Disclaimers - See Part 1.
SUMMER'S CIRCUS - PART 3
This really wasn't her day, thought Summer. Hell, it wasn't her *year*! And if her reflexes had been any slower, she wouldn't be sitting in Casualty, she'd be lying in the Hospital morgue.
Once again she tried to remember the events leading up to her accident. She had been in the ring helping Grigori rehearse an alteration to his juggling act, only vaguely aware of activity in the upper recesses of the Big Top. Someone had been standing next to the heavy lighting rig a few moments before it fell. At the time, she had assumed it was one of the work crew - now she wasn't so sure ....
Glumly, she eyed a young man being led away by a nurse. A bloodstained bandage wrapped his head, and he was leaving a trail of glistening red spots on the linoleum. Hospitals! thought Summer. She hated them.
She rubbed her eyes with her good hand. It could have been worse, she supposed - it could have been her right arm that was out of action. At least it was only a fracture. And the pain had eased considerably since the nurse had put on the plaster cast ....
The familiar voice made her look up in confusion. "Alison!"
"Egor asked me to pick you up."
Summer glanced at her watch. The matinee, of course. She supposed Grigori would be taking over as ringmaster tonight. "What a mess," she muttered.
"You're telling me." Alison took the grey plastic chair beside her and patted her comfortingly on the thigh. "Are you always this accident prone?"
The choice of words sent a pang through Summer, but she said nothing. Her expression, however, must have given something away.
"You're in pain!" Alison's voice was concerned. "Haven't they given you any painkillers?"
Summer sighed. "Yeah." She dug in her jeans pocket and pulled out the prescription slip. "I'm s'posed to get this filled. The nurse said there's a pharmacy in the basement somewhere. I was just getting up the energy to go and look for it when you arrived."
"Come on then." Alison rose and held out a hand.
"I'm not an invalid," said Summer, ignoring the hand and standing easily unaided. "It's my arm, not my leg."
"My, aren't we grouchy."
Summer suppressed a grin. Already she felt better for Alison's company. "My, aren't we bossy."
"Just protecting my investment."
Summer quirked an eyebrow. "Investment?"
"I've sold the article about you and your circus," explained the journalist. "To the *Guardian Weekend*." Alison beamed at her.
"Really?" Summer blinked, impressed..
They left Casualty, relieved to get away from the walking wounded, and followed the signs to the Hospital Pharmacy along a maze of corridors and down a flight of stairs. They joined the queue of people waiting for prescriptions to be filled.
"My first major sale," continued Alison.
Summer smiled at her friend's obvious pleasure. "You deserve it," she said.
Alison blushed and looked away.
Summer leaned towards her. "I mean it," she murmured in Alison's ear.
"I know," came the breathy reply.
Summer was still thinking about that exchange when her turn came. It took only moments for the pharmacist to give her a small pack of powerful painkillers, then she and Alison were making their way back through the rabbit warren of corridors and out to where Alison's car was parked.
"Seems like you're always driving me places," growled Summer, as she accepted help buckling the seat belt - the cast made it difficult - and Alison started the engine.
"Twice!" Alison glanced at her curiously. "Does it bother you?" She drove out of the hospital carpark.
Summer thought about that. "A bit," she admitted. "It makes me feel like a burden."
"Well it makes *me* feel useful," said Alison firmly. "Needed. That's a first for me, you know. Besides," she added, "we all have to lean on people occasionally ... Even you."
Summer registered the knowing glance that came her way, not sure how to take it. "Even me?"
"Sometimes pride is good, but sometimes it just gets in the way ... keeps people away."
Alison turned the car into the Old Bath Road then into Cox's Meadow. The public carpark was full, so Summer directed her to where the circus vehicles were parked. At last, Alison turned off the engine.
"I don't want that," said Summer, in the sudden silence.
Alison glanced at her, "Don't want what?"
She took a deep breath and wondered what she was getting into. "To keep you away."
Her reward was a dazzling smile.
Alison filled a glass from one of the bottles of spring water Summer kept in her caravan and gave it to Summer.
"Thanks." The ringmaster pressed two of the painkilling tablets from the foil strip and popped them into her mouth. She swilled them down with the water, grimacing at the taste.
Alison read the instructions on the packet. "Says here they'll take about twenty minutes to kick in. How are you feeling?"
Summer's eyes looked bloodshot. The party last night, thought Alison, and now this. She pointed to the bed. "Get some rest."
"But it's still early."
She ignored the mutinous look until the ringmaster grumpily did as she was told. Alison suppressed a grin as Summer pointedly tried and failed to make herself comfortable.
"You're just a big baby," she told her, receiving a raised eyebrow in return. "Here, let me." She propped a pillow behind Summer's back. "Better?" Summer nodded.
Alison debated with herself for a moment then let her need to be close to Summer override her reserve. She squeezed onto the bed alongside the startled Summer.
After a moment, Summer obeyed. Alison lost no time in snuggled up to the other woman. Tense muscles met her touch but quickly relaxed.
"So glad I could make you comfortable, Miss Carmichael." Summer's voice was amused.
Alison snuggled closer, pulling Summer's right arm round her shoulders. She felt Summer shift slightly, not objecting but simply adjusting to the new position. It felt good.
"Nice," said Alison.
Summer snorted softly. "The week I've had and she says it's 'nice'!"
Alison's breathing slowed, and Summer's slowed to match.
As they lay there, letting the exertions of the past hour drain away, the sound of music floated over from the Big Top. Alison recognized the accompaniment to the Dyakonov Troupe's aerial act.
A thought struck her. "Is Cheslav's wrist better?"
"Mmmm, thank God."
"And someone else is ringmaster?"
"Grigori." Summer's voice was sleepy.
The painkillers must be kicking in, thought Alison, relieved. "So everything's under control," she prompted.
"Mmmm, guess so." The arm that had been holding Alison tightly was now relaxed.
"So you don't have to worry about anything. Go to sleep," whispered Alison.
This time there was no reply, only the sound of gentle, steady breathing..
Alison smiled to herself. She knew she should really leave Summer to rest, and go home ... but it wouldn't hurt if she kept Summer company a bit longer, would it? After all, she was where she wanted to be, with the person she wanted to be with. What would it hurt if she closed her eyes too?
Only for a minute, mind you ....
Sometime during the night, Summer became aware that she was awake and her left arm was aching badly. When she tried to move it into a more comfortable position, its unnatural weight reminded her that it was encased in plaster. She groaned, as memory returned. The warm presence wrapped around her stirred.
"What the - " It was Alison's voice. "Oh!"
Summer blinked, startled and pleased that the journalist had stayed with her.
Then the warmth disappeared abruptly, and Summer groaned again
"It's all right," came the journalist's voice from the near darkness. "I'm just getting you some more painkillers. The others will have worn off by now."
Moments later, a dark presence loomed over Summer. "Open wide."
Summer felt two pills press against her tongue, followed by the coolness of glass against her lips. Gratefully, she gulped a mouthful of water and swallowed, then shuddered at the bitter taste of the tablets.
"Yes." Her voice was croaky from sleep.
The mattress sagged, and the welcome warmth returned as the other woman resumed her place next to Summer and pulled up the duvet over them both.
Summer couldn't resist the urge to immerse her face in the long blonde hair placed so conveniently by her shoulder, inhaling the pleasant scent of herbal shampoo.
"Go back to sleep," whispered Alison.
If Summer concentrated on the woman beside her she found she could ignore the ache in her arm. With a contented sigh, she let herself drift off ....
"Well, you *can't* go back to work, Summer. So what else are you going to do?"
They had been eating breakfast in the cook wagon - Alison had had to chop up Summer's bacon for her, much to the ringmaster's disgust - and were discussing their plans for the day.
"I don't know, but I'm sure I can come up with something." Summer gave her plaster cast a dirty look.
"You don't need to come up with something. I already have." The something in question was a visit to Alison's mother's house in the Cotswolds. "Besides, " she continued persuasively, "I've met your people, so it's time you met mine."
"My people?" Summer raised an eyebrow.
"Egor and Maks, Tonio and Marcello, Miss Clio ...." Alison counted off the names on her fingers.
Summer sighed. "Look, Alison. I know you mean well. But I don't think 'your people' are going to take kindly to your hanging out with a beat-up old circus performer, do you?"
"You think I'm ashamed of you?" Alison was disconcerted. Didn't Summer realize she was taking her to meet Mother so early in their relationship because Alison was *proud* of her, so proud she couldn't wait to show Summer off?
"Well, I'm not much to write home about, am I?" said Summer. "You're Ladies College material, I'm 'school of life' educated."
Alison felt her indignation growing. "And what does *that* have to do with anything?"
Summer looked at her. "Well, um ..." her voice trailed off.
"Exactly. Look, Summer, it's not far and the scenery's nice. And it might take your mind off your arm for a bit." It was time for the clincher. "Besides, I've already told Mother we're coming, and she's all set to meet you. First, though, we'd better pop back to my place. I need some fresh clothes. Spending the night here means that at the moment I don't quite meet my mother's exacting standards!" She grabbed Summer's good arm and pulled her across the circus carpark towards her car.
Summer sighed and let herself be led. "You're not driving me *again*, are you?"
"Yes." Alison stopped, placed her hands on her hips, and raised an eyebrow. "You got a problem with that?"
"Um, no," said a chastened Summer.
"And how long have you worked for the circus, Summer?" asked Alison's mother.
Summer shot the young journalist sitting beside her on the settee a quick glance. From her expression, Alison was trying hard not to laugh. "As long as I can remember, Mrs Carmichael," said Summer politely. She sipped her tea with lemon and wished it were something stronger.
"Summer doesn't just work there, Mother," protested Alison, "she *owns* it."
"Really?" Veronica Carmichael didn't look impressed "And how long have you owned it, dear?"
Summer did a quick calculation. She'd been eighteen when she joined Fred Brennan's outfit, and it had been another five years before the old curmudgeon had decided to retire and she had managed to scrape up enough cash to buy the circus off him. "Six years, give or take," she said.
"She's one of the Blakes," said Alison proudly. "You know - the Blake Family Circus?"
Mrs Carmichael looked none the wiser. She flicked an imaginary piece of lint off her turquoise wool skirt.
Alison's mother may have shared her daughter's blonde hair and green eyes, thought Summer, but there the similarity stopped. It wasn't just the salon-cut hairstyle, the designer suit, or the softening jawline that no amount of immaculate makeup could disguise. While Alison was prepared to venture out into the big bad world and grapple with its diversity, her mother plainly wasn't. Summer marvelled at Alison's courage in 'coming out' to this ultra conservative woman.
"Hey." Alison looked thoughtful. "I went to the circus when I was a child. You don't suppose it was the Blake Family Circus, do you, Mother?"
"I'm afraid I have no idea, Ali. It was your father's idea to take you. I didn't go."
"Oh." The journalist sounded disappointed.
Knowing that the elegant coffee table would hide the gesture, Summer squeezed Alison's hand. "You wouldn't have recognized me, anyway," she said. "I was probably in clown costume."
"They didn't make you perform as a child?" Veronica Carmichael looked horrified. "There are rules against that, surely!"
"No. They didn't *make* me perform. I *wanted* to." And what I want right now, thought Summer, is to get out of here.
Alison laughed. "I can just imagine you as a tiny tot, Summer, pestering your parents to let you take part in the circus."
The atmosphere lightened perceptibly and Summer shot her friend a grateful look. "Well," she said, grinning, "it wasn't *quite* like that. Of course, when my brother -" She bit off the sentence but it was too late.
"Your *brother*?" Alison blinked at her. "Summer, I didn't know you have a brother."
Summer looked down at her hands. "He died," she said tonelessly. She reached for her plate and picked up the barely touched slice of fruitcake. "Lovely cake, Mrs Carmichael. Did you make it yourself?"
Alison frowned at her lame attempt to change the conversation.
"I'm so glad you like it, dear." Mrs Carmichael seemed unaware of the sudden tension. "And your parents, Summer," she continued blithely. "Are they still alive?"
Summer's appetite vanished and she put down the plate. She had known this was a bad idea. "No," she said. "They're both dead."
The elegant sitting room, crowded which expensive pieces of furniture and fragile china figurines, had become claustrophobic. She glanced at Alison beseechingly.
Alison took one look at her and stood up. "I'm sorry, Mother, but we have to go." She glanced at her watch. "I should have told you. Summer has a hospital appointment in half an hour. We mustn't be late."
A feeling of relief washed over Summer. "That's right." She stood up too, and held out her good hand for a farewell shake. "It's been a pleasure meeting you."
Mrs Carmichael looked surprised by their sudden departure. "Oh. Well, it was nice to meet you too, Summer. It's not often my daughter brings friends of her to visit me. I can't imagine why that should be the case ...."
The words faded as Summer followed Alison swiftly out into the hallway and then onto the gravelled drive where the Fiesta waited. Summer opened the passenger door and climbed in, relaxing with a great sigh of relief.
As Alison slid into the driver's seat and reached for her safety belt, Summer became aware of the other woman's gaze on her.
"Is your arm bothering you?"
"No. Guess I just wasn't -" Summer searched for words, "- in the mood for meeting people. Sorry."
Silently, Alison started the engine and backed the car out of her mother's driveway. Mrs Carmichael was standing in the doorway by now and waving at them, a smile on her face. Alison waved back, then drove off along the winding Cotswold lane.
"No, *I'm* sorry," said Alison after a while. "It was a bad idea. I might have known Mother would start nosing into your private life. It's a habit of hers."
Summer continued to gaze silently at the lush scenery flashing by.
"But maybe," continued Alison, "if you'd told me about your brother, about your parents ...." The sentence hung between them.
Summer felt very tired all of a sudden, and her arm ached. "It's all right," she said dully. "No harm done."
A few more miles of road went by and they had reached the outskirts of Cheltenham when Summer became aware, from the nervous glances and licking of lips, that Alison was working up the courage to ask her something. She braced herself.
"So," said Alison, turning the car into the road leading to the circus site. "Your brother. What was his name?"
But Summer's attention was focussed on something ahead of them - a cloud of black smoke billowing up into the sky.
Realization hit her like a blow. "Aw, shit!" she breathed.
"What is it?" Alison peered anxiously through the windscreen.
"What *was* it, you mean," said Summer bleakly. "It *was* the Big Top."
Even before Alison had braked to a stop, Summer was opening the passenger door and climbing out. She watched the tall ringmaster lope towards the three fire engines parked beside what had once been the Big Top. The actual firefighting was over, it seemed, and yellow-helmeted figures were rolling up fire hoses and stowing them tidily away.
Alison turned off the engine, and got out. She strode across to join Summer, now talking earnestly to a man in a white helmet who appeared to be in charge of the fire crews. She was half way there when a familiar voice made her pause.
"Hey, there." Grigori was hastening to intercept her. She waited for him, then they continued on together.
"We wondered where you two had got to," he panted. "For a while, we were worried the Boss was inside." He gestured at the smouldering ruin.
"Is it as bad as it looks?" asked Alison, her heart sinking.
He nodded. "Afraid so. What survived the fire got pretty well ruined by the water."
They drew near to Summer just as she turned from the fire chief to survey the damage. Her eyes, Alison noticed with anxiety, were the bleakest she had seen them.
"Hey." She squeezed Summer's arm gently, earning herself a fleeting smile. "You're insured, right?"
"Right," agreed Summer. "But we'll still have to cancel the rest of the tour - there's no way we can get this mess sorted out in time." She glanced wryly at Alison. "I seem to have messed up your prospects too. Without a circus to back it up, your article's not going to stand much of a chance."
"Forget about that." Alison was upset Summer could think that her first priority at such a time. "It doesn't matter."
Summer turned to face her and gripped her tightly on the bicep. "But it *does*, Alison. Don't you see? You depended on me and I let you down." She released her grip and turned away, looking suddenly tired. "Story of my life." She rubbed a hand across her forehead.
"Don't say that." Alison was angry now. "You have *not* let me down, Summer. Unless you planned this." She was aware she now had Summer's undivided attention. "So you planned this, then," she continued aggressively. "An insurance fraud."
"Of course not!" Summer looked shocked by the suggestion. "Even *with* the insurance, we'll be lucky if we come out of this ahead."
Alison nodded meaningfully. "So how is this *your* fault, then?" She glared at Summer. "God, don't you realize how *arrogant* you're being?"
Summer's mouth opened and closed, but nothing came out. In other circumstances, thought Alison, it could have been funny. Then the ringmaster's shoulders slumped in defeat, and she sighed. The sound erased all of Alison's anger.
"Look, Summer," she said gently. "You did your best. That's all anyone can do."
"Tell that to Uncle Tommy!"
Alison stored the remark away for later consideration. By now the last of the fire engines was reversing its way over boggy ground, leaving huge ruts behind. The other members of the circus had gathered nearby and were talking among themselves, eyeing Summer and Alison thoughtfully.
"Just salvage what you can, Summer. Everyone'll help out. *I'll* help out if you tell me what to do." That earned her another weary smile from Summer. "We'll do what we have to to get through this," said Alison confidently.
She turned to the eavesdropping performers. "Won't we?"
"You bet," came the chorus. "Just tell us what to do, Boss."
Alison watched as Summer seemed to drag herself back from somewhere very dark and far away, saw the inhalation of breath, and the way the tall woman's shoulders straightened. She breathed a sigh of relief.
"That's it, Tiger," she whispered, receiving a startled look from blue eyes. "Go get 'em."
Summer took up a position in front of the others. "I'm not going to lie to you," she told them, her words initially hesitant but gradually gaining in conviction. "We've had a severe setback. But it's not the end of the world. We can get through this. We *will* get through this. First, though, we've got a lot of work to do."
Alison listened proudly as Summer began to outline what needed to be done.
"I don't know what I'd have done without you," said Summer.
"Glad I could help." Green eyes crinkled at her.
Summer let the young journalist help her out of the sweatshirt that had been the only thing loose enough to fit over her cast. She moved to the little sink for a cursory wash and teeth brushing.
"Can I borrow a T-shirt?" asked Alison, who had turned her back the moment Summer stripped off, a move that Summer found oddly endearing.
"Be my guest. It'll be a bit big on you, though."
"I like them like that."
Summer heard the sound of clothing drawers being opened and closed, then a small satisfied exclamation. She towelled herself dry then reached for her own nighty, pulling it awkwardly over her head until hands helped her.
The blonde woman had by now discarded her jumper and jeans and was wearing only a large T shirt bearing the slogan: 'Trapeze Artists do it Upside-Down'. Summer eyed Alison appreciatively. Hmmm, nice legs.
The Big Top clean-up operation had lasted until lack of light made it impossible to continue, then the circus performers had tucked into fish-and-chips from a nearby chippy, and retired to a well-earned bed. But Alison had seemed reluctant to leave, so Summer had suggested she spend another night in her caravan.
Summer had been pleasantly surprised by the blonde woman's eager acceptance of her offer. She had thought Alison would have had more than enough of both her and the circus by now; apparently she was wrong.
Their third night together, she realized wryly, and they still hadn't got beyond kissing.
"Penny for your thoughts." Alison had stopped removing her makeup and was regarding her curiously.
"As you would say: 'They're not worth a penny.'"
"I'm feeling rich."
Summer smiled at Alison. "I was thinking that when I originally imagined spending the night with you, I had something quite -" she searched for the words, "- different in mind."
"Yeah." Summer raised a knowing eyebrow.
"Oh!" Alison's cheeks flushed a becoming shade of pink. After a moment she returned to her face cleansing routine.
Summer climbed into bed, glad to relax after the hectic day, and waited patiently for Alison to finish. Eventually, the young woman switched off the light, and Summer felt a warm body slide into the bed next to hers. She eased her arm round Alison's shoulders, and was immediately aware of the tension in the blonde woman's muscles.
"Hey," she said, feeling slightly hurt. "You don't have to worry. I'm too tired to do anything anyway." She started to withdraw her arm.
"It's not that," said Alison quickly. To Summer's relief, she snuggled closer and pulled the arm firmly around her.
"What is it, then?" Abruptly Summer realized what the tenseness in her companion's body signified. "This?"
In spite of the darkness, she found Alison's mouth easily and pressed a gentle kiss on it.
"Mmmm," agreed Alison, deepening the kiss and probing Summer's mouth with her tongue.
Reluctantly, Summer broke the kiss
"Aw, no," complained Alison. "You can't stop now."
Summer tried to stifle a huge yawn but couldn't. "Sorry." She yawned again. "Oh, God!"
"You're exhausted." Alison's voice was contrite.
"Yes. It's just caught up with me, I guess." Sleepily, Summer cuddled the blonde woman to her. "Can we continue this another time?"
"I'll make it up to you."
"Just see that you do," came the grumpy reply.
It was still dark when Alison found herself awake again, her face pressed into a warm shoulder surrounded by a tangle of long black hair, an arm circling her waist. She sighed contentedly.
"You all right?" The low voice startled her.
"Sorry. Didn't realize you were awake ..." She shifted slightly then yawned. "I'm fine, more than fine, in fact." The arm around her squeezed briefly. "What time is it?"
"Still early. There's no hurry to get up, though. No Big Top, no show, remember?"
"It's not all bad news then," joked Alison.
Unexpectedly, Summer chuckled, the sound vibrating through Alison's body. "How d'you make that out?"
"Well," said Alison complacently, "it gives us more snuggling time."
The chuckle came again. "Is that what this is?"
Alison rolled over and snaked an arm around Summer's waist, carefully to avoid the plaster cast, before hugging her. "Uh huh."
The move had brought her face to face with Summer, and suddenly Alison was very wide awake. "Morning!" she said rather breathlessly.
"Morning." Summer leaned forward and kissed her, a deep, lingering kiss that threatened to sent Alison's heart into overdrive.
"Ugh!" she managed, when Summer pulled back at last. "You're not stopping there again are you? You're not going to tell me you should be somewhere else, doing something else instead?"
"Nope." Summer turned her attention to Alison's ear. "Nowhere else to go, no-one else to do."
Alison thought Summer could perhaps have phrased that better, but decided not to distract the ringmaster from her current activity which was sending jolts of pleasure through her entire nervous system. Something hard dug into her -
"Hey, mind my cast!"
"Sorry," mumbled Alison. "You OK?"
"Never better. Besides," Summer moved her attentions to Alison's neck, "I promised I'd make up for last night, and I always keep my promises."
She was going to have one hell of a hickey later, thought Alison absently, then forgot all about even that as Summer's mouth moved further south ....
When Summer and Alison finally made it to the cook wagon, it was nearly 10 am. As they entered the room, fuggy with the smell of coffee and fried bacon, Summer was aware of the looks and sniggers coming their way from the other occupants. She put on her best shit-eating grin, and stared right back. Beside her, Alison tensed and then relaxed.
"S'okay," Summer reassured her. "They'll get used to it."
"Mmmm," said Alison. "Well, I could."
"Get used to doing what we've been doing." She smiled at Summer.
"You liked that, huh?"
Alison's smile broadened.
Summer pressed her mouth to Alison's ear. "I could tell."
An embarrassed flush spread over the blonde woman's cheeks, and Summer suppressed her own grin.
"Breakfast," she reminded her companion. "You hungry?"
While Summer busied herself boiling water for coffee and putting slices of bread in the toaster - the cast making her movements clumsy - Alison investigated the food provided by the circus cook.
"Um, maybe we'd better stick to toast and coffee," she said, eyeing the contents of the metal containers by the serving hatch.
"Come on. Your stomach has been complaining for the past half hour." Summer joined Alison and saw the unappetizing choice: cold scrambled eggs, lukewarm sausages, congealed baked beans .... She pulled a face. "I see what you mean!"
The toaster chose that moment to signal their toast was ready. Summer piled the hot slices on a tray, added plates, cutlery, a pack of butter and a jar of orange marmalade, and started for an empty table. "Can you bring the coffees?" she called over her shoulder.
Alison grabbed the mugs and followed her. Summer didn't object when Alison, unasked, grabbed a knife and started buttering her toast for her.
The next few minutes were spent eating and drinking. "So what are you going to be doing today," asked Alison.
"Paperwork." Summer groaned aloud at the thought.
She nodded. "Got to send in a claim form as soon as possible. Insurance companies take forever." She sighed. "They'll probably want to send a loss adjuster round ... to get the claim as low as they can. By the time they've finished, we'll be lucky to cover the Big Top let alone the lost revenue from all the cancelled performances."
Alison began to butter her fourth slice of toast. "Well, what else can you do?"
Summer had been considering her options while lying waiting for the blonde woman to wake. "I could put this place up for sale," she said
Alison's eyes widened. "'This place'? You mean the circus?" She put down the unfinished slice of toast and pushed her plate away.
"You would seriously consider selling this place?" Alison frowned. "But I thought it meant something to you."
"It does," said Summer quietly, seeing the disappointment in the green eyes and wondering if Alison understood just how *much* it meant. But she was also acutely aware that people depended on her for their livelihoods, and as far as they were concerned, a circus under new management was better than no circus at all.
Still, no need to go into that yet. "Let's see how the claim pans out first, Alison. Deal?"
"Um, not that I mind having you around, Alison, but shouldn't you be doing interviews, writing articles, or something?"
Summer's question roused Alison from her reverie. While the ringmaster worked quietly at her desk, Alison had been gazing out of the Admin Office window and considering Summer's predicament ... considering, more specifically, Tommy Blake.
She turned to regard Summer. "Actually, I'll probably be busy this afternoon. Victim Support are sending someone round to see me at two o'clock."
Summer frowned. "Are you having flashbacks? You never said anything."
"I'm fine, Summer. Don't worry." Alison gave her a reassuring smile. "It's just routine, something they do after all assaults."
The frown eased and Summer returned to her paperwork, absently chewing the end of the pencil she was using for her calculations.
"And later on, I might do an interview," added Alison.
"Oh? Who with?" Summer looked up again.
Alison wondered whether to let Summer in on her idea then decided against it. Better, if her plan to talk to Tommy Blake didn't come off, to say nothing. She tapped her nose and smiled.
Summer grunted in annoyance and resumed her calculations. Alison's thoughts returned to the problem of the circus.
"Selling the circus isn't just a recent idea you've had, is it?"
"No." Summer looked up. "I've been thinking about it for a while."
Alison pursed her lips. "Because you were losing money?"
"It's not just about that." Summer rubbed a hand across her forehead in a gesture Alison was beginning to recognize. "But some days it just seems to be ... too hard. You know?"
"Because of your Uncle Tommy?"
"Among other things." Summer bent her head again, her body language signalling that the topic was closed.
Alison gazed at the dark curtain of hair hiding her lover's face. "You really don't like talking about personal stuff, do you?"
The knuckles of Summer's hand turned white but she said nothing.
Alison realized she was getting into dangerous territory, presuming on their burgeoning relationship, but she couldn't stop now. "You're not alone, Summer," she said quietly. "You don't have to carry this all by yourself."
The pencil snapped, the sharp crack making Alison jump.
"Don't I?" Summer's head came up and blue eyes glared at Alison. "What the hell do you know about it anyway?"
It was a challenge and Alison accepted it as such. "And whose fault is that ... when you won't talk to me?" She rose and crossed to the desk in one stride. She stuck her face in Summer's, held the other woman's chin so she couldn't look away. "Why don't you ever talk about your brother? Why don't you ever mention your parents? What's all this stuff between you and your Uncle?"
Summer pulled away from her, standing up and half turning away, and for a long moment Alison was afraid she'd gone too far.
"Isn't it obvious?" ground out the ringmaster eventually. "I don't talk about that stuff because it hurts."
Her expression seemed to shift between anger, pain, and ... was that fear? A single tear trickled down one cheek and she brushed it away impatiently then glared at Alison. "There, is that what you were after? Happy now?"
It would have been easy to give in to indignation, but Alison hung onto her temper. "No, I'm *not* happy!" She felt her way carefully. "Why would I be happy that the woman I love is suffering?"
To her relief, the quiet words seemed to drain the anger from Summer's face, leaving behind only sadness and weariness. Alison eased behind the desk and took the taller woman in a comforting embrace.
"You can tell me," she soothed, feeling the back muscles tense at her touch and then slowly relax. "Don't you know that? You can tell me anything, no matter how bad it seems."
And after what seemed like the longest few minutes of Alison's life, after more soothing words and caresses and murmured protestations of love and support, Summer began to talk.
"His name was Robert, but I called him Robbie. Whatever I learned - clowning, juggling, somersaults, wire-walking - he wanted to do it too." Summer laughed disparagingly at herself. "He idolized me."
She glanced at Alison, took comfort from the warm green gaze, from the arm encircling her waist. "Dad said he was too little, but that didn't stop Robbie. He did it anyway."
Alison nodded. "He was younger than you?"
"Three years." Summer found herself smiling at a mental picture of the young boy who had dogged her every step. She hadn't thought of her brother that way for a long time.
A gentle squeeze brought her back to the present. "Anyway," she took a breath, "as we grew up, it became clear we both had what it takes to be aerialists."
Summer smiled at the blonde woman's attempt to understand. "Yes. And strength, agility, a sense of timing ...." She shrugged. "It's partly good genes, I suppose. Partly all that training we did with our parents."
"They were aerialists too?"
"Among other things." Summer's gaze turned inward again. "We started out as a foursome: The Blake Family Troupe. Uncle Tommy looked after safety for us." She fiddled absently with a thumbnail until a smaller hand stopped her.
"Then I turned sixteen, and decided I was fed up of being part of my parents' troupe." Summer sighed. "Teenagers, you know. That independence thing."
"I wanted to make a name for myself. Robbie did too. So we became a double act: 'Summer and Robbie, the Flying Blakes'. We were young, attractive ...." She laughed. "Heck, we were great." She glanced at Alison to see if she understood.
"I wish I'd seen you then." Alison's eyes gleamed. "You must've been really something."
"We were." Summer dropped her gaze. "And then I got cocky, and after that I got careless."
Alison remained silent, so Summer screwed up her courage and continued.
"I'd taken over the maintenance of our rigging from Uncle Tommy," she explained. "And one night ...." She sucked in her breath as the vivid images from her nightmares assailed her.
"One night?" prompted Alison gently.
"Oh. Yeah. Sorry." She blew out a breath. "Anyway. We mistimed the catch. Robbie reached me before I was ready for him. I couldn't get a proper grip, missed his left hand completely." Summer shifted slightly and felt Alison draw closer in response. "Normally it would've been no big deal. He would've let go, and the safety line would have held him. Only this time, it didn't."
"The harness he was wearing was faulty. I'd been meaning to replace it, but I forgot."
She remembered as if it were yesterday the struggle for a better grip on his right hand where their interlocked fingers were taking all his weight. But it was no good, she had felt his fingers slowly but surely slipping from hers.
"I told him to let go." She tried to keep her voice steady, though the horror and guilt that would always be with her was making her feel sick.
Once again she saw her brother release his grip and drop backwards, his smile turning to a look of terror as the harness parted company with the safety line. Once more she heard his shout, "Summer!" and watched him plummet out of control ....
"He fell thirty feet into the ring."
"Oh my God!" Alison's words were barely audible.
"He did as I told him to... and he broke his neck." Misery threatened to overwhelm Summer and she struggled to contain it.
For a moment neither woman spoke. "How awful for you," said Alison at last.
Summer blinked at the journalist. "For *me*? Don't you understand, Alison? I killed my own brother!"
"It was an accident."
A memory of Uncle Tommy remonstrating with her parents, his voice loud in spite of all attempts to hush him, came back to her: "This should never have happened. What Summer did ... or rather failed to do ... was inexcusable."
"'It was inexcusable'," she repeated softly.
"Summer!" Alison's sharp tone brought her back to the present. "You can't go on thinking that. It was an *accident*."
She accepted the squeeze that accompanied those words gratefully. They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, then Alison said softly, "So that's why you and your Uncle don't see eye to eye?"
Summer sighed heavily. "You never give up, do you, Alison? You'll make one hell of a journalist."
"No, I don't. And don't try to change the subject."
Summer considered for a moment. "No," she said eventually. "That wasn't what put me and Uncle Tommy at odds. My parents patched things up between us." She paused and glanced at Alison. "They had a lot on their plates, just then. A son dead. A daughter hospitalized."
"You were hospitalized?"
Summer rubbed her nose, embarrassed. "Um, yes. I was pretty down. It took me a while to recover, to get my confidence back enough to go on the trapeze."
Alison's glance was shrewd. "Sounds like shock and depression."
Summer shrugged. "So the doctor said. I was pretty much a zombie for a while. Of course, the medication they gave me didn't exactly help."
"Oh God, Summer. I'm so sorry."
"Yeah, well." She shrugged. "Eventually I got wise, stopped taking the stuff, took back control. I thought things could only get better." She laughed harshly. "How wrong I was."
"That was a tough year for my parents, and ... well, Dad started drinking." She glanced at Alison. "I didn't know. He kept it well hidden, you know."
"Well, one night, Dad was driving Mum home from a party.... He was too drunk to drive, really. You can guess the rest. There was a car smash - they hit a tree; my parents were killed outright. No-one else was involved, luckily." She examined her hands, and noticed with embarrassment that they were trembling. She clasped them together. "God knows what I'd have done if anyone else had been hurt."
As she had feared, talking about that terrible time had opened up the wounds, but as she struggled to hold in her grief, she felt a finger under her chin.
"Look at me, Summer."
Unable to disobey, she gazed into the green eyes and felt her fragile barriers start to crumble. This wouldn't do! She began to panic.
But Alison hugged her tightly, undermining all her efforts at control, saying soothingly, "Let it out," and rubbing her back.
Abruptly, Summer's barriers gave way. And as they fell, so did her tears. And she found, to her complete surprise, that it wasn't so terrible to let go, in fact it felt good to release the pain she had kept inside for all these years, to cry at last the tears she had been too numb to shed for Robbie and her parents ....
"So," said Alison a little later, when Summer was all cried out. "Uncle Tommy blames you. For your parents' deaths too?"
Summer finished blowing her nose and nodded. "If Robbie hadn't died, and I hadn't gone under, my father wouldn't have started drinking ...." She trailed off.
"Your uncle sounds like a very unforgiving man," said Alison.
Summer considered. "That's one way of looking at it, I suppose. But you must remember, he lost his nephew, then his brother and his sister-in-law, all in the space of a year."
"And you lost your brother and both your parents," said Alison. "Neither of you had it easy."
"No," agreed Summer. "Not easy."
"So isn't it time that you and your uncle put all this behind you and moved on?"
Summer sighed. "If only we could."
CONTINUED IN PART 4
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