Continued from yesterday:
Kurt stared off into space. Mama wasn’t Mama. Her hair was wrong. There had been other things, of course, tiny signals that he’d ignored or glossed over in the want to have Mama close.
He wasn’t really dead.
No hope of heaven.
No true escape from Sir.
No re-uniting with the family he loved.
Nothing, in fact, but more heartache and fear and the eventual return to chains and Sir’s casual brutality.
What was he supposed to *do*?
His idle gaze, drawn outside the window, found the distant spire of an ancient church hiding behind the trees.
One way or another, he’d find out.
Kurt wasn’t in his bed-nook. He wasn’t watching movies. He wasn't snaffling leftovers out of the fridge. He wasn’t hiding in any single storage nook in the entire trailer.
Celia had checked them five times, now.
The only thing left of him was the collar. The collar that he'd refused to be without during the entirety of the time she’d known him.
He wasn’t anywhere near the trailer. He wasn’t hiding under it. He wasn’t tending to the small creatures that the circus used as a petting zoo for the smaller clientele. He wasn’t sneaking carrots to the horses, nor communing with the elephants… he wasn’t near his display cage and no-one - *no-one* - had seen him this morning.
Shithead the younger wasn’t due out on parole for another week. The odds against the elder appearing without him were remote… but Celia's imagination was already running amok with visions of the burly, surly senior shithead abducting Kurt for his own reasons.
She’d only recently got him to *relax*… and with his guard down, he’d be easy prey for someone like *him*.
Even though her former health was returning, it wasn’t returning fast enough. She’d been all through the camp, over decreasing periods of time, alternately running and panicking. At least until three of her staff, Betty and Jaime ganged up with Seth and made her sit quietly until she stopped looking so frighteningly close to the grave.
“But he’s somewhere out there and–”
“Hon, you won’t find him any faster by keeling over,” counselled Sean.
“Just sit tight. We’ll find him,” added Jaime.
Celia felt worse than helpless, craning her neck to see any sign of a triumphant return. Or any kind of return at all.
_Boss, please… just let him be alive, safe and well. Unharmed would be nice, if possible,_ Celia prayed. _Just let me know he’s alive, safe and well. Please._
Then she saw him.
He looked lost, trying to find someone he didn’t know how to recognise. Wandering uncertainly about, seeking someone in charge. Or making himself bait for the first person to ask if they could help him.
“Whichever wisenheimer got the priest in here is going to get flayed," vowed Celia. "I’m not fucking dead *yet*, goddamn it!”
Jaime spotted him next, and did the usual is-there-a-problem routine.
“Well… ‘problem’ is a rather harsh word, but…” the man of the cloth shrugged. “I can’t think of anything else that would do.”
“Let me guess,” said Wendel. “Someone objects to the Sunday performance? Or is it 'pagan imagery’ again?”
“Ah, no. Um. I’m Father McKensy, by the way… The -ah- problem is… er… well. One of your -ah- crew is in the chapel and… to be brutally honest about it… He’s going to disturb my parishioners.”
Father McKensy had found him like this. Kneeling on the stone floor before the altar, head bowed and hands entangled in his rosary. There was no indication of how long he’d been sitting like that.
“I found him like that shortly after dawn,” McKensy whispered. “I thought it best not to disturb him.”
Celia fought to walk down the aisle towards him, instead of running in an undignified and blubbering mess.
And then Kurt moved.
His head raised. He was looking up at the cross.
“Please,” he said. “What do I *do*?”
“Same as everyone else, kid,” said Celia. “The very best you can.”
He turned, startled, to see her. He’d been crying. His mouth moved to frame the word 'Mama’, but stopped.
He didn’t know what to call her.
Celia crouched beside him. “You scared the living spit out of me this morning, sweetie.”
His head lowered. “Sorry.”
The next thing she knew, she was squeezing the stuffing out of him. "Thank God you’re okay… I was so worried.“
He hugged her back, tail wrapping around her as well as his arms.
Alive. Safe. Well. And unharmed.
Kurt stared out the window on the ride back home to the circus. _Odd way to think about it,_ he mused. _Home._ It certainly felt more like home than any of the multitude of houses he’d stayed in with Sir and Karl. In fact, no place had been home to him since Mama…
_Mama…_ His hand closed on her rosary. She was dead. The woman driving the car had beaten the cancer that had taken his Mama from him. She was not Mama. Her name was Celia Yale.
She looked painfully like Mama, though.
And she *cared* like Mama. He could see it in everything she did as well as the way she did it. Big things, like arranging some extra time so he could confess and receive absolution before services that morning. Little things, like the way she tucked him in at night.
"What happens, now?” he asked.
“We can’t exactly change your act overnight. I’m sorry, but you need to do some learning first. You’ll have to join the rest of the kids in the circus school… And I’m sure you can work with the rest of us on something for the next town. Something that gets you out of that goddamn cage for once and for all…”
“Do I have to?”
A frightening veer of the car. “Please don’t say stuff like that when I’m turning a corner, Kurt.” Celia recovered her breath. “You have the right to choose what you do, sure, but… Seeing you in a cage? It’s a cosmic wrong so great that I feel like I’m tempting the wrath of God. You were meant for so much more than just a cage and an animal act.”
“But I’m invisible, there.”
“Invisible…” she muttered. “Sweetheart, there’s ways to be invisible and right out there at the same time.” A grin. “You never hide a needle in a haystack - you hide it in a sewing kit.”
She held his hand on the way back inside the circus. Just about everyone knew about him, thanks to Betty and the grape vine - not to mention their own canny observation skills. As a result, there was a general air of celebration when they saw him walking upright.
“Hey, it’s a breakthrough!”
“It’s a miracle!”
“There’s our wonder-boy!”
And, most importantly, they all treated him like another one of them. A fellow human being.
It was the best moment.
Dad tore open the envelope with much the same motion as wringing a tiny neck. “No cheque,” he rumbled.
_Fuck._ Karl stood his ground and did his best not to let his trepidation show. No way was he going to flinch and cower from the man like the freak did. He was bigger and badder than that.
Besides, he had ways of making his pains pass on.
Dad read the folded paper with growing redness in his face. “Those little fucking *fuckers*!”
_Shit._ He refused to close his eyes. He’d face his pain head-on. Then dish it out to anyone else who flinched.
“Get a fucking trusted lawyer, my ass! Those fucksacks are screwing me over and suing me for it!”
Here it came.
Might as well get it over with. “Told you to read the fucking contract,” he said.
Sure, it would hurt. The waiting was the part that Karl couldn't stand. Best to goad the old man into action and get it done quick. After that, it was all healing.
Healing, and making sure that those lesser than him got what they deserved.
They were looking for him, this time. The instant he slipped away from Dad’s negotiations with the old deaf fart, there was someone tailing him. Watching him.
Karl had had to be subtle, doing little acts of sabotage until his persistent follower was derailed by undoing the damage. Another little surprise for the rest of the carnies was easy. He could break open a padlock in less than three seconds. And did so. Repeatedly.
Enough to let some of the more interesting animals out.
Then he slipped into the freak’s tent.
Perfect. They fell for it like before.
“This is how they pay you off,” he scoffed. “A bigger cage and clean shorts? Do you get doggie snacks as well?” He rattled the cage’s big lock. “Look at these chains! They wouldn’t trust you to breathe near them. Murdering *freak*!”
“Actually, they’re just for show,” said Kurt.
Suddenly out of the cage.
Breathing down his neck.
Right next to him.
_My, what sharp teeth he has…_ Up close and personal, they were the sole focus of his attention.
“The real lock is on the inside. With me.” A deft, swift movement and he had both of Karl’s wrists painfully behind his own back. “Shall we go see how dear ol’ Dad is doing with the lawyers?”
Karl thought hard about struggling. About putting the freak back in his place. And then he realised that that particular part of the wall was the local giant.
Karl went quietly.
“And since we’re on the subject of damages,” said Seth as Karl entered in the custody of Jaime and Kurt, “about your son’s repeated sabotage of the circus…”
Celia smirked as Shithead Senior fumed. He daren’t unleash his muscular power here in Seth’s trailer, especially not with two sets of lawyers and one sherrif’s deputy present. Jaime’s presence was noted by the man’s piggy eyes as a very real potential threat, and the aura of incipient violence from him ebbed to a low murmur.
Kurt saw Shithead Junior into his seat, then backed warily away until his hand automatically held hers. He was trembling subtly, never taking his eyes off his tormentors and breathing a little heavily.
Celia rubbed her thumb on the back of his hand. _I’m here for you._
Kurt perched in his seat, tail flicking like a cat’s. His yellow eyes bore a look of grim determination.
She knew that look. She’d worn it herself when facing torturous hours of chemo. The look that said, _Either I’m killing this or it’s killing me. Whichever way it goes, I am going to be *Done* with this._
The legal bickering continued, between proof from their lawyers that Kurt was a human being and had his legal rights, to counter-arguments from the Shitheads’ lawyer that, since he was human, he legally belonged in the Shitheads’ custody. Which lead, as it had the last three times, to the questionable legality of Lamprey’s use of the Wagner name.
Then the troop lawyer played the trump card. When Shithead Senior had signed Kurt over to the circus, he’d signed a contract indicating that he owned an *animal*… as such, the contract was null and void and, if Shithead insisted on his 'ownership’, he could be convicted of conducting illegal slavery.
As things stood, however, the circus was willing to magnanimously forgive the outstanding amount of misappropriated cash in return for signing Kurt’s custody over to a more - *willing* guardian.
“That would be me,” Celia volunteered.
Shithead Junior spoke up. “Shyeah. Trust an animal trainer to schtup a freak like him.”
Shithead Senior casually backhanded the kid right off his chair. “Shut up, boy.”
In the very few seconds that it took Shithead Junior to pick himself up and place himself back on his seat, Celia saw that it was far too late to save him. Child Protection Services would only case manage him for a year, two at the most, and then he’d be turned out on the streets and nobody would care. He’d grow up to be just like his father and nothing was going to alter that transformation.
All the system would do was teach him to be worse.
Celia barely restrained the shudder at that concept.
The troop lawyer was fossicking for the correct documentation. “Mr… Lamprey. What exactly *is* your correct legal relationship to -ah- Kurt? Are you his biological father?”
Shithead Senior went from zero to red-faced indignance in nothing flat. “Hell, no! I never fathered nothing like *that*! Nuthin’ wrong with *me*.”
“Are he and your son… siblings?”
Shithead Junior coughed out, “*Fuck*, no!”
“My ass they are,” said Shithead Senior. “That thing came with the second wife. Ain’t nothing to do with either of us.”
“*Reee-ally*…” cooed the deputy.
Shithead Senior got that classic, _O *fuck*,_ look on his face that said, clear as day, that he just realised he’d said too much at the wrong time. He clammed right up, of course, but it was far, far too late.
“So…” drawled Seth. “You’re not his father. He’s not related to your son… in fact, the only relationship you have between you is that you were once married to his Mom. Am I right?”
Shithead Senior mumbled his assent.
“And, since your legal hold over the boy is tenuous at most, perhaps it would be more… sensible to sign his custody over to a more capable volunteer whilst we locate his surviving family.”
Steam could have risen from his ears. Smoke could have appeared over his cranium. He certainly knew what he faced if he disagreed.
But it was still fun to watch him weigh it in the balance.
“Where do I sign?” he growled.
After that, it was almost shockingly fast. Signiatures were signed, the lawyers witnessed, signed where they had to, and in a matter of instants Kurt was legally Celia’s ward.
He had an identity as a human being. And documented proof, should anyone demand it.
Celia gave him a hug when the Shitheads left for good. Sure, they wouldn’t be served with the restraining order until they got home, but they were officially out of her and Kurt’s hair.
“Welcome to official humanity,” she said. “There’s only one thing you need to do, now…”
Kurt looked suddenly apprehensive. “There… is?”
“Put a goddamn shirt on,” she said with some exasperation. “I didn't buy 'em so you could look at them.”
The party that night completely failed to dampen Kurt’s enthusiasm in the morning. If anything, he was more lively than ever.
Celia, alas, had a hangover.
“Izzit time? Izzit time yet?”
Celia dragged herself to the coffee. “…i hate morning people…”
“Izzit time now?”
“…mrghl…” Hot and sweet, just like she preferred her men. “Time f'r whut?”
“*School*,” said Kurt, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
Celia managed to get her eyes to focus on a chronometer. “Nearly.”
“Yeah!” He started dancing to a tune only he could hear.
*God* she could hate morning people. If this one wasn’t so damn cute, she’d have strangled him. “Put a goddamn shirt on,” she muttered. “Bare chests are for sweat… 'n’ nobody sweats in school.”
And, since she’d essentially trapped him in the kitchen, he leaped up and made his way back to the beds and clothing storage by way of the ceiling.
_Morning people…_ Celia rolled her eyes. At least he’d cooked breakfast. The truly rich fare that he adored and she could only tolerate small doses of.
Small mercies. She would get her daily protein allotment in one serving, and in a handful of minutes, Kurt would be zooming towards the trailer where the circus’ brats would go through their three Rs and sundry other lessons requested and required by State law.
In the meantime, she could hold off wanting to strangle him for the hour before classes actually started.
_My *eyes*!_ Celia boggled at the - ensemble. Did he have to pick the brightest, most garish shirt that clashed with everything he had on? What had possessed her to purchase that one in the first place? Oh yeah. It looked like it would fit and she’d had enough of shopping for one day.
This was her kharma coming home to roost.
And she couldn’t say anything that would bruise his already severely-damaged self esteem. *Fabulous*.
Celia sipped her coffee. At last. Enough of the miraculous caffeine to make her brain work. “If you like it, then it’s okay,” she said.
His grin was brighter than the shirt. She thought that sort of thing should have been physically impossible… but there it was.
Celia actually found herself sniffling to see him on his way to school.
Kurt was all nerves. Was he dressed appropriately? Did he have enough stuff? Should he have bought an apple like he saw in all the pictures?
No. He was that nervous that the poor teacher would have been receiving a core - if they were lucky - by the time he got there. Even now, in the midst of plenty, he would habitually eat anything left out long enough. Especially something 'left out’ in his hand.
Maybe he should have packed something to eat. Except he didn’t know if he had the fortitude to reign in his habit long enough to conform with whatever they expected of him.
What if he was stupid after all, just like Sir said?
What if he couldn’t learn?
What if he got it wrong?
What if they laughed at him?
Kurt clutched at his rosary, seeking reassurance from the one power that had always been with him… but had never been there for him. The weight of Mama’s beads reassured him enough to keep his feet moving. Kept him pointed towards the school trailer.
He could see it now. Feel his heart ricochetting around his ribcage. Hear his breath rasping through his throat.
He wasn’t ready.
Maybe he could turn and run back, now. Back to the known safety of Mama Celia. Back to what he knew he could do.
One of the high-flyers spotted him. A sprite of a girl who still sparkled despite the plain denim and ordinary T-shirt. “He’s here,” she chirped, leaping from her perch to run towards him.
She was a wisp of a creature. Diminutive and delicate… yet all he could focus on were her fists as she ran towards him.
And in an instant, he was back in one of the many dark places. Out of breath. Hurting. Sir coming down the hallway towards him. His fists primed and ready to strike…
He flinched instinctively. Too afraid to move.
“Hey. *Whoah*… It’s okay.”
A gentle touch, butterfly-light, made him yelp and jump back, opening his eyes once more.
Glitter-sprite was looking up at him. “See? Nobody’s gonna hurt you," she soothed. "C'mon, you can put your arm down, it’s okay.”
Her hand looked frail in his. As if he could break each slender finger by clenching his own thick digits. Kurt knew for a fact that her hands were stronger than they looked. They held her aloft on the trapeze and launched her into flight across the big top. They never let her fall.
Therefore, Kurt offered no resistance as she lead him those last few meters to his fate.
His vision had darkened to a small tunnel filled with odd sparks by the time he actually reached his destination.
“He’s here, Mrs Nezmith!”
A surprisingly grandmotherly type emerged and smiled. “You must be Kurt,” she said, reaching for him.
“…wunkh…” said Kurt as he passed out.