is that she’s all edges and spikes and bared teeth until she’s in the air, and then she’s something different, something with lithe fluid grace and terrifying strength, and glitter in her hair.

It’s maybe the glitter that Kate is watching tonight, since the bottle she and Noh are passing between them as they watch is steadily emptying, making the light slur in front of Kate’s eyes. It’s all fine, by the way; Kate’s act is before intermission, and she’s already changed out of her costume, all back to normal but for the last of the make-up, deliberately bold for the half-dark tent and impossible to scrub off, most days.

America doesn’t use a safety net, and her dark hair flickers when she spins and catches the trapeze again, arms and legs bright with stars and stripes and rhinestones, and the crowd beneath her holds their breath and lets it out again in hollers and whoops. It’s difficult to take your eyes off her, tiny and bright above, and Kate’s not even trying to: this is a few minutes of something perfect and glorious, and even to blink sometimes feels like sacrilege.

…maybe she should drink less of whatever this is, something David and Loki are brewing in their trailer in dubious-looking jars and tubs and bottles held together with duct-tape and band-aids. It’s entirely possible that they’ll all end up blind one of these days, but, well, it’s cheap and it does the trick and gets around the lack of legal IDs for about half of them. Besides, Kate can already shoot arrows with her eyes shut, thudding into the target every time.

America drops and catches herself, a shudder rippling through the audience, popcorn and cotton candy dropping from their numb fingers. There are no distractions when America Chavez is reshaping the universe around herself; it takes Noh two elbows in Kate’s side and finally a shove for her to realise that the act has finished, applause is shivering around them, and everything it finally itself again. Her lips curl, self-deprecating and sheepish, and she lets Noh pull her back outside, the roaring in her ears sweet and too loud.

-

Kate’s first week, when she was still pretty sure this was a terrible idea and also not one that real people actually had – seriously, in the twenty-first century, who ran away with the circus – America came up to her three days in and said without preamble: “is anyone going to come looking for you, Princess?”

There were altogether too many people to meet, and Kate was still stumbling over telling Billy and Tommy apart, even with the hair, and was pretty much only not wary of Cassie and Eli. Nobody had yet called her Princess, and she couldn’t figure out from the girl’s expression if this was a good moniker to get or not.

“No,” Kate told her; she’d already assured everyone in charge this, but apparently no one was going to let the matter lie. “My dad and I don’t exactly see things the same way.”

It wasn’t exactly the truth, but she wasn’t ready to tell anyone the whole story yet, and it was true enough, anyway.

America rolled her eyes, but her mouth softened. “Hey,” she said, “ninety percent of this place is a convention for my parents and I don’t get on.”

“What’s the other ten percent?” Kate asked, then added: “oh. Right.”

There’s also Billy, but Kate wouldn’t find out that he was the anomaly for another couple of weeks. Billy’s parents fully support his life choice to be in a travelling circus with his heavily pierced and tattooed boyfriend, and they send care packages to the towns they’re due at so they’re there, waiting, full of love and candy and superhero stickers for him to peel open and dive into.

Kate can’t even get her dad to pick up the phone these days, but, hey, at least she’s not the only one.

-

Kate shares her trailer with Cassie, a contortionist who can fold herself up startlingly small and then unfurl like a flower, all teeth and bright eyes. She’s probably the best friend Kate’s ever had, even counting the ones she had before the circus decision/nervous breakdown thing, who weren’t numerous and were mostly interested in their trust funds and sleeping with their mom’s yoga instructors. Kate thinks about this, sometimes, usually when it’s four a.m. and she’s waiting for her turn in a gas station toilet wearing a pair of Loki’s old jeans and debating whether she can Febreze her hair, and it feels like a story someone might’ve told her once, not like a real life that she lived for twenty years until she didn’t.

She still sends postcards to her sister, of course, whenever they stay in one place long enough. She doesn’t expect the replies that she doesn’t get, but she doesn’t forget either.

This afternoon, with the tent half up and everyone settled down, Kate watches Cassie trying to teach Teddy to do a cartwheel. It reminds Kate of being a kid, handstands against playground walls, grazed knees and grazed elbows and wrists shuddering under the strain. It doesn’t remind her of last summer, learning to do a backflip with a bow in her hands, but that was something completely different.

Teddy teeters, manages an almost-handstand, and even with America grabbing for his ankles he folds into the grass again, groaning and laughing while the breath gushes out of his lungs. He’s not built like Cassie: Teddy’s got broad shoulders and muscled arms and spends his time lugging shit around for people, not trying to balance on one hand while curling his legs up like a pretzel. At least, that’s what Kate thinks he complains, face crushed into the dirt, while Billy looks up from the game of poker he’s been idly playing and laughs at his boyfriend.

“You’re cheating,” Loki says, shifting to lean over and poke Billy where his jeans have torn open across his knee.

You’re cheating,” Billy responds.

There are cards scattered across the grass and nobody outside of the game seems to know what the stakes are, and they’re playing none of the varieties of poker that Kate’s familiar with. Billy and Loki look at each other for a long moment, then turn as one to say: “David’s cheating.”

David holds his hands up. He’s wearing big dorky orange-tinted sunglasses and a faded t-shirt that used to be Eli’s, Kate thinks, and he’s the only one of the three of them that doesn’t look like he raided a laundromat for melodramatic hipsters. “I don’t need to cheat, you’re both cheating so badly it’s actually much easier to just play this straight.”

“You can count cards,” Loki protests, which is true: Kate was there when they were run out of that particular town, actually.

“I can,” David agrees placidly, “but like I said: it isn’t necessary with you two.”

“Billy can’t bluff for shit,” Teddy agrees cheerfully, just before he collapses back into the grass again, legs in their baggy jeans flailing.

“That’s karmic,” Billy tells him, but his smile is too fond for there to be any bite to his tone.

Kate’s ostensibly working on her tan with Noh, who’s dozing on a beach towel beside her in a pair of shorts that leave very little to the imagination. He has no qualms about this: Kate had known him all of about three hours when he told her that he used to make porn in Sweden, his smile beatific and cheerful, like he was telling her his favourite colour or what kind of candy he wanted her to get him next time it was her turn to raid a gas station.

What Kate’s found herself actually doing is watching America, who is wearing a pair of not-exactly-substantial shorts herself, who claimed she wasn’t going to help Teddy but is anyway.

-

“This isn’t your Summer of Sexual Discovery, is it?” America asks dubiously, which is the kind of question that should probably have been asked before she put her hand down the front of Kate’s jeans, but what the hell.

“No,” Kate responds, horrified. “That was last summer.”

America looks like she’s trying to muffle a laugh, biting together the lips Kate’s already bitten tonight, but all she says is: “really?”

“I spent it dog-sitting,” Kate says, just for the way America’s expression breaks slightly before she kisses Kate again, all mouth and skin under Kate’s greedy hands.

America’s hair is still stiff with glitter from the show tonight, and Kate’s got a bull’s eye still painted on her right cheek, but the audience have gone home and there’s music blaring from Noh’s caravan and when they slipped away David and Tommy had reached a noisy stalemate re: skinnydipping. This isn’t the first time or even the third time, but it’s still early enough that kissing America is just on the side of startling and new, every slide of her taut skin is still flickered with spotlights for Kate, having not built enough memories to form this all as her own yet.

Kate only knows bits and pieces of Billy and Teddy’s epic love story, which is presumably going to make an adorable TV movie one day, but there’s something bright and real and tangible there. Kate’s not going to pretend that this is that; certainly not yet, and potentially not ever. She’s definitely not going to try and swap caravans to try and move in with America, not going to catch her hand when there’s a night they can actually go into town and go on an honest date, all obvious and adoring.

That’s not to say she wouldn’t do those things; Noh tends to just shake his head fondly these days, mumbling you are so hopelessly gone for her, and Kate has no defences to put up, nothing to fling back in return.

-

One of these days, Kate is going to figure out who thought it was a good idea to run a circus where half the performers and staff are young people having what are clearly various kinds of nervous breakdown.

-

Kate didn’t know that the job she’d taken from an ad on Craigslist – no part of last summer is covered in any kind of glory, really – was going to lead to her working for an ex-Olympic archer, because it was actually his ex-wife who hired Kate and took her up to the apartment for the first time.

“I just need you to make sure the dog doesn’t die,” Bobbi Morse said, her voice weary, the physical embodiment of an eyeroll. She was tall and gorgeous and had an array of letters after her name that meant she was far more academic than Kate ever had any intention of being, and the apartment was a reasonable-sized loft full of boxes.

“Has he just moved in?” Kate asked, nearly tripping over the strap of a bag, dirty t-shirts billowing out of it.

“No,” Bobbi replied, and the corner of her mouth tugged before she said: “and yes, we’ve been divorced much longer than I really want to admit.”

“Are you sure it’s just the dog I’m supposed to be keeping alive?” Kate asked, doubtful.

“Probably a good place to start,” Bobbi sighed, and Kate wasn’t sure if she actually muttered good luck on the way out the door.

(“This already sounds skeevy,” Cassie says, making a face.

“It does,” Loki agrees, who’s been drinking the latest batch of his and David’s highly dubious liquor for the last half hour. “Show us on Billy where the weird adults touched you.”

“Hey,” Billy says, mildly.)

Anyway, Kate was already hella good at archery before she met Clint, because her dad stuck her in perpetual summer camps and macramé never appealed, but it was Clint who taught her the showmanship. His own story of running off and joining a circus was much more tragic than Kate’s would eventually be, full of petty crime and less petty violence, but the third time she managed to do a backflip over his arm without wanting to take a half-dozen aspirin afterwards she found herself thinking hey, there’s something here.

(“If I’d known this story was just you banging a dude whose hot ex-wife hired you, I wouldn’t have asked,” America says, sprawled across three different pillows and Tommy, who’s trying to braid her hair without getting caught. He will be caught eventually, and the consequences will be terrible because that’s who America is, but they’re all letting it play out for now.

“That was the first few weeks,” Kate says, “and then Natasha showed up.”

“Who was Natasha?” asks Billy.

“Natasha was trouble,” Kate replies, because it’s the truth, and it’s probably the simplest way to sum up Natasha.

“Oh god.” Cassie covers her face with her hands. “I’m not completely sure I’m old enough to hear this story.”)

Natasha used to be a gymnast, and she filled in the gaps where her fluid grace met Clint’s raw edges. Clint introduced her as a platonic soulmate, though Kate did learn soon after that that Clint’s version of platonic included also we sometimes bang, which actually explained a lot.

“Is this why you and Bobbi divorced?” she asked doubtfully, when Clint was trying to get her to fire arrows with a blindfold on and Natasha was trying to make her do the whole thing on one leg, the other curled up behind her, and he and Nat’s distances were shrinking by the minute.

“It’s not,” Natasha replied briskly, and Kate thought oh, and leaned into the hand Natasha slid up her back.

(“A month later, Bobbi got back from her vacation,” Kate finishes, because she’s pretty sure David has been live-tweeting at least part of this – she can only hope he’s not logged into the circus’ twitter account that he runs, because, god – and it’s probably good to keep some stuff back.

Billy blinks a few times. “Does that mean what I think it means?”

“You have hidden depths, Kate, I take back all that stuff I said about you being a trust fund bitch when you arrived,” Loki says.

“Your trust fund is bigger than mine,” Kate points out.

“Well, Kate, let’s not whip out the measuring tapes,” Loki drawls, because he’s awful.

“I give your Summer of Sexual Discovery eight out of ten,” America tells Kate. “You get an extra point for the weird relationships between the other people involved.”

“Mine only got three,” Billy says sadly.

“That’s because even though you ran off to the circus with your hot disreputable-looking boyfriend, you are committedly monogamous and have been since you were fifteen,” David replies.

Tommy elbows David. “You haven’t told us about your Summer of Sexual Discovery,” he says.

“No,” David agrees.

“It definitely didn’t involve me,” Loki says. They all turn to look at him. “Oh, did that come out aloud?”)

-

One of these days, Kate may have to face up to going home: to her fractured familial relationships and the trust fund she’s technically been cut off from and whatever that mess of people she left behind was – she still sends postcards, but addresses them to the dog. As much as she enjoys performing, sparkling under the lights with whatever ridiculous targets Teddy has painted onto her cheeks, it’s not practical to imagine that this can be her life. To build a future in the tiny trailer that she shares with a contortionist, stealing kisses after dark has fallen with a trapeze artist, forming friendships with a pair of stage magicians and a tightrope walker and whatever it is Noh does around here to keep himself employed.

It’s not exactly a hard life, but not an easy one, and Kate can’t remember the last time she had any kind of real privacy, when she didn’t feel the ins and outs of other people’s existences piling up onto her shoulders, spilling into her pockets. Whether it’s Billy and Teddy bickering and then making up with leisurely sex that makes their trailer rock like a bad joke, or Tommy and Noh taking it in turns to peroxide each other’s hair in front of their trailer, or Eli practicing lifts with Cassie in the early hours of the morning, Kate has seen it all, heard it all, knows it all.

Sometimes she thinks all of this should scare her much more than it really does.

Back in the life she’s starting to forget like it was a dream or a whole other kind of poor idea, Kate was attached to her cellphone, to the internet, to sitting around making connections through the lump of metal and plastic that fitted into her palm. She left hers behind her along with pretty much everything but some t-shirts and her bow and a decent vibrator, and she hasn’t missed it. Perhaps her dad has been calling, but she somehow doubts it, and when she periodically checks her email while David is maintaining their website and creating Excel documents of their ticket sales, it’s pretty much just full of spam.

It’s weird, feeding coins into a payphone at a gas station when they’re halfway between towns and there’s nothing but dusty roads and beef jerky and various pairs of tacky sunglasses hiding people’s tired faces. Kate briefly imagines all the different diseases she might get from the payphone, and then reflects that if she hasn’t managed to pick something up from her life of travelling so far, she’s probably fine for now.

She listens to the phone ring and watches Cassie and America doing synchronised backflips on the tarmac, America’s sweater riding up for periodic flashes of her stomach and the hickey Kate slid against her hip last night or maybe the night before, a brief pin in her map, hey, I was here.

“Well, Katie,” Clint says on the other end of phone, sounding small and far away and amused, “I’m pretty sure you can stick this out for at least another six months.”

-