Lark is eight when she first goes to the circus. It’s a special treat for her sister’s fifth birthday, a lucky bit of timing. At first Lark is bored- it’s a tiny circus, with a terrible magician and uncomfortable seats. Robin buries her face in their mother’s shoulder in fear of the clowns.
Then the tumblers come on, and Lark is enraptured. She hardly blinks as the acrobats flip through the air, swinging from trapeze to trapeze. By the time the show is over, Lark knows what she wants to be when she grows up.
For Lark’s ninth birthday, her parents sign her up for circus classes.
Lark is eighteen when she leaves home. She contacts every acrobatic troupe and traveling circus she can find, begging them to let her join. She’s thrilled when Yaskedasi, a big name acrobatic troupe, call her in for an audition.
They warn her that it’s a hard life, with hard work. Lark doesn’t mind. It’s her dream. It’s the only thing that matters.
Her mother wants her to go to college; her father wants her to at least consider waiting a few years. Lark packs her bags, kisses a surly Robin goodbye, and promises to call every week.
Training is harsh. Lark gains an extra five pounds in muscle and loses a tooth on the trapeze. Her calluses are put to the test, everything ten times as hard as her classes. No matter that she’s been training since she was nine; there are people here that have been performing for twice as long.
Lark’s game for anything, and her trainers soon learn that she has no trust issues at all, will fall and leap with complete faith in her partner to catch her.
“You need to be more careful,” says Farrah, after a particularly bruising practice.
“Aren’t I supposed to trust my partner?” Lark asks, pressing ice to her ribs.
“Not with newbies,” Farrah says brusquely. “I’m putting you on the silks.”
The acrobat troupe goes everywhere. Lark’s never been outside of her home state, but soon she’s travelling all over the US. She gets a passport, and the troupe goes to Canada, England, Spain. She sees China and France and Singapore, every second she has spent in exploration.
Most of her coworkers are less thrilled about new places, but Lark never loses her sense of adventure. She gets scolded repeatedly by the training manager for coming back late or over-exerted or once, wearing someone else’s shirt and with someone else’s lipstick on her neck.
Lark always takes care to toe the line. Travelling is fun, but tumbling through the air, the stretch of the silks, the control and the power over her own body – those are things she could never, ever give up.
Lark is twenty seven when she gets sick.
It’s just a flu, the same one going around the entire troupe. The fever lifts after two days. The cough stays.
She tries every disgusting herbal remedy she can think of and gargles salt water until she’s gagging. The cough eases, but she still can’t get through a routine without her lungs seizing up, hacking so hard that she gets dizzy.
She goes to a doctor in the next town they stop in and leaves his office with a diagnosis for adult-onset asthma.
She can’t breathe. It’s not just the cough. It’s the fear, that seizing in her chest she gets mid-routine when she realizes someone’s fumbled and she’s falling with no one to catch her. Her friends in the troupe are sympathetic, the manager is apologetic but firm, and before the month is up, Lark is out.
Lark is twenty eight when someone breaks into her moldy apartment and steals the clunky old laptop her parents gave her. She can’t afford to replace it. She’s already working two jobs, supplementing shifts at a clothes shop with mending and tailoring work.
Robin’s pregnant again. Her parents already pay for her medication. Lark’s net is full of gaping holes, and there’s no one to catch her.
Sewing comes easily enough after years of mending her costume, and apparently she has a gift for finding the perfect fit for each customer. Still, her wages aren’t enough. She cleans house for an old lady who watches her suspiciously and speaks to her as if she’s stupid. The cleaning materials aggravate her lungs, but she has to make rent somehow.
Lark is twenty nine – happy birthday! – when she goes to work with the flu and ends up passing out in the back room. The coworker who finds her thinks she’s asleep.Then she feels how high Lark’s temperature is and calls an ambulance.
They rush her to the hospital. Through a haze of delirium, Lark watches doctors and nurses prod and frown at her. Somewhere in the muddle, a nurse gives Lark a pill that pulls her down, down, where it’s dark, and her last thought is of the hospital bill.
Lark doesn’t argue with the doctor when she says that there’s no possibility of release until the fever drops. Going back to her tiny awful apartment like this, dizzy and nauseous, seems as daunting as cartwheeling down a mountain. Instead, she submits to every test and medication that is handed to her, trying to focus and ignore the coughs that tear her throat and strain her chest.
On the third night, Dr. Munstream smiles at her and says that she can go home the next day if her fever stays down.
In the morning, Lark has a visitor.
“Pleased to meet you,” he says, striding in with no hesitation, “although I’m terribly sorry that it’s not in better circumstances.”
“Excuse me?” Lark says. Maybe her fever is back and she’s hallucinating strange stork-men. “Do I know you?”
“Ah, well, not as such. For that matter, I do not know you , but that will soon be remedied!”
“Will it?” Lark asks, wondering how she’s going to call the nurse in without straining her already sore throat.
“Assuredly,” he tells her. “Shall I call the nurse? You look uncomfortable. Oh, hello, Jana.”
“Niko, what have I told you about bothering my patients?” Dr. Munstream says. Niko’s answer doesn’t even give her pause. She just skirts around him and checks Lark’s chart. “How are we feeling today?”
“Better,” Lark says over Niko’s rant that he does not bother the patients, and it’s not like he likes being in the hospital anyways. “My throat still hurts, and my chest is still sore.”
“That’s to be expected.” She sticks a thermometer in Lark’s mouth. “Your fever’s gone, at least. Do be quiet, Niko, you can talk to her later if she’s willing to listen to you. He’ll talk your ear off if you let him,” she tells Lark in a long-suffering tone, “but there’s an intelligent, well meaning person under all the babble.”
“I do not babble,” Niko says, looking put-upon.
“What is everyone talking about?” Lark crosses her arms. “I don’t know this person.”
“Niko,” Dr. Munstream sighs. She pats Lark on the arm. “This is Professor Niko Goldeye. He’s a researcher of a new kind of magic, and if he’s here, it means that he thinks you have it.”
“I don’t have magic,” Lark protests. “I was an acrobat.”
“But you do have magic,” Niko tells her, folding his long limbs into a hospital chair.
“I’ll be right back with your prescription and release slip,” Dr. Munstream says. “Niko-”
“You’re as bad as Rosethorn,” he grumbles.
“If anything, Rosethorn’s as bad as me,” Dr. Munstream retorts, and swans off.
“I’m so confused,” Lark says to herself.
“I can certainly help with that,” Niko says. “Please feel free to interrupt me at any time if I’m unclear. Rosethorn keeps telling me I use too much scientific jargon.”
“Who’s Rosethorn?” Lark asks. “Your wife?”
“Dear god, no,” Niko says, looking so alarmed that Lark almost laughs.
Rosethorn is much better at explaining than Niko. Maybe it’s the fact that she doesn’t go on tangents, or the blunt way she tells Lark that most people think ambient magic is nonsense. “Niko doesn’t even notice anymore when people look at him like he’s crazy,” she says, a quirk to her mouth that Lark interprets as fond. She has a feeling that Rosethorn’s going to need a lot of interpretation. “And I don’t care what idiots think anyhow. But it’s your choice if you want to tell people or not. I mean, it’s your choice if you want to get any training too, but it’ll definitely make your life easier.”
“Easier is good,” Lark says. “Sometimes.” She cocks her head, and a pink flush spreads across Rosethorn’s cheekbones.
Lark smirks to herself. She’s still got it.
There’s a thread mage half a world away who teaches her, and with the help of Lark’s rudimentary Mandarin and her teacher’s considerably better English, Lark learns magic.
Magic. Magic eases Lark’s sewing, removes stains, smooths creases. It explains her second sense for clothing, lets her undo seams with a stroke of the cloth. Magic is hard work and tires Lark out. Magic heals her cough and infuses every single disgusting concoction Rosethorn makes her drink.
“Enough,” Lark says finally, spluttering with laughter as she pushes away another mug of tea. “Isn’t working two jobs bad enough? Do I have to suffer at home as well?”
“Is it very bad?”
Lark wrinkles her nose. “Like horse piss.”
“I still don’t believe that you’ve actually drunk horse piss before,” Rosethorn says absently. “I meant the work.”
“It’s not like I have a choice. I’m looking for something better, but there aren’t many jobs out there for an ex-acrobat with asthma.”
“You could quit,” Rosethorn mumbles, glaring at the floor.
“And pay the rent how?”
The glare intensifies. “You could live with me.”
“Rosie,” Lark says, helplessly. They’ve skirted around this topic before, but they’ve never really talked about it. “It doesn’t work like that. It’s not - I need to be my own person and part of that is my own place and my own money. I’m a big girl, I can do this.”
“I know,” Rosethorn tells the floor.
“Besides, it’s a bit early to move in together,” Lark says, and Rosethorn lights up like the sun itself.
Lark is thirty, and she’s happy.
Part of that is her job - job singular - and part of it is the night classes she’s taking in fashion design. She has a real talent for it, apparently. There’s her health, significantly improved now that she’s living in a mold free apartment, breathing clean air and eating actual food. And then there’s Rosethorn - grumpy and prickly and surprisingly vain, clever and caring and tender underneath her prickly exterior.
“You’re a cactus,” Lark tells her one day.
Rosethorn pushes her out of bed for that.
Carefully Lark reweaves the safety net around her heart. Niko’s friendship, true and wholehearted, especially when he discovers she’s willing to debate with him; the esteem she gains from her teachers and classmates; Rosethorn’s love.
It looks a lot less like a net these days. There are a lot less holes.
Lark is thirty four when Niko asks her, “How do you feel about children?”
Lark blinks at him.
“Raw?” Rosethorn asks drily, setting down three bottles of lemonade. “Also, shouldn’t I be the one asking her that?”
“I was going to ask you both, but Lark seemed less likely to bite my head off,” Niko sniffs.
“Your head’s too big to bite off, Goldeye.”
Lark quells her with a look. It’s too nice a day for bickering. “What’s this about children, Niko?”
“I’m going to find a child soon,” he says. “More than one child. They’re going to have ambient magic, and they’re going to need help.”
“And you’re going to kidnap them and store them in our attic?” Rosethorn asks, adjusting her sunhat.
“I would never force fosterhood upon you,” Niko says. “Nevertheless, I find that of all my acquaintances, you two are best suited to care for a child with ambient magic. Especially a child which I suspect will have a rather difficult background.”
Lark exchanges a glance with Rosethorn. They’ve talked about adoption, or fostering, but… well, there’s a lot to talk about. They’re both a little bit terrified of fucking it up. “We need to discuss it.”
“Yes,” Rosethorn says, but there’s a look in her eyes that bodes badly for anyone who’s hurt the children Niko mentioned. The grass around her feet rustles threateningly. “I hope those kids aren’t showing up anytime soon.”
“I believe there is at least a year before the first shows up,” Niko says. “I have, however, prepared the paperwork you’ll need if you apply for fostercare.”
“So kind,” Lark says, and Rosethorn snorts and hides her smile against Lark’s shoulder, knocking her hat askew. Lark sets it straight for her and gets a kiss in return.
Niko raises his lemonade to them. “Happy anniversary.”
“It is,” Lark says, grinning.