I’m on fire! was my first thought.
Then — some very stupid part of me bubbled up But look at how pretty the blue edges flicker — and then panic overwhelmed me again as some lizard part of my brain scrambled to get out of the way of I’M ON FIRE.
Everyone else was doing so, and it looked as though they hadn’t lost any seconds to contemplation of the prettiness. Wren had drawn up short, ten feet away, her fists balled as she stared at me, the two new guys on either side, each with a hand on her shoulder. They exchanged glances, blinked as though surprised, and stepped back. Wren kept staring. She swallowed, and the snake tattooed along the side of her neck writhed.
The troupe is half human, half Underpeople, though June’s as human as they come. The latter hate flame, most of them, it’s hardwired in. Most of them faded towards the back of the crowd and one of the mini elephants squealed admonition in the scuffle of movement.
Roto was the only one who came forward. His eyes were wide and panicked, his lips curled back in alignment to his stiffly leaning ears, his whiskers silver lines against his dark cheeks.
He said, “Meg, what’s happening?”
It was so unfair. How was I supposed to know what was happening? I didn’t have a clue. I opened my mouth to say that, but all that came out was an agonized shriek, even though I felt no physical pain. It was just a howl of frustration and want and loneliness, all the loneliness of having the circus as my family but no one mine, no one bound to me by blood, so I never knew where I’d fit.
Something cool around my shoulders. June, wrapping me in a silvery blanket.
“I need you to take a deep breath,” she said.
I tried, but the sound kept coming out.
She laid her hand over mine. “Breathe.”
Flames danced over her skin where it touched mine. The blue fabric of her jacket began to smolder, flaring orange and sparking along the line of the hem.
Nothing physical but that coolness against my back, as though the blanket were drawing the flame inside it. But in my head, something slammed down so all my consciousness went to breathing, to the act of pulling in the air, feeling it rush into me, my ribs dwelling to contain as much as possible, holding it for a beat and then releasing…
“Okay,” June said. “Okay, Meg.”
I blinked. The flames were gone, but the hem of her jacket still flared orange one last second before dying away.
“You’re tired. I’m putting you in Nursie.”
I tried to protest. Riding in Nursie was boring beyond belief. One of her settings had gone wonky and she treated everyone as though they were a six-year-old. But at the same time, I realized, it sounded so good, lying down in darkness and not thinking for a while.
Before I knew it, I was tucked in Nursie’s depths. Vanilla scented mist sprayed down around the couch.
“Now I’m going to tell you the story of the Brave Little Kitten,” she announced.
That was all right. At least it was one of the comprehensible stories. But something else caught my attention. I rolled closer to the hatch opening, trying to hear out.
Outside, June shouting.
“All right! These fellows either lair nearby or they’re affiliated with the town.”
Nursie said, “Once upon a time —“
“Wait,” I said. “Nursie, can I have a drink of water first?”
The story paused as a cup rattled into the dispenser and began to fill.
June said, “Either way, we can’t go back — you know that as well as I — and it’s better to make these disappear and keep moving rather than have others come look and find us with them.”
Muffled agreement. Nursie said, “Drink your water, Meg.”
I drank it as slowly as I could, but all I heard were doors slamming and engines starting again. I felt dizzy. It was hard to swallow.
Warm vanilla sprayed me again as I set the cup down.
Nursie said, “Blood pressure dropping.”
Something snaked from the ceiling towards me. I heard Nursie’s voice, as though from a very far distance. “Administering sedation.”