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Behold! Us Wayward Monsters

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Driving to Montréal had never really been in Zach’s plans. Not that much of his life was planned—in this business, it was all about serendipity and faking it, after all—but there were things that could be unanticipated. Like rocketing to the moon in a cardboard box and discovering the damn thing was really made out of cheese.

Being called by the Cirque was like piercing the moon with a toothpick and taking a bite, that’s all.

“You think they’ll look at us, realize they made a huge mistake, and tell us to go home?”

Zach looked over at his brother, whose long legs were bouncing together like a jackhammer in concrete. Joey was already a goofy looking dude, with the gelled spikes of his mohawk brushing the wallpaper as he sat squished in a reception chair. But nothing was quite as awkward as the man’s anxiety-ridden and—truth be told—crippling social ineptness.

Zach had this covered. “Nah. If they do, we’ll break in like ninjas and leave a horse head in Guy Laliberté’s bed.”

He bit his lip at his brother’s predicted reaction, legs going still as Joey narrowed his eyes.

You wouldn’t.”

And Joey was right, but it’s not like Joey knew about that time Zach left a hundred leeches on his ex-boyfriend’s bed, so.

“Well, we won’t have to worry about it, so you’ll never know,” Zach said confidently, although he felt anything but.

He was nervous, all right. This was a really big opportunity for them. All Zach could think about was the many years he had spent in subways and street corners, trying to juggle and sing and harass people for a buck.

But by age 25 that had grown really old. It was not romantic in the slightest, constantly worrying about Joey and the roof over their heads. Their mother, too, was not doing so well. It was a long list of problems that went through Zach’s mind every night. Their bills, their collectors, their dependents.

The only consolation was Zach’s love of performing. For a moment in time, when Zach wasn’t working at McDonald’s or at a gas station or trying to fit into retail, he could truly express himself.

Zach eyed his brother up and down, the wonderful and caring photographer hidden in a punk rock body, and he knew that Joey felt similar. Except his tattoos were easier to cover up, so Joey was a receptionist sometimes, or a waiter.

“Zachary Quinto, Joseph Quinto,” a deep voice said to their left, and they both jerked their heads.

The man wore a gray t-shirt and black jeans, the friendly smile not seemingly contrived—not that Zach gave a shit either way. A job was a job. But the man led them into a spacious room and motioned to a few chairs, not even bothering to close the door.

“Have a seat, gentlemen.”

The office was anything but typical—but the organization itself was anything but typical. For one, in any other job, the manager would be wearing a suit in a white office or cubicle, likely bored with the process. The plastic chairs would hurt Zach’s ass, the tie around his neck about to choke him to death. It’d already be like prison, except Zach would get a short reprieve afterwards.

Instead this guy had a sexy French accent, sitting on the opposite side of his glass table-top desk, the chairs able to swivel. And Zach spread his legs in cut-offs and flip-flops, looking around at the various Cirque posters on the wall.

Joey, of course, had chastised him for the flip-flops. And maybe he had a point, as Joey’s jeans and white t-shirt looked in way better shape than Zach’s red-striped tank top.

“It is good to finally meet you. I am a fan of Carnival Diablo, and I heard you both were in their production for a time.”

The best year of their lives, for sure.

“It was a lot of fun.” Zach had gotten laid more during that year than in any other. The knife-throwing in Victorian garb had been an unexpected sex magnet—not that he had complained.

“I am Kurt, your advisor.” He handed them each gray folders, which Joey took eagerly while Zach balanced his on a knee. “You will find your itinerary for the week inside.”

Kurt looked easy-going enough, but Zach inwardly cringed at itinerary. However, Joey got off on that sort of thing, and of course he was already rifling through the contents.

“We get a free DVD? Cool,” Joey said excitedly, God bless him.

“We like our performers to be well-versed in the Cirque.” At that, Kurt finally turned to Zach and eyed him carefully. “We are not here to impose limits or hold hands, merely to expand your horizons.”

And the Cirque could certainly do just that. While Zach and Joey had been in several different troupes, the Cirque could open the door to other shows, other venues—maybe even something permanent in Vegas.

That would be nice. Permanence. Although Zach wouldn’t lie—he loved the vagabond lifestyle for the one aspect of being free, untied to anywhere or anyone.

Kurt smiled at both of them. “Welcome to the Cirque.”

Zach finally looked at the itinerary, pulling out his copy of Quidam. According to their schedule they would get settled in at their apartments, then head on over to the medical facilities for a physical, then eat a communal dinner in the cafeteria.

It was like fucking band camp, or something.

“We’re so happy to be here,” Joey gushed, and Zach lifted his gaze to see his fidgeting brother. “I’ve seen stuff on Bravo and I just love it. It’s really an honor.”

“We are only as good as our performers, so we are happy to have your talent.”

Zach knew this was the time to pipe up, and so he straightened himself to say, “I’m honored, as well. Nobody understands street performers quite like you guys.”

And it was true. In every other circus the clown wore garish makeup and made children cry from creepiness. But Zach had always been more interested in the performance art of it—illusion, commentary on the human condition, story-telling. In every Cirque show he’d seen, it was if the organization understood that completely, knew the high art of being a clown.

But there was that sticking point—organization. It made Zach’s skin crawl.

“I can show you to your apartments—?”

Zach put out a hand. “I think we saw that building on our way in. Right across the street?” The one that looked like IKEA furniture—not that Zach would say that out loud.

“Yes.” Kurt’s smile was incredibly bright and wide, and Zach wondered how bilingual he truly was. Did people think in French and then translate, or was it the other way around? “Here is your identification to get in. Again, welcome to the Cirque. I look forward to working with you.”

“Likewise.” And Zach meant it. He gave a little wave as he pushed Joey out the door, trying to keep his brother’s squeaking and gushing to a minimum.

But Joey actually kept quiet as they made their way down the colorful hall, and even as they traversed several flights of steps. It wasn’t until they crossed the street to their IKEA building that he spoke up, hugging the gray folder to his chest.

“They really wanted us,” he said in hushed tones, still in awe of their circumstances. “I can’t believe it.”

Zach had to show the security guard their badges, then made Joey find the number to their suite. When they entered their small studio apartment—not the grandest of spaces, but the nicest they’ve ever been in, for sure—Zach wouldn’t let on that he could hardly believe their luck, either.

)O(

After the physicals, Joey actually spent their free time unpacking their duffel bags and shoving shit into drawers; which was just as well, since Zach would’ve lived out of a bag the next six months. As Joey was organizing the bathroom, lining up toothbrushes and combs, he chatted away excitedly.

“We need to tour the building. It looks so massive from the outside. I guess that makes sense, considering they have gyms and performances spaces and costumers and executives—“

Zach closed his eyes, trying for a moment of shut-eye. Maybe it was longer than he thought, for he awoke suddenly with a poke to his thigh.

“Dinner’s on right now. We should go get something to eat.” Joey peered down at Zach with a long-suffering sigh. “I’ll catch you up on more annoying prattle on the way there.”

Zach winced. “Sorry. Just tired. You know I didn’t sleep well on the drive here.”

“Yeah, I know.” Joey offered a hand. “Bed early—no drinking.”

Zach opened his mouth at Joey’s chastising finger, but closed it without a word. They knew each other too well, after all. On their way here, Zach had counted the bars and nightclubs within walking distance.

But Zach felt weary as he closed the suite door behind him, bright green and orange behind a glass door—a bit too peppy for his tastes. The whole dormitory was like some modern architectural show piece, something fancy for an ad agency—not that Zach had ever been in one, but it fit his imaginings. There was a bright and open atrium in the center, going up several floors to a glass ceiling. It was surrounded by white railings, and Zach and Joey followed them down to the ground floor

The cafeteria had signs and arrows pointing towards it—actually, every part of the building had a sign with multi-lingual maps on the walls. Forget an ad agency, it was like a college for weird and directionless people.

But the cafeteria was cozy. Carpeted and trying to avoid stark whiteness, it had long tables of wood and red plush ropes for the food lines. Perhaps… like a Ponderosa Steakhouse. Except the food seemed better—which made sense for athletes, really. Zach looked over at his brother’s tray, noticing all the vegan options, Joey’s preferred diet.

“Zach, Zaaaach.” Joey pointed at red cubes of Jell-O. “Look!”

Yeah, Zach loved that shit. The last time he had cubed Jell-O was when they weren’t dirt-poor—which would’ve been a few years ago with that café job. Zach had dished out lattes and snark like a pro.

But here they didn’t have to pay. They were both able to load up their trays—maybe a bit too heavy, but who was going to stop them?—and turned around towards the filling tables of performers and athletes.

There were plenty of empty tables. Joey almost steered them towards one before Zach took the lead and sat them at the end of a large, boisterous group.

Joey ducked his head and whispered, “Zach?

But he paid no mind, tearing apart a dinner roll with his fingers. “Trust me, Joey. You wanna make friends, don’t you?”

And Joey was shit at it—had always been shit at it. Joey’s friends were usually Zach’s friends, despite Joey being an awesome dude. Just a little quiet and too self-conscious. But thankfully Zach compensated enough for the both of them.

Hey!” said someone from the far end of the table. He had a square, tanned face, and a strange mixture of accent to boot. “Come on over, we don’t bite.”

“Hard,” said a dark-skinned woman beside him with a smirk, and Zach smiled at the over-used joke. Sometimes you needed them for an icebreaker.

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” Zach said as he slid over his tray, sitting next to another ridiculously tanned dude. Was everyone stupidly attractive here, or what?

Joey looked at him pleadingly across the table. Sometimes Zach would just drop Joey into a group to make his own conversations, sink or swim, but tonight would not be one of those nights.

“I’m Zach Quinto, and this is my brother Joe. We’re up here from Arizona.”

All eyes were on him, and the man next to the woman grinned.

“I’m Karl Urban, up from Los Angeles—though I haven’t been there for a while.” He pointed at people around the table. “Next to me is the lovely Zoe Saldana.”

She gave a cute shrug of her shoulder and smiled at Joey. “Nice to meet you.”

“That asshole over there is John Cho.”

The dark-haired Asian gave a one-finger salute to Karl. “Hey, guys.”

“Next to your bro over there is Anton Yelchin, our high-flyer from New York.”

The curly-haired kid, perhaps no older than his teens, gave them a closed-mouth smile and said, “Hi,” and sounded nothing like his name.

“Next to you, Zach, is Eric Bana. Obviously the eye candy of the show.”

Eric blushed and ducked his head, apparently too modest for the compliment. Zach loved and loathed those too-sweet types.

“Nice to meet you,” Zach said softly when Eric didn’t, as Eric was too busy being an adorably-embarrassed kitten.

“And at the far end is Grandpa Moses.”

“Fuck you.”

Karl shrugged nonchalantly, as obviously an old game was playing out. “Sorry, my bad—Bruce Greenwood. He’s been here since the dawn of time or something.”

“You’re not much younger than me, you know.” Bruce gave a finger wag. “You’ve been in a few Cirque shows yourself.”

“Veterans?” Zach asked. Partially to be genuinely interested, but also to see if there was any experience he could gleam from the two.

Karl rolled his eyes. “Don’t get Bruce started. It’ll involve walking barefoot in the snow uphill or something.”

“With beavers as snowshoes,” Zoe added helpfully.

“Hey, I’ve known Guy since the Ste-Croix days.” Bruce took a bite of a burger. “Been following him around ever since.”

Zach assumed that was a long time ago, as the other name rang no bells. “Yeah? So what’s Guy like?”

“An asshole,” Bruce said matter-of-factly. “But he’ll do it in French, so you can just ignore it.”

Zoe leaned towards Zach with a patient look. “He means that he’s a business man. Gets stuff done.”

“He runs a tight ship, so don’t think you can slack.” Bruce sipped from a bottle. “What was your guy’s last show?”

There was a part of Zach that wanted to tell the old man to fuck off, but it had all been useful advice. “After Carnival Diablo we did Burning Man for a few years. Kind of wandered between the tourist shit near the Grand Canyon and Taos in the down-time.” He pointed over at Joey. “Joe’s a part-time photographer. He got a show in one of the Taos galleries.”

Zoe and Eric appropriately oohed, bless them. Joey turned an interesting shade of red at the ears.

“What’s your focus?” Eric asked in dulcet tones and his own weird accent. Even from profile he was too handsome, and Zach hoped he wasn’t staring too much.

“Um, well,” Joey stammered, unused to being the focus of attention. “I like portraits.”

“What sorts of people?” Zoe followed up, and Zach wondered if Joey would die from the sudden spotlight.

“Nature.” Joey gave a sheepish grin. “I like to show that nature has a human face, you know? Like squirrels grooming each other, or a dog basking in the sun.”

Zach inwardly smiled, warmed at his brother’s enthusiasm for his subject. Animals were near and dear to his heart. Not that Zach didn’t like dogs and cats and things, but cows were tasty. Joey, on the other hand, saw that the cow sent to slaughter had a backstory of families and trials and tribulations and cried over PETA photos.

“That’s… nice,” Zoe said with a kind smile. “Do you have any of your art with you?”

“Oh yeah,” Joey said, with hands in motion as he talked. “I have a whole portfolio in my room.” He glanced at Zach. “With some help, I was thinking of putting my stuff online.”

Zach had been urging it for ages. Granted, domain names and space cost money, but in this case it would be money well-spent. But Joey had a hard time wrapping his mind around the Internet, instead focusing on galleries and little art fairs to show his work.

Zach turned to Zoe. “He also does landscapes, but with the same deal. They’re really very cool.”

It wasn’t a lie. Joey had a talent for bringing out the personality of any subject, even if it was a fallen tree in a lush and healthy forest. That scene had been titled “Funeral”, the gray and blanched bark in contrast with vibrant greens.

Zoe gave a thoughtful pout. “I’d love to see it.”

At that, Joey was off to a roll, and Zach was glad. While Joey sometimes beat himself up for sounding stupid, Zach wished he could only hear himself. Granted, it was dorky, but Zoe and Eric’s attentions weren’t false. People of passion were always captivating.

Zach tuned it out though, watching people around the table. It was his turn to be quiet, since Joey was dominating the nearby conversation, and Karl and Bruce were a bit too far away. John was listening to the latter, then got up suddenly to dump his empty tray.

It was following this motion that Zach noticed the rest of the cafeteria. People were in clusters, although it didn’t seem like only acrobats or dancers solely hung out together. Not that Zach could probably tell—everyone seemed fit and muscular at the Cirque, and Zach resolved to start hitting the gym tomorrow. But with everyone stupidly fit, maybe it was that people hung out together by show, or by years of working together—who knew?

Except… Zach took a last hurried bite of his food and got up with his tray, a target suddenly in sight.

“Be right back,” he said to no one in particular and didn’t care if it registered. He was going to go to the farthest trash can to harass the sole occupant of a long wooden table, a blond dude who was reading a book with dinner, for fuck’s sake.

As Zach neared him, he noticed the dark-framed glasses sliding down the most average of noses, stuck in a copy of The Hobbit. Which was obnoxious and literately-nerdy, and frankly had to be stopped.

“Hello,” Zach said as he dumped his tray with a loud bang, hopefully to rouse the reader. “Good book?”

The blond gave him a quick side-eye—blue eyes, nice. “Yep.”

And that was it. Yep. Zach could feel the tingle in his arms and legs with the promise of being able to embarrass and pester this shy, nerdy dude. Zach could barely contain his excitement.

He was a heat-sinking missile for these types. As much as Joey begged him not to, it felt like his mission in life to prod and poke the quiet ones, like a Shy-Person Whisperer. Really, Joey should be thanking him, as Zach now had a new project besides his brother to bother and torment.

But Nerdy Dude was not being helpful in the slightest, already going back to his book. What, didn’t everyone already read The Hobbit by sixth grade? Maybe Zach could use his Gollum voice.

“I’m Zach Quinto,” he said normally, because the Shy Whisperer bridge would not be built on being a fucking weirdo. He’d save that once Nerdy Dude met Joey—and maybe Joey’s Magic the Gathering card collection, because there needed to be a sliding scale for these things.

But it took a while for a reply. Not that Zach expected anything different. He was able to count the number of panels on the ceiling before Nerdy Dude gave him an annoyed glance.

“Chris Pine,” Nerdy Dude said, still holding up his book in defense.

“Nice to meet you, Chris.” And Zach thought, for icing on the cake, he would extend his hand for a cordial handshake. Which was met begrudgingly.

Chris tried a tight smile. “Nice to meet you, too.”

“See you around,” Zach said in departure as a promise of further torments—and maybe, if he was lucky, for the handsome blue-eyed Chris Pine to notice his ass.

Zach sat back at his table, a heated fight about Star Wars characters brewing—which Joey had all sorts of facts and tidbits to argue with, of course—and ignored the other end of the cafeteria for the rest of the night.

)O(

Zach would not ignore Chris Pine for long, however. There were too many tantalizing options to start an irritating plan of attack. One was the fact that Chris’ suite was on the same floor as theirs, across the other side of the atrium. Another was that Chris liked to take his morning coffee and newspaper while sitting near the white railings, glancing down occasionally at the ground floor. Which was intriguing in itself, as the paper didn’t seem to be in English, and the hallways barely left him room and privacy to sit.

But Zach chose a more limited arena first, one which Chris couldn’t escape by either book or exit.

“Over here is the main rehearsal area and gymnasium,” said Kurt from yesterday, followed by two other interpreters in what sounded like French and Chinese. “You will be meeting the main choreographer in here, and also performing rough drafts of the production.”

So,” Zach whispered as he moseyed up to Chris, catching him unaware. “Where are you from?”

Chris gave him a surprised turn of the head, then looked back at Kurt as they were all led into the hall. Zach started to form a new question when Chris answered, “Los Angeles.”

Good. “Born and raised there?”

Chris gave him another annoyed look, but Zach barreled on. “Lived out there for a while. With Joe, my brother.” Zach pointed Joey out, although Chris likely wasn’t looking. “Did a few odds and ends out there, some busking on the boulevard.” Zach watched Chris’ profile, the blue eyes in rapt attention of the orientation.

“…And here is one of three weight rooms.” Kurt waved his arms at the huge expanse of gray-carpeted space. “You can use this whenever you like, it is always open.”

“So, what brought you to the Cirque?” Zach asked in a side-murmur, his arms crossed as he pretended to pay attention.

Kurt was showing them various perks of the workout gym—sauna, hot tub, personal lockers—when Chris sighed and whispered back, “I’m a gymnast.”

Zach could believe it. Without the book or railings to block his view, Zach could see the well-defined muscles of Chris’ arms through the white t-shirt. He had the built of a gymnast—although top-heavy, mostly.

“And before you ask,” Chris whispered hurriedly, “Yes, I’ve done it all my life, and no, I’ve never been to the Olympics.”

Zach looked at Chris squarely, trying to gauge the attitude of what was said. Perhaps it was bitterness he detected, or more annoyance when Chris was trying to pay attention to the orientation.

Which was lame, really. Karl and Zoe were chatting with each other, and other people had formed groups—even Joey and some dark-haired chick were whispering back and forth, which caused Zach to narrow his eyes—so honestly, Chris was the only one to actually be following the rules.

And that made things more delicious. Chris Pine was not only a quiet and shy nerd, but also by-the-book. Oh, Christ.

“Never cared for the Olympics, myself,” Zach muttered under his breath as they followed Kurt back into the hallway. “I mean, ogling, yes. Gorgeous bodies all around.”

At that Chris finally gave him a When did you grow a third head? look, but Zach didn’t stop there.

“I guess I was never into sports—“ Zach gestured to his own lean frame, “surprise, surprise. Was always more interested in the arts, obviously.”

Chris blinked as if he couldn’t believe that Zach was still talking to him. And yet, he didn’t move away or stand apart when they were shoulder-to-shoulder.

Zach clasped his hands behind his back as the group formed a single line through the costuming department. Kurt showed them the wonders of sequins and spandex and who their makeup people were, as men and women were at sewing machines repairing pieces of cloth. It looked sort of like a factory, in that there were so many people doing many things at once.

“I’m actually from Pittsburgh, by the way,” Zach continued, flicking a glance at the high ceiling of fluorescent lights. “Joey too, of course. We started doing theater at school when we were young, especially after our dad died. It was like they were giving us permission to act out, and it sort of became a nice outlet.”

“Do you always give your life story to strangers?” Chris whispered, but it sounded more curious than scandalized.

Zach pretended to be wounded. “Why, we’re not strangers. I mean, I know your name and you know mine.”

Chris turned his head and pondered that a moment. It was a soft look, like he was savoring the thought in his mouth.

“I got into gymnastics through school, too,” Chris responded. And while that was that, Zach was smiling, anyway.

They were all squeezing into a series of elevators. As Zach leaned against the wall of one, he was pleasantly surprised when Chris followed to stand next to him, although in silence.

)O(

“There will be no hand-holding, no babysitting,” the bald, stocky choreographer said in a thick accent. “You’re all here because you are among the best in your fields. The Cirque is demanding of people like you, and it’s your choice whether to rise to the challenge.”

It was one of those aggressive pep talks that Zach was never fond of. He’d heard it too many times before in other acts and in school—too much authority for his tastes. And yet there was something within him that wanted to bare his teeth and bite back, prove to this incredibly-short leotard dude that him and Joey were worth something; worth throwing back that pointed finger and making the choreographer shove it up his ass.

But Zach looked over at Joey, who of course was terrified. His brother was not only overly sensitive, but also a people-pleaser to a fault. Zach had thought more than once that Ma had given Joey all the sympathy genes, while Zach was bone dry with apathy.

“Now, I’m going to evaluate all of you.” The choreographer—Louis, of course—looked over at Zach and Joey. “You guys, too.”

Zach stood up right away, wanting to march to the head of the line. He wasn’t scared of this. Out of all the things in the world, the one thing he was confident about was his abilities on stage—he could act and dance with the best of them, if need be.

But instead of a contest, Louis had them line against the far wall and run towards him several times. This varied with different things—in one Zach had to act like a snake and slither across the floor, and in another he had to be a charging and dangerous tiger. They all looked pretty ridiculous, honestly, especially John who was revealed to be a singer and actor for the show, not a high-flying acrobat.

And through it all, Zach couldn’t gauge Louis’ reactions. His face was stoic as if he were looking at a field of daisies, not a few dozen performers acting like rubber balls—the latter of which left him doing too many forward rolls and bumping into Joey, but it was all good fun. Joey’s face was red and laughing, while even Chris on the other side of the line had bumped into Eric, and they were giggling too.

“Now, at the Cirque, the reason we demand so much is because we know you’re capable.” Louis counted off the points on his hand. “We demand creativity, artistry, ingenuity, passion, and drive—not only because it makes our shows better, but also because that’s what the audience expects from us. They not only come for the acrobatics—they come for the experience that only the Cirque offers.”

Zach had watched some of the shows with Joey, and he supposed the Cirque was unique in creating a world. It wasn’t just artistry or acrobats, but an entirely new language and method of storytelling that drove the Cirque to be what it was.

“We’ve created a basic concept for the show, with a basic story. But what will make it amazing is the talent. Your guys’ ability to interpret and perform that story, to make it into something new—that’s what people are paying to see.”

Zach raised a brow. He had sort of assumed he would be given lines like an actor, but this was way more exciting.

“The show will be based on la chasse-galerie—to our foreigners, it’s a story about a flying canoe. Very popular here. It’s about a group of French voyagers who get drunk on New Year’s Eve and make a pact with the devil.” Louis grinned at Zach. “Not new territory for you, is it, boys?”

Zach held up his hands in a you got me, and the group laughed.

“These hunters, far from their sweethearts, decide they want to visit them on New Year’s Eve. It is very far away, though, and they all have to work in the morning. So they make a pact with the devil to get there in time and come back.”

Totally the first thing I’d do,” Zach piped up, and everyone laughed, even Louis.

“Ah, yes—the Quinto story over here. Anyway, the catch is, they can fly in their canoe— but they must not touch any church steeples on the way there. They must steer perfectly and not hit anything, or the devil gets to claim their souls.” Louis shrugged. “Naturally, they party and get drunk and lose their souls.”

Zach nodded along—sounded like they had a good life, anyhow.

“There are many variations of this story, but they all have a few things in common, and they are all things that strike at the heart of the Cirque. History, imagination—“ Louis grinned at all of them, “and most importantly, magic.”

Or insanity. But however a person viewed it, this story had all the usual Cirque elements that Zach was aware of: A journey, weird supernatural beings, and a sense of folly and the ridiculous. Granted, the stories usually ended happily, but the rest of the tale fit the bill.

“Now, the Quinto brothers will be our voyagers—it’ll be up to you whether they go to hell or not. Better start bribing, boys.” There was laughter as Louis pointed to the back. “Over there is John Cho, the principal singer of the show. We’re still trying to find another vocalist to accompany him, but he can be your devil.” Louis then pointed to everyone else. “You guys, however, are the glue. You may not be actors or the central characters, but all of you are just as important. Even more so, because it is your guys’ acts that Quinto-Squared and Cho will bounce off from—it’s you they will be reacting to. They need you.”

Zach looked around and saw everyone else doing the same, with all the athletes sizing each other up. While Zach was convinced he could put on a one-hour show, he didn’t exactly want to do things alone. It was always more fun with other people in tow.

Louis gave them all a soft smile—maybe a wicked smile. “We move fast here at the Cirque. So, hmm—“ Louis looked at his watch, “I’ll give you guys a lunch break, so you can think things through. But when we come back, we’ll start discussing your ideas for your parts of the show. Oh—and introduce you to your equipment, of course.”

As Louis clapped his hands together in finality, there was a slight rumble of apprehension from the abrupt change of pace. Joey joined them, but Zach could only grin.

“See you guys in an hour!” Louis said cheerfully and waved, then walked out of the gym.

Sadistic bastard. An hour was sixty minutes… now turned fifty-nine. No sweat there, Louis.

Zach looked over at Joey, who had predictably started to turn pale.

“Joey, we’ve got this.” Zach gave him his widest, most-assured grin. “We’re fucking rock stars, remember?”

Joey apparently didn’t, as he looked at Zach with wide eyes. Which would be adorable if they weren’t facing a deadline.

To bring Joey out of himself, Zach grabbed him by the shoulders and moved him towards the cafeteria, where many of the other performers had gathered to pretend to eat lunch. The whole group wound up sitting at the same wooden table, with Karl and Bruce in the middle to start conversation.

“Now kids, don’t panic,” Bruce started, standing up to gain control of the group. “All that Louis wants is ideas. They don’t need to be perfection. They just need to be genuine and show that your brain is churning.”

“Nobody can come up with the perfect act in a day, much less an hour,” Karl concurred. “You’ll get some direction, too.”

Zach knew it was all meant to be reassuring, but instead people started to bend heads towards each other, tentatively whispering their ideas. All except Chris at the far end of the table, picking at his broccoli with intense concentration.

Zach could see the groups forming already. Which made sense—not everyone could have a solo act. Zoe chatted with Eric and a few younger girls, exchanging ideas. Karl and Bruce listened to her intently, then asked Anton for his input.

Nobody seemed to include Chris. It almost made Zach stand up with his tray, but then John sat down next to them.

“They haven’t even handed me my music yet,” John started in complaint, then popped a chip in his mouth. “All I know is that it’s some sort of dreamy and ambient shit.”

Zach nodded absently at that—then an idea seized him and his focus.

“Hey, you know… this is an adaptation, right?” Zach saw John nod. “We can do whatever we want. So you don’t really have to be the devil. If your music is ‘dreamy’, then why can’t you be like a sandman instead?”

John lit up at the idea. “Sure, why not?”

“Joey and I could still be the voyagers, drunk off our asses in the flying canoe.” Zach winced—he hoped the canoe wouldn’t really fly. He wasn’t a fan of wires and heights. “If you’re a sandman, then you could send us visions. And since we’re drunk, we won’t be able to tell whether they’re real or not.” Zach gave a smile to Joey. “We have the stupefied, bumbling idiot thing down pat, don’t we, Joe?”

Joey huffed a laugh, but the raise of his brows showed he wanted to be serious. “It’s got to have heart, though. We can be funny and bumbling, but we need to have transformation. You know, of the characters. All the Cirque shows have that.”

It was a good point. Zach rested his chin on his water bottle, hands clenched around it as he thought out loud. “So what would drive two handsome men, such as ourselves, to get drunk alone on New Year’s Eve? I mean, assuming they don’t add any female actresses, it’d just be us.”

“Have you ever been married?” John asked, and Joey giggled from his tone alone. “That’s probably why you’re off getting drunk.”

Zach snapped a finger at them. “Dissatisfaction. You know, we’re doing the same old thing with our lives—hunting shit, whatever it is—day in and day out. We might have been married for ages and have kids, and we’re bored now. So we go off to the woods to get drunk and have a good time. But it’s during this changing point of the year, the New Year, when people can start anew.”

John nodded, following along. “As the sandman, maybe I’ll get you guys to reconsider your boring-ass lives.”

Someone cleared their throat next to Zach, and all three of them turned towards the rest of the table—which, strangely, was watching them.

Bruce smiled. “I like it. Our acts will show the two bored and discontent voyagers the craziness of life.”

Zoe clapped her hands in glee. “Oh my god, we could be like sirens. Luring the voyagers to something exciting, to leave their old lives behind.”

Joey perked up next to Zach. “Whenever they get the other singer, maybe they could be trying to get the voyagers to go home.” Joey tilted his head towards John. “So he could be the devil on one shoulder, while the other person is the angel.”

John snorted. “What, I’m not angelic enough for you?”

Everyone laughed, but there was a hum of agreement around the table. Zach smiled at Joey for the fantastic idea—and also with a tad bit of pride for speaking up, too.

As everyone bent back to their partners to discuss further ideas, Zach’s eyes somehow found the blue ones at the end of the table. Zach wasn’t sure what to make of it until Chris gave him a shy smile, one that seemed to approve of Joey’s idea, too.

“I wonder when I’ll get my music.” John clucked his tongue. “Well, until then, can I hang with you guys? See what you come up with.”

Zach barely tore his eyes away to nod, idly thinking about what Chris would have up his sleeve.

)O(

Reconvening after lunch proved not to be as daunting as Joey feared. Zach could’ve told him as much, but Joey wore nerves like a third limb. It caused Zach to take mercy as he explained the group’s idea to Louis—which Louis seemed to begrudgingly approve—without making Joey explain his part.

After touring all the various apparatuses—there was a trampoline that Zach struggled not to jump on with glee—Louis let them all have time to breathe. Which meant giving them a few hours to disperse and come up with the beginnings of their individual acts.

Sadistic bastard, indeed.

“See you around,” Joey said as he waved to a petite chick with a familiar short bob—and if Zach remembered correctly, was the dark-haired woman Joey had been talking to at orientation.

Zach gave Joey a questioning look, and Joey answered with a shrug.

“Hey, Zach,” a soft voice said behind them, which made Zach turn around.

Surprisingly it was Chris, who held a water bottle nervously with both hands.

“Good luck with coming up with stuff,” Chris said as Zach gaped at him. “You guys had really great ideas. See you around?”

As Chris gave a small wave and walked away, it was Joey’s turn to give Zach a stern look. Too bad Zach didn’t have an explanation, either.

“Okay fellas, I’ll sit over here,” John announced from a stack of rolled up mats serving as a makeshift perch. “I want to get an idea of what you both have in mind.”

Joey looked nervous, but Zach shrugged. He didn’t really mind an audience, as he didn’t really mind people seeing him think off the top of his head. Maybe if he cared about what other people thought of him, it’d be different. But unlike Joey, who was always self-conscious of saying the wrong thing, Zach didn’t give a fuck how others saw him.

And anyway, part of being a clown was interacting with the audience. John being around made that easier.

Zach dragged Joey off the metaphorical stage, then set a new skin on himself. This was the fun part of acting—the part of making the audience believe whatever he wanted. Truth be told, pretending to be a drunk asshole wasn’t that much of a stretch.

He turned and stumbled onto the stage, ignoring John just a few feet from him. Zach tipped up a pretend bottle in his hand, pointing at the ceiling as if there were fireworks.

Whoa!” It was a nondescript sound. Cirque language was basically gibberish, which was basically being drunk, anyhow.

Joey followed his lead, stumbling after him with his own pretend bottle. They hung off each other, laughing like fools and pointing at the imaginary night sky, then fell flat on their bottoms.

Joey made a real oof as Zach surprised him with that bit of physical comedy—Zach’s favorite kind, really. Joey should’ve beaten him to the punch and kicked him in the shin.

“Oh!” Zach said, holding up his bottle and miming to flip it over, showing it was empty as hell. Joey responded with a sad face and flipped over his own. As they did this, Zach noticed out of the corner of his eye that John moved behind them.

Good. The sooner they formed a rapport with John, the better. Zach made a motion to steal Joey’s empty bottle away, when Zach felt the predictable tap on his shoulder.

Nngh?” He jerked behind him, and John moved out of sight. Then he heard Joey beside him make a similar noise.

Ah, the sandman was a trickster. Good, that was good.

Zach stumbled to his feet, pretending to be a hunter that was slightly spooked and looking around. Joey joined him, and in the process of backing up and looking around, they of course backed into each other.

A—a—ah!” Joey drew out as both of them pretended to be scared out of their wits—including an old parlor trick, which was Zach jumping into Joey’s arms.

Wide-eyed and huffing and clutching Joey’s neck like a little girl, Zach heard the welcome rumble of laughter around him. He didn’t focus on who it was, meeting Joey’s eyes before Joey threw up his arms in surprise, dropping Zach’s ass to the ground.

More laughter, more Zach rubbing his head in pretend confusion. But when Joey didn’t give him any cues—Joey, in fact, was looking off to the side at their audience—Zach snapped out of it, registering that in fact the whole troupe had come to watch them, Louis included.

Louis actually chuckled. “Very good. Polish that up. Think you can have a full act in the next few days?’

Zach was dubious, but he didn’t hesitate to say, “Of course.”

“Good.” Louis turned to all the performers. “This Friday, Guy Laliberté wants to see what you’re all capable of. Bring your A-game.”

Zach watched as everyone disbanded in a rush, obviously cognizant of the short deadline nipping at their heels. He glanced at everyone in turn until he caught Chris’ retreating form moving to the corner of the gymnasium. At some point Chris had changed into blue gym shorts and a gray t-shirt, showing off toned and muscled skin. More importantly, Chris looked like he didn’t register anyone else in the world, his eyes honing in on a long, black rope hanging from the ceiling.

As Zach watched Chris hoisting himself up—graceful even in that jerking motion—Zach didn’t realize he hadn’t breathed until John tapped him on the shoulder.

“Go again?” John asked, looking a tad nervous. “Three days, man. How many bit scenes do we need?”

Zach shook himself from his stupor, watching as John counted the groups formed in the gym.

“Four. Four different acts, it looks like. So one after each, and then a beginning and an end…”

Joey paled again as he contemplated the scope of it, sharing a look of horror with John. But Zach was still unpeturbed, now watching as Chris twisted the rope around his legs and let himself tumble from a great height.

“No sweat,” Zach said, tearing his gaze away. “Night and day, you guys. We’ll get it done.”

It would just have to get done, Zach wanted to add. But by then Joey was walking off and chatting with John, and there was no need to make things worse.

)O(

The next two days were a blur of routine. It was nice, actually, to be so entrenched in work. It certainly beat the previous week of ringing up cigarettes at the gas station, where Zach contemplated whether the boredom was worth blowing his brains out.

But at the Cirque it was eat, work, sleep. Very natural, in a way. Zach went to bed the last two nights and slept like a stone, content in dreaming.

Joey and John took up his world, and they even sat together during meals. Zach figured the other groups were doing the same, as they saw no one else they recognized in the cafeteria. Hopefully they were all eating—Zach caught glimpses of them in the gym, although the three of them had moved to a small conference room.

Slightly disappointing, really. But better for Zach’s concentration.

“That’s not too bad,” John said with hands on his waist, out of breath. They were rehearsing a middle scene, a comedic moment where the voyagers tried to play the same tapping-shoulder trick on the sandman. It didn’t work out quite that way, but John still wound up running around.

Zach nodded in agreement. They had six scenes, at least. Some were mediocre and needed retooling, but not bad for a few days short notice. Saturday Night Live had the same sort of deadlines, right? Zach wondered how they managed it.

“Let’s pick it up in the morning,” Joey offered, bent over with hands pressed to his knees. “My brain is fried. We can rehearse tomorrow before the head honcho gets here.”

Zach nodded again, his brain fried, too. His ass was also throbbing, as Joey had dropped him too many times that day.

“Agreed.” John straightened himself and cracked his back. “What is it, anyway—11:30? We can meet back at 7.”

Zach wanted to protest. But if Guy was coming in the afternoon—or even late morning—it would give them marginally enough time to go over each act. “Sure.”

“See ya later,” John said with an exhausted wave before heading out the door. The slit of hallway that appeared after his exit seemed brighter, fresher—the conference room suddenly stuffy and yellowed with lighting.

Zach had to leave. Now.

“Come on,” he said softly to Joey, who was already beating him to the door. And the hallway wasn’t even fresh, but at least free. No doors or walls to contain them, especially once they left the Cirque and made their way to their apartments, savoring the night air.

The city was beautiful with lights. Despite all the places Zach had been, Montréal still had something for him to see. Every place had its own way of lighting up from within, its own personality and way of life. As Zach pulled open the door to the IKEA building he glanced behind him, wondering if he’d ever make it into the city. Maybe he’d sleep through it at this rate, and that sounded like a shame.

“Catch you later,” Joey said quickly before taking off.

Zach opened his mouth to ask where the fuck he was going—Joey just didn’t do things on his own, like, ever—when he noticed that one of the white railings was occupied.

So they didn’t have any patios or decks, but that didn’t seem to matter to Chris, who was making do with a folded chair. The same one where Chris had read the paper that morning, and now seemed to be using it as a space to write. A large spiral notebook was balanced on his knee, nothing fancy—was he drawing, maybe? Zach couldn’t tell, as he was also preoccupied with the glasses sliding down Chris’ nose, caught on the bridge as Chris looked down to scribble on his hand, testing the ink.

He looked rather studious. Maybe he was planning his act… if that was possible in words.

“Hey,” Zach said quietly, against his will. But it would’ve been creepy to just lean on the railing and ogle Chris as he wrote in that notebook.

Chris jerked his head up, hand still poised over the lined page. The pen marks showed a messy cursive, and Zach couldn’t help but crane his head to make out the words.

“Hey, um—“ Chris flipped over the cover and slid his pen into the spiral ledge. “How are you?”

Zach huffed in exhaustion. “I feel like I could sleep a million years. You? How’s the act coming together?”

Chris also huffed in exhaustion, a strand of blond hair blowing away from his forehead. “Same. But it came together… somehow.”

Zach nodded in understanding, then fought off a yawn. He wanted to say something more—that it all happened by the grace of some benevolent deity, or whatever—but instead sat on the floor next to Chris. He just needed to sit, really, no matter what surface. When was the last time they had done that in the conference room?

Zach plopped down in a heap, accidentally bumping Chris’ knee with his arm in the process. As he rubbed his forehead, he turned to Chris to ask, “What time are you getting up tomorrow? Do we know when they’ll get here?”

A yawn bled through without Zach’s consent as Chris twisted away from him.

“No idea.” Chris’ eyes looked him over, like Zach was a drunk that reeked of stale beer. “I’m getting up near six, though.”

God. Six?” Zach pinched the bridge of his nose. “I think I wore a Starbucks apron the last time that happened to me.”

“But it beats the apron, doesn’t it?”

Zach looked at him—really looked at him. Chris was wearing an expression that Zach couldn’t decipher, but perhaps it was amusement mixed with disdain.

He didn’t really need that shit. “I’m sure you athletes are used to it.”

Chris shrugged. “Yeah, I guess we are. Same with people who have normal jobs.”

Zach rolled his eyes. “What? You giving me a hard time?” He almost laughed at it, but instead leaned further away from Chris. “Yeah, you’ve pegged me. Just some old circus clown, over here. Don’t mind me as I do that abnormal acting shit for a living.”

Chris started an irritated laugh of his own, putting his hand up. “Whatever, man. Just saying.”

“What? That I shouldn’t bitch about the hour because I’m not wearing that green apron?”

Chris pinned him with the same amused look, but it was accompanied by a slight smile. Holier than thou?

“Have you ever worn a green apron for a living?” Zach returned the scrutiny. “Or—what? Been in college this entire time, living off scholarships?”

Chris’ slight smile turned hard, which was fantastic. Sometimes a weeknight needed to be punctuated with a good old-fashioned snippy fight.

But instead Chris looked down at his notebook, bent and worn with use. “Sorry. I’m just grateful I’m even here, that’s all.”

“And you don’t think I am?” Zach ratcheted up his voice, not meeting much with Chris’ diffusion. “I was working at a 7-Eleven last week, by the way. Trust me when I say I prefer this way better.”

But Chris only shook his head, gathering his things as he stood up. Which was not how this was supposed to go, and Zach’s bones creaked as he jumped to join him.

“What? No really—what?” Zach spread his hands out around him. “I don’t know what you want from me.”

Not that he really cared, but for some reason this sneaky guilt-nugget from Chris actually bugged him.

As Chris reached his glass door he turned to look at Zach, expression calm. It made Zach realize he perhaps sounded histrionic, if not definitely out of line.

“Look—sorry. I didn’t mean to make you defensive. Just…” and Chris glanced away from him. At what, Zach didn’t know, as he was struck on how tired Chris sounded. “This was my last shot.”

The honesty in the confession made Zach swallow, his eyes following Chris as he stepped through the glass door of his suite.

“Goodnight, Zach.”

Chris didn’t even wait for him—didn’t make sure he left. And thank goodness, as Zach stared at that door for a long time, zoning out the bright orange and green.

But the world felt dark, and Zach wondered what it was like to fall off the cliff for your dreams.

)O(
Zach slept too well, a deep and soul-sucking sleep. As he tried to wake for the alarm his eyes wouldn’t open, his body convincing him it actually meant nothing. He wanted to go back to his dream, a hazy mess that involved Chris saying more of why the Cirque was his last option—reasonably explained by being a secret agent for the government, trying to uncover a drug ring in Guy Laliberté’s backyard. Even further explained by Chris sharing a long toke with a tiger, the both of them giggling madly.

“Zach—Zach!”

Zach squinted his eyes and saw Joey practically banging his head with the beeping cell phone.

“Dude, this has been going off for 15 minutes.” Joey silenced it, dropping it on Zach’s prone form. “I’m not leaving ‘til your ass is in the shower.”

Zach groaned. In the dream, he had just heard a fascinating confession about Chris growing weed in the back of his minivan, the notebook his accounting logs. Tiger, of course, had been his bodyguard—complete with furry fist bump of bros for life.

Which… made zero sense. “Mmmph, fine. Getting up.”

Joey gave him a soft punch in the leg. “I’ll head off John. Meet us in the cafeteria, okay?”

Zach nodded as he stumbled out of bed, somehow making it to the shower and turning it on. He was starting to chastise himself for dreaming of Chris anyway—and apparently of tigers, who knew where the fuck that came from—but it only descended into melancholy from the night before, a thick blanket on his senses.

He couldn’t shrug it off. Hot water, cold water. Shampoo in his eyes and Joey’s mango-scented body wash. None of it made a difference; fuzziness still stuck on the ends of his nerves.

Zach had gone to bed with the horrifying thought of not performing. Like, ever. Never ever. That’s what Chris had meant, wasn’t it? The Cirque had presumably been his last chance to be a gymnast.

In reality, if Zach and Joey had not joined the Cirque, they would’ve just stayed in Arizona. They would’ve bummed jobs to make rent while juggling on a street corner, or wasted time until they joined another troupe. Joey would’ve used the down time to further his photography, while Zach would’ve worked his ass off to save a little bit of cash.

Some people just didn’t live that way. What a thought. It struck Zach with a tiny bit of horror as he got dressed, absent-mindedly trying to think of decent performance clothes for the show.

Zach would probably just die at a normal job. Which was, okay, a slight exaggeration—but a piece of him would certainly dim if he couldn’t live out his passions. He’d be breathing, certainly, but in the husk of the shell in a life unfulfilled.

The whole train of thought made him unusually quiet as he grabbed breakfast, sitting down at a table where everyone in the troupe had gathered. Karl and Bruce were also unusually mum, letting Zoe take the reins of capturintg attention.

“We’ll have the Chinese go first,” Zoe said, pointing to a small group of kids at the end of the table—real children, strangely enough, perhaps no older than their teens. “Then we’ll go boy/girl, boy/girl. I’ll go, then Karl and Bruce, then Natalia—“

Zach looked at the dark-haired chick from yesterday, thinking how bitchy that name actually was. Natalia. She probably poked people’s eyes out with glass shards or something.

“—And Chris can go last.” Zoe pointed out the blue hoodie at the other end of the table, where a quick wave peeked out from downing cereal.

Zach felt slight apprehension—which was new for him, actually. He didn’t care what Chris thought, and certainly didn’t care that he had been chastised last night.

Except… maybe he did. Just a little. Which was why Zach bowed his head to his own cereal bowl.

Cubicle. Would Chris have given up everything for a desk job? Was that the threat?

“Hey man,” a body slid in next to him, and the easy voice instantly calmed Zach and reminded him of the present. “What bit your ass?”

Zach looked up at the dark eyes giving him a sideways glance. John had a frosted pop tart and was breaking off a corner with his fingers.

“Your mom,” Zach said too easily.

John didn’t even rise to the bait. “I’m tired as fuck.”

“I know.” Zach looked into his mug of coffee, already disturbingly empty. “Apparently I’m supposed to enjoy this.”

“What, the coffee?” John shook his head. “I’ve had gas station coffee better than this.”

Zach grimaced, but didn’t want to explain it. “I don’t know if I even want to eat.”

He pushed away the cereal, knowing he would regret it later and yet not caring. Joey, who sat across from him, gave him a look.

“Eat your fucking Lucky Charms,” Joey said as he pushed the tray back. “It might be the only luck we get.”

The sentence rang out a little too loudly, and Zach struck his spoon into the milk, swirling it around. Good point.

)O(
What was a word that was worse than disaster?

“No,” Guy Laliberté said clearly and calmly, for what seemed like the hundredth time that hour. This one after Zoe had performed some ballerina thing on cups, which frankly had to be a bitch on her feet.

Ah—catastrophe. This fucking review was like the Earth in some disaster movie where the planet iced over, except this time it was Guy Laliberté’s breath.

Zach stood up again, trying not to visibly grit his teeth. If Guy wanted a fucking challenge to make him laugh, Zach would meet it. Although being dropped on his ass had not even garnered a smirk; hell, had not garnered a reaction at all except—

“No.”

Zach attempted to resist the urge to flick his middle finger. Except it apparently failed, as Joey was covering his hand.

Fuuuuuh!” Zach said as he pulled his hand away and stumbled back. He wasn’t sure where he would take it, as Joey and John were looking at him, startled. But obviously they needed to try something new to prevent Guy’s apparent Tourette’s.

At that, Zach let the sirens—the sandman, his companion—have it in an argument in Cirqueish. His muttered angrily, garnering weird looks from Joey and John—but most of all from Guy himself, where he quirked a slight smile.

Oh, the game was on.

Nngh?” Zach said as he stared at Guy, pretending to be incredibly insulted by the smirking. Then Zach pointed a finger to his chest, trying to remember that scene from Taxi Driver. “Nnngh talkin’ to me? Eh? Eh? Nngh?”

Zach put up his fists in exaggeration, pretending to brawl like a leprechaun. At that the troupe laughed—hell, even Guy chuckled.

Zach gave a sneer, looking back at Joey and John as he dismissed Guy with a look at this coward! wave of the hand. It garnered more laughter, until Zach realized that Joey and John had no idea how to lead off of him.

So he picked up the remnants of their practiced routine—acting dejected, as Zach and Joey were supposed to start sobering at this part of the night. It would lead the sandman to show them to their final performer, the last siren of their journey.

There was a mix of applause which died into a strange silence, which Zach hoped was a good sign—especially for Chris to perform after them.

Who had shed the blue hoodie, apparently, and now only wore a blue lycra tank and shorts, striped with gold. His back was straight as he walked calmly to the rope positioned for him, ready to go.

Most of the performers had shown their nerves—even Bruce and Karl had started a bit awkwardly before throwing knives at each other. But now Chris climbed that rope with too much grace, too much poise.

Zach had seen aerial acts before. Crazy people did them. Not the type of crazy that Zach was—juggling fire or almost breaking every bone in his body—but the kind of crazy that knew no fear. Maybe the kind of crazy that also placed too much trust in the human body, as only a thin wire would catch Chris if he plummeted to his death, purposefully or otherwise.

Because fuck—the plummeting. Fast and dizzying and while high up in the air. Chris also encircled the gym upside down, sideways, while dropping at the same time and swooping like a bird. Almost making it look way too easy—until Chris fell, and fell, and fell—

Chris fell until his fingertips could whisper the ground, and Zach wondered if he could breathe again.

But just as quickly, Chris whipped up the rope and flew away high into the sky. There was immense applause from his troupe members, also out of breath.

“Okay,” Guy said, turning the room silent once again.

It made Zach smile, wondering why he liked Chris getting the only positive word for the entire show.

)O(
And really, it was the only positive word of the show. Except Guy liked their narrative thread, so apparently they could keep that. The rest, however? Better, better, better.

“I think Guy only knows a handful of English.” Zach popped a chicken nugget into his mouth and tried for a guttural, French accent. “No! No—better! Better, better, better!

It sounded more like Hitler in the end, but John and Joey laughed anyway.

“You forgot that part where he asked why Chris wasn’t showing his ass more.”

Zach turned to the opposite end of the table as Joey giggled across from him, pinning Chris’ hoodie with a faux-Guy stare.

“Ass! Assss.

Zach even did wavy-arm motions for emphasis, but Chris seemed to ignore him, anyway. It was possibly because Guy’s whole diatribe had been slightly incoherent. For all Zach knew, he wanted to either tap Chris’ ass or get him to show it less.

“Better ass! Better, better, better!” He slid towards Chris at the table, leaving John’s hysterical laughing behind him.

Zach was mere inches away when Chris finally turned to him, grumpy eyes peering from underneath the blue hoodie. They matched, strangely, although Chris’ eyes were a lighter hue.

Was he grumpy because of Zach, or because of the performance? “Ohhhhhhh-kay?” Zach drawled out and shrugged in exaggeration.

Which apparently pissed him off more, as Chris left the table in a huff.

“Oh, dude!” John said as he snickered “Don’t tick off the pretty one!”

But Zach left them behind as he followed Chris from the cafeteria, both of them walking out into the afternoon sun.

“Will you quit following me? Fuck.” Chris threw up his hood, narrowing the sides to his cheeks.

Which only made Zach more curious. “Sorry man, it was a joke. You know, that thing that clowns sometimes do to make other people feel better?”

“Yeah, well, you’re kind of a fucking jerk.”

Zach pouted at that, only Chris turned around and made a face at him.

“Ha ha—you know, a joke? It was fucking hilarious, man.”

Except no one was laughing, and it only turned Zach onto snark mode. “You know jokes need to have some attempt at humor, right? Irony, a pun—“

Chris gave a growl of frustration, hands going to his face as they stopped at a strange statue outside Cirque headquarters. They had stormed out of the entrance, and apparently there was a huge, floppy shoe that Zach had never noticed before.

That was weird, as the shoe was ginormous and ugly as hell. Hard to miss, honestly. But Zach recognized it for the homage that it was—to the circus clown, Cirque du Soleil’s roots. Zach would smile, but Chris was busy stomping around in red flip-flops.

“I don’t give a fuck!” Chris yelled as he kicked concrete—hopefully not too hard, as Chris didn’t need to be limping. “What does ‘okay’ mean, anyway? Okay. Okay.“

“Well, generally it means something… adequate?” Zach almost shrugged as his voice rose, but then another thought occurred to him. One which snowballed as Chris kept pacing, kept gnashing his teeth—

“Are you seriously pissy because Guy Laliberté said you were ‘okay’?” Zach could barely believe it, but Chris only gave him a dirty look in confirmation. “Because you were the only one to receive a mildly-positive word, you know.”

“’Mildly-positive’ isn’t good enough.” Chris stopped before him and sucked in a breath. “They could replace me at any moment for another gymnast.”

Zach shook his head, squinting his eyes in skepticism. “Then they’re replacing all of us, because I think you were the measurement, and the rest of us fell below the line.”

“I’m serious. There are tons of gymnasts.” Chris looked Zach over as he contemplated his words. “Not so many clowns or contortionists.”

“Have you ever been in LA?” Zach waved his hands, gesturing to the world. “Hell, seen a porno?”

“I’m serious.”

“So am I! Dude, look, you were amazing.” Zach leveled his gaze at Chris, trying for a moment of brevity. “I mean, I fucking hate everyone, so I don’t say this normally—but you, as you dove to the ground? Took my breath away.”

Chris put his hands on his hips, looking uneasy, but Zach honed in.

“I’m not going to blow smoke up your ass, but I did get the impression that Guy Laliberté doesn’t say ‘okay’ easily. In fact, I’m sure he would rather eat a kitten before saying ‘okay’ to any of us.” Zach looked up at the sky and pondered, “Or would it be a baby seal, up here? I don’t know, Canadians are weird.”

Chris gave a small smile at that, looking off to the side in discomfort. But at least he wasn’t pacing or gnashing his teeth, so Zach took that as a good sign.

“Look, I can’t say I relate. I’ve never taken this stuff personally.” Zach recalled his one-fingered salute from earlier, but pushed it from his mind. “I just do what I do, and then let the chips fall into place. They either love me or hate me. If they hate me, I’ll go somewhere else.”

That seemed to be the wrong thing to say, as Chris casted his gaze downward and frowned again.

Zach was never going to be the next Tony Robbins. “But you’re an athlete, so maybe I don’t know shit.”

Chris sighed. “You’re right… sort of. I should look at it that way.”

“But you don’t.”

“I don’t.”

Zach checked the ground around him, then decided to sit on the ledge of the horribly-ugly shoe. From the way Chris liked to talk and reveal things, Zach suspected they could be here a while, and Zach wasn’t standing up for that shit.

Surprisingly Chris followed and sat next to him, their shoulders almost touching, friendly-like It was a long and drawn out moment, followed by more minutes, and followed by the sky darkening from a sunset—probably on the other side of the building.

Chris picked a horrible place to be silent. Zach would make sure they argued in someplace more interesting, next time.

Zach was about to open his mouth to bitch about the impending cold, when Chris finally said, “I was an okay gymnast. For the Olympics.”

Zach narrowed his eyes. “You said you never went to the Olympics.”

Chris quirked up a corner of his mouth. “Gee, I wonder why.”

Zach tried to fit the pieces together. He could imagine some Olympic hopeful, wanting his spot—only to fail by a few points, by hundredths of a point.

They didn’t measure actors or clowns that way.

“So you tried out, and they told you that you were only ‘okay’?” Zach shook his head and huffed. “Losers.

Zach expected a reproach of some sort—the Olympic committee being ultra-respected or elite or some other shit—but instead he only heard muffled chuckling.

Chris was covering his mouth, trying not laugh, but incredibly failing.

“Did one of your judges have like, a mustache and a paunch—and that would be the female judge, by the way.”

Chris bent over, still covering his mouth, but Zach continued.

Zis man is too attractive for ze Olympics—no!

Zach pushed out his arms in disdain—still only managing to sound like Hitler—but Chris was shaking his head and giggling.

“I’m sure they weren’t checking out my ass.”

Zach tilted his head. “Damn straight they weren’t. It deserves a gold medal on its own—even Guy says so.”

Chris covered his eyes “Oh my God.”

“So you know what I say? Fuck ‘em—fuck ‘em in the ass, Chris.”

“Let’s not talk about asses.”

“If you insist.”

“It’s just—I failed on technical merit, you know?” Chris took a deep breath. “I didn’t go because I couldn’t beat the guy ahead of me, who didn’t have an ankle injury, a handicap on the vault—“ Chris looked Zach in the eye, “He might also have been prettier than me.”

Lies.”

“I wouldn’t have done the United States any good in Beijing, that’s all.”

It was a sober moment. Zach wondered if Chris had ever reasoned that out, or if he had been angry about it this entire time. Either way, Chris was a fab gymnast in Zach’s book, and missing the Olympics by mere technicalities seemed an awful thing to get hung up over.

“Well, thank God we’re still not trying to beat the Chinese.”

Chris looked up sharply, but Zach waved a hand.

“I mean, have you seen those guys? They could all fit into my duffel bag, just saying.”

Chris smiled—perhaps a genuine smile—but Zach turned away from it, motioning for Chris to follow him.

“Come on, let’s head back. I hear Karl is hosting some Poker after dinner.”

“Are we gambling?”

“I hope so. I could use somebody’s pants.”

“You wouldn’t fit—you might be skinnier than the Chinese.”

Zach sighed. “Details, details.”

But at least Chris was following him back inside, no longer angry. Zach wondered if this technically made them “friends”—or at least was a good starting point for them to not hate each other.

Chapter Text

Eventually, two months after they arrived at the Cirque, the troupe got the green light on their evolving projects. This with some enthusiasm from Louis, translated into a head nod from Guy Laliberté.

This also resulted in Karl throwing knives at Zach’s head, but Zach wasn’t about to complain.

Eeek!” Zach shrieked and made a face, pretending to be terrified of the next incoming blade. Instead Zach caught it between his palms, inches from his chest, comically crossing his eyes at the red hilt.

The audience would never know it was dull as a fork, but it made Chris gasp from the bleachers, anyway.

Karl followed up with shrugging his shoulders at Bruce—apparently they had thrown their last knife, and what a shame. Until Zach, thinking he was clever, started throwing their own knives back at them.

Natalia raised an eyebrow as the throwing turned into juggling, with Joey handing Zach whatever items he found lying around—knives, shoes, apples, a random stuffed chicken—until the plethora of strange items was being juggled between them, with Karl and Bruce being exaggeratedly disturbed by it all. Eventually it ended with the chicken bonking Bruce in the head, the apple being eaten by a very hungry John, and the knives stabbing Joey’s empty shoes into the ground.

Which made Karl and Bruce angry, apparently. Zach and barefoot Joey ran away to the amusement of the bleachers.

Some people were easy to please, but Zach grinned up at an applauding Chris. “I think Joey was going to go up there and steal your guys’ shoes next.”

“Wouldn’t dare,” Natalia said, regretfully, as Zach was trying to ignore her existence.

But Joey leapt into the seats and sat down next to her, poking the petite woman in the arm. “Your heels might have been a challenge.”

Why was a contortionist wearing heels, anyway? “I wouldn’t have minded throwing those.”

The French Bitch gave Zach a dirty look. “I bet.”

“Hey, why don’t we all break for lunch?” Joey said, checking the imaginary watch on his arm. “We’ll reconvene at two.”

More than hour, but whatever.

“Sounds great,” Karl said as he patted Bruce on the shoulder. “We’ve been working hard all week, anyway.”

Bruce nodded in agreement. “Don’t think we worked this hard on our last show.”

“You weren’t in the last show,” Karl pointed out, tapping the tip of Bruce’s nose. “You were helping with the recruitment of these folks.”

Bruce held out his hands in defeat, but Zach was too busy watching Joey as he snuck the French Bitch from the room. Not even a goodbye? See ya later?

“You want to take lunch outside?”

Zach jerked his head back reluctantly. Chris was walking down the stairs of the metal bleacher seats, still in his training gear. That morning he had aggravated his ‘bum ankle’, and after some icing and watching a quick show, Chris would supposedly be ready to go again.

But lunch sounded fine. “I thought you’d want to jump back into things.”

Chris gave Zach a knowing look. “I think you might want the company.”

Whatever that meant. But Zach wasn’t about to complain. They had been taking lunch together over the last few weeks, anyhow. Today would be no different.

It was a strange friendship to slip into. Zach had never intended such a thing—Chris had a hot bod and an intriguing aura of mystery—but he was meant to be pestered and nothing more. Instead he told Zach to wait outside at some picnic tables, and Zach knew Chris would bring him something reminiscent of what he’d been eating. Chris was stupidly observant, after all.

“I’ve been waiting for a nice day,” Chris said as he passed Zach a bowl of mac and cheese—hell yes. “I’ve never been to Canada, have no clue of Montréal. Kind of a shame that we’re stuck inside all the time.”

They really weren’t stuck, per se. It was more that if Zach wanted to save his ass in the Cirque, he’d better be working and not playing.

“Maybe they’ll let us out one of these weekends,” Chris said between bites of his club sandwich.

“Why not this weekend?” It wasn’t a law. And anyway, if it was, Zach would claim that he couldn’t read fine print. Grandpa glasses, or some shit.

And maybe he did really need those glasses, for he could’ve sworn that Chris smiled very briefly, like a secret.

“The weather is supposed to be nice tomorrow. We could grab lunch in town, for a change.”

It was said so nonchalantly that Zach was almost fooled. “You want to go out to lunch with me?”

Chris took a larger bite of his sandwich, then took his time to chew. “Yeah. I mean, John is hanging out with Bruce and Eric, and Anton is going out with Zoe and Karl.”

Oh, so this was a planned mass exodus. “All right, I’m game. I’ll ask Joey if he wants to join us.”

Chris picked up a sliver of tomato with his fingers. It was sort of sloppy, something Chris wouldn’t have done in his company two months ago. But now Chris was open like a book, and he could read the hesitant look behind the action.

“You don’t want Joey along? What’s wrong with Joey?”

Chris shrugged, still biding his time. “Um, well. I thought you had noticed his new… lady friend.”

Well, fuck, if that didn’t bring everything into sharper focus. If Joey had a playdate, that meant the only two without plans tomorrow would be him and Chris—and well, maybe Chris had plans with Bruce first, or John first, and then they fell through. Zach was the last available option, next to some nameless schmuck.

It stung a bit, Zach would have to admit. “You don’t have to go with me. I mean, I’m sure Zoe wouldn’t mind you tagging along—“

Chris’ unexpected burst of laughter would be almost cute if it weren’t mocking. Tomato juice ran down his chin as Chris tried not to choke. “You’re kidding, right?”

Zach shook his head, his eyes squinted in confusion. Chris was bad at jokes, certainly, but at least Zach could usually determine an attempt at humor.

Chris shook his head as he rolled up the foil of his sandwich. “Zach, Zach, Zach. Zachary Quinto.”

“Only my mother, and people I’ve had sex with, say my name that many times in a row.”

Chris glanced up at him, sending him a look. “Just have lunch with me, okay? I haven’t tried anywhere in this town, and we’re only here for a short while.”

Zach rested his head on his hand, elbow on the picnic table as he glanced away from Chris. What the fuck was Joey doing tomorrow? They really hadn’t hung out since they reached the Cirque, and there was likely a row of shots in their name at some local bar.

“Hello, Earth to Zach.”

Zach shifted his head slightly, watching as Chris took his abandoned mac and cheese to the garbage can. Maybe Chris was like his mother. Which would be odd, but Zach hadn’t had a mother in a long while.

“What, Mom?”

Chris wrinkled his nose in disdain. “God, don’t ever say that again.”

Zach shrugged, still watching as Chris only stood before the table, obviously his signal that they should head back inside. But honestly, Zach just wanted to watch the cars in the parking lot for a while. Or maybe spend the extra hour of lunch stalking wherever Joey took the French Bitch.

She didn’t even have boobs. Men normally only dated women like that for boobs, right? She was petite and built like a pole; which aided the contortionist thing fine, but she probably looked like a prepubescent boy underneath it all.

Joey had only ever dated blondes with bubbly laughs and a nice rack. What was he doing?

“Are you going to sit there and mope all day?”

“Not all day.”

“Just for two hours or so.”

Zach looked back at Chris in annoyance. Especially since Chris was sitting back down at the table, hands in the pocket of his blue hoodie.

“Natalia is rather nice, you know.”

“I wouldn’t know.” And he didn’t want to be converted. “She gives me the evil eye.”

“It doesn’t help that you give her a death glare.”

Zach scowled and got up from the table. “Why don’t you hang out with them tomorrow, since you like her so much.”

“Are you 12?” Chris stood up and followed Zach inside. “Seriously, I asked you because I want to hang out with you. I like Natalia, but I have a feeling she would appreciate the alone time.”

“God, for what?” Zach shivered as the answer immediately appeared in his brain—naked limbs entangled on a bed sheet. “Eww.”

But all Zach heard was a sigh behind him. It made Zach turn his head and catch Chris staring at his feet as they shuffled the hallway, blindly following Zach back to the gymnasiums.

It was too much trust, really. Zach stopped short and Chris staggered to avoid a collision.

“I just don’t get it, that’s all.” Why should Zach explain himself? But he was doing it, anyway. “I mean, he’s dated lots of women before. She’s just not his type, and frankly he’s never been that moony before, and—“

Chris was giving him another skeptical look.

“What? What am I saying wrong, here?”

But Chris only gave him a soft smile of forgiveness. For what, Zach didn’t know.

“Meet me at 10, in the front?” Chris asked as he ducked his head in caution. “We can explore on our own, or we can play it by ear—whatever you want.”

Oh, that stuff. Zach brushed a hand in the air. “Yeah, sure. Grab a coffee first, whatever.”

And there was still a smile of forgiveness. Chris even closed his eyes as he shook his head, patting Zach on the shoulder as walked back to the gym.

“See you tomorrow.” And without further discussion, Chris threw the hoodie up over his head, leaving Zach alone to his own devices.

)O(
Which, frankly, could’ve turned out worse. Joey was sooner than expected, overly-cheerful but ready to work. It had happened just at the point of Zach considering a fake text message of emergency, wondering if his brother would rush to respond over Zach spraining an ankle.

That wasn’t weird, was it? Zach gave half his mind to the act as he studied Joey’s face. He was older than Zach by a few years—late 30s now, with their old lives starting to catch up with him—but he was handsome. Mohawk and punk appearances aside, he didn’t have too many wrinkles; his face not showing much strain despite their hard lives. Joey was lithe and trim and fairly healthy, although he woke up sometimes with a few aches and pains.

Did Natalia know about the aches and pains? Or that Joey took tea in the evenings with honey and soymilk, a book stretched out before him, currently reading something about Native American poetry. That he liked his pillows medium-firm, his underwear in colors other than white, his socks crew-cut. Joey would freak out if he couldn’t roll them into matching pairs.

“You okay, man?” Joey said between takes, a hand on the back of Zach’s neck to pull him into confidence. “You’re distracted.”

“No, no I’m not.” And while Zach meant it to answer the second question, maybe it was really for the first. After 17 years of taking care of Joey, maybe he wasn’t okay at all.

But Joey nodded. “We’re all tired. Thank God for the weekend, right?”

The weekend. With the French Bitch. “Yeah, exactly.”

“Let’s catch dinner.” He patted Zach on the back, then held open the hallway door. “Get some food in you.”

Zach was going to eat an entire pie. An entire chocolate-and-emo filled pie of green, green bitterness.

)O(
It lingered. Chris was already out front talking to Zoe and Karl in the morning, catching them before they went their own way. As Karl leaned on a railing, Zoe entangled their hands together, her fingertips caressing his palm.

Zach rolled his eyes—was everyone fucking in this shindig? Except him, of course. And maybe Eric—who didn’t seem to be hanging around anyone, actually. Which offered some tantalizing possibilities.

“See you guys later,” Chris said with a wave. Karl waved back, with sunglasses in one hand and Zoe’s fingers in the other.

It was stupidly cute, and Zach wanted to puke.

“You need coffee,” Chris said as he stood up from the rail. “Me too.”

“The sun can go fuck itself.” Zach put on his sunglasses—why was there sun in Canada? It was up north, the shiny bald spot of the Americas. “But yes, coffee.”

“Karl and Zoe are going to some museums.”

“Sure.” Zach didn’t know a thing about Montréal. “Honestly, I’m up for anything. I have no idea what’s even here.”

Chris shrugged. “We can walk around, see what we come across?”

Zach grimaced in acceptance. Not in a bad way, but in a way that they were doing too much talking in the morning. As they got their coffees from the cafeteria before leaving—Chris took his black, what a champ—they were silent and speaking only when necessary. Zach didn’t have the brain function to worry about how to salvage things.

“So… tell me something I don’t know.”

They hadn’t walked far. There was a park that was kitty corner to the IKEA house, and they both instinctively sat on the swings. Chris actually swung his as Zach kept his legs straight, bracing against the ground to stay still.

Zach licked his lips. “Do you know all the presidents?”

Chris huffed a laugh. “What, do you?”

Zach looked up at the sky, trying to remember the rote memorization from fifth grade. “Washington and Adams, Jefferson and Madison. Monroe, Adams, Jackson—“

“Oh my God.”

“I can even do them backwards—shit, maybe not anymore. There’s been a few new ones since then.”

“Professor Quinto is teaching me things.”

“Um, Bush and Clinton—no wait, Obama and Bush and Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter—“

“How the hell did you forget Obama?”

“It’s a fucking rhythm, okay.” Zach took a sip of his coffee. “Anyway, we’re discussing American history in a foreign country.”

“So tell me something that’s not American history.” Chris leaned his cheek against the chain-link of his swing. “I know a lot of American history, anyway.”

“As you should, Mister Team USA.”

The moment it left his mouth Zach grimaced, but Chris waved it off.

“My dad’s a history teacher at my old high school.”

“Did he make you do nerdy things?” Zach liked the insinuation of that question. “Do I have to pull out the Paul Revere doll, so you can tell me where he made you learn?”

Chris only rolled his eyes, thankfully. “I just know stupid and random shit about the Civil War, that’s all.”

“Name one.” Zach took an absent sip of his coffee, observing this comfortable and silly version of Chris. They had been friends for a about a month, known each other twice as long, but Chris had never been this willingly chatty.

This probably meant Operation: Bother Nerdy Boy had been a success, but Chris was still fun to hang out with.

“Um… Lincoln’s favorite tune was Dixie?”

“How do you know that?”

“How does anyone know anything?”

“Cop out.”

Chris stood up as he finished his coffee, walking it over to a trash can. “Okay, I know it because I went back in a time machine, and heard Lincoln whistling it under his breath. Especially while he was coping with smallpox during the Gettysburg address.”

“Is that painful?” Zach had just reached the trash can, draining his cup. “Like chicken pox?”

“Probably. Except with, you know, death.”

Zach grimaced again—he was doing a lot of that, this morning. As he caught up to Chris and they began to walk in-step, Zach wanted to turn to less-weird subjects.

“So why are you at the Cirque?” That seemed innocent enough.

Chris laughed at the question. “Dude, that is a long, long story.”

Zach gestured to the open fields and parking garages surrounding them. Civilization appeared up ahead, but it would be a while before they got somewhere interesting.

Chris took the hint and sighed. “My mom thought it would be good for me. I was going to retire. I’m over 30, don’t have a hope nor a prayer for the Olympics, am tired of the Championship circuit—“ Chris ducked his head sheepishly, it was starting to become a trend. “I was thinking of being a coach.”

“But Mother knows best,” Zach said in sing-song, and Chris smiled at him.

“I guess. She’s been paying for it for most of my life, so.”

Chris gestured with his hands, which Zach took as a good sign. Unlike all the building signs that seemed to be in French—Zach didn’t know a lick of it.

“What is it about gymnastics? You know, why are you dedicating your life to it.”

Chris looked at him curiously, but Zach was being earnest. Zach was always earnest with people who had passion, no matter what kind. There were few people in the world with narrow enough vision and dedication to pursue something for so long, much less life-long. Zach had his own answers, but Chris didn’t have the same life he did.

Chris looked up at the sky in thought. “It’s… very precise. Athletic. You’re taking your body and stretching its limits, and commanding it to do what you want—well, most of the time.”

“Control and domination.”

“I look at people who are famous in the sport and they’re like gods. You try to do what they do, try to go where they went—and when you try, no matter what, and you constantly fail, it’s…” Chris waved his hands wordlessly. “Inspiring. And sometimes, when you achieve what they do, it’s like… you’ve reached the pinnacle of your human body.”

It was almost disappointing. Zach had expected some lines about the human experience, sure. But this answer seemed egotistical.

“Are you trying to be Hercules?” Zach asked with a raised brow.

Chris laughed, ducking his head again. Was the boy never embarrassed or properly humble? It didn’t fit into normal, logical pieces.

“Supposedly if you work hard enough, you can be.”

Zach pursed his lips—what an insinuation. He doubted that Chris hadn’t worked hard enough.

“No room for talent or limitations of the body, then?"

Chris tilted his head, touché. “Sure. But then you never get to be Hercules.”

“You know he like, killed his wife and stuff?” Zach shook his head. “Had an asshole of a father, too. Dude with a massive god complex.”

“But he finished—and succeeded—the twelve trials of Hercules. Complete with killing hydras and capturing a three-headed dog.” Chris ticked a finger at him. “That’s pretty impressive, be honest.”

“Yeah, sure.”

Chris grinned in disbelief. “’Yeah, sure’? Really? Come on.”

Zach shrugged. “I mean that’s impressive. But can you imagine that dude at a bar? Conversation would consist of, ‘Hi, I’m a circus clown.’ ‘Oh really? I made a hydra choke on its own dick.’ ‘Oh, that’s cool, man.’”

Chris covered his face with his hands, and Zach barreled on.

“What do you think his opinion on politics is? Or fluffy bunnies? Photography? Clowns?

“Are you saying he wouldn’t have an opinion?”

“No, not at all. I’m just saying that I care more about fluffy bunnies than about a three-headed dog.”

Chris made a confused face. “The world revolves around more than your interests, though.”

“Really? Are you sure?”

“He might care about the three-headed dog.”

“Well, that’s too bad, because I don’t give a shit.”

Chris shoved his hands in his pockets, as if to stuff his annoyance. “Pray tell, what is your opinion on fluffy bunnies?”

“Too much work. Had one as a kid, and it developed dreadlocks and looked like a reggae singer.” Zach stopped in front of a building and read the sign. “Oh look, it’s a shitty train museum. Sounds interesting. Care to go in?”

Zach opened the glass door and gestured pointedly, and Chris gave him a droll look.

“Sure. Why not.” As he passed Zach, he muttered, “Too bad there aren’t any reggae bunnies in here.”

Zach aimed for a boot in the ass, but Chris was too quick and already joined the line for admission.

)O(
It turned out they weren’t the only ones at the train museum. As Zach followed Chris beyond admissions, they spotted Anton watching a motorized display come to life.

“Everyone’s here,” Anton confirmed. His eyes darted from the toy-caboose to Zach, and then back again. “Joe and Natalia are around the corner.”

Oh, joy.

“How about Karl and Zoe—hey, Zach?”

But Zach went to the first corner Anton had pointed to, although there were several in that direction. He kept close to the walls, hoping to get a sneak peek of Joey in action. Maybe Zach would come across something good.

“What are you, James Bond?” Chris asked too loudly.

Zach put a finger to his lips as he peeked around a lit train display. But instead of seeing the occupants, he actually heard them first.

“I’m not trying to tie you down anywhere. Just, you know, if you don’t want kids and I don’t want kids—“

“I know the logical reasons, trust me.”

“Then what the hell is it?” Karl said a bit too loudly, and Zach winced. “The Cirque has amazing career opportunities after you’ve retired—“

“You’re just not listening to me.”

“What, what the hell—that’s what I’m doing now! How can you say—“

Zach turned abruptly in the opposite direction and grabbed Chris’ sleeve. “Yeah, no.”

“Maybe we should see if she’s okay—“

“Zoe’s wearing heels in a public place.” Zach hid behind a large column, finally spying a familiar mohawk. “I’d worry more about Karl.”

Chris frowned as he stood next to Zach. “I thought Zoe wanted to stay with Karl at the Cirque.”

“Huh?” Zach watched as Joey did a fake-yawn and then chickened-out of touching Natalia’s back. “Why the hell would she do that?”

“Because they’ve been together five years and were thinking of getting an apartment—“ Chris looked over Zach’s shoulder, then huffed. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.

Chris marched out from behind the column, and Zach was too late to catch and drag him back.

Hey, Joe,” Chris said loudly, then gave Zach a dirty look.

When Joey’s eyes flickered between the two of them, Zach hoped he had straightened in time to appear nonchalant. Probably not, but then sometimes Joey was a bit dense.

Joey,” Zach said with too much feigned fondness. He threw his arm around Joey’s shoulder, then glanced at the display that had captured the entirety of his brother’s attention. “I didn’t know you liked trains.” Zach read the inscription. “Especially ones that killed like, 20 people.”

“Um,” Joey said as his eyes quickly scanned the inscription. “I like wheels?”

Zach nodded slowly. “Yeah, they’re quite useful. Dawning of civilization, and all that.”

“Well, trains were responsible for building trade and commerce across the Americas,” Chris said defensively, for whatever reason, as he went to stand next to the French Bitch. Traitor.

Zach gave his cheesiest smile. “Oh, I’m sure, Mr. Knowledge.”

“That was on the sign when we came in,” said French Bitch in a chopped, thick accent. She could kill kittens with her voice, Zach was sure.

“Yes—big plaque, right out front. Couldn’t miss it unless you were hiding from it,” Chris said while smiling at Natalia, and she actually pleasantly smiled back at him. Imagine that.

Zach was about to say what the fuck? when Joey chimed in.

“Zach doesn’t really like to read things. More like a glance and he’s through—more of a ‘take it or leave it’ sort of person.”

Zach flexed his hands near his brother’s neck. He was getting the impression he was getting ganged up.

“Yeah, so I’m going to take my leave over here—“ And as Zach stepped over to another boring display about stupid trains, an arm snaked through his elbow and refused to let go.

It was even worse than Zach imagined: Her claws gripped him like a falcon, or like some killer owl about to rip the flesh off of a mouse.

“Hello, Zach.”

When Zach peered down at Natalia—and it was a long look, since he struggled unsuccessfully to get his damn arm back—she was actually smiling at him. All less-than-five-feet of her practically beamed with triumph, and it gave Zach the impression she was trying to disarm him with blinding kindness.

“It is about time we had a chat.”

Zach tried his cheesiest smile back. “Oh, I agree. I was just thinking I should have invited you to tea. My manners.

“Joe has told me so much about you.”

Zach gave a wincing smile as she moved him to another exhibit—apparently French Bitch was intent on controlling the show, and as far away from Joey as possible.

“I hope just the good things.”

“You know, it is so peculiar—“ and her ‘u’s’ sounded like she was puking, and Zach tried not to laugh “—Joe says you are so sociable, and yet I never see you around.”

Zach gave an exaggerated shrug. “Well, I’m just so busy talking to the people I like, that I barely have time left for the people I don’t.” He patted her arm with his free hand. “You know how it is.”

“It is difficult to find that time—but then, we all must make do.” She gave him a sympathetic smile. “Especially if it is for my boyfriend’s sake.”

“Well, don’t strain yourself, honey—it’s not like you’re in promise ring territory, yet.”

She gave him a wicked smile. “Yet.”

It was a good thing she let go of his arm, because he was about to do a number of things he’d surely get arrested for. But Joey and Chris had found them again, and Zach was rubbing his arm.

“It was nice seeing you guys!” Chris said quickly, taking Zach’s shoulders and turning him around. “Catch you later.”

“Who says I want to go yet—“

Chris pushed his back until they were outside on the sidewalk, with Zach’s long legs barely beneath him. He finally caught a glimpse of Chris’ face, and then he shouted, “What? What did I do now?”

“Thankfully nothing.” Chris looked around at the busy street. “Keep your voice down.”

God,” Zach said in exasperation, then looked down at his arm. “Do you see these half-moon marks? She fucking mauled me.”

“I know, Natalia is terrifying—all 4’11 and 90 pounds of her.”

“What have I told you about women in heels?” Chris apparently had no idea, but then Chris had never been smacked by one—not that Zach was going to divulge that life lesson any time soon.

“You’re impossible.” Chris huffed as he said it, and yet there was an undercurrent of fondness. “She was just trying to make friends with you.”

Zach outright laughed at that one—was still laughing as Chris made them stop at a quaint restaurant.

“I think you need an omelet.”

“Are you paying for my omelet?” Although Zach hadn’t had eggs in a while, so maybe it was a good plan after all.

“If you’re nice.” Chris held open the door and gestured with a hand, and Zach made a face at him.

“This is the lousiest date I’ve ever been on,” Zach grumbled as he passed through. “I’m glad I brought my wallet.”

Chris quirked a smile, and Zach wondered when he had become unintentionally amusing.

)O(
An omelet and toast and pancakes later, Zach was regretting all of it. Chris probably ate 300,000 calories a day, judging by his muscles, but Zach was going to balloon into the Goodyear blimp at this rate.

“God, I’ll need to walk to the States to get this off.” Zach patted his stomach, then reached into his pocket for his smokes. He showed them to Chris. “You mind?”

Chris motioned to the wall. “They might.”

Zach still didn’t read a lick of French, but the big red circle around the cigarette was clear. “Fuck my life.”

“It’s bad for you, anyway.”

“Yes, Mom.”

Chris rolled his eyes as Zach tucked the smokes back into his pocket. He debated between moving to smoke outside and sitting right where he was, but Chris made up his mind for him.

“Since you asked me—why are you at the Cirque?”

Zach settled into his seat and looked around at the empty restaurant. The breakfast shift had apparently cleared out, but the early-lunch crowd had not staggered in yet. Lousy tipping.

“Joey loves the Cirque, you know. He’s been wanting to go to a show for ages, but we mostly watch it on TV.” Zach shrugged as he leaned forward, taking his glass of water between both hands. “I heard about auditions from some guy at Ren Fest, so I decided to enter us.”

“You mean the Renaissance Faire?”

Zach made a face at that. “An unfortunately large portion of my illustrious resume.” Juggling, acting, harassing—sometimes combined as the best pickle seller in the whole Southwest.

Chris smiled at that. “Did you actually wear that fancy stuff? A codpiece?”

“Anyway—” Zach had actually worn pauper clothes, but whatever. “Joey and I applied, drove to Las Vegas, and here we are.”

“Joey really wanted to do it, then?”

“You have no idea how excited he was.” Zach smiled, in spite of himself, at the memory. “We had kind of hit a rut. Joey was feeling restless, I was feeling restless. Seemed like something different to do. Reliable and permanent, too.”

Chris was watching him carefully, and Zach had no idea why.

“So you didn’t care about Cirque du Soleil?”

Zach shrugged. That seemed rather irrelevant. “It’s a job. And anyway, Joey really wanted to go. I didn’t mind Canada the last time we were here, so… why not?”

Chris took a sip of his water, as if trying to think of something to say. Zach spared him
.
“Not that I never liked the shows. I just didn’t think they explained the meaning of life, or anything.”

“At least they allow you to be a clown, unlike other things?”

Zach nodded. That was obvious.

“So, um—why a clown, exactly?” Chris looked nervous as he said it, playing with the handle of his coffee mug. It was sort of cute, really.

“Why not?”

“Why not just be an actor?”

“Why don’t you just become a basketball player?”

Chris looked confused, and Zach wasn’t sure how else to explain it.

“I am an actor. I just have a focus.”

Chris tucked his arms into his chest and leaned on the table. “I don’t know shit about acting. Is there a special school?”

“Yeah, but I didn’t go to one.” Zach didn’t like this confessional part of the conversation, but it’s not like he kept many secrets, anyway. “I kind of bloomed late in high school. When everyone else was taking their SATs, I was juggling knives at talent shows.”

“How the hell did you start juggling knives?” Chris narrowed his eyes. “Where was your mother?”

Zach chuckled. “Watching me juggle knives at talent shows?”

“Oh God.”

“I learned from the best, don’t worry—she didn’t.” Zach smiled. “I was really into the drama club, right? No surprise. But that shit doesn’t last in the summer, so I had to find other ways to be on stage.”

“Community theater?”

Zach scoffed. “What? And play Tommy Djilas in The Music Man? Hell no.”

“Which led to the downward spiral of juggling knives.”

“Actually, being at the Pittsburgh Ren Fest was the downward spiral, but sure.”

Chris laughed. “You owe them a lot.”

“I just… I felt different than everyone else. I didn’t want to do actual theater, you know? Real theater has too many rules. Now, improv…” Zach trailed off, trying to think of how to explain it. “The only rule is to be honest and trust your partner. Ren Fest taught me a lot of that.”

“Makes sense why you travel with Joe, then.”

“Well—I could be honest with anybody.”

“Obviously.”

Zach waved a hand in the air, as if batting away the irritation. This was going to branch out into areas he didn’t want to talk about.

“So did Joe work with you at Ren Fest?”

Zach grimaced. Maybe he wasn’t as honest as he thought. Perhaps it was all about making other people think you were honest that sold a show.

“Sorry, did I ask something wrong—?”

Zach wiped his mouth and sat up straight, throwing his napkin on a plate. “No. I just need a smoke—it’s getting to me.”

Chris took the hint and pulled out his wallet, and Zach put out a hand.

“Dude, I was joking earlier—“

But Chris had already pulled out a few bills and was standing up. “I wasn’t.”

“Thanks,” Zach said hesitantly, feeling uncomfortably like he’d been rescued, or helped, or hugged unannounced. Annoying, really.

Chris gave a shy smile, then started walking out of the restaurant. As they passed their waiter, Chris gave him the money and the bill. “Merci.

Since the waiter looked pleased—“Merci beaucoup”—Zach took that to mean they could finally escape, and did so promptly at a side door.

He needed air. He needed to walk away from the district, too.

Zach felt a bit overdramatic about it all. The more he remained silent, the more Chris probably thought that Zach was hiding something. And he was—but Chris didn’t have to know that.

If the Cirque was at twelve o’clock on the metaphorical city map, they were now walking towards three at an idle pace.

Once they were away from businesses, Zach took out his pack and eagerly lit up. He caught the expression on Chris’ face, a hint of worry on his features.

“It’s nothing bad.” Zach took a long drag, then angled the plumes away from Chris’ face. “Don’t worry about it.”

“So you and Joe haven’t always traveled together?”

“No, no, we always have.”

Chris looked confused.

“Joey is older than me. So it’s just—by the time I got out of high school, he had a few years of being solo.”

“Wait, he’s older?”

Zach shrugged. “I’m 35, he’s 38.” He looked over Chris’ features, seizing the moment. “How old are you?’

“Thirty-one.”

Zach nodded, flicking the ashes. He should probably be more polite, but they were walking on a side street with some mechanic garages, grass nowhere in sight.

They were silent for a while, and the cigarette had calmed Zach down, somewhat. They reached a row a residential housing—lines of townhomes all stuck together, looking virtually the same except for color.

“How did you guys start touring together?”

“Well, I wanted to leave home.”

“Joe didn’t?”

Zach shrugged. “Well…” He wanted to light up another cigarette, but he would think of something. “Joey needed a change of pace. So when I got an offer to leave on a traveling show, it seemed natural to ask him along.”

It had been a bit more complicated than that. At that point in Joey’s life, the world had worn him down to the nub—Pittsburgh had worn them both down. Too many people knew them, and Zach had wanted to escape into anonymity, despite leaving Ma behind. It had been a fresh start, embarking them both on their current life.

“How long have you guys been traveling together, then?”

Zach squinted at the sky. “Um… 18 years?” He shook his head. “No, 17. Joey was a senior at that point.” Zach leaned over to Chris to clarify. “At college. He was a photography major—shocking, I know.”

“And he didn’t stay? Why not?”

Zach tilted his head back and forth in indecision. “It’s a long story.”

Chris gestured to their surroundings—fucking smart-ass copy-cat—and Zach shook his head.

“You’ve already used your card for that today.” Zach sighed. “At any rate, not really my story to tell. But basically, Joey was bored. Wanted to do something different with his life. So I took him along.” Joey had actually swallowed a bottle of pills before Zach had made him puke his guts out, but it all amounted to the same.

Chris eyed him suspiciously, but let it pass. “What was the tour?”

“Well, the guy I learned knife skills from actually went to Ren Faires across the country. He had this act—“ Zach stared at the sky again, “fuck if I remember the name. But I was a stage hand and back-up actor.” Zach smiled at the memory. It had been an interesting summer. He had received his first blow job from a gate greeter in North Carolina. “Joey mostly painted sets. But in the end, we both wound up being in the act. Once I started having the knives thrown at me, it only took time to convince Joey he could it as well.”

“Throw the knives?”

Nah. Joey would pop out of a barrel and look frightened out of his wits, and Steve would throw a knife as his head went down.”

“Missing, I take it.” Chris huffed a laugh. “Can’t imagine why someone wouldn’t want to do that.”

“Hey, they’re not really sharp.”

“Still pointy, though.”

“It’s all illusion.” Zach felt his fingers twitch for another cigarette, but somehow they had weaved through the neighborhood and back to a strip mall. How quaint—what asshole had told him that Montréal looked like an old European city? Liar.

They waited at a crosswalk for cars to pass. It took a while, maybe too long, for Chris eventually said, “That was really nice of you.”

“Hmm?” Zach read some shop signs—English! Maybe he could pull off this trip, after all.

“Taking Joe with you. I mean, I like my sister Katie, but I couldn’t imagine seeing her every day for 17 years.” Chris made a face. “I already shared that many with her at home.”

Zach quirked a lip, not sure how to take that. “We became really close after our dad died, so we stuck together after that.”

“Yeah… I can imagine.”

Zach side-eyed Chris, knowing that bringing up dead parents in any conversation was usually a killer. People didn’t want to think about death to begin with, not to mention hear evidence that all parents weren’t immortal.

Chris shoved his hands in his pockets, and Zach wanted to close the conversation once and for all.

“Joey is… the best person I know.” Zach smiled. “He deserves all the happiness in the world. Considering that I was his fucked-up younger brother for many years, saving him from college was the least I could do.”

Chris looked at him sharply, and Zach tried to shrug it off. “Stir-crazy, you know? Instead of taking pictures of, gee, actual flowers, they had him using a white box.” Zach shook his head. “Fuck that shit, that’s all I got to say.”

Zach stopped in front of a small indie boutique, noticing little felt creatures and dolls in the window. “Shit, Ma would love a llama.” Him and Joey hadn’t sent her anything in ages—and who knew when Zach would head into town again?

Chris was still silent as Zach pointed out the yellow pin, complete with a dude in a sombrero riding the back.

Chris squinted his eyes. “Do people actually ride llamas?”

“Sure, why not? They have legs.” As Zach looked for the door, Chris was shaking his head.

“Yeah, but I have legs.”

As Zach pulled on the shop handle, he looked back with a lascivious grin. “Are you saying I can’t ride you?”

Predictably, Chris flushed red—success.

“I’m going to go get my mama a llama. Be right back.”

It allowed Zach a few moments of needed respite. But he still grinned and waved his llama at an embarrassed Chris through the store window, because he couldn’t fucking help himself.

)O(
They actually went to a movie in the afternoon—a superhero flick they could both agree on—then wound up walking back to the IKEA house in the evening. It was almost a disappointment, except Zach’s shoes were starting to kill him.

“Cafeteria?” Chris asked as they showed their badges to the security guard, and Zach nodded. “Good, I’m starving.”

“You mean eating a whole barrel of popcorn was a snack?”

Chris squinted his eyes. “You had at least half.”

Zach pouted. “I’m never burning those calories off.”

“Well, I’m pretty sure the voyagers had paunches.” Chris held up his hands in self-defense. “Kidding, kidding!”

“You still don’t have a sense of humor,” Zach muttered, following Chris into the cafeteria.

It seemed most of their group had the same idea. Karl and Bruce were chatting with John in a huddle, while Zoe and Eric chatted with Joey and Natalia at the other end of the table.

Such friendly circumstances.

“Hey, where are you going?”

Zach scratched his head, trying to seem like he hadn’t been about to dart from the cafeteria. Chris was holding out an empty tray for him, and Zach took it.

“Nothing,” Zach said. Either Chris was the most unobservant human being in existence, or Chris liked the drama. “Thought I forgot something upstairs, I don’t know.”

Chris gave him an odd look, but immediately dismissed it as he piled on veggies over rice—brown rice.

Zach looked down at his mac and cheese and Jell-O and started questioning his life choices.

Hey,” Zoe said warmly as they approached. “How did your date go?”

Zach noticed that she was looking at Chris, so Zach took that as his opportunity to sneak away. He gave a little wave to them all, then beat a quick retreat to the man-huddle 20 feet away.

John held out a hand for a fist bump. “Dude, you survived.”

“Leave it to the Cirque to land us in the boring part of Montréal.” Zach dropped his tray and it cracked a bit too loudly. He smiled at Karl and Bruce, but kept talking to John. “What did you guys do?”

Karl looked down at the table, and Zach hoped to God that somebody else would answer that question.

“I terrorized some pigeons in the park.” John looked too proud of himself. “Got them back for the first day I came here.”

Zach narrowed his eyes. “Yeah? What, did they kill your wife and eat her?”

“So when I came in the first time to headquarters, there was a roving band of them in the parking lot.” John leaned back, gesturing with his hands. “I leave my car, thinking, ‘I’ll slam the door and scare them off.’ No. Them bitches flew at me. I practically got chased from my shitty car to the shitty building, throwing open the goddamn doors.” John threw out his hands. “Sanctuary, sanctuary!

Zach chuckled at that, while Bruce buried his head in his hands.

“And you know, I’d forgive them if that was the first time.”

“This sounds like a Hitchcock movie,” Karl quipped, finally laughing.

“Every—single—time that I leave that stupid building and go to the east-side parking lot, I’m mobbed by terrorist pigeons.”

“It’s true, they’re a hazard,” Bruce said as he wiped his eyes.

Zach grinned. “Okay, so how did you teach them a lesson?” He hoped none of it meant mortal peril, because Joey was sensitive to that sort of thing.

“So the Cirque has these blow horns in their storage room—“

Zach put his head in his hands. “I see where this is going.”

“They have this really interesting setting called ‘On’. Also known as ‘The Death Knell of Pigeons’.”

Karl barked a laugh, and Bruce piped up with, “Shit, I have to get one of those for my car!”

Zach shook his head in amusement. “Vengeance is yours.”

“Hell yeah. I chased those motherfuckers onto another street.” John gave them all a solemn look. “Cirque du Soleil is safe from marauders once again.”

Karl went in for a high-five. “Good man, good man.”

Zach was still chuckling about it when he turned his head, for no real reason—but it made him notice the other end of their table. Zoe was laughing loudly, maybe more so than Karl, and Zach suddenly had a feeling of awkwardness.

Joey was apparently telling a story, and next to him sat Chris, who caught Zach’s eye. There was a slight smile of acknowledgement before Chris went back to listening to Joey, although he didn’t seem to be as amused as the rest of the group.

Zach frowned at his mac and cheese. What was this, 900 calories?

“So what did you do today?”

Zach stuck the fork in his mouth as he glanced at John. Good thing, too—John was looking a tad too smug.

“Walked around. Saw a movie.” Zach shrugged. “Like I said, not much.” He almost threw in the train museum, but then Karl had just gained his smile back. Considering that it was also the scene of Zach’s traumatic mauling incident, he was okay with forgetting that place entirely.

“Yeah, same,” Karl said, then turned to Bruce. “We saw The Avengers. It was nice to just watch shit blow up.”

Exactly,” Zach said while pointing his fork. “Also? Chris Evans’ backside—just saying.”

“It’s unfair how attractive he is.” John shook his head. “I should’ve just laid down in the parking lot and let the pigeons eat me.”

As Karl and Bruce laughed, Zach patted John’s shoulder. “It’s okay. You’re still the prettiest in my book.”

“You mean it?” John leaned his head against Zach’s arm, pretending to sob. “Thank god for these anti-aging genes!”

Zach made a pity face for Karl and Bruce’s amusement, but it only took a turn of the head for Zach to notice the whole table was watching him. Eric, Zoe, and Joey were laughing—and then, of course, there was Chris.

Chris who chuckled softly with a small smile, then shook his head as he stood up with his tray.

“Don’t ever leave me, Zach,” John bemoaned, then shoved Zach’s shoulder away with a laugh. “Man, my only hope is that someday Ryan Gosling grows hideous with wrinkles.”

Joey leaned back from the table. “Aww, we’d still love you, John! Looks aren’t everything.”

“Funny, that’s what Ma told you,” Zach said easily. Yet despite the laughter around him, he wasn’t paying attention to any one of them.

Chris had walked out of the cafeteria without a word. Maybe he was tired, for all Zach knew.

“It’s a good thing Ma had two sons,” Zach started as he twisted back to face them. “You know, if you don’t get it right the first time…”

Joey threw a wad of napkins at him, but it finally made both groups slide together, brokering a tentative peace.

)O(
It was starting to become old. Day after day, after four months of training and rehearsing the same things, they were all still separate. With the soft opening of the show almost two months away, it made Zach skeptical. They didn’t even know the name of their production, much less how their acts would actually piece together. Why the fuck was Louis hired as a choreographer? Zach would’ve been good enough to boss people around.

But the moment Zach thought it was the moment that Louis snuck in: Louis had been watching them. And in less than a day, Louis revealed how he was going to smack their routines together.

Suddenly it became obvious on why they were left alone for so long—Louis had combined acts for them to learn. The rest of their time would be spent smoothing segues, not on inventing anything new.

“Five hour group practice, every day,” Louis shouted at them from the bleachers, “until the last week. Then it will be all you breathe, think, and dream about.”

It was everything Zach wanted, and at the same time the information slammed into his brain like bricks.

“Treat Eclipse like your baby, and it won’t act up on you.” Louis leaned back in his seat and watched them on the performance floor of the gym. He smiled, and Zach recognized it for the impending shitstorm that it was. “Start from the top.”

Everyone in the troupe met eyes as Zach wanted to tell them to hoof it. They had spent the last three hours being grilled on new routines, and those damn dance moves wouldn’t be acted by themselves.

All the performers ran to the back of the gym—the new backstage—leaving John on the main floor. John, whose day had been the roughest of them all, trying to read and learn new sheet music while Louis’ shouted instructions.

Behold!” John shouted at the bleachers, shuffling papers in his hands. “Us wayward monsters!” He twisted to the side, giving a sly glance. “We know not what becomes of us, only what begins.”

It was an interesting start, Zach would admit, although a bit more English than he expected. But Joey reminded him that some Cirque shows started with a quote on screen; so maybe in live performances the actors had to read them out loud.

But suddenly a rush of loud music filled the gym. As John ran back to join the troupe, Zach knew they were all supposed to race forward—all but the voyagers, who would be gliding on stage with their canoe at any moment.

The rest of the troupe ran forward in a flash mob, acting like wild animals of the night. Chris had claws bared, Eric his teeth, while Zoe and Karl growled and stomped their feet. John stood at the back and surveyed them all with immense pride

As the wild creatures cleared out and the music stopped, Zach felt his pulse race. This was the moment, this spotlight on them alone—the part of performing that became addicting over time, to the point where Zach was sure he’d never get enough.

He met Joey’s eyes with an assured smile. When Joey grinned back, they raced out in their pretend canoe, paddling the imaginary river.

)O(
The following week led to Zach memorizing everyone’s routines—which was to be expected in an ensemble show. The only surprise was that it happened between Tuesday and Friday, not over the course of several months.

For one thing, Louis was relentless. The promised five hours were only the tip of the iceberg. By the time rehearsal was over, Zach usually didn’t have solo time with Joey and John—rather, they turned into Zach, Joey, John, and whatever performer Louis had terrorized that day.

And it was just as well. It gave Zach a chance to make the athletes comfortable with their transitions. Five hours with the group, and then an additional five with each performer, and it was turning into an ideal situation.

Except the crying. When the Chinese had started throwing things, that was rather inconvenient and confusing.

Okay,” Joey started, then glanced nervously between Zach and Natalia. “From the top. We’re going to start over here—“ Joey motioned to the right of the stage, where Zach would be pushing the end of their canoe out of the metaphorical mud. “You’re supposed to slither from stage-left and over to me.”

Zach walked to his place and tried to hide his smile. It had really been something to see Natalia getting reamed by Louis, regardless of the fact that she was a Cirque veteran, recently off tour from Alegría. She had been equal parts appalled and frustrated, which filled Zach with secret glee.

Too bad that meant extra practice time, though.

Oof,” Zach said loudly, pretending to strain against the imaginary canoe. In the previous act they had been watching Chris, Karl, and Bruce on a trampoline— supposedly bouncy lily pads—and in the process had run their canoe into sandy ground.

“One, deux, three—yes?” Joey intoned, still inside the canoe and barking his orders. “Hefta, hefta!” he shouted as he banged the sides in protest.

Zach gave him a dirty look, then gave up on pushing. “Wah—wah!” Zach complained, his arms motioning that Joey should get his damn ass out of the canoe to help.

And as they started bickering—with Joey making exaggerated motions of being physically unable to get over the sides—Natalia would sneak up behind them, intrigued by the sight of humans.

In the beginning, Louis had wanted her to encounter Zach and capture his attention. But Zach had changed that around real quick.

It was Joey that turned around and became startled, causing both him and Zach to leap back into the canoe for safety. They would cower and hide inside, until like Bambi and Thumper, the voyagers would realize she meant no harm.

And it all worked, certainly. Natalia could pull off demure and innocent when she wanted to.

From there she skittered around the perimeter, showing both the voyagers her dance and her home. In the actual routine there would be other water nymphs on the side as John sang her song to the orchestra. But for now, Natalia circled an imaginary labyrinth to the center, where a pole would ascend from the floor, but for now stood a wooden stand.

She leapt onto it gracefully, going immediately into a handstand. From there she twisted and turned and maneuvered her body into positions that made Zach wince.

Really, Zach wasn’t sure if his Stretch Armstrong could throw legs over his head like that.

Wow.”

The whisper caught Zach by surprise, and he turned his head to see Joey agog. They were supposed to act mesmerized, sure, but they were alone in the rehearsal room with Natalia, not in front of an audience. Zach would feign amazement when he had to.

But for now—Zach turned back to Natalia, where she finished by making herself into a living flower bud. Completely encircling the wooden stand, in the act her pole would descend into ground, like a retreating Lady of the Lake.

It would be… nice. It was near the beginning of the show, so it would balance out Zoe’s ballerina/fire-breathing and Chris’ aerial act later on. But right now Zach and Joey’s characters were still be in drunken stupor, easily amazed by everything.

When Natalia straightened herself, Joey burst into a huge grin.

“That was perfect,” he said, enthusiasm unrestrained in his voice. “I think you were more graceful and delicate like Louis said.”

The French Bitch glanced at Zach, but even Zach had to agree. In a nonchalant manner, of course.

“Your movements were way better, smoother,” Zach said, to be specific. “The circling was paced better this time.”

“I’m sure if the other actors were here, it’d be easier,” Joey reassured, but he still looked stupidly proud. “How did you feel about it?”

Zach fought the urge to cover his ears—he was sure at some point he would get used to her butcher block accent, but certainly not soon enough.

“I would like to go again.”

Of course she would. Staying in a room for three hours with Zach was just not enough.

“Maybe we could do some of your other transitions,” Zach offered. Truth be told she had improved immensely, and he doubted another go would result in something different. Besides, the other sections meant he’d have to go out and grab Zoe and Anton, and bearing the French Bitch was better in numbers.

But she glared at Zach. “Again. Please.”

Zach was about to give her a bitchface when Joey turned around, motioning to go back to the imaginary canoe.

“Just one more time, okay?”

Zach rolled his eyes, his irritation at pushing the canoe now turned real.

)O(
But this meant that they eventually reached Chris’ act at the end of the show. Right before the weekend, when everyone was supposed to be enjoying the night off.

No such thing for Chris, of course.

“You want us directly under you?” Joey asked again, for the tenth time. It was a switch-up in routine, and being in the direct line of a performer’s fire was usually a no-no.

But Chris sighed in frustration. “Yes. Yes, I do.” He shared a look with Zach. “Trust me, on this one—I think I have the ‘zing’ that Louis is looking for.”

Louis had been harsh with all of them, but with Chris it had been different. Where Louis had been specific with Natalia, Louis had been nebulous and confusing about what it was that hadn’t worked in Chris’ act.

Naturally that made Chris grumpy as fuck.

“Perhaps we could interact with you more,” Joey said hesitatingly. “We could even build a new transition—“

Chris threw up a begging hand. “Just—just let me show you something, first.” He went to his rope and tugged the length. “Once I’m up there, you guys get into position and start from the beginning.”

Joey exchanged an annoyed glance with Zach, but Zach ignored it. While they had been more communicative with the other performers, in an easy exchange of ideas, Zach knew that Chris came off as closed and separate.

But unlike the rest of them, Zach trusted Chris.

This once,” Zach said quietly to Joey, then heard Joey grumble as he followed Zach to their pretend canoe.

As imaginary and non-existent as it was, they had started to mime and treat it like a real object. They’d put the invisible canoe away after rehearsals, then the next day get in the mind to pull it out again. A trick they had used for many different acts to keep them in sync and in-tune with their performance.

Zach figured at some point they’d get a real canoe, but so far he hadn’t even seen his costume yet, much less a boat. He could care less about either, anyway.

Oh, no no,” Joey started with his head in his hands. At this point in the act the voyagers were confused and sobering up, having just witnessed a dance between Eric and Zoe that reminded them of their wives. The lighting would supposedly be changing, reflecting that dusk was around the corner and they were still far, far away from home.

Zach patted Joey’s shoulder in comfort, but Joey still shook his head. During this the canoe moved closer and closer, until finally they drifted under Chris’ rope.

Zach pretended to notice the changing skyline and sighed wistfully. At this moment Chris would start his descent, capturing the voyager’s attention. He was supposed to represent a spirit that brought on the new day, and not only that, show them the way home by flying in that direction off stage.

Zach wondered how they’d visually see Chris to bring on this new act, when he saw Joey glance upward in frustration, and then tugged Zach’s sleeve as he pointed.

Oh!” Joey said, and Zach followed suit in pointing towards the sky, their fingers following the new flying siren they’ve come across.

But Chris’ act was very similar to before. Maybe it was the change of focus that Chris meant. Their canoe being in the center, as opposed to the left, would bring the voyagers more into the action rather than being mere observers.

Good, good. Zach could see that working for them.

There was a point where Chris would swoop at them, and Chris still did this, causing both voyagers to fall back into the canoe and hide from being swooped upon again.

Except… Chris stopped right above them, dangling high in the air. Joey leaned back on his elbows and tugged Zach’s sleeve excitedly, as if they were witnessing a UFO. Zach also leaned back in awe, a twist of intuition working its way in Zach’s stomach.

Ah!” Joey yelped as Chris suddenly dropped—falling, falling, falling, right above their heads—into what seemed like an eternity but was really seconds.

Zach clutched his chest as he stared at Chris dangling above them, no more than five feet at most. It had been harrowing and exciting, just like the first time he’d seen Chris do it—only this time Zach thought the rope had broken. It had given him a mild heart attack, but Zach should’ve known better. Chris was perfectly still once again, posed like a teardrop, fingers pointing down.

Joey whispered behind him, “Jesus.”

But Zach knew the invitation when he saw it. This whole time the voyagers had been mere observers—watching acrobats, and contortionists, and fire breathers, and dancers—but now this siren was inviting them to join him.

Zach was slow in getting up—tentative, tentative, hesitant in reaching—and when Zach finally got to his feet there was a flurry of movement.

Chris had climbed up again and was soaring above them, making circles around their canoe. Joey slapped Zach’s arm in sportsmanship, as if Zach had almost caught the big one.

After Chris’ five circles, he faced towards them, tumbling down, fingers beckoning to stage left—and then out. Chris had flown completely out of sight.

Zach and Joey stared at each other, and Zach wondered if they were continuing the act or actually showing their amazement. But as they had previously planned, Joey made the motion of the canoeing moving forward—counter-clockwise around the stage—until their canoe also exited stage left.

By that time Chris had left his rope and stood far off the mat, waiting for their reactions. He looked like a little boy with a homemade gift, wondering if it had been good enough, liked enough—his hands bunched together, tugging at his knuckles.

Zach didn’t have to tell him, for Joey burst into a wide grin.

“That was crazy,” Joey practically yelled, then reached forward to pat Chris’ shoulder. “Oh my god, you scared the hell out of me!”

Joey was manhandling Chris with a hug and a jump of excitement. The confused look on Chris’ face was adorable, especially as Joey kept babbling on, unable to help himself.

“Fuck, I thought something had broke and you were killing yourself!” Joey had stepped back, a hand on his heart. “God, you’re going to freak out the audience.”

Chris gave a small smile of acceptance, as if still trying to figure out whether this was a good thing. When he glanced over at Zach the expression hadn’t changed, in fact became more guarded as he waited for Zach to respond.

Zach hoped his grin was wide enough. “Dude, that sent goosebumps up my arms.”

Chris had started to gnaw on his lower lip—when had Zach’s opinion mattered so much to him? Then again, he had gotten bent out-of-shape over Louis, so perhaps it was the same with everyone.

“That totally needs to stay.” Zach reached forward for a reassuring pat on the arm. “I can’t imagine anything better than that—it was fucking fantastic.”

At that Chris finally grinned, teeth showing as he beamed with pride. “Yeah? You really think so?”

But by then Joey and Zach were exchanging high-fives in congratulations—this was an ending that would knock everything out of the park. No matter what Louis said, Zach would fight to have that remain in their act.

“You’re a genius, Chris.” Joey held up his hand, and Chris returned the high-five. “I’m sorry I put up a fuss, you were totally right.”

“I told you,” Zach said in admonishment, but instead he was looking at Chris, who was keenly looking at him.

It wasn’t awkward—nope. Looking at Chris was the most natural thing in the world. He was just another dude Zach was working with, no sweat.

So why did it feel strange, all the sudden?

“Hey man, give me a high-five.” Zach held up his hand, feeling as if the seconds had ticked by too long. A nervous twist was at the bottom of his stomach, as if Zach had just made a complete fool of himself.

He hadn’t. Right? They were just standing in a room, congratulating each other. And fuck anyone that thought that was weird—they were guys. Friends. Casual pats on the back.

Chris met his palm easily, but instead of pulling away he curled his fingers inward. Before Zach knew it, Chris was giving him a one-arm hug.

“Zach met me halfway.” Chris squeezed tight, and then let go just as quickly. “It wouldn’t have worked if he hadn’t tried to reach out.”

Zach felt his mouth go dry. Chris had been incredibly warm—they had hugged before, right? Chris was a hugger. He had hugged other people at the Cirque, surely. Totally not a hugging virgin.

Zach looked over at Joey, who was grinning like a fool.

“Zach certainly has instincts,” Joey said, then bit his lip in amusement.

He could only stare at Joey—what the fuck was that look? Either Joey was having a seizure, or his supposed-to-be-slight head tilts and eye gestures meant something.

Zach was not going to contemplate it. Was not going to contemplate how the wink wink, nudge nudge usually did mean I’ll spend the night somewhere else.

“Um—hey.” Zach ran a hand through his hair and turned towards the clock. “Let’s break for dinner or something, yeah? I’m starved. In fact—it’s totally the weekend. What the fuck are we doing? We should be out partying or something!”

Zach laughed uneasily for the first time in his life. Why was he nervous? He should totally not be nervous. There was nothing nerve-inducing about this situation. Zach loved performing, and Chris had finally aced the ending of their show. They completely had this in the bag.

Chris shrugged in acceptance. “Sure. Want something in the cafeteria? Or we could go—“

“Actually, you know what? Not feeling well.” Zach touched his stomach and feigned a wince, then backtracked to the door. “Late nights and all that. Catch you later?”

He had meant to say that to Joey, but all he could do was stare at Chris—stare at Chris as he frowned in confusion.

Zach needed a moment.

“Later!”

“Hey, Zach—“

But Zach closed the door on Joey’s voice, making a mad dash to the fresh air and the night sky and all the things that weren’t that performance room.

He had walked to the statue in front of the IKEA building without realization, a block down the street from the front of headquarters. Zach stared at the strange sculpture in the dark—a wire mess of a human being as it back-flipped in the air, the copper coils catching a few errant beams of streetlight.

Zach felt out of breath, and it was ridiculous. It was like that moment of being in his grandma’s basement, then remembering to fear the monster under the stairs. He’d dash to the top landing, not daring to look back, afraid that whatever had spooked him was just waiting at the turn of his head.

Ugh,” Zach said to no one in particular. The area was quiet, and Zach was sure that whoever was in the nearest apartment had likely heard him.

He walked quickly to the entrance and pulled the handle, relieved for the distraction of showing his badge.

“Early night?” the security guard absently asked, not really listening for an answer.

Zach only nodded, then darted towards the flight of white railings. Maybe if he dashed towards his room and did not look back, these feelings would be squashed behind that fancy glass door.

)O(
“So, do you think Natalia needs to rehearse some more?”

Zach was in their apartment kitchen, fixing a new cup of coffee. Not enough cream, not enough sugar—apparently the cafeteria coffee was superior to something.

Joey leaned against the counter, shirtless with his sweats, and sleepily rubbed his head. “Huh?”

“You know, rehearse. Go over things. I could see if Zoe and Anton are free—“

“Dude, it’s the weekend.” Joey shook his head, looking at Zach like he’d grown a third head. “Nat and I have plans.”

Zach nodded slowly, new thoughts and directions occurring to him. “That’s cool. Where to?”

“Not where you’re invited.”

Zach pouted as Joey left the kitchen. He mumbled into his coffee cup, “Wasn’t asking, jerkface.”

“You know, if you’re really keen on avoiding Chris—“

Zach made a face as he rounded the partition to the kitchen, looking at Joey crossly. “What the fuck? I’m not.”

“John is rehearsing his music today.” Joey grabbed a shirt from a chair and tugged it over his head. “He probably wants the company.” Joey gave him a look as he tossed a different shirt in Zach’s direction. “Although I think you’re being stupid.”

You’re stupid,” Zach muttered under his breath, the cotton zebra shirt comforting and baggy. “But whatever, man. Have fun.”

Zach toed on his flip-flops at the door, not giving a damn how he looked. He had showered and thrown on clean underwear, and that was the most humanity could expect from him today. Tired, bored, confused—mostly tired—Zach just wanted to lounge and mope in some busy corner, ignored by the rest of the world.

Zach made it an adventure to find the music studios in headquarters. For one, they were in an entirely different direction than the gym—good, good, that was good. Second, all the signs had English, French, and then Braille, and Zach put his fingers on all of them.

He wasn’t sure he could get in once he reached the right floor, but strangely it was vacant and quiet, for the most part.

Zach glanced through a tiny window in the first studio door, and saw that John had stolen the room for himself. If Zach were in his shoes, he could see himself doing the same. At this point John had only seen the music for a week, yet was expected to have the nonsensical lyrics down pat by Monday for group practice.

Considering the lyrics weren’t even a real language, but Cirque-ish? Zach wished him all the luck in the world.

As Zach tried to quietly open the door, a red light and buzzer went off. So much for being stealthy.

John bit off the word he was singing to glance at Zach, then beckoned him inward. The small studio was black and soundproof and everything Zach would expect, including the fuzzy microphone that John had been singing into.

John shuffled sheet music as Zach found a chair. His sigh was the loudest thing Zach had heard in an hour.

“This is not what they told me.” John threw down the music in frustration. “Ambient? Maybe if everyone in Rio was doing the samba in a catatonic state.”

Zach made a face. “How could you do the samba in a catatonic state…?”

John waved him off. “It reminds me of the Amazon. Who the fuck’s idea was it to make me sing like… like...” John gave a middle finger to the sheet music. “I’m not Enrique Iglesias, man.”

“Yeah, you don’t have the same bedroom eyes.”

John gave him a dirty look.

“Try it for me. I mean—we’re supposed to be French voyagers, right? It can’t really sound like the Amazon.”

John straightened his music on a stand. “Well, it’s kind of dreamy in parts. But it has this undercurrent of rhythm to it that’s a little too… upbeat?”

Zach sighed. “Dude, you’ve heard the theme for Alegría, right?” It was the Cirque’s most famous song, so Zach didn’t really doubt it.

John considered it a moment, then, “Well… yeah?”

“It’s about how life is fucking painful, but it’s like, painful beauty—and that’s upbeat.” And then, when Zach thought about it, “I guess that one does sounds like a catatonic samba, actually.”

“They all have that Cirque sound to them.”

“The catatonic samba sound.”

John put his face in his hands. “Nobody knows what the fuck I mean.”

“Just sing, dude.” Zach had made himself comfy on a small bench, and fortunately there was even a pillow to clutch. “They hired you because you’re obviously what they want. They wouldn’t give you material that didn’t match your voice.”

John had no answer for that, instead readying himself for the music. He gave a side-glance to Zach. “There’s a CD player to your left.”

Zach looked, and sure enough there was. He sat up and let his finger hover over the right button. “Yeah?”

John nodded, and Zach pressed play for the music to roll.

It took an hour to go through the whole set, but it was an hour well-spent. For one thing, Zach had been trying to imagine the music for ages. It did come off as a bit tropical to him, but mostly that was during the middle, when the sirens came out to play. Of course things would sound more exciting, then.

It made Zach wonder when the music had been written. It was suspenseful for Natalia’s contortionist bit, and hyper and rollicking for the Chinese acrobats. Zach could envisage each act clearly in his mind as the music played—even for Chris’ aerial dive there was a lull, he assumed for the moment when Chris lured and swooped at them, heightening for drama.

It was good world music, actually. Pure Moods quality.

“Well?’ John asked when he was done, taking a long sip of water from a clear bottle.

Zach gave his most assuring smile. “You were great, man.”

“Shut up.”

Zach rolled his eyes. “I don’t tell people they’re great unless I mean it.” A moment of confrontation with Chris came to mind, and Zach mentally shoved it away. “Your voice is unexpected. Rough like I thought, but… you know how the sandman is taunting and trickster, right?”

“You want me to be more playful?”

“Yeah, why not?” To Zach, the music currently lacked personality. While John could hit all the notes—some high and soft, others mellow and lilting, to Zach’s surprise—it was all rote and flat. “Pretend you’re a sadistic bastard luring Joey and I to the dark side.”

John wrote something down in the columns. “I’ve been trying to memorize things first, but I could do that.”

“Pretend you have a sense of humor, man.”

John looked at him blankly. “I have a sense of humor?”

Zach threw his pillow, and John deflected it with his hand.

“Do you know what the words mean?” It had all sounded gibberish to Zach, with various phrases that sounded like Spanish, French, and perhaps slurred and drunken English. “That could help with things.”

“Yeah. I have a sort of… translation guide?” John ruffled through his papers, finally producing one and handing it to Zach. “There’s not a lot of real words, but in the main theme it’s about enjoying life and seizing what you want.”

The main theme was reminiscent of a music box, innocent and simple, that precipice of feeling before falling over an edge. It reminded Zach of the theme from Quidam—perhaps that was why he had received the DVD in his itinerary folder.

“Mostly I chant things, repeating shit over and over.” John quirked a lip. “Guess that makes it easier to remember.”

“Along with all your acting cues.”

John ticked a finger. “Remind me when I’m getting my other singer, again?”

“Never.” That had actually been revealed a month ago, much to John’s dismay.

“Why are they not paying me more?”

Zach shrugged. “Because you have me?”

“My new life guru, I guess.” John gave him a small smile. “Thanks, man. I was about to storm out of here a while ago.”

“God, don’t. You’re the only one not annoying me right now.”

“What did Chris do?” After looking at Zach’s face, John backtracked. “I mean—who’s bugging you?”

Zach huffed. “I’m bugging me.”

“Well, you’re an annoying shit.”

“Just irritated for no reason, that’s all.”

John seemed to have no comment on the matter. He took another drink from his water bottle, then hedged with, “Maybe hanging with Chris a while will help things?”

Zach made a face. “What the fuck? Everyone thinks that I should just go hang out with Chris.”

“You are kind of joined at the hip.”

Am not.” Although Zach had to admit they did hang out frequently. During lunches, at least. Sat together at Poker, sometimes together at breakfast and dinner. There was also the time that Chris had watched the Quidam DVD in Zach’s suite. “We’re not together all the time.”

“So you’re not sleeping together, yet?”

Zach gaped at him, saw that John had said this as nonchalantly as the sky being blue. He even took another drink of water without choking, unfortunately.

“What—what the fuck?” Zach looked around the room desperately, like there would be hidden cameras, or Joey, or even Chris to ambush him on the joke. “That hasn’t even crossed my mind!”

But now it did.

“Fuck you, John.”

Chris would probably look stupidly good naked. With all his muscles and the years of training his body, there was probably not an ounce of body fat. His ass, though… maybe just in his ass.

Zach jumped from his seat and started pacing the room. “Fuck this.

John held up his hands in defense. “I’m sorry if your subconscious has yet to inform you that you’d really like to tap that.”

Zach stopped pacing long enough to scowl and angrily wave a hand. “I don’t.”

“Well, if you don’t, then your body language has been saying something else entirely.”

Zach continued to scowl in disbelief. “Pretty sure I have full control over my body, thanks.”

“Well, then your body is sending the wrong signals, because I’m pretty sure that Chris thinks you want to fuck him.” John leaned back and crossed his arms. “Are you sure you don’t want to fuck him? I mean, I’d even fuck him, and I don’t even like dudes—“

Zach threw up his hands, glaring in exasperation at the ceiling. “I don’t know! I guess he’s hot.”

He had fabulous arms, actually. The blue eyes were also a nice touch.

Zach frowned. “What makes you think I like him?”

“What? Really?” John took a moment to consider. “Well, you laugh at all of his jokes.”

“Somebody has to, since they’re not funny.”

“You guys always seem to reconnect after things. Like rehearsals, lunch, going out—“

“Because we’re friends.” Zach waved a hand at him. “I reconnect with you.”

“Yeah, but you bounce all of your ideas off Chris.”

“No I don’t.”

“And Joe.” John casted his gaze downward in thought for a moment. “Actually, you spend a lot of time with Joe—“

“See! That doesn’t mean—“

“But maybe even more with Chris.”

“I do not.”

Yes, yes he did. A great deal. Maybe a bit too much. So much so that Chris asking Zach to dinner last night had not even been the strangest part—far from it.

Zach clenched his jaw, staring off to the side at random furniture and walls and windows and just anywhere but his feet. It all felt incredibly awful and wrong. He liked Chris a lot as a person, but Chris was nerdy and thoughtful and goody-goody and maybe too kind. Definitely too kind.

“Dude, are you brooding?”

Zach turned to John and made a mocking face, but John only laughed.

“Just go talk to Chris already.” John turned back to his sheet music. “I’m supposed to be jaunty and upbeat here, not dealing with boy drama.”

Zach held up his hands in offended disbelief. “Fine, whatever.”

“See you later,” John said as Zach closed the door on him—to all of that conversation, whatever the fuck it had been.

)O(
Not that shutting the door had helped much. It still meant the world was out there, and Chris was wandering around in it. And as much as Zach knew that Chris wasn’t actually the problem, he was acting like a freak around his friend. He usually only chose to do that in private, with the excuse of alcohol.

That’s a good idea,” Zach muttered to himself while waiting in line at the gas station. Since the cafeteria had a high probability rate of all the things he wanted to avoid, he had chosen a snack run for holing himself in his apartment. Zach would stay in his suite and watch stupid Canadian TV all weekend, then hopefully be back to normal by Monday.

It almost worked. Perhaps would’ve worked, if by evening Chris hadn’t come around.

Damn glass doors.

“Um.” Chris stood awkwardly in the doorway, looking at Zach’s blanket draped haphazardly like a toga. “You’re still sick?”

The worst.” Zach hoped he looks disheveled and dirty and unappealing. “Probably contagious as all hell. You should totally not come in here.”

Chris didn’t seem put off in the slightest. “Do you need me to get you anything? I know Joe is hanging with Nat—“

“Nah, I got all I need. Thanks!”

Zach went to shut the door, but Chris put in a hand to block him.

“Actually, I came by because—um—there’s a movie on TV.” Chris shrugged sheepishly. “I was wondering if you’d want some company?”

Zach really didn’t, and yet he desperately did. It was like a mixed bag of wanting to barf and being unable to.

“As long as you don’t mind me stealing the couch.” Zach stepped to the side, against his better judgment, and let Chris inside.

Really, he couldn’t avoid Chris forever. And besides—what was there to avoid? He didn’t want to fuck Chris. That was the end of it. Awkwardness solved.

Chris looked pretty happy with the exchange, anyway. Perhaps John had it all wrong—maybe Chris was the one who wanted to fuck him. Projecting feelings, or some shit—it had been on an episode of Loveline once, he knew that. Chris was obviously telling everyone that Zach liked him when it was completely the reverse.

And yet, Chris was at ease as he walked into Zach’s suite. Shouldn’t lovelorn fools be anxious? Jumpy? Nervous about everything that was said?

“Where’s your remote?”

Zach felt around him on the couch, then went to casually grab it from the coffee table. Except it slid across the surface, fell into his hand, slipped across his wrist, down to the floor, down to under the couch—

Fuck me,” Zach whined. He shoved his entire arm under the couch, angling himself to the point where he eventually fell to the ground with a huge thud.

Zach wanted to murder someone. He looked up at Chris, who was still frozen in the same spot of looking for the remote.

He narrowed his eyes. “Are you okay?”

“Does it look like I’m okay?” Zach struggled to get up, resisting the urge to pound the coffee table. Everything fucking sucked.

Chris came over to help, but before he could touch any unsuspecting body part, Zach scrambled.

Wow. Smooth.

“Um, I can get the remote.” Chris ducked to look under the couch and retrieved it easily. “You just… not move.”

Zach sat in the corner of couch and tucked his knees to his chest. He would’ve draped his arms around them, but then his hands would’ve had to awkwardly clasp in front of his knees for a while, and frankly, Zach didn’t need help with awkward.

It was a foreboding feeling as he watched Chris stand in front of the TV, channel surfing. While Chris could stand decently on both of his legs, he was shit at picking a channel. French, some English, and some Telemundo flipped rapidly by.

“Ah—here we go.” Chris backtracked to the couch and sat where Zach’s legs had been. “This is one of my favorites.”

It took Zach a moment, but eventually Ray Liotta appeared on screen and Zach recognized Goodfellas. Not a bad movie at all.

“Have you seen this one?”

Zach wondered if his awkwardness applied to speaking. “Yeah.”

And that was it. Yeah. Chris sat away from him on the other end of the couch, watching the movie, while Zach was getting stiff-legged and increasingly paranoid.

Maybe if he were horizontal he’d fall asleep, and then Chris would feel obligated to leave.

Chris turned his head. “Do you want to stretch out your legs? You can put your feet on my lap.”

God. Chris had said that with no hint of anything on his face—what an asshole.

Instead Zach punched his pillow and slid down, tucking up his knees to shorten himself. But still, the bottoms of his feet touched Chris’ thigh, and that was the beginning of a whole new complication.

Chris was so warm, even through socks. His skin was probably an inferno. Was he a calorie-burning machine, or what? Humans should combust at that rate. But he’d probably feel good around his cock.

Zach shut his eyes tight. Maybe if he started thinking about Ma naked, he’d be able to survive the movie.

“Are you in pain?”

“No, I’m just—“ Zach pulled the covers up to his chin. “Nothing.”

Chris huffed loudly and Zach didn’t want to turn his head, knowing Chris was still looking at him.

“Wow, you have the biggest bug up your ass right now.”

Zach narrowed his eyes at him. “Whatever, I’m sick. I get irritable when sick.”

“Do you become an asshole when sick, too?”

“Gee, I don’t know—have you met me? I think that’s my de facto state.”

Zach turned back to the movie, but he could feel Chris shifting at the end of the couch.

“Normally I can figure out why you’re an asshole, though.”

“Well, I’ll solve that mystery for you: I just am.”

Zach was going to hide under the covers again, but instead his irritation had hit its peak. He threw off his blankets, standing up too quickly and almost falling over. But he was able to look down at Chris, see that Chris was eyeing him skeptically.

Not only was Chris getting on his nerves, but he was trying some psychology bullshit, no doubt. His eyes spoke of hidden theories and reasonable solutions, and Zach was not going to put up with that.

“Don’t pull your Psychology major shit on me.”

Chris blinked in confusion. “Um, I didn’t major in Psychology?”

Zach still stood indignantly, but he had no answer for that one. “Oh.”

Another awkward moment. Chris kept staring at him, despite the best part of Goodfellas on TV. Ray Liotta was pistol-whipping the shit out of Edie Falco’s neighbor, and all Chris could do was look at Zach.

That wasn’t right. That wasn’t right at all.

“Okay—you know what? I’m weird.” Zach rubbed his forehead, then tried to laugh. “Sorry. I’m just… going through shit?”

At that Chris’ expression softened. That was possibly the worse thing, for Chris looked sympathetic. He not only looked kind and understanding, but was standing up in kindness and understanding.

Zach backed up. “So let’s forget all of this, yeah? Let’s just watch the movie.” He walked backwards to the partition of the kitchen and peeked around the corner. “You want something to drink? I bought some badass lemonade.”

Zach still had his hand on the wall as Chris came even closer, his eyes watching Zach like he was a startled deer. Now that was too much.

“Stop.” Zach put up a hand, looking at the ground. “Just stop right there.”

Chris did as he was told, his white-socked feet only mere inches from Zach’s bare ones. It made Zach’s heart ratchet up in his chest, unable to count his own breaths.

He was going to hyperventilate for no damn reason. The world had suddenly turned to shit.

“What’s going on?” It was soft, quiet. “You’re different now.”

Zach felt heady as he looked up. Out of all the times he had slept with someone, none of them had felt like this. He had always been in charge from the start, knowing exactly what he wanted and how he was going to get it. He could deal with being painfully aroused, or led on, or somebody teasing him before Zach bent them over.

He took a deep breath—Zach never slept with his friends. He never remained friends with people he slept with.

“I don’t want to do anything stupid.” Zach wetted his lips. “I’m kind of a stupid guy.”

Chris’ eyes followed the action, but he said flippantly, “I doubt it. You practically just wrote Eclipse and managed to make the Cirque feel like it was their idea.” He stepped closer and put a hand on the kitchen partition. “You might actually be the smartest bastard I know.”

Zach felt the motion burst from him. It took nothing at all to dart a hand to Chris’ neck and pull him closer, mouths smacking together in something blunt and forceful. It felt good to just touch lips, to feel Chris’ body that close to his, but then Chris had to grip his waist and open his mouth and everything fell overboard.

Chris had backed him up to the kitchen table, with Zach’s legs apart as Chris leaned into him, dominating all his space.

That woke Zach up and he wrenched his mouth away. “Fuck, no—sorry, goddamn. Shit.”

Chris stopped, but he was speaking in harsh whispers. “How many other swear words do you know?”

Motherfucker.” Zach pulled Chris’ head down to his neck, and Chris happily licked his pulse, biting at the crux of his shoulder. “You son of a bitch.”

“How about cocksucker?”

Chris’ hand skimmed the inseam of Zach’s sweats, and Zach squirmed.

“Not a fan.”

“Of cocksucker?” Chris raised his brows, leaning back a bit. “Really? You sure?”

Zach threw up his hands. “I don’t want to do this!”

Chris stepped back reluctantly as Zach hopped off the table, trying to gain some distance. Zach pulled up his sweatpants, but he knew they hid nothing, anyway. His best bet was to get Chris to leave the apartment.

But when Zach turned back around, he knew it was virtually impossible. Instead of Chris looking pissed, or rejected, or even in pain, he looked every bit the concerned gentleman.

“You’re a jerk, you know that?”

Chris tilted his head “And you’re an arrogant asshole.” He held up his hand, as if to tick off items. “I think that covers most swear words. There’s a few other ones, but I’m trying to be a good feminist, so I‘d like not to use those.”

Zach squinted. “What?”

“Berkeley, you know.” Chris quirked a lip. “My first week as an English major culminated in smoking pot, doing beer pong, and being schooled by a group of Women’s Studies majors.”

Zach was too caught on the first part. “You did pot?” And his mouth worked before his brain. “Did you have a pet tiger?”

Chris narrowed his eyes. “What?”

“Nevermind—but you actually smoked and inhaled, right?

“Just that once. Was too paranoid the month after, wondering if my athletic program was going to do a random drug test.” Chris sighed dramatically. “So, you know, I’m just not some random risk-taker. I wouldn’t kiss one of my friends if I didn’t think it could turn into something really, really good.”

Zach swallowed. “Have you done that before?”

Chris pretended to think about it, but shook his head. “Nope. You’re the first.”

There was something stupidly alluring about it. But most of all he liked Chris’ eyes, the way his gaze drenched Zach’s skin in wanting just way too much. If Zach pushed it any further, he suspected he’d be lying down with legs spread far apart on the couch.

“I haven’t, either.”

Chris gave him a full-body glance. “Obviously.”

The action set off wheels in Zach’s head. There was Chris, standing before him—hands on hips, skeptical expression, head held high and confident. Zach started to wonder where shy, nerdy Chris had gone; the guy who had used The Hobbit as a barrier to start conversation.

You’re different.”

Chris raised his brows. “Are you sure?”

Zach frowned—maybe not. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that Chris had talked to everybody without coaxing. Not only that, he was self-assured in how he handled himself—in his routine, his practices, and how he was capable in his athletics. When Guy Laliberté had called him Okay, Chris had brooded, not sobbed in a corner

Zach narrowed his eyes. Maybe Chris wasn’t shy—maybe he was aloof and arrogant.

You’re an asshole.”

Chris made a sound from the back of his throat. “If knowing what I want is being an asshole, so be it.”

“No, like—really.” Zach stood up, pointing a finger at Chris. “Look at you, right now. You’re being a cocky asshole. You came into my apartment not even knowing what was on TV, did you?”

“That’s wasn’t obvious?”

Argh,” Zach yelled in frustration and started to pace his living room. “This is all because you hugged me!”

Chris smirked. “I know.”

“Why the fuck did you hug me?”

It was a rhetorical question, but Chris huffed a laugh and answered it anyway. “Because you needed to take the hint.”

Zach glanced up at Chris, expecting an arrogant look like before—but instead it was plainly wistful. If someone had created a visual dictionary of such things, Chris’ sad expression would be picture perfect.

It was aggravating. “You don’t need to act.” And Zach was finally able to qualify it, to understand why the whole situation bugged him. “You’re a manipulative asshole—right down to abusing Goodfellas.”

Zach turned towards the TV, where Ray Liotta was having a great time in prison. It gave him an urge to kick in the screen.

“In fact—how long have you been maneuvering events?” Zach tried to think of another likely scenario. “You didn’t really need to borrow my spork the other night, did you?”

Chris looked at him strangely, a side-glance of confusion. “Or… I just really needed a utensil that could pierce and scoop at the same time?”

“See, see! Asshole.”

“You might be giving me too much credit.” Chris’ shoulders dropped, as if disappointment had finally set in. Maybe this hadn’t gone to plan. “I’m really not that smart, honestly.”

“No, no—you gave me a crisis, man.” Zach framed his head with his hands as he said it, then flicked them angrily at Chris. “You might be the smartest bastard I know.”

But Chris was entirely too calm. Strike number three against him: Zach couldn’t fucking fight with Chris, and all the nerves wound and twisted in Zach’s body, begging for release. Why didn’t Chris just yell like a normal person? Stalk around and have a temper tantrum if he was actually that sad.

But Chris glanced up slowly—blue eyes earnest, soft, pleading—and Zach would not take any declarations. They would be ridiculous.

“Just for the record, I would rather be licking your asshole instead of calling you one.”

Zach made a face. “What? That’s your line? The one that’s supposed to get me into bed?” Although a tantalizing option, Zach was still too irritated.

Chris looked off to the side and pursed his lips. “Yeah—yeah, I thought that would actually do it.”

Zach snorted. “Well then, goodnight.”

And in Zach’s head, he saw himself storming off down the hall, huffing dramatically as he slammed his bedroom door. He’d be sitting on his bed, throwing a pillow at the wall, and then waiting for the sound of the glass door to shut behind Chris Pine’s ass.

Instead, Zach just stood there. Hands at his sides as Chris stared silently back. It should’ve been awkward, but it wasn’t, with Chris’ body turned to the side. If anything, Chris noticeably lost his cocky swagger, his head bent down as he looked at his hands, his fingers, or maybe his feet.

“All right, I’ll go. Goodnight, Zach.”

But Chris didn’t move, either. Maybe there was something in the ground that nailed both of them there, and Zach wondered what would be the remedy.

Apparently it was Chris finally shifting a foot, for Zach reached out and grabbed Chris by the arm. He didn’t even need to tug as Chris turned around and smashed into Zach, taking his kiss by force. Mouths open, breaths departed, Zach felt his hip grace the living room wall, then the palm of his hand as he rolled on top of Chris, realizing that he had backed them into the hallway.

Chris’ eyes were closed, enjoying the sensations, but Zach watched him carefully. Listened as his breathing quickened, his body angled off the wall to get closer, ever closer. Chris fisted the back of Zach’s shirt, tightening into a full body embrace.

Chris really wanted him. It wasn’t just flattering, but smacked around the organ thumping wildly in his chest.

“God, stop thinking.”

The hands on Zach’s back moved down to his ass, and before Zach knew it he was pressed against the wall, Chris’ hands gripping and maneuvering Zach’s legs around his waist.

Fuck, it was hot, and Zach attempted to grind his hips. He wanted to say he fucking loved gymnasts, but then Chris lifted him from the wall and spun him around.

Ah!” Zach had never been carried before, and when Chris dropped him unceremoniously onto the bed, Zach was still in shock.

Chris threw off his t-shirt, grinning down at him like an idiot. “Yeah? You liked that?”

Zach sat up and tugged at Chris’ belt. “Liked it?” He made short work of Chris’ zipper, and in too slow of seconds had Chris’ hard cock in his hands. “Fuck.

Zach flattened his tongue against the head, enjoying that he had finally stuttered Chris into silence. Chris’ knees went on the bed, boxing Zach in as hands and lips stroked him, finally dragged a groan from Chris’ mouth. Zach let his eyelids finally close as he sank further down, a hand pushing Chris’ pants off to knead the flesh of his ass, wanting Chris even impossibly closer.

Zach had always liked to give head, and maybe oral sex was his favorite thing, but Chris took it to an entirely different level. His hands stroked and tugged Zach’s hair, fingers whispering the back of his neck in obvious affection, and Zach couldn’t recall when he had ever been this hard from sounds alone. He let his hands roam Chris’ skin, from ass to the small of his back, then smoothed over to grip Chris’ hips and thighs.

His hips had jerked in and out, but then Chris harshly gasped, “Not yet—no,” and he pulled his cock out of Zach’s mouth, wet skin over puffed lips.

Zach wanted to protest—he knew what that usually meant—but Chris rolled to the bed behind him, legs spread and knees bent. His arms beckoned Zach to follow him, held out like Zach would fall into them that easily, like he would want that sort of comfort.

It was too appealing. Chris’ legs were making short work of his jeans, and Zach needed the moment to rip off his own shirt to toss to the floor. Chris was like a magnet, and soon he was leaning over him, letting Chris slide his sweatpants over his hips and cock.

Zach exhaled with pleasure, Chris’ hand gripping his shaft as another hand dipped into his sweatpants to cup his balls. It was exquisite, and Zach leaned down to meet Chris’ kiss, missed and messy. Zach jerked forward into his palm until their bodies were pressed together, trapping Chris’ hand as they rubbed and smacked skin, hips locked and rolling and pressing Chris’ body into the mattress.

He really wanted to fuck Chris, perhaps more than anything in his life, but the friction was too perfect and he moved too fast. Chris wrapped his arms around Zach as he came, tight and possessive, and Zach bit into his shoulder to stifle the loud and drawn-out moan. It felt ridiculously good to come that hard, that long, with Chris’ legs locked around his waist.

Normally he wasn’t clingy, but Zach pressed his nose deeper into Chris’ skin and kept trying to breathe. He was still fuzzy and tingling and Chris hadn’t let him go, and that was strangely okay. Chris let a leg drop, but his arms were still draped around Zach’s shoulders as he rubbed Zach’s back, head turning in an attempt to kiss his temple.

Eventually Zach needed his space and he rolled off, his stomach turning cold when he did so. His skin glistened from both of them, but Zach couldn’t be half-assed to do anything about it. It was the first time he had felt this relaxed in a long while, and he stared at the ceiling trying to enjoy it.

Chris only turned his head, and for a moment Zach feared awkward conversation. But a minute drew on, and then another of Chris just watching him, and Zach could no longer take it.

“Hey… didn’t you promise to rim me?”

At that Chris laughed—a giggle that turned into a deep chuckle—and his hand awkwardly touched his own wet chest and stomach.

Chris licked his mouth in contemplation. “Maybe later.”

Zach bit his lip at he glanced back at the ceiling, not minding that insinuation one bit.

Chapter Text

A month later and the production was more in swing. Zach had been fitted for his costume—a tunic with simple pants and boots, thank God—and Zach still had brutal day-long practices with the troupe. He still ate lunch with Chris, still hung out with everyone.

It was just that now—even sometimes before dinner—Zach took Chris home to fuck him, that’s all

“Focus Zach, so you don’t drop my ass.”

Zach made a face at Joey, threatening to lean back and knock him off his shoulders. It was a new part of the knife-throwing routine. Joey would jump on Zach’s back in fear, then climb him like a tree as Zach ran to safety.

“You’re heavy as fuck.” But Zach dropped him in their imaginary canoe, as planned, and off they went.

Still no word on the real canoe. But they would be seeing the stage soon enough to perform previews.

Once they had rowed off stage-left, Zach looked behind him at Karl and Bruce, who were picking up the nonsensical and juggled pieces.

“All right,” Karl conceded with a sigh as he looked at Bruce. “Break?”

Please,” Bruce said as he rubbed his shoulder. “Gonna go grab Zoe for a massage.”

The moment he said it he winced, and Zach wondered if the performing life had started to wear at him.

Karl shook his head. “It’s cool. She’s likely in the dance studio.”

Zach wondered how he had missed Zoe being awesome at massages, but he stored that info in his brain for another day.

When Karl and Bruce left, Joey gave him a relieved look. “Man, if I can’t mention Zoe again, that’s going to be awkward.”

Zach locked up their juggling equipment. “What?”

Joey rolled his eyes. “Oblivious as always.”

“Am not.”

“With straight people, anyway.” And before Zach could protest, Joey continued. “They broke up.”

Zach had to think on that a moment. “Zoe and Karl?”

“Yeah. Zoe doesn’t want the Cirque life. She thought they’d wind up in Vegas and everything would go to hell.”

It made no sense. “What’s wrong with Vegas? It’d be a stable life in Vegas.”

Joey gave Zach a look. “Not a good environment to settle down.”

Zach squinted in confusion. “They want to settle down?” Remnants of conversation occurred to him. “I thought they didn’t want kids.”

Joey shrugged. “It’s not about kids, it’s about family. The more you’re in the Cirque, the more likely you’ll be separated from them on tour—boyfriends included.”

Zach still frowned in confusion. “So?”

Joey shook his head. “How does Chris put up with you? Seriously.”

In unspoken agreement they left the rehearsal room for lunch, and Zach was still confused. He had never been for the monogamous thing anyway, but Zach had supposed after five years that Zoe and Karl would’ve had the touring thing figured out.

And if not—breaking up was sometimes the shit that happened. They’d find someone else to fuck.

At the entrance to the cafeteria, Joey greeted Natalia warmly with a lover’s kiss. Zach rolled his eyes—awkward. Couldn’t they do that somewhere else? PDA in all its stripes was just too personal.

As Joey hugged the French Bitch, he surveyed the cafeteria. “Where’s Chris?”

Zach looked around—good question. “Probably working out.”

Chris had confessed to five hours a day—had been five hours a day for most of his adult life. Sadistic.

“I’ll go grab him.”

Joey gave a little wave as Zach left them, and even Natalia did one too, but it was irrelevant.

Now, that had to be one of Joey’s longest relationships. Three months now? Since catching them at the train museum, anyway. Zach hadn’t been sure on the beginning and didn’t even want to ask. It would likely result in TMI that required plugging his ears—although Joey never did when he asked about the wonders of gay sex with Chris.

Not that Zach was ever explicit, but noises couldn’t be helped. After that first morning when Chris left, Joey had looked at him and snickered.

Whatever, he didn’t hear moaning from Joey’s room.

Zach peeked into the window of a larger gym after the weight room had failed to yield a Chris, discovering that the trampoline was occupied.

Maybe Zach could finally get on the damn thing, for a change.

Chris gave him a quick glance from 10 feet in the air. “Fuck—is it already noon?”

Zach shook his head. “Nah, we broke for lunch a little early.” Ten minutes early, but whatever.

At that, Chris bounced higher—the room was tall for things like this, and Zach suspected Chris was now up 20 feet in the air. Body in a taut line, arms pressed to his sides, as Chris tried to keep bouncing in place.

It mostly worked, but Chris scowled. “I know what you’re thinking.”

Zach raised a brow. “Really?”

“Why didn’t I go to the Olympics for this?” At that Chris went askew and fell on his ass, and Zach couldn’t tell if he was joking. He had found out that Chris’ sense of humor was subtle and wicked—but then, the Olympics were a touchy subject.

“Sure?” Zach hedged and waited.

Chris smirked. “Did you know that’s a real sport? Medals and everything.” Chris leaned over the rim of the trampoline, grinning down at him. “Still wouldn’t have qualified, though.”

Chris offered Zach a hand, and with a few sounds of encouragement he pulled Zach onto the trampoline. They crawled to the center, facing each other, where Zach was so not okay.

“I am getting the fuck down.” The ground was wobbly, too far up, and frankly Zach was starting to get motion-sick. His arms, despite staying still, bent at the elbow as he tried to balance himself in place.

Chris smiled warmly. “Just give me your hand.”

“You can give me a hand on the fuck down.”

Chris chuckled, and that was especially aggravating. “It takes a moment. You just need to get your bearings.”

“Or, you know, I could get down—don’t fucking move, Chris. Just don’t. Or I’ll never blow you again—“

Chris, of course, stood up and was perfectly still, as if they were talking on a concrete floor instead of weightlessness. He gave Zach a patient look. “You wouldn’t be able to help yourself.”

Zach gritted his teeth. “Fuck off.”

“I’m going to walk to you, and you can grab my ankles to help stand up—“

No.

Chris moved anyway, and Zach reached out to hold his foot—only to land on his side and accidentally roll over.

Chris bent over at the waist, his stupid fucking smile appearing upside down. “It’s all in the legs.”

“Have you seen my legs? I might as well be a chicken.”

Chris quirked a lip, and Zach’s eyes followed his hand as it moved down to touch Zach’s hair, moving a strand back into place.

“Can’t say I have. Was too busy looking at other things.”

It looked like Chris wanted to kiss him, although it would require too much flexibility on Chris’ part. Either way, Zach shook his head.

“You kiss me right now, I’m punching you.”

Chris chuckled. “Wow.”

“No, seriously.” Zach scrambled like a newborn calf out of the womb, falling all over the place and cursing loudly. “I don’t do PDAs, man.”

Chris was still laughing as Zach found the rim of the trampoline. There were a set of stairs if he kept moving to the right, using the heavy metal frame under his hands as a guide.

“What if I wanted to kiss you in public?”

“Then you can kiss somebody else in public, thanks.” Zach had almost crawled to the stairs, when he saw a pair of feet glide by him—fucking asshole.

But Chris moved below him on the landing, then offered up a hand. “You’re adorable when you’re mad.”

“Oh, wait until I’m truly pissed.” Zach reached out for the hand and missed. “Fuck this trampoline.”

It was the worst case of sea legs Zach had ever had. He didn’t recall a trampoline being this difficult—although admittedly his former forays had been closer to the ground and about 100-feet less in diameter. More like his best friend’s basement as a kid, on a trampoline built for one.

So Chris had rejoined him, moving behind to help him stand up. Hands on Zach’s waist, his hips, his thighs, trying to stabilize the jerkiness and lack of balance as Zach leaned into Chris’ body, his only support.

Chris kept his hands on Zach’s hips, trying to keep them both still. It worked somewhat, although Zach’s knees still had a tremor.

Chris’ lips breathed near his ear. “Nobody is watching us in here, though.”

Zach swallowed. “Principle of the thing.” Although if they had been in Zach’s suite, he would’ve pounced Chris instantly and taught him a lesson.

Instead Zach moved like a decrepit old man, baby steps until he finally shuffled onto the stairway, breathing a sigh of relief at solid ground. He almost tripped as he leapt to the gym floor, wanting to get down on hands and knees at the non-moving ground.

Never again.”

“For someone who works in a circus, your sense of balance is shit.”

Zach glared up at Chris, who was casually walking away—casually stripping his tank top as he moved to a duffel bag. Strong shoulders on display, muscles tightening and flexing in fluid motion, and all Zach could do was stare.

That was fighting dirty, right there.

“Don’t think you can seduce me into PDA.”

Chris glanced at him in innocence. “I’m sorry, what?”

Chris turned to the side, abs and more muscles on display as Chris took a sip of water—and oh, look, a drop of sweat magically slunk down Chris’ navel. It was appalling that someone that good-looking also knew that he was that good-looking.

Zach snorted as he finally got to his feet. “Whatever. I’m going to lunch.”

“Okay, I’ll join you in a few minutes, after I soap up my naked and sweating hot body—“

Zach slammed the door to the gymnasium, almost running into a gaggle of women who were passing him in the hall. Some gave him a questioning look, and Zach almost couldn’t resist shooting them a nasty face. But frankly he was too busy darting out to the IKEA house—begging for a little privacy before practices resumed again.

)O(

It had all been annoying. Zach had missed lunch, gone to practices feeling sour, and then been distracted the entire time. A knife had actually hit him in the hip, since Zach had failed to catch it on time—not that it hurt, but it still stun him into awareness, nonetheless.

Joey bent over and picked up the knife, then pretended to stab Zach’s arm dramatically. “Dammit, I want to go home.”

Zach was a professional, and this shit probably bugged him more than anyone else. “Sorry, man. Focus is wavering.”

“Bet I know why,” Bruce quipped under his breath, and Karl joined in with giggling and a knowing look.

Zach narrowed his eyes—it was not like that. “I don’t feel well,” he bit out.

Bruce shrugged. “It happens to the best of us. And besides, it’s getting late anyhow.” Bruce flipped the rubber chicken in his hand, making it look like a smooth, suave motion—fuck that bastard for looking cool and dismissing him at the same time. “We can reconvene tomorrow, but we mostly have it down pat, anyway.”

Joey had hands on his hips as he stared at Zach, contemplating a decision. “Yeah, that works. It’s all rote memorization at this point.”

Not rote for Zach, apparently, but he bit his tongue. Self-criticism could wait for later. “I’ll sleep and be on the ball tomorrow.”

“You better,” Karl said as he pointed a finger at Zach, then departed from the gym. Bruce followed suit, waving a goodbye before he left.

Joey, however, hung behind with a concerned look. “I know we haven’t been hanging out much lately, but—“

Zach waved it off. “I get it, don’t worry.” Joey was trying not to feel guilty for whatever shit Zach was going through, and this was his way to offer amends in either time, talk, or the usual with both.

Except, unlike the usual, Zach had no idea what Joey would be saving him from.

Joey frowned. “You sure?”

“I just need dinner and a nap.” True enough.

Joey went around to pick up the rest of the juggling supplies, still watching Zach from the corner of his eye. It was strange, honestly, to be under that much scrutiny for a change, when he’d usually be the one eyeing Joey like a hawk.

But eventually Joey went off on his own—albeit reluctantly—while Zach was left to his own devices.

Dangerous, really. It made Zach consider and then enter an empty weight room.

He didn’t want to go back to his apartment, and he didn’t really want to head to the cafeteria. Chris would be in both places, and apparently it was Chris that was bothering him right now.

Zach turned on a treadmill, his feet on the frame as he set the speed. He decided to give it a go and hoped that he still remembered how to jog. Not that people forgot how to use their legs, usually, but Zach had a phobia of working out and especially running, so the outcome was debatable.

But whoever had designed the weight room apparently had more confidence than Zach did, for one wall had the words painted, You can do it! in not only English, but also French. With such impersonal encouragement like that, how could Zach possibly fail?

He huffed a bit as he tried to keep pace with the machine. The speed was just about perfect, giving him enough difficulty so he could stop thinking for a moment—for a second, for a minute, for an hour.

Chris had been very couple-y with him.

Zach shook his head—no, not really. Wanting to kiss in public is what lots of people did, coupled or not. To Chris’ credit, he had not tried to hold Zach’s hand or hug him in public, despite how most of the troupe suspected as much—most likely thanks to Joey.

But it was all a slippery slope in Zach’s head. Chris had pushed his buttons, and Zach knew that Chris was a devious little shit. Which would be fine if it was innuendo that Chris kept between the two of them, but Zach doubted he’d have that much restraint.

Zach tapped a button and tried an incline—he’d just have to let Chris know it was strictly casual, that’s all. They could mess around on tour and even be exclusive, but once the gig was up—well—he’d go wherever Joey threw a dart on the map, most likely back to Pittsburgh.

Zach frowned. He hadn’t called Ma lately, although Joey usually checked in with her once a week. She was dating a new guy who bought her roses all the time, pleased her immensely, and even made her forget Weight Watchers existed.

Joey found it adorable as fuck. Zach, however… was happy for her. If it lasted.

Zach hung off the railings of the treadmill, starting to sweat with effort from the incline.

Ma just usually had no luck. Their father had been perfect—kind, caring, a decent family man—and Ma had been unable to find anyone like him since. She had dated throughout their childhood, becoming depressed over one failed romance after another, with one man not liking she had kids, or another man not tolerating the ones she did have. Zach needed more than one hand to count all the boyfriends, which made it inconvenient to give them a posthumous middle finger in nostalgia.

But Ma was happy now, and that’s all that mattered. A guy who didn’t try to leech her disability check and actually enjoyed playing cribbage—imagine that.

Zach could hardly breathe, glaring at the words of You can do it! on the wall with as much disdain as possible. Did an athlete actually come in here sometimes, seriously doubting that they could, then look up and bang out a set of 20? People usually knew their strengths and weaknesses. Zach knew he had limits and punched the dials, lowering the incline and slowing the speed.

Zach would just have to tell Chris. It was still early with their—everything—and it was fair to warn him. Especially since Chris always had ideas about… something.

Zach felt sweat at the small of his back when the treadmill stopped, his legs still feeling a forward motion. It was a nice resolution to keep to—to just to keep moving, moving forward.

)O(

Chris tipped his head back as he took the noodle into his mouth, chopstick hanging in the air as the skin of his neck was exposed, plain and naked like the rest of him.

Zach watched as the pale throat swallowed—what sort of hippie institution had Chris attended, anyway? Chopsticks? Seriously. Zach didn’t have time to learn that shit.

He stabbed into a piece of sesame chicken with his fork, still watching all the fluid lines of Chris’ body. He was kind of pretty, admittedly. It was awful lighting, and Chris had all the scars from years of being an athlete, but they didn’t take away from Chris’ softer qualities. His lips were still full and pale pink, with his tongue darting out occasionally to lick his mouth. His eyes were bright—stained glass in the darkness, catching odd bits of light. If Zach reached out to touch his feet, the closest thing to him, they’d be soft and smooth and clean between the toes.

Although there was “the parasite”—the scars on either side of Chris’ right ankle, shaped like scorpions, from the surgery that had ended Chris’ all-around medaling career. A vault had gone horribly wrong and fractured the bone in three places. Chris was sometimes self-conscious about it, if only to explain what it represented.

In truth, Chris was marked from head to toe. Zach had burn marks and scars from acts gone awry, but Chris looked like a warrior that survived combat. Parts of him didn’t look 31—no wait, recently 32—and it made Zach realize that an athlete’s life was short for a reason.

Chris stuffed his mouth and tried to talk at the same time. “What?”

Zach looked down at his plate and stabbed another piece of chicken. “Nothing. Just looking at your toes.”

Chris wiggled them. “Do you have some foot fetish I don’t know about?”

“Ah, yes—let me go grab the huge red clown shoes.”

Chris smirked. “Kinky.”

Zach smiled as he leaned back, ignoring the rest of his takeout box on the bed. Things were easy and it was nice. Chris had thrown off his reserve at some point, leaving him to sit cross-legged on the bed, naked as the day as he was born, eating soba noodles from a white carton. His hair was messy and he hadn’t yet showered.

“Tell me something,” Chris said as he finished his takeout, then pointed at Zach’s. “You’re not going to eat that?”

Zach pushed it over without a word. Another thing about Chris? He ate Zach out of house and home. Which was just as well—Zach never ate things he left in the fridge, anyway. It was tidier, although it meant that Zach never had crackers left over for a midnight snack.

Chris pointed his chopsticks. “No silence, come on.”

Zach sighed. He had no idea what to possibly say. “I’m blanking.”

“What were you doing last year?”

“About this time?” Zach had to think about it. “Preparing for Burning Man. Was probably working a shitty job in the downtime, though.”

“Starbucks?”

Zach shrugged. “All the coffee shops look the same to me, now.”

That was the life of an interloper. If Zach ever had to fill out a shitty-job resume, it’d likely fill three pages and be the abridged-like-whoa version.

Chris nodded when he didn’t elaborate. “How about the year before that?”

“Same.” And before Chris could ask, “And the same the year before that, and the year before that—until the dawn of time.”

“So was the first Burning Man when that meteor crashed into the Earth and killed all the dinosaurs?”

Zach pursed his lips in thought. “I thought it was when Nic Cage made that Wicker Man movie. Brilliant actor, you know. Have to commemorate.”

Chris chuckled as he stacked the takeout boxes on top of each other, then leaned to place them on a dresser next to the bed. He had to get on his knees to do it, stomach tightening and cock hanging between his legs.

When he succeeded he fell backwards, flopping down next to Zach on the bed. His head rested near Zach’s propped elbow, just in reach of Zach’s tingling hands—the blond hair was getting long, and some maniacal makeup person likely had designs to cut it.

He tucked a strand away from Chris’ boyish face, his fingers lingering behind the ear. “What were you doing last year?”

“Practicing for the Olympic team.” And before Zach could open his mouth, “And the same the year before that, and the year before that—“

Zach pinched the skin of his jaw. “Jerk.”

“So what about that first year? You know, right when you and Joey left home?” Chris’ eyes were keen. “You stuck with the Renaissance Festival, right?”

Well, wasn’t Chris a clever one. It was like he had a heat-seeking missile for the subjects Zach least wanted to talk about and honed right in.

Zach shrugged a shoulder. “Hung around. Did odd things. Joey and I switched off with other groups and helped other performers.”

“So not the same thing constantly.”

“That’s the thing—each Faire is different. You could travel across one region, then find that the guys you’re with don’t go that far. Real jobs, or something like that.” Zach rolled his eyes and Chris predictably laughed.

It was very comfortable. Zach slunk down until his shoulders hit the pillow, with Chris’ lips kissing his bicep. Zach had to swing his legs around so they wouldn’t dangle off the bed, yet still had to bend one at the knee.

“When did you guys branch off?”

Zach made a face in thought. “Probably early 2001? What do we call those now—the early 2000s?”

“So over ten years of floating around.”

“Something like that.” Zach folded his hands on his chest. “It didn’t really feel like floating. Just… adventure. Freedom.”

“Didn’t you ever have a home base?”

“Ma’s house.” Truth be told, they rarely ever went back there. They made sure to see Ma on the holidays, but beyond that was unexpected. “Pittsburgh, you know. Ma’s lived in the same house for almost 30 years.”

“That sounds nice.”

Zach wanted to shrug, but his shoulder was too close to Chris’ face. “If permanence is your thing. I guess Ma needed that after Dad died.”

It was a long, stretched moment. Zach had dangled information out there and wondered if Chris would bite. It had always been less awkward to talk about his Dad, although other people usually didn’t know how to react.

Chris turned on his side, and when Zach looked over Chris had propped his elbow, looking down at him.

“How old were you? You know, when it happened.”

Zach knew exactly what he meant. “Seven. Joey was nine, about to turn ten. Ma was a young widow.”

There was another long moment. Zach normally didn’t care about silences, but Chris was just staring at him, as if Zach would reveal something at any moment or break apart.

Truth was, Zach had never really broken apart. It had been too long ago, he had been too young. He remembered hospital rooms like faded atmospheres in dreams, a path in the woods to a place he no longer cared about. He wanted a father, sure—he remembered bits and pieces about Dad before sickness took him—but the truth was, he had all the family he needed. He had Joey, and that was enough.

Zach unfolded his hands and let a finger tap Chris’ chin. “It’s not weird, you know. Probably for Ma and Joey, but not for me.”

“I can’t imagine that. I’m so close with my dad.”

“Well, you’ve had yours longer—also, he’s likely not an asshole, like some people’s parents.” Zach quirked a lip. “It’s just normal for us. Twenty-eight years, now.”

Chris’ eyes went to Zach’s lips, but it didn’t seem like Chris wanted to kiss him. It was if he were waiting for words to magically appear.

“But it’s different for Joey.”

Zach wanted to huff—it was too simplistic a statement, too little to convey how much it had ruined Joey’s life. While Zach had been too young to care, Joey had been old enough for it to kill him. Not just in trauma, but in all the responsibilities that had weighed his young shoulders—being the oldest, being the oldest boy, being Ma’s favorite, having to help take care of the younger brother and somehow forge a future of his own. A series of struggles and impossibilities that Zach never made easy for him.

“What were you thinking, just now?”

Zach gave Chris a withering glare, but it evolved to nothing. If anything, now Chris was patiently waiting with a pointed look. How annoying to be dating someone that couldn’t scare easily.

“I was just thinking of how I raised hell as a kid.”

Chris smirked. “I’m shocked.”

“No, really—like, juvenile hall type shit.” Zach tried to stretch, tried to gain some space, but it was no good. “I’m glad Ma sealed that stuff at 18, or I doubt I’d be let into Canada.”

Chris narrowed his eyes. “You didn’t kill somebody, did you?”

Zach made a face and shook his head. “No, just—shoplifting. Brawls. Running away and tons of graffiti. Just general tomfoolery—couldn’t do it on the stage 24/7, you know.”

“While I’m impressed at ‘tomfoolery’, the rest sounds stupid.”

Yep.” And boy, didn’t Joey agree with him. It came back fresh and new, all the fights that Joey and Zach had gotten into it—Joey screaming while Ma sat at the table, stoic, not wanting to believe the report card where Zach failed all his classes. Not wanting to believe he was a delinquent while Joey was so good, so perfect, the teacher’s pet and the apple of everyone’s eye.

Zach… had been a brat. Age made it sting more and more, the fact that he had been ungrateful and most of all unkind. Zach didn’t even know what his problem had been, just that he had wanted to break free from confines, and expectations, and be a different person out in the world. He wanted to be openly queer and revolutionary and artistic and not give a fuck about anything.

The worst was that Joey had never cared about any of that. He had never shoved Zach into a closet or asked him to be normal. He had just asked Zach to exist.

“That was probably hard on Joey.”

Zach could only sigh. “It was the worst.” Joey had gone to college to escape but never could. “Joey is practically a saint.”

Bile rested in his chest, threatening to climb his throat. He couldn’t cry about Dad, but he could cry about Joey. Everything in his life was measured from that moment. Being poor and on the streets? That was nothing. So hungry and broke that his stomach was eating itself? That was nothing, too. Being kicked in the ribs, burning off his chest hair, being rammed without lube and being told his act was shit was nothing compared to Joey’s dead, glossy eyes.

He had taken a bottle of something and tossed everything aside until Zach found him. How dare he. And yet, the note had been true—Joey had too many pressures, too many disappointments, too much to live up to.

Chris rested his cheek on Zach’s arm. “We all do bad shit. I’m pretty sure I put Katie through hell.”

“You mean you weren’t always a goody-goody?”

Chris snorted. “God. Katie would outright laugh at you for that. Especially since I was devious enough to blame it on her and not get caught.”

“We call that smart in some circles.”

“Heaven forbid what I would’ve gotten up to without gymnastics.” Chris turned his head to look at Zach properly. “When did you straighten up?”

“Never.”

“So I should be calling you Mr. Sticky Fingers?”

Zach gave Chris a patient look. “I grew up. Plain and simple.” It had been easy to do once Joey was on the line.

Chris moved Zach’s arm behind his shoulders, allowing Chris to mold to Zach’s side. A familiar position—Chris entangled their legs as he rested an arm across Zach’s stomach, his head on Zach’s chest.

“You still don’t feel guilty, do you? You know—that was a long time ago. People change.”

It was easy enough for Chris to say, but Zach supposed it had eased over time. Once Joey had been free of college, of Pittsburgh, of Ma and their old neighborhood—free to photograph mountains and wildlife and whatever stupid plants he liked in anonymity—he supposed forgetting had gotten easier, too.

“Things are better now.”

Chris kissed the skin nearest him, precariously close to the nipple. “Glad to hear it.”

Zach had not meant Chris, but in the scheme of things it was irrelevant. Life was better, in general, and he supposed that meant the attractive person laying against him, deciding that maybe he did want to mouth Zach’s nipple.

Zach sat up on an elbow, gently pushing Chris’ shoulder to make him lay flat on the bed. He was so pliant beneath Zach’s hands, so trusting. It almost made Zach angry, except he knew that Chris could probably kick his ass if he ever wanted—except he never did, never seemed to dream of it. He looked up at Zach and waited, watched as Zach hovered above him and took his mouth.

Was Chris happy? Joey was happy. Ma was happy, too. Zach wanted to rub against the curve of Chris’ ass, and Chris beckoned it—legs spread to trap Zach within, hands traveling to smooth over skin, to press him deeper.

Zach didn’t mess around. He reached over for lube and a condom, eager to spread slickness over Chris’ opening. Chris, again, was not resistant—he took one finger, then two, so quickly and without complaint.

“I’m good,” Chris hissed as Zach scissored him, and Zach didn’t believe it. But Chris started to fuck his hand, taking his fingers deeper and deeper, and Zach didn’t have the brain cells left to wonder why Chris was being a masochist.

He lined himself up, pushing in slow until Chris’ heel pressed the small of his back. There was a grunt, maybe from Zach in surprise, maybe from Chris in pain, but suddenly the world felt like a holy experience. Zach could feel something vibrating in his fingers, a sensitivity across the entirety of his skin, his chest clenched tight. He could feel Chris warm beneath him, gentle hands across his back and rubbing his shoulders. His cock was enveloped to the hilt, and he was pressed so close to Chris, so low.

Zach couldn’t breathe. Chris was murmuring things, soft and encouraging, and Zach didn’t want to look at him. Chris rocked his hips, fingers turning Zach’s face to meet his eyes.

Thumbs smoothed over Zach’s cheeks, and it was just too affectionate. It was going to thaw things that Zach didn’t want to uncover just yet.

Chris kissed him, delved inside him, then roughly grabbed his ass to move forward. It was all the incentive Zach needed—he had rested long enough, but he pulled out and plunged deeper, faster, eager to go as far as he could.

The bed didn’t rock, but Chris kept moving further and further up. He put out a hand to the headboard, gaining leverage to press back and rock against Zach, the breath knocked out of him the first time, then huffs of exertion long after.

It was wonderful to not think. Chris was everywhere and taking care of everything. He used his free hand to tug Zach’s hair, to pull at Zach’s neck, to stroke his own cock to come. All Zach had to do was thrust and keep hold and revel in the delicious pressure building up within him.

Chris wrapped arms around Zach’s shoulders, legs bent to his chest, and made Zach go harder until his hips went erratic. Chris was the best damn thing in the entire world, and Zach pounded into him until he collapsed, not caring where he fell.

Fingers carded through wet hair, sweaty skin, and a kiss on the temple. “You’re okay,” Chris whispered. “You’re fine, I got you.”

Zach felt completely the opposite. He buried his nose in Chris’ neck and breathed deep.

)O(
“I’m sorry, I thought I was dealing with a group of professionals, not fucking children!”

Zach turned and gave a raised eyebrow to Joey. Five months ago, when they had met Louis and he started yelling at them like this, Joey had been shaking in his boots. Now even Joey had learned to tune it out, giving a wink to Natalia next to him.

“Hey, Joe, I didn’t realize we were Match.com and not the fucking Cirque du Soleil!”

At that Joey snapped to attention, suddenly aware of the tiny bald man in his space. Muscular, but still a good foot shorter—probably had a good knee kick.

“In case the whole class was not aware, we give a preview to Guy Laliberté—you know, the man who’s responsible for your paychecks?—in less than seventy-two fucking hours..” Louis was more like a boiled lobster than a man. “Don’t let him think you’ve been screwing around this entire time, because he will scrap a production.”

What a threat. Zach tilted his head—he was quite aware of the stakes, but it was the first time that he had realized that maybe Louis had something at stake. Like, a future, and not just as a salaried choreographer.

“Come on, then!” Louis flapped his arms in exasperation, then went into the back of bleachers to shout at them from afar. “Start at the top of Act III!”

Joey gave Zach a wary look, which Zach definitely shared. The whole shouting match had started because of Act III—because Anton, who was on a tightrope, had not fallen in tune to the music. Nevermind that they had just started practicing with the newly-recorded music two days ago.

On the other hand, Zach found out he liked Anton more than expected. When Anton had not fallen on time, he had only glared at Louis with a visual I am nota fucking child.

Zach had wanted to be bro-like and fist bump, but Anton was back on the high wire already, apparently eager for torture.

The music started up again—reminiscent, like John said, of the Amazon—and Zach and Joey pretended to paddle their canoe to an inland beach. There they would walk out and see Anton on the wire—chased by the Sandman, of course.

“Oh!” Zach said as he pointed up in astonishment. Anton was doing some impressive running backwards—bare feet on a wire no thicker than a rope—as John stood on a wooden platform, looking menacing.

Well, as menacing as a Sandman could be.

Dramatic music played as Anton and the Sandman went back and forth. Zach heard laughter behind him as he and Joey tilted side-to-side with the action, like exuberant sports fans—leaning back with fear, leaning to the side in anxiousness, watching Anton’s every move.

But it was short, in that John finally cued Anton to the right point of the music. He fell with a backflip—right into Zach’s outstretched arms.

Anton had the naïve youth look down pat, for he looked frightened as he scrambled out of Zach’s grasp. He moved like a spider, using both hands and feet to get around and back away.

It was in these moments that Zach felt most sure about himself. Actually, most of the act went smoothly—Joey and Zach had been on point that entire day, as with most of the performers—and this time was no exception. Once Anton had fallen in league with the music, the voyagers were able to follow him slowly, cautiously, until they found Anton balancing on another piece of wire, where the character thought he was performing in privacy and solitude.

Voyeur voyagers, apparently. But at the end they would be caught, and Anton would scramble away for good—after giving a harrowing act of backflips, handstands, and near-impossible feats of balance with objects on his head.

There was polite applause—Louis had encouraged it to promote a “live atmosphere”—and then he called for a cut. Which was just as well, because the next scene was a ballroom of sirens, where Zoe and Eric danced together.

Not awkward whatsoever. Especially with that rumor of Eric moving in to vacated territory.

“Thank god Louis called a lunch break,” Chris muttered under his breath. He had somehow started guiding Zach by the elbow—probably because his nosy face had wanted to follow Zoe and Eric around the corner.

But Chris led Zach to a picnic table outside, where gorgeous weather awaited: Cloudy, about to rain, probably lightning imminent.

“Why did we come out here? They were just about to head to—“

None of your business.”

Zach pouted. Chris showed up at the most un-fun of times.

“And anyway, nothing exciting would happen.” Chris pulled a water bottle out of his hoodie pocket and placed it on the table, not looking like he had said anything interesting.

Zach narrowed his eyes. “What, they’re not boinking?”

Chris gave an are you joking? look, but Zach shook his head.

“Is Zoe not in the mood for a rebound, or…?”

“More like you should ask Eric.”

“Ask Eric what?”

“If he wants to go to a gay bar.”

Zach perked up at the thought and looked back at the building—now that was an idea.

“Although if you did, I’d punch somebody.”

“You look like you’d have a mean right hook.” Not that Zach was looking at Chris, but he had held down those biceps before.

There was a sigh from across the table, and Zach eventually looked back at Chris—a partially agitated Chris. Which was becoming more and more familiar lately.

They had not had that talk, and that was entirely Zach’s fault. Then again, Chris had a habit of stroking Zach’s cock before he could open his mouth, so that was also an issue.

“What? What did I do?”

Chris looked down at the table with a thin smile. “What would you like for lunch?”

A Chris-Eric-Zach sandwich, but Zach didn’t think that would go over very well. “I don’t know.” Zach looked up at the darkening clouds and pointed at the sky. “Let’s grab something quick and then watch this.”

Obviously those were the right words, for Chris looked up then—blue eyes bright and breathtaking. Which was stupidly romantic, but then Chris was stupidly attractive. Even better from behind as Chris led the way to the cafeteria, grabbed their mac and cheese, and then headed to a quiet and dark conference room.

That was another strange thing at the Cirque—Zach felt he could pop in his head anywhere, take a gander, poke around. As much as Louis expected much of his charges, maybe it was because they had freedoms like this. Responsibilities meted with independence.

Chris pulled up a padded office chair to one of the windows and Zach followed suit. They were comfortable and leaned back too far, but Zach was able to put up his feet on a shelf above the A/C vents.

They said nothing as the storm rolled in. It was very dramatic for a time—too much wind that made the bushes scratch glass, the trees whip and bend, the electric poles look to blow over. And then, of course, came a gentle rain, soft and pattering and almost loud enough over the central air.

“Katie and I used to do this all the time.”

Zach gave Chris a sideways glance. “Doesn’t everyone do this?”

There was a shrug as Chris looked down at his empty bowl. “Maybe.”

Zach had finished his, so there was no offering of leftovers. “Joey and I used to sit under this bridge by our house for thunderstorms. There was this ledge that we’d crawl into, and we’d watch the rain pool and drip off the wooden planks and beams.”

That made Chris secretly smile, and Zach wondered what it was all about. It was a long, stretched moment where Chris was thinking, perhaps remembering a moment in particular. It only made Zach more curious.

“My mom’s house had something like that—she had an all-around porch with wooden eaves. Katie and I would sit in chairs and watch the rain drip into the garden.”

That made Zach narrow his eyes. “Did you parents live apart?” He had never really asked before—he had just assumed things. Which probably proved that old and known adage to be true.

Chris took a deep breath. “Yeah. Like, when I was 12, my parents divorced. My mom married a nice guy and got an awesome house, and my dad had a shitty apartment in the city.”

“Eww.”

“Yeah—bugs and things, unfortunately. Not that my dad wasn’t clean, but…” Chris made a sheepish face. “If the landlord doesn’t fix your A/C, or the screens on your windows, or kick out the hoarders living below you…”

Zach nodded along—been there, done that. “That sucks.”

“So we mostly had extended weekends with Dad, but had that—you know—wonderful and privileged upbringing with Mom.”

Now that was something. Chris could be caustic and sarcastic, but bitterness wasn’t really his thing.

“I should be grateful, honestly—and I am. Really.”

“Who did she marry?”

Chris waved the question off. “He wasn’t the problem. Actually, if it wasn’t for Richard, I probably wouldn’t have been able to stay in gymnastics, Katie wouldn’t have been an equestrian, and Mom would’ve had to work somewhere else.”

Zach turned in his chair, ignoring the storm. “What does she do?”

“Some home-based art therapy thing. It’s really cool, but it’s all based on acting and reaching your creative potential, or some shit.”

Zach smiled as he remembered something. “That’s why she wanted you to come here, probably.”

Chris raised his hands in imitation. “’Christopher, honey, art can heal everything.’”

Zach really couldn’t disagree—neither with him or Joey.

“But no, my mom is great.”

“And your dad?”

“I’m lucky. I know that—you taught me that.”

Zach kept close watch as Chris took their empty bowls and set them aside. He didn’t quite trust anything—Chris was an honest person, but it was an edited honesty. That was the danger of him, in that Zach always knew there’d be words and moments and feelings that Chris would never willingly say.

Maybe they were alike, in that way.

“Your sister was into horses?”

Chris leaned back with a huge sigh. “Oh yeah. She won medals and trophies and had her own massive room of awards. She got into Sweet Briar with an athletic scholarship.” Chris shook his head. “Like, really? She’s riding a horse and she gets an athletic scholarship?”

“Maybe she… clenches her thighs, or some shit?” Zach knew nothing about it, and frankly never intended to—horses were big and scary things.

“I’m just… yeah, it’s actually hard. Katie is really good at it, and good to the horses.” Chris wore a wan smile. “But she’s married now and owns a horse ranch. She doesn’t even do the equestrian jumping anymore.”

Zach felt a little light go off in his head—an engine light, a seatbelt light, his hazards.

“So she wasn’t really passionate about it.”

Chris looked at the ceiling and gave a humorless laugh. “I wonder if Mom ever kept count of all the thousands she spent, so Katie could run away to Colorado and never look back.”

Before Zach could open his mouth for another question, Chris sat up and forward, rubbing his hands.

“Sometimes, when I’m lying in bed at night, I think back on what could’ve happened if Mom had spent those thousands on me. You know? Selfishly. If I could’ve moved to another state and had the best trainers, the best facilities—the best chances with people who had actually been to the Olympics.” Chris looked at him darkly. “You know what kills me? Katie was offered the Olympics and she turned it down.”

Hairs rose on the back of Zach’s neck. He straightened up without thinking and spoke without thinking, “Man, what a cunt.”

There was a long and pregnant pause—Chris’ mouth forming an O in complete shock—and Zach almost thought he was going to punch him.

Chris needed a moment to speak. “You… just called my sister a cunt.”

Zach threw up his hands. “Well? She took your dreams and stomped them under her princess heel. Sounds cunt-y to me.”

Chris snorted in disbelief. “Wow. I just—I can’t believe you, sometimes. What if you meet her someday?”

“So? I’d ask her why your mom invested in the wrong child. Have you ever thought of getting a bit angry with that? Some art therapy thing, where you stomp around in your bare feet. Do a fucking—I don’t know—finger painting with your toes in rage?”

Chris shook his head with wonder. “I should probably hit you, or something.”

“Whatever, you threatened earlier.” Zach reached over and flicked his shoulder. “You’re a big ol’ softie underneath your derision.”

Chris continued to stare at him, growing more pissed by the second, but Zach mouthed marshmallow and Chris turned away.

It was strange, in the darkness, how Chris looked starkly beautiful. Zach was becoming a keen observer of these things. Men had angles and lines that nothing in nature could recreate, but Chris topped them all with his anger. It was electric and alive. It made Chris’ frame tense, put his muscles on edge, and gave the idea that he would be quicker than the lightning strikes outside if provoked.

Zach had yet to see Chris this angry. It was amazing. Granted, he had insulted Chris’ mother and sister in one breath, so it was warranted. But Zach had lost his shit before when someone insulted Joey—even mildly, or joking.

“I received a lot of support. I really did. Mom sent me here, after all.” Chris glanced at Zach, and suddenly the tenseness was gone, replaced with his trademarked calm and patience. “I love Katie. A lot. And I guess I wouldn’t be jealous if I had just received a tad bit of that faith that she did—if Mom and Dad thought I was the most amazing gymnast in the world, instead of just the brother of the most amazing high jumper.”

What semantics. Zach personally found it whiny and a bit petty. But then again, Zach had lived a life out of bounds and without the desire of approval—that had bit Joey in the ass. What sort of person did that make Chris, if Chris had never caved to the pressure? Or presumably never caved.

Chris slid down in his seat, turning to his side so he could smile at Zach. It was easy, but almost eerie compared to the conversation before, and Zach didn’t know what to make of it.

“You know, I’ve never had a bulldog before.”

Zach squinted in confusion. “What?”

“You know, someone who’s had my back completely.” Chris reached out, finding Zach’s leg in the darkness. “You’re the most loyal person I’ve ever met.”

It was such a quick motion—his fingertip skimming along Zach’s clothed thigh—and then it was gone. Like Chris just needed a moment of reassurance, a desire seized without thinking.

Zach found he couldn’t complain about it, perhaps even missed it.

“You’re just a badass gymnast, that’s all.” Zach swallowed and hid his hands in his lap. “You can do the trampoline.”

At that Chris laughed—loud and echoing—and Zach made a face at him.

“Whatever, that trampoline is hard.”

“God, you’re the most ridiculous, too.” It was a smile that showed Chris’ bright teeth, a grin that encompassed the universe—Zach never knew teeth could be so sexy, could make his stomach do an involuntary flip.

Zach looked away and rolled his eyes. “Mocked. Mocked and derided. I see how it is.”

Zach could feel the weight of Chris’ gaze on him in the darkness. The rain was too romantic, the feelings of adoration like sun on bare skin—it was all too warm, and Zach couldn’t look at him. The sky was too dramatic, anyway.

But there was a giddiness threatening to envelope his chest. Zach never liked that feeling—never liked that twitch of excitement, the loss of control over his head. He wanted to stuff it down and remain calm, become Zen with the bad weather outside. Keep on liking Chris without the messy attachments, or the heated opinions that could fuck it all up.

After a few moments there was a quiet sigh, and Chris said, “We should probably head back. Maybe Louis will forget where we are in the program, and we can forgo the whole dancing drama.”

Zach wanted to retort how unlikely that was, but Chris was already opening the door—already heading out into the fluorescent lights that made Zach blink back in pain, suddenly reminded of the real world.

)O(
The real world went by faster than any of them would’ve liked. It was horrifyingly Thursday night before Zach felt a moment of relief, a moment where he didn’t want to crash head-first into Chris’ bed—sans sex, sans consciousness, just lying comatose for a few desperate hours.

But now they were seeing the stage. Instead of a bland gymnasium where Zach had to imagine his own canoe, they now had a real theater—and a real fucking canoe, for that matter.

Joey ran over eagerly, climbing inside like they were about to sled down a hill. The canoe looked sturdy enough as Joey laid down on the floor of it, almost hidden. His fingers knocked the sides, allowing it to echo.

“Fucking cool, dude.”

Zach wanted to agree, except he was too busy staring at the lights. There was an overwhelming enormity to it, the room shaped like a globe and conforming to the corners of Zach’s vision. He wanted to keep turning his head, keep turning in a circle in the middle of the stage to take it all in—the multitude of seats, the plethora of lights, the scenery complicated and lush in detail. Zach’s eyes flicked to each little nuance and texture, wanting to soak it all in.

There was something breathing here. A new life was taking shape and Zach would be a part of it, the birth of this amazing story.

He could feel it in his bones—it would be amazing. He had no doubts. And he would stand in awe of it and be humble, if only for a moment.

“Come test this out.”

Zach reluctantly snapped attention to Joey, who was holding the sides and testing how they could move it back and forth; which seemed to come effortlessly to him. There were likely wheels on the bottom, for Joey glided until he met Zach in the middle of the stage.

There was a big grin on his face. “Easy as pie. We’ll have no problems with this.” Joey slapped the sides, then motioned for Zach to join him. “Come on, let’s sail around.”

Zach slipped behind Joey, going to his knees as he grabbed a long paddle. As he did so he saw the scenery fully in front of him—a pine tree forest of deep hues and copper piping, dark branches overhead. While the copper caught bits of light, the number of them led to an interesting depth, as if menacing creatures could linger within.

Zach knew they concealed the dressing room backstage, but it was impressive, visually. The scope of it was huge and larger than anything that Zach had ever experienced—hell, he’d been in a theater the exact size of this entire stage, once. Gobsmacking.

Once Joey and Zach paddled closer, they saw a few bodies start to appear within the copper forest. Naturally they were Karl and Bruce, and when Zach glanced up he saw John standing on a platform above them, looking down with a playful grin.

This was fun. Neverland for the adults who had unfortunately grown up.

“Can you believe this shit?” John walked the length of his platform, then moved quickly down a concealed ladder. “I feel like we’re in a stadium.”

“Not quite, but close.”

Zach turned to Bruce, who was hanging off the copper wiring. Despite being a veteran, he even seemed impressed.

Karl noticed his gawking. “All the sets are different. The Cirque doesn’t recycle much. When I was in Quidam we had a revolving, sparse set. Same for Corteo.” Karl looked up at the branches. “Varekai wasn’t as detailed as this.”

Eclipse was meant to be a return to their big top productions, and Zach felt like they were going to deliver. Not only with acts, but with an enveloping Cirque experience.

Zach leaned back in the canoe until he was lying flat, blinking against the lights overhead. He could see certain revolving set pieces above him—swings for the Chinese acrobats, wires and ropes for Chris and Anton. There was a peek of blue rope in a corner, and Zach wondered if that was for the end—blue of hope, trust, and optimism.

It was all so good. Zach wanted to close his eyes to capture the moment and not let it slip away.

But he felt a tap on his forehead. When he opened his eyes Chris’ gaze was in view, peering down at him.

“Don’t fall asleep in there,” Chris said softly, “unless I get to climb in there with you.”

Zach rolled his neck to crack it. “Ain’t got room in this two-man canoe.”

Chris raised his brows at the strange accent. “Well, your voyager brother left and got me, so there’s room now.”

Zach sat up and took a look around—empty. He shook his head, hoping Joey hadn’t poked him while he snored, or anything else embarrassing.

Chris offered him a hand and pulled Zach upward, the momentum almost making them collide. But Chris stepped back in time, his head tilted towards the lights.

“Impressive, isn’t it?” Chris’ warm hand let go of him, and it took Zach a moment to realize he missed it. “This is as big as the arenas back home. You could fit five events in here and women’s gymnastics.”

It frightened Zach how much Chris shone in the spotlight. He was meant for this stage, like a creature borne of this new, breathing story. But most of all he captured all of Zach’s attention and made him nervous; narrow-visioned when the world was supposed to be a big place.

Chris gave him a questioning glance. “You ready to head back?” But it was not the question Chris had in mind, as Chris watched him warily.

Zach must have nodded, for Chris tugged him by the elbow to pull him forward. They walked through the copper forest until the magic broke, and Zach was glad the backroom was dull and empty, devoid of anything interesting.

He wanted to sleep alone tonight, but was happy to sleep with Chris, instead.

)O(
The preview for Guy Laliberté was in the afternoon, thankfully after a period of adjustment with the stage. They had run through the whole production once in the morning, with Louis silent as they worked out their kinks and improvised. It was an impressive act of restraint for him, and Zach hoped it was because they had finally passed his tests.

No matter, they would be on stage in less than an hour with or without Louis’ approval, and it would be too late to suddenly go back.

“Tilt your head, please.”

Zach did as the makeup artist told him, her fingertips gentle on his chin. A white sponge applied a thin layer of foundation, and Zach watched closely—on tour, he’d need to apply this pattern himself. Eyebrows were emphasized, a brown liner with coral lipstick around his mouth. Stippling with a darker foundation was used to bring out a five o’clock shadow, and a long, dark wig was hidden underneath a red hat to complete the voyager look.

After too much powder later, Zach looked oddly at himself in the mirror—then counted his blessings when John appeared, with red and white zig-zag patterns on his face and neck.

Don’t laugh,” John said in a low warning, and Zach barely withheld a smirk.

“Actually… it all matches?” Which was the truth. The zig-zags on John’s face matched his red flowy garments and ceremonial rain stick—or whatever the fuck it was, with feathers and gemstones and things.

John looked sideways at himself in the mirror. “I guess they took the demon thing literally.”

Yeah.

Zach looked at his plain chambray tunic, with tan pants tucked into brown boots, and counted himself lucky once again. When he caught up with Joey, his apparent doppelgänger, he had passed a lot of the other costumes—Zoe in her yellows and pinks, Natalia and Eric in greens. Chris was clad in purple and silver for his routine with Karl and Bruce, who were in the same colors. The Chinese streaked backstage in orange and blue, followed by Anton in glittery silver.

The sandman and the voyagers would be contrasting with the performers every second, with Zach’s plain costume meant to fade into the background. Since he was not clad in spandex and showing off his bulge, he suspected the costume designers would succeed in that regard.

“Live in five minutes—line up!”

Everyone was already there, the pronouncement unnecessary. They had all been peeking through the copper forest, trying to see whether Guy Laliberté had brought any friends.
But once the music started and John strode out on a top tier—complete with his opening lines of destiny—it no longer mattered. They were live.

Bodies rushed past Zach as the performers jumped out in a flash mob towards the audience. He raced with Joey to the canoe backstage as they heard the roaring ”Ah!” of the mob, then started to paddle out as all the sirens skittered away, becoming creatures of the night.

It was time. When they broke the edge of the copper forest, Zach barely noticed the three people at the back of the bleachers, instantly becoming absorbed by the faux night sky.
When Joey departed from their canoe to pull out a comical picture of his wife, pointing mournfully, Zach flew into his character without a hitch.

Which really should’ve said something. Every show needed a flaw, but Zach was fluid with the other performers, with Joey especially, and with the sandman trying to lure them to the dark side. It was better than music, better than honed choreography. The story was exciting and electric, and Zach found himself living and breathing every moment.

When their canoe sluiced through imaginary waters, the voyagers morose after the erotically charged dance between Zoe and Eric, it did momentarily surprise Zach to see a blue figure above them. But he caught up with himself, marveling as Chris soared through the air, limbs trapped in indigo silk, falling in aerial circles. Zach was once again struck by the precision and fearlessness as Chris was able to make sharp angles with his body, sometimes only supported by a wrist or a wrapped ankle.

Despite knowing it was coming, he still fell back when Chris dove towards them. It only took mere seconds, diving like a bullet, and Zach felt the gasp leave him as Joey yelled.

Still and silent, Chris hung like a teardrop, hands stretched towards the canoe. Zach knew he had to move, had to reach up—but Zach watched the stoic and angelic face, his eyes following the jaw line.

Zach felt paralyzed. What the fuck was happening? He could only stare at the taunt lines of Chris’ body, his chest booming with something powerful. Chris was everything frightening and beautiful, and Zach wanted to race out of the canoe, race away from the stage—run away from the reminder that real life was waiting after all of this, after this whole story unfolded.

Zach knew he had ruined it, had waited a beat too long, so he reached up hurriedly to compensate—fingers touching a strand of blond hair as Chris flipped up, climbing the indigo silk out of reach.

The magic of the performance broke for Zach, and he was angry at himself for that shattered moment. The drama was gone—Zach knew he had seemed afraid instead of enchanted—and thus killed the impetus for following the siren off-stage towards home. What was their motivation now? Zach willed himself to not look at their audience, not wanting to see a frown on Louis’ face.

But he and Joey paddled off-stage anyway, finishing in a grand finale where they finally reached their home, symbolic with tents in the distance. As he and Joey ran towards them, the sirens came out to cheer them on and wave goodbye. The sandman, watching from a perch overheard, looked smug as he sang the closing number above their heads.

Zach wished he felt as smug as before, in the beginning of their performance, but he was already mentally beating himself up. Everyone surely noticed, and surely Zach would hear about it, being one of the anchors of the entire show.

Louis, Guy Laliberté, and Kurt from orientation all stood up in eager applause, but Zach didn’t buy it. He feigned a smile as all of the performers took their final bow, then ran through the copper forest and off-stage to completely end the show.

Zach wanted to race back to the IKEA house, but knew that judgment would await him wherever he went.

“Hey, dude,” Joey said quietly as Zach angrily ripped off his cap. “We had a great show. What on Earth are you mad about?”

Zach could only glare. He couldn’t tell if Joey had genuinely not noticed or if he was being kind, but Zach couldn’t stand either right now.

Chris had distracted him. Zach’s inattention and apparent infatuation had ruined things, and now Zach was the dangling thread that could unhinge the show. How unprofessional could he get? He wanted to punch his fist through the wall.

“Back on stage, please! The director would like to speak to all of you.”

The mob of performers rushed behind Zach, but all Zach could do was put his head in his hands, trying to will his legs to move through the copper forest.

It was only with a consoling blue hand on his shoulder that Zach finally did, jerking his body out of reach to march towards judgment alone.

)O(
But there had been no harsh punishments. In fact, Guy Laliberté had grinned at them, saying it was moments such as their performance that made him glad to have formed the Cirque. Okay, he had even said in praise.

But Zach had skipped out on dinner, going straight to his suite after the whole ordeal was over. He needed to think—alone, possibly with the music blaring in his room, possibly while he paced back and forth and contemplated too many options.

He needed to not see Chris—not see him as often. Not see him at all. Break things off completely for the good of the show, or at least maybe not sleep together until it was all over.

Plan A, plan B, plan C—Zach slammed the glass door to his suite, cringing when it made a loud crack against the frame. One of these days he might break the thing, and perhaps it would be tonight if he got mad enough.

Zach heard stomping behind him, and of course Zach was going to get mad enough.

“What the fuck was that?” Chris said in his dangerous calm, the low voice where he over-enunciated. “We had a great show, and you’re tramping around like we’ve all been sent home.”

Why was everyone playing with him like this? Were they giving him a break? It was not in their best interests to lie. Frankly, Zach deserved to be smacked around.

“I fucked up our bit,” Zach spat out, fingers pinching the bridge of his nose. “I froze, I hesitated, I took too long.”

“I know.”

Zach looked directly at Chris, their gazes snapping together like magnets. Chris looked pissed himself, and Zach was glad of it.

“Then why the hell are you saying we did ‘great’? We were great in rehearsal this morning—not now.”

“Because the world doesn’t actually revolve around you, Zach. You had a moment of panic—so what? You won’t let it happen again. And frankly, it still came off as horrified fascination, so it wasn’t outside the scope of possibil—“

Zach threw up his hands and stomped dramatically into the living room. “Fuck!

“Not now, we have things to discuss.”

Zach turned and gave his best glare, but Chris didn’t even flinch. He was in his serious business stance—hands on hips, with his face calmer than still waters in a Zen painting.

Zach hated it. “That’s precisely the problem.” Something squeezed his chest when he said it, but he kept barreling forward. “You’re too much of a distraction and it’s hurting the show.”

Chris crossed his arms. “Oh, is that what you’re going tell yourself?”

Lovely. More pseudo-analytical shit. “We need to break up.”

“’Breaking up’ implies that we were together as boyfriends at some point.”

Zach looked at him widely with a huff of disbelief. “So says the person who’s been—“ Zach flailed with his hands, trying to find the word, “couple-y with me these past two months.”

“Yeah, I tried. It doesn’t help when the other person has erected the Great Wall of China in defense.”

Zach narrowed his eyes. “What?”

“You know, that big mother-fucking object you can see from space?”

“Oh, I’m aware.” Zach didn’t know what the fuck that had to do with anything, but Chris was looking at him drolly, like he was the biggest pinhead in the room.

“Or perhaps you’re more like the Strait of Gibraltar.”

Zach paused at that one. “That’s…. not even a man-made structure. If you’re going to start making metaphors about objects—“

Chris looked at him squarely, unimpressed. “So you were distracted. Huh—imagine that! The Great Zachary Quinto sees my stupid face every day, and I’m supposed to believe you were just distracted by my—what, beauty? Incredible physique?” Chris pointed at his face. “Baby blues?”

Zach glared at him. “Get out.”

“You know, when I first met you, I thought you were just a stuck-up asshole. Flippant and avoidant because you were selfish, and inconsiderate, and conceited—“

“Have you met me? I am.”

“—When really it’s that you have the most amazing capacity to care too much.” Chris growled the last through clenched teeth. “You selfless, noble, and idiotic martyr.”

“Shut up.”

“You’ve isolated yourself way over here, trying to be the strong one—“

Chris’s fingers were starting to mime people at great distances, and Zach couldn’t take it. “Fuck you.”

“When on the other side of our metaphorical Gibraltar—“

Zach covered his ears, la la la la la.

“—are all these fucking people who love and care about you!”

Chris had actually shouted the last, his voice ringing throughout the apartment, and it punched the air out of all the spaces.

Zach was impressed. Scared, but also impressed. “What is it with you and Herculean metaphors, anyway?”

Chris took a deep, hissing breath, his hands unable to stop shaking. “I didn’t distract you. Don’t blame it on me.”

Zach rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “Hmm, actually, I’m pretty sure it was you who distracted me. Considering I was the distracted party and all.”

Chris took a calming breath and closed his eyes. He had come a long way since Zach had met him—Zach had graduated him from Zen master, to pissed off dude, to screaming idiot in the span of six months.

Really, it probably did him some good. “I’m waiting. You know, for you to leave.”

Chris opened his eyes again, and this time the blue was stained glass. It wasn’t fair—Zach had seen those eyes in bed before, in hidden glimpses at the gym. They were entirely too kind.

“If you think things will get better if you don’t fuck me, then fine. Fine.” Chris gestured too casually, too flippantly. “But if you’re ever willing to grow up and acknowledge that you have feelings—“

“Get out.”

“—and you want to stop running away from them—“

Out!

“Know it’s not me fucking holding you up!” At that Chris stomped out, and Zach was incredibly glad to turn his back on that—that—fucking bullshit.

Things had become too complicated, too quickly. Zach rubbed his temples, begging the world to stop spinning for a moment and just stand still, completely silent. He had come here alone to think, after all. None of this had been conducive to—

Glass shattered, and Zach really didnt want to look at the door. But there was Chris, standing at the wooden frame, throwing a middle finger at the shattered glass on the ground.

“Fuck my life,” Zach muttered at the ceiling. Chris might have cursed as well, but it was beside the point.

How was it that being upset with his performance had led to this? How was he the only one upset, for that matter? Why wasn’t there a whole line of people stomping in right now, demanding to have words with him? Breaking his fucking door?

Ahhhhhh— fuck!” Zach shouted at the ceiling, because he really did like yelling. Screaming, punching, cursing at the top of his lungs—that had been sorely missing the last few months. It was like a wind from his sails, a complete and utter relief.

He took a deep breath and walked gingerly over to the door, mindful of the shards of glass on the ground. It was embedded into the eco carpeting, glinting in prisms when he eyed their sharp edges.

It all served him right. “I should know by now to have fights in other people’s apartments.”

Zach hoped Joey wouldn’t get mad about the door.

Chapter Text

The next two weeks of rehearsal whizzed by too quickly. The soft opener for the public was a countdown in all their minds—14, 13, then 7, 6,5—but Zach let it rush through him, made it rule his days.

The sooner it was over, the better. They would stay in Montréal for a week and then ship themselves to Europe, where there would be plenty of different distractions. Food, culture, men—the beautiful sights that Zach couldn’t see anywhere else.

He let the spoon dangle from his mouth, eyeing the empty corner of the cafeteria. Joey was gabbing next to him, which automatically made Zach tune-out.

“—And then they screamed so loud that I thought they were murdering each other instead of having sex.” Joey glanced at Zach. “That would’ve been an odd phone call. ‘Yeah, um, so I thought my brother was receiving the best rim job ever…’”

Zach looked at his companions dully, noticing that only Natalia laughed. She had a soft chortle of a laugh, only obvious when John and Joey would shut up. Which they had, because they were elbowing each other and watching Zach carefully.

Zach dropped his spoon with a thud. “Catch you guys later.”

“Aww, come on.” Joey grabbed his wrist to prevent him from standing up. “It’s just a bit of fun.” Joey winked at John. “Also, maybe some jealousy.”

Zach sighed at his tray and sat back down. He wasn’t really in the mood for company, as his brain was still trying to sort out the kinks from their third act. There was a spark of something missing—even Louis had said so. ”Chemistry, passion!”, Louis had said—well, shouted in his angry-little-man way.

Zach glanced at the end of the table, but of course there was nothing there.

“Dude, I can’t imagine dating someone on tour.” John tore apart a dinner roll with his fingers. “I call my wife, and I just want to mail her my guts afterwards.”

That was interesting. Zach had no idea that John was married, but it made sense. There had been no sense of innuendo from him, just playful flirting—well, minus an ass-pat or two. But then, Zach had a fabulous ass.

“That could be messy,” Zach commented, now stirring his spoon in his still-full bowl of soup. Really, he had never been a soup person, what had he been thinking?

“She offered that I should mail her my dick, but then I said I would miss it—which opened up a whole slew of questions I didn’t mean.”

Joey giggled. “You couldn’t win.” He turned to Natalia on his left, “Please don’t ever ask for my dick.”

“I like mine attached,” she said in her thick accent, and Zach made a face as they did some kissy noises—or some actual kissing, he didn’t know and didn’t care.

Even John made a face. “God, Het sex is so…. gross.” He looked at Zach. “Dicks are gross.”

Zach shrugged—he couldn’t agree. “Detached ones, yes.”

John dove into his grilled cheese and tomato soup, and Zach continued to ignore the noisy PDA to his left. It was all tedious—he looked at the tiles of the ceiling, the blank walls of the cafeteria. He counted the number of beans in his soup, the number of crumbs that spilled over from John’s tray.

Eventually he noticed when Zoe entered the cafeteria, looking pretty and delicate as always. If Zach ever had to be reincarnated as a girl, he would want to look like her—she had a sense of being entirely put-together, regardless of the circumstances. Poise. Tact. Her ex-boyfriend had been in the same act for months, and now they were back to dining together without awkwardness. Progress.

Zach looked at the end of the table again, still expecting to see the blue hoodie. It was a conundrum—he didn’t really want to see Chris, but at the same time, maybe he did.

John leaned in close. “I wonder when they got back together.”

Zach stupidly blinked for a moment, and John rolled his eyes.

“Zoe. Karl. Horizontal mambo, once again.”

Zach raised an eyebrow—good for them. He supposed that after five years on tour, they would realize that the time for fucking was short and c’est la vie.

“Do you think if they had a baby, they’d name it after me?”

Zach squinted his eyes. “They don’t want babies.”

John thought on that a moment. “How about a puppy?”

“How about why would they name it after you in the first place?

John pouted as he sat up straight. “You’re right. They like you and Chris more, anyway.”

Zach tried not to hiss on the inhale—what was it all about, anyway? They weren’t together anymore. So what.

“If you and Chris had a baby—“

Zach stood up with his tray. “No.” And before John could open his mouth, “I hate puppies.”

John gaped at him. “You monster.”

Zach shrugged—it was untrue, anyway. “I like the mature dog with a name for himself, thanks.”

Not that Chris would likely want a dog. A career in the Cirque probably made that difficult, considering all the traveling.

Zach dumped his tray loudly, not really sure what his aggression was all about. Chris wasn’t speaking to him, and that was fine. They were professional on stage and that was all that mattered. Zach was right on cue, Chris was right on cue—nothing to it. Really, it just proved that Zach had been right about it being better for the show. Case closed.

Zach went back to the IKEA house, determined to go to bed early and get a head start on the final 96 hours.

)O(
He worked out more, that was for sure. After another grueling day of being yelled at by Louis, and then prodded by seamstresses, and then being lectured by Kurt about their overseas tour—“You will behave in a matter befitting of the Cirque. No drugs, no alcohol, no parties”—Zach had decided that a treadmill was what he needed.

He still looked at that stupid wall, the one with “You can do it!” written enthusiastically on the side. Zach wasn’t sure what it was meant to be encouraging anymore, as Zach ran his five miles and did it routinely for the last week. It beat the alternative of sitting alone in his room, and that was motivation enough.

Zach cranked up the incline—damn, he missed Chris. That kind of sucked. Apparently they had done a lot together, like take their meals and free time and social life as a duo—very inconvenient. When he had gone to Poker at Karl’s place last weekend, it was quite obvious that Chris had just left, making Zach feel like a major killjoy. Same for the cafeteria sometimes, in that their table would be happy and full of excitement until Zach smacked his dull and lifeless tray down, ruining the moment.

Joey was too busy with Natalia, so that was out.

Zach huffed as the dial went too far—really, why was Zach going to Poker, anyway? He got up at seven am and rehearsals rolled out at nine. He didn’t have time for that shit.

And Chris had been wrong about all of it. If there were people who supposedly loved and cared for him, then where the fuck were they when he was bored out of his mind? Boats could fucking cross the Strait of Gibraltar, or be hitched over great walls, or whatever the fuck metaphor was in vogue at the moment.

It’s not like Chris loved or cared for him, anyway—

Zach felt his knees give as he smacked face-first into the treadmill, then was unceremoniously rolled off onto the carpeting. It was abrupt to be landing ass-first and sitting up, head spinning from the impact. He touched his nose, then his forehead, watching and listening to the treadmill belt and motor.

Zach looked around—he was alone. Thank God for that.

“No more treadmills,” he muttered to himself. And that was probably for the best, as he stood up and brushed himself gingerly, refraining from kicking that inspirational wall.

)O(
“What did you think about the change for Zoe’s act?” Joey popped a chip into his mouth and crunched noisily. “I think she’s pissed that she doesn’t have a solo anymore.”

Zach stirred the vegetable stir fry in the pan, thinking he’d be pissed, too. “Kind of short notice, really.” Although the changes had taken place a week ago, this was the first time Joey had sat with Zach to catch up.

“I guess it made sense—there were too many solos in the show. Plus it’s not like she still doesn’t get to breathe fire or anything.”

Zach had finally been able to see that in person during rehearsals this week. Before it had all been mimed, when Zoe spat fire from her mouth at the audience, hopefully scaring them half to death. Now there was a torch she danced with as she ballerina-ed on lily pads and supposed pond bubbles, looking delicate and fragile until that final, shocking moment.

Their show was full of those—Zach was rather proud of that.

“It’s more like she has back-up dancers, anyway,” Zach said as he added the tofu to the pan. He wasn’t really fond of the stuff personally, but he could sacrifice this meal to hang out with Joey. “She’s still the only ballerina. Everyone else just watches and hands her stuff.”

“They’re recycling some colorful costumes from Dralion.”

“Are they going to be guppies or mermaids?” Zach didn’t know why the Chinese just didn’t use their already-orange costumes, but apparently that would clash too much with Zoe’s pink and yellow. Blue-green, like the water, was the name of the game.

Joey only shrugged. “Nat is just glad she gets to keep her solo. But she has that whole intro, though—Zoe we just come across. That probably made the difference.” Another chip went into his mouth. “Oh, and seniority.”

Zach bent over the pan, rolling his eyes. He had heard about all of that ages ago. Natalia had been in the Cirque as long as Bruce, as a child performer who grew up on the stage. She could probably contort into pretzels in her sleep.

Not that Zach wanted to imagine that.

“Hey, so, you know—I’ve been meaning to ask—“

Zach took a deep breath. Good grief.

“How are you and Chris? I haven’t seen him here, lately.” More crunching, more chipping. “Nothing happened, right?”

Of course Joey wouldn’t have noticed, as he was off at Natalia’s every night for the last two months. He should just inform Kurt to send Joey’s missives and memos there, really.

“Nah, not much. We just decided it wasn’t working, and that’s that.” Zach turned down the heat of the pan and added the sauce. As he fiddled in the kitchen trying to find a lid, he felt Joey’s eyes daggering his back. “You know, it was just as well. We’re only going to be on tour for a year at most anyway, and then we’d have to go our separate ways.”

He finally turned to look at Joey, whose hand had paused mid-munching. Zach didn’t think it should be that surprising of news.

“I mean, Chris wants to stay with the Cirque, and I’m not sure if that’s really our type of thing, anyway.” Zach found a sponge and wiped down the counter. “I mean, we missed Burning Man this year, but we could totally go next year. And that gallery in Taos was interested in more of your art, so we could go hang down there for a while—“

Zach didn’t have to look at Joey to know the mood had changed. The way his gut sucked in an imaginary punch, topped by all of his nerves jangling, meant that Zach was not going to hear something good.

“You know, if you want to.” Zach lifted the lid and stirred the tofu, although he knew it was too soon.

Joey’s fidgeting was like the shuffling sound effect in movies—too loud, too obvious, too much of Joey trying to gather himself. The last time Zach had seen Joey like this was when he had informed Zach, ever so solemnly, after a viewing of An Inconvenient Truth: ”I think we should stop eating beef. Did you know that saves more carbon emissions than driving a Prius for a year?”

And of course they had stopped eating beef—or stopped being able to afford it, anyway.

“Um, Zach? I really like Nat. Like, really really like her.”

Oh good, that weren’t onto that other L-word yet. “That’s nice.”

“I think I’m going to stay in Montréal with her.” And then Joey quickly amended, “I am going to stay in Montréal with her. Together. You know? At her place. She has this really nice townhouse down the street, and we practically walk here every morning. It’s nice.”

Well, that explained why he never really saw the French Bitch at the IKEA house.

“I mean, we get along really well.” Joey laughed lightly, as if to himself. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this comfortable with anyone else, like, ever. Well, except you. But you're my brother, and I don’t wanna have sex with you.”

Zach stared down at the stove. “Thank God.”

“Zach? Look at me.”

He didn’t really want to. He wanted to stare at the stove and turn up the heat—some men just wanted to watch the stir fry burn.

“Zach?”

He turned to the side, a small smile shakily in place. “That’s great. I’m glad you feel that way.” Zach turned quickly to stir with a spatula—shit was done, maybe overdone. “Whatever makes you happy.”

Joey was silent as Zach opened up cupboards to find dishware. It was nice of the Cirque to give them basic amenities—he supposed it was to make their apartment feel like home. The dishes were ugly, but Zach didn’t care about the floral pattern as he spooned hot stir fry into bowls, then poked a fork into each dish. The bottom of the bowls threatened to burn his hands, but Zach held them and turned towards the table quickly, wanting to avoid Joey’s eyes.

Their gazes locked anyway, and Joey held it with determination. “I love her, Zach. I want this one to last.”

Zach wanted to avoid dinner and go hang himself in his room—but then, he supposed, not everyone could have what they wanted.

“If you’re happy, I’m happy.” Zach feigned a cheerful grin as he slid a bowl across the table, then sat down at his own place with a plunk.

It was all true, after all. Zach’s mission in life had been to make Joey happy and content, no matter the costs. So what if Natalia took Joey off his hands? So what. Perhaps Zach could hang gay porn in his solitary living room now, if he wanted.

Not that Joey had ever objected to such a thing.

“Zach?” Joey didn’t touch his food, instead watching Zach’s face closely. “I love you.”

Zach stabbed through wilted broccoli with a fork. They had never really said as much, but it didn’t feel awkward. It was a truth as obvious as the sun. “Love you too, Joe.”

“What about you, Zach?” Joey tasted a piece of crumbled tofu, broken apart by spatula abuse. “I mean, Natalia is totally okay with you staying with us—“

“Nah, I’m great.” Zach was stuffing rice into his mouth now, despite how tasteless and textureless it felt. Everything was cardboard and wood chips and glass shards embedded in his chest.

Joey didn’t buy any of it. “Why don’t you come with us to visit Ma? Then you could maybe find some work there—“

Really? You actually think Pittsburgh is a good idea?” Zach had finished his bowl, ready to smash it into the sink.

And Joey—Joey actually had the gall to look confused. Like Pittsburgh was Disneyland and Fairyland and Christmas and ponies, ready to welcome them both back with clean slates and open arms.

“…Yeah?” Joey narrowed his eyes. “Why not?”

Zach mentally counted backwards in his head. When he finally felt he could conjure a tight smile, he stood up and said, “All right. I’ll go with you guys.”

“Wait—why are you leaving?”

Zach placed his bowl carefully in the sink, an eerie calm descending over him. He gripped the counter, and when his hands felt like they wouldn’t shake, he turned around to face Joey. “I’m tired. Sorry. Was up at 6am this morning.”

He walked quickly past the table, intending to go straight to his room. But through some strange, protective impulse, he backtracked to give Joey a quick kiss on the head.

“Don’t worry about the dishes. I’ll do them later.” He squeezed Joey’s shoulder. “Have a good night.”

And for all Zach knew, Joey left soon after. He was only focused on making it to his room and closing the bedroom door before he said or did anything stupid. Thankfully Zach succeeded, leaning against the door as he took a deep breath:

The world was trying to kill him. And this time? Zach wasn’t sure if he could win.

)O(
The dream this time had been Chris, the tiger, and Joey in the marijuana van. Tiger was talking shit as Zach pulled out all his teeth one-by-one, and Chris and Joey were commiserating. Over what? Zach didn’t give a damn. He had been counting how much he’d make from the Tooth Fairy, which Tiger had debated considering the price of inflation and Canadian currency.

“God, I’m fucking screwed up,” Zach murmured to himself, his arm draped over his eyes. He had fallen asleep with the light on, and some asshole had designed the bed to be directly under the overhead bulb.

The moment gave Zach too much pause to let misery seep back in. Oh yeah, Zach had been considering three different things when he fell asleep: Dropping the French Bitch into a swamp, dropping Chris into a swamp—and possibly even Joey, now that he really thought about it.

But most of all was the looming fate of uncertainty. It was a specter at the corner of his mind, influencing all his thoughts.

What the fuck was he upset about?

Zach turned over on his side, looking at the face of his cell phone. 3:32am. Lovely. At least two and half more hours before he could haunt Cirque headquarters without drawing attention from the security guards. Lots of athletes poured through the doors then, giving Zach a reasonable alibi other than I am avoiding everyone I know until the last excusable moment.

Which was weird in itself. Life was supposed to move forwards, not backwards. He acted like he had just arrived at the Cirque, not that it had been his home the past six months.

And really—how many times had Zach thought about life without Joey? Tons. Over 17 years there had been plenty of opportunities to ditch his brother in the dust. Solo acts, artist colonies, clingy but well-off boyfriends, diverging interests. Zach had worked at a tourist trap in Taos so Joey could showcase his work there, even though Zach had received an offer to manage a haunted house in Minneapolis—not that Zach really liked haunted houses, or Minnesota, but that wasn’t the point.

Zach… had no dreams left. And he knew it was because of Joey. What would life be like if Zach had been too late, or never wandered over to Joey’s dorm in the first place? He’d be a fucking mess, but what sort of mess?

Did Joey ever realize that Zach had starved himself for a week to buy Joey that one camera lens for Christmas? No. Did Joey ever realize that sometimes Zach didn’t sleep because he was working too much in order to pay the rent? No. Did Joey ever realize that Zach never liked doing the dishes, or taking over their laundry, or sharing mint toothpaste when Zach really preferred cinnamon? No.

How many times had Zach kicked boyfriends out of the house the second they complained about his shut-in brother? No looking back, hands wiped clean.

Zach looked over at the empty space next to him, then angrily grabbed the extra pillow, because he could. He punched it and fluffed it, then stuffed it uncomfortably under his head. Because, fuck—he had never done any of those things for Joey to realize. Realization had never been in the equation.

But Zach was still bitter, all the same. He knew Joey was grateful, and he knew Joey was always trying his best, and he knew Joey had offered more than once to pitch in his fair share. But for Zach, it had never felt right. He was… constantly in a state of begging for forgiveness.

Zach bit his lip—fuck no. There was no time to cry about that. It was long over and far done.

And yet… on Joey’s 25th birthday, when he had hugged Zach and said, ”I’m so happy now”, gratitude in the strength of Joey’s arms, Zach had always wondered why he, himself, wasn’t.

Maybe he was more traumatized by Pittsburgh than Joey was.

Zach rolled onto his back, shielding his eyes again, and had the momentary impulse of curling into someone. Chris had kind of forced cuddling sometimes, since Zach didn’t like being spooned from behind, but there had been the compromise of leaning across Chris’ chest. Zach didn’t like to be held, but he did like the warmth beneath his stomach, his nose buried into the crook of Chris’ neck.

He wouldn’t have to explain his feelings. Before, he could curl inward and feel the fingers at the back of his neck, delicate circles as he fell asleep. Before, it had just been good enough to exist, to fall into bed together and ask no questions.

Why weren’t things good enough, anymore? Why did Joey have to run away with that… person, while Chris had actually had the audacity to say they weren’t boyfriends.

“Fuck him,” Zach muttered, turning over. So what if they had been? The last Zach knew, boyfriends didn’t have an emotional clause of you must admit all your secrets and indiscretions or thus invalidate this stupid fucking contract.

Zach sat up, pointing at himself in a full-length mirror across from the bed. “We were fucking boyfriends, you ass-twat.”

Which Zach could immediately imagine Chris replying, Aren’t those two different areas of the body?

Uggghh.” Zach jumped off the bed in a growl of frustration, immediately pacing the room. Fuck Chris, fuck Joey, fuck Natalia—fuck everyone on the planet, including himself.

If Zach had known his brother would get abducted by a She-Demon, or that he’d accidentally gain and lose a boyfriend, he never would have auditioned for the Cirque in Vegas. He would have dragged Joey by the ear to another corner of the universe—to Russia, or even Antarctica. Those would probably have been far enough. Cold as fuck, but far enough.

Zach held up his hands to no one particular. “I’m done—I’m done!” He was going to complete his Cirque tour and then get the hell out of Dodge.

Which would make for a very long and lonely year. Night after night of seeing Joey cuddle with Natalia in some foreign city, then seeing Chris probably move on to somebody else.

Zach looked at the clock—4:56 am. Close enough that he could go slash a trampoline undetected, if he wanted to.

)O(
After an angry shower and grabbing food from the cafeteria on the go, Zach wasn’t exactly in the slashing mood. But he still headed towards the trampoline room, with an apple in hand for the leisurely walk. Rehearsals wouldn’t start for another few hours, and it was likely that most of the athletes were sweating it out in the weight room. He had time to kill—it was a dangerous thing.

You can do it! Zach thought sarcastically, especially since he was expecting to break his head open. Why he still wanted to get on a trampoline—two days before the show, to boot—he didn’t exactly know. Kurt would probably want to wring his neck for jeopardizing his position, Louis would get in line, and Joey would want to smack him for being stupid. But—whatever. If Zach broke his face and ruined the show, Zach broke his face and got to leave the Cirque. Clowns were a dime a dozen.

But maybe being alone would improve his odds of staying upright on a trampoline. Zach couldn’t believe it was really that difficult, despite crawling to the ground last time.

Then again, Chris had been a mocking distraction. That had probably been it. If Zach could crawl to the center of the trampoline and stand on all fours—

Whoa!

Zach jerked back after the impact, cursing himself for walking at full-speed. It had been like playing Fatboy Slim while driving on the freeway; his legs had simply taken over, not caring that he could collide into someone else.

It took a moment of recognition, as Zach was holding his nose, but Chris was looking up at him while retrieving his juggling gear and towels from the floor. He looked frozen for a moment, as if unsure of what he was seeing, then quickly grabbed his items.

Zach suddenly felt the urge to throw up. He could only stare as Chris righted himself, coming to full height before Zach, mere inches from each other.

It was excruciating. This was first time Zach had seen Chris without spandex and blue makeup, and he looked pale and in desperate need of a good night’s sleep—but that was everyone in the troupe, really. Surely he didn’t deserve this overwhelming urge from Zach to grab him by the neck and kiss him—fucking tongue and all—then pound his stupid head into the eco-brick wall.

Maybe that was the full definition of a love-hate relationship.

“Hi, um,” Chris fumbled with the items in his arms, especially with the juggling pins trying to slip out, but his blue eyes couldn’t leave Zach’s face. His gaze was pinned to Zach’s mouth as he licked his own lips, and Zach could feel the rage starting to build within. “Are you—“

“No, no—don’t fucking ask.” Zach didn’t want this chit-chat of how are you, how are you doing, what’s new, tra la la. Zach was just likely to say something mean, and then he’d have to feel guilty. “Just take your face somewhere else.”

Zach hissed in a breath—too late. Chris’ eyes, which moments ago had seemed concerned and maybe hopeful, now narrowed with disbelief.

Actually,” Chris said with a bit more force than necessary, “I was going to ask if you were heading into room 214, because that trampoline is fucking broken.”

Zach looked down just as Chris threw the towel and pins at him, watching as the white and wet towel blanketed his feet.

“Why don’t you take your face somewhere else.” Chris’ eyes were gray as steel. “Room 216 is open. I hope you fall on your fucking ass.”

Zach wanted to spit out his own retort, but only gaped as Chris marched away—he did a lot of that lately, with Zach usually responsible.

Moron,” he muttered to himself. What was that about surviving the year? Maybe he’d just drive away all the performers, instead.

Zach bursted into room 216, throwing the towel and pins off to the side. He had no idea where they went, and he didn’t have an inkling of care to see whether they got there. Zach was going to make this trampoline his bitch, and if that didn’t work, he was going to destroy all the trampolines. Maybe carve Chris’ name into them, Zach didn’t know—creative urges and all that.

He stomped up the steps, not thinking as he ran onto the tenuous surface. He was sick of this bullshit. The trampoline was just a stretch of fabric pulled taut, and Chris was just an asshole as repressed as he was. What a fantastic couple they made—prom king and queen of the year!

Zach legs went wobbly as he neared the middle, his feet trying to put on the brakes as he realized where he was. It only succeeded in tripping him up, his arms out and stopping nothing at all. He fell onto his chest, crumpled awkwardly as he tried to regain equilibrium.

Life was pretty fucked right now. Zach had no idea how to get out of this position, and he wasn’t even sure he could. Was this what he deserved? Karmic retribution, or some shit. Except karma should take into account that he had tried, as best as he could, to be good—he had been good to Joey, at least. Hadn’t he been good to Joey? He told Joey he could go fuck Natalia’s brains out and live happily ever after, and he had told Chris that he couldn’t handle the serious stuff.

As far as Zach could tell, being crunched into a raisin was not what he deserved.

Zach rolled onto his back, anticipating the waviness, but going spread eagle with his legs and arms. On the massive surface, feeling the dip beneath him, it was not unlike an ocean—North Carolina, 2001, when him and Joey had snuck onto a beach at midnight. The tide had crashed into both of them, stars bright overhead, but Zach had stood completely still and not lost his balance. His arms out, legs spread, and Joey had clung onto him as they both laughed and barked at the full moon.

Zach loved Joey so much. That was why it hurt. Joey wasn’t holding onto him, anymore.

Zach rolled over again, face down, and the surface didn’t even shift. He concentrated on sliding his elbows down and pulling up his knees, until finally he was crouching on the trampoline with all fours, arms locked and still as Zach stared at the dark gray fabric.

He liked Chris. A lot. Maybe someday Zach could tell him that, if he didn’t fuck up and get spat in the face, first.

Zach rocked back onto his ankles. The process was like moving a monolith, very slow and laborious. Zach thought of the Druids and Stonehenge and all those Discovery Channel specials on Egypt.

Zach tightened his abs as he pressed his feet to the trampoline, channeling all his strength to his legs. He probably should’ve removed his shoes, but of course he had not thought of that. That, too, was a trend.

He inched up very slowly—motherfucking Zachary Quinto was going to stand on a trampoline. Did that make him an official Cirque athlete, now? He was sucking in so much breath, arms out to the side, feeling like the Karate Kid. The world was still and silent, and Zach felt hollow and blank in the moment.

He was capable of so many things. Joey, without a doubt, would be fine without him, but Zach was finally sure that he’d be okay, too.

“Mind if I join you?”

Zach fell on his ass at the chopped accent—fuck, a guy deserved a warning before the French Bitch was thrust on him. Especially since she was dressed in spandex, and Zach hadn’t really wanted to see her nipples.

“I was just leav—“

Natalia walked onto the trampoline like it was solid ground, and Zach gritted his teeth as his balance wobbled.

She crouched onto hands and knees before him, obviously in a mocking stance, and Zach couldn’t fathom why she was even here. To stare into his pretty brown eyes? Who the fuck knew.

“Why are you so mean?”

It was so childish, and Zach shook his head in confusion. “Why are you here?”

“Christopher told me.”

Oh, great—a coup! Asshole.

“Your turn to answer—why are you so mean?”

“Why are you a bitch?” Zach felt like a cat kneading a blanket, his arms moving up and down, but Natalia was cool as a cucumber.

At that she only shrugged, and it threatened to topple Zach over. “Because I get what I want? Live my life? Does that make me a bitch, or because Joe wants to stay with me?”

Zach glared at her. The last person he wanted to talk about Joey with was the French Bitch of Sassville. “Does it matter?”

“Well, I would like to be with Joe for a long time. It means I need to be nice to the people he loves most.”

Zach gave her a winning and acrimonious smile. “This? Not nice. Not nice at all.”

“It is nice for me.”

“Oh, so you do drown kittens just for fun?”

She nodded. “Not today, though. I am talking to you instead.”

Zach could only shake his head—although minutely, as his balance was precarious and temporary, at best.

“You know, Zachary, I thought at first you were a conceited asshole—“

“Yeah, no, I’ve heard this speech before.”

“But for some reason Joe loves you, so this must prove you are not.”

Zach chuckled at that. “Or I’m his brother. I think there’s a law about loving each other.”

“Illegal in most countries, but yes.”

Zach choked on air and had a hard time recovering. “What?”

“But I realized, at some point, that I owed you a great debt of gratitude.” Her green eyes pierced his. “I have proof you are not an asshole.”

Zach felt a chill crawl up his spine, with all the hairs on his arms hyper-aware. He had a feeling he didn’t want to hear this.

“Well, thanks, but I need to get going—“

Her hand touched his shoulder, and with the simple action he fell back on his ass, awkwardly sitting on his heels.

“You can pretend all you want. Be macho. Mean and uncaring—but I am onto you.”

Zach looked at the trampoline, pondering what had made him so fucking fascinating that everyone was playing psychologist.

But Natalia inched forward until their eyes met, undeniable, so he could see her face.

“Thank you for saving his life.” She swallowed, the most human of actions, and Zach was afraid she would start to cry.

He couldn’t bear it—what was there to cry about? He was the one who couldn’t breathe right now, the world’s most dangerous secret hinted out in the open. Joey had done the unthinkable and told her things. It felt like a plot that had unraveled, like the creator had pulled the plug on a master plan of silence without warning.

Zach could only stare at her, then huffed out, “Fuck you.”

And for some reason, Natalia shook her head in disbelief. What did it matter to her? She actually didn’t have to be friends with him—he could fuck off while Natalia and Joey lived a happily ever after. She never had to see his ass again. If Joey wanted to entrust all his secrets to her, that was fine by Zach.

It was a patronizing sigh as she tilted her head. “I wonder what that day will be like, when you realize the world does not revolve around you.”

Zach pointed to the trampoline, almost falling flat on his face. “This shit would throw you off if it did, for starters.”

Natalia stood up easily, and Zach was prepared to see her walk off with a haughty smirk. But instead she only looked haughty while extending a hand, as if expecting Zach to eventually see reason and want to grasp it.

Fat chance. “No thanks.”

She turned sharply, and the movement caused Zach to finally fall flat on his face. “I will tell Christopher you are crawling around like a newborn calf.”

Zach rolled his eyes, despite staring at the fabric of the trampoline, and waited until she had ceased moving the fucking ground beneath his knees.

“Bitch,” he muttered.

“Thank you!” she sang cheerfully as she slammed the gym door behind her, and Zach could only groan.

Life – 1. Zach – 0.

)O(
The truth about rehearsals was that it was the most pleasant part of Zach’s day. Contrary to previous evidence, Zach had finally been able to become one of the voyagers, barely registering the outside world and the actors that existed beyond their characters.

He could look at Chris at awe, but not see Chris. A relief in many shades.

“Look at all of you!” Louis beamed a huge smile as they all gathered on stage, and it was mildly disconcerting. “We’re finally here, and I couldn’t be more proud of all the work you’ve achieved.”

Zach let his gaze wander, looking up at the bleachers—he didn’t need a pep talk. He needed a valium and a decent night’s sleep, neither of which he’d get.

“Tomorrow, you’ll realize that all this hard work will have paid off. The fun begins tomorrow—I promise.” Louis grinned now, showing all his teeth, and Zach wondered if gates would be lowered for a bloody gladiatorial combat, or if Louis was genuinely high.

Joey moved to stand next to Zach, and his wry and knowing smirk said it all.

“You’ll realize that all the sweat, tears, aching muscles and sleepless nights will have paid off when that audience—who has no idea what they are in store for—leaves with a smile on their face, transformed by one single evening, all thanks to you.”

Well, wasn’t that hyperbole. Zach looked up at the lights that were imaginary stars, knowing that Louis was doing a little finger-point at all of them. Oh, me? Zach wanted to exaggeratedly gesture, but he knew it was not the time or place.

“Just know that if this experience has transformed your lives—your risks, your doubts, your moments of intense worry—know it’s because you have placed your heart in their hands, and when you do that, I promise you will forever be rewarded.”

Zach’s eyes trailed the stars to land back at the other performers, all of whom were in rapt attention—minus the one gaze that was watching Zach, openly staring as Zach took a moment to stare back.

Chris did not look angry. Well, it was hard to tell with all the blue makeup that zig-zagged on his face—but his posture said it all. His head tilted back, his mouth in a soft and pensive line, his shoulders relaxed. It was if he wanted the troupe to disappear, for the distance between them to be nothing at all.

Or maybe that was just Zach, for Chris tore his gaze away to look at the stars, his eyes bright. Like Zach had just done in boredom, but with Chris it looked with complete earnestness.

What was he wishing for?

“Give yourselves a round of applause—you deserve it!” Louis clapped eagerly, and the troupe responded with whoops and whistles and applause of their own.

Zach clapped slowly, not paying attention, as Chris had turned his back and started to walk towards the copper forest. There was a part of him unable to resist the opening, and yet the whole troupe had started to turn away, moving towards the forest in a sea of murmurs.

Chris was lost, and when the stage was empty he was completely gone. Zach touched his chest with his palm, then immediately felt melodramatic for it.

“Come on, you,” Joey said as he put an arm around Zach’s shoulders. “Bedtime. I heard you were up early.”

Zach watched Joey’s face carefully, as if the scene had suddenly gone slow-motion. Zach had no privacy anymore, and this would be the way of things forever and forever, with Joey leaking and sharing pieces of himself between two different people.

He couldn’t shrug off the arm. He was too tired to try, anyhow. “Yeah.”

“Oh Zach, what am I going to do with you?” They had moved backstage, where a dozen bodies hogged space for mirror-time and jars of cold cream, and Joey was still heard with his whispering. “You’re the most precious thing I’ve got, and yet you don’t break so obviously.”

Zach was shoved into the next empty space, staring dumbly at himself in the mirror. It was a coup, goddammit, except Joey was using a baby wipe to pat at Zach’s cheek instead of torches and pitchforks.

It was a stupidly soothing action. Joey turned Zach’s chin to look the other way, not saying a word, except for Zach to close his eyes for the cold cream. Zach felt it dabbed on with a round piece of cotton, in soft and gentle circles, and then swiped to the side to wipe it away. Familiar actions from a stage veteran, and Zach didn’t know why he wasn’t allowed to do it himself.

“There,” Joey murmured, and Zach opened his eyes to see him stepping back. “Now go wash your face.”

Zach really didn’t want to. He watched as Joey looked into the mirror and wiped down his own cheeks and chin and forehead and nose, and it was incredibly solemn. He felt dismissed, and Zach didn’t quite know how to take it. But it was all just about makeup, after all.

Zach trudged back to the IKEA house, showed his badge to security without looking at anyone, and then stepped into the too-bright atrium. He had rarely wandered into it, but now he did, looking for something in particular.

Of course Chris was sitting in his chair, writing in his notebook, looking perfectly mussed and tired and all things comfortable. His hand looked like a buzz of a tornado, as if he had a thousand things to say and not enough lines for all of them. Maybe the words had no idea there would always be unlimited pages, especially for someone like Chris Pine.

Zach walked to his apartment slowly, instantly knowing which door was his since it was still boarded with plywood. Zach figured they likely wouldn’t replace the door until he left, and that was probably smart.

)O(
Zach barely ate the next day. Which was normal for him, actually, since he knew his stomach would be jittery and full of metaphorical butterflies and just nerves, nerves, nerves. Instead he hid out at the playground down the street, ditching lunch to sit on the swing set and stare at the ground.

Nerves were a funny thing. He had never feared screwing up on stage—things either happened or they didn’t, and the fall-out would inevitably come later if they did. But with the rehearsals and their grueling schedule, Zach didn’t even consider a screw-up to be on the horizon. They were robots at this point—just robots with a bit of soul.

No, the nerves were the buzzing points in his fingertips, the electricity racing down his arms. He legs bounced with a tick, unable to keep still. Sometimes Zach would snap his fingers for no real reason, except that all the electricity needed a moment to crack.

Zach was excited. Things were going to be real in less than a few hours, when the press and a lucky preview audience were going to judge the show. He’d either make them laugh or hear the crickets, and it would be the ultimate test of his skills if he needed a spontaneous moment.

Zach was generally good with spontaneous moments—just not lately.

“My, my, I spy a lone clown on a swing set.”

“Tragic, isn’t it? So sad and old and discarded—Ooh, but it’s a wild one, it knows sign language!”

Zach was giving Karl the middle finger as he stage-whispered to Zoe, “Sorry, your boyfriend is pissing me off.”

“Join the club,” she loudly-whispered back, then pushed Karl’s shoulder in jest. “I have to live with the guy.”

‘I am pleasant company. You can ask anyone, current critics excluded.”

They sat on opposite sides of Zach, with Karl starting to swing as Zoe twisted her chains.

“Nervous?” she asked Zach. When he simply nodded—because it was too hard to explain otherwise—she gave him a sympathetic smile. “I always try to meditate. You know, flowery fields or snow-capped mountains, perhaps with a lake with ducks wading.”

Karl leaned in his swing, making his trajectory wonky. “I think I saw a commercial like that, once.”

“It works, though! That and backrubs.” She twisted her swing to face Zach. “Would you like one?”

Zoe’s neck massages had become infamous. Zach had always meant to try one, but then he had alternate therapy of someone sucking his dick.

Zach leaned forward in acquiescence, and it was in no time at all that he felt her delicate fingers on his neck. Little circles, gentle circles—he had kind of wanted a robot repair, in which she randomly poked hard at his back.

“Ow,” Zach squeaked out, her fingers finally digging into tired muscle. “Do that again.”

“I think I went into the wrong profession,” Zoe mused with a slight hum to her voice. “I might like torturing people more than fire-breathing.”

“You’re a goddess,” Zach groaned into his hands. “Don’t stop—never stop.”

“But seriously, why are you nervous?” Karl had stopped swinging, his legs angled with the ground. “You and Joe are brilliant.”

“I don’t know,” Zach murmured. “It’s more like… anticipation, I guess.”

Antici-paaaaaation,” Zoe echoed with a sway to her hips and hands, and seriously, if she continued that voodoo, Zach might cross sleep with a woman off his bucket list.

“This is your moment, seriously—try to enjoy it. Opening night only happens so many times.” Karl leaned back in his swing. “This is my fifth and final one, but it feels just as exciting as the first.”

That got Zach’s attention, and he turned his head to squint an eye. “What? Are you leaving the Cirque?”

Karl gave a quick glance to Zoe. “I hear New York is wonderful this time of year.”

“I got a job at the Met!” She wriggled again, but it was in excitement. “It’ll be nice to be near my mom and sisters, for a change.”

“Home cooking, for a change.” Karl was actually grinning, and Zach couldn’t believe it.

“You’re giving up the Cirque for New York?” Zach had been there, done that, seen it all. It had eventually grown old like everything else; a layer of dust he had washed off his skin.

Karl shrugged. “Never lived there. Besides, I’m always up for trying something new.”

Zach felt his brows crease, a deep frown as he thought about the career that Karl was giving up. The Cirque was security topped by a creative environment—travel and a big stage to die for—and people just gave that up?

“Darlin’, you’re speaking to Zach, here. He won’t even share a juice box with Chris.”

“Not true,” Zach muttered. “Those little cartons are like one sip and you’re done.”

“Zach,” Karl said with a patient little sigh, except with a Kiwi accent it sounded less patronizing. “Sometimes you have to just give up your juice box.” And before Zach could retort, he put up a finger. “Even the one-sip kind.”

Zach made a face. “What? That’s it? I just give up my juice box?” That sounded like communism, or socialism, or some sort of –ism that Zach would just not be happy with.

Zoe squeezed his shoulders. “You’re not really giving up anything—you making someone else happy. That’s a reward.”

Zach knew all about sacrifices, but that still sounded like bullshit. “Why can’t Chris get his own juice box? Hell, why won’t he give me his juice box?” The cafeteria actually wasn’t in short supply—why was there sharing going on, to begin with?

Karl looked amused. “Have you asked him? I’m pretty sure he would.”

Zach heard some smirking behind him, and he pressed his lips into a tight line. “This really isn’t about juice boxes.”

“Oh, how cute! He’s learning,” Zoe said affectionately, punctuated with a thumb in his shoulder blades. “I told you, Karl.”

Zach grumbled, “Coup” under his breath, half-expecting Ma to be the final guest to pop out from the trees, asking him why he wasn’t playing nice with the other boys.

Karl stood up from his swing, kicking sand with his sneakers. “You’re good, Zach. I like you guys a lot. Just figure your shit out sooner rather than later, okay?”

Zach would’ve glared at Karl, but he had enjoyed the accent way too much.

Zoe patted his shoulders in parting. “Trust me, sooner is way better than later.”

It was all very annoying. For all Zoe and Karl knew, Chris had been a one-night stand and they had amicably separated. That would make them look fucking stupid, wouldn’t it?

Except… everyone had probably heard them screaming. New York had probably heard their screaming.

Zoe gave a little wave as Karl led her back to the sidewalk, both of them heading in the opposite direction of headquarters. Probably a coffee date, or a free date, or a date where they discussed dead presidents and Hercules and suicidal brothers.

Zach felt a deep ache. He would probably try to pass it off as heartburn, except he had been starving himself all afternoon.

Would the whole year be like this? Every new city with its own memories to make, except Zach would still be stuck in Montréal? He’d see the Eiffel Tower and think of Chris, and see the Golden Gate Bridge and think of Chris, and see the Thames with its famous ferris wheel and still think of fucking Chris.

Or even worse, Zach would have to deal with a ferry boat on Lake Michigan and see Joey canoodling with Natalia as he thought of Chris—God. Stab him in the eye with a fork and be done with it.

Or… he could apparently share his juice box. Hopefully not the blue juice box, since that was Zach’s favorite kind—what did that even taste like? Besides Heaven and Christmas, if they had a baby.

It gave him a fierce craving, and Zach stood up to head to the cafeteria. Apparently he should grab a few while he was there—he could maybe double the price after the government takeover.

)O(
But before Zach knew it, only 30 minutes separated him between backstage and John’s opening lines. They had all gathered back there, taking turns to peek surreptitiously between the copper pipes for glimpses of the audience, and the place looked packed. Zach didn’t want to know how packed, but was glad it wouldn’t just be someone’s grandma and the press junket.

Zach looked over at the chair next to him, where Joey was perfecting the angle of his dark, long wig. He had passed on the red hat for today, going for a bandana—Louis had agreed they looked too similar, and Zach’s head looked better with the red cap. Plus Zach was usually the impetus for whatever action took place on stage, so people needed to easily identify him.

Joey glanced at Zach as he tightened the knot for his bandana, his fingers fidgeting and slipping a few times. Joey usually was scared or anxious enough to throw up, so nervous fingers were a sign of improvement.

Zach patted his knee. “Hey, rock star.”

Joey didn’t answer, as Zach expected. Partially because if he opened his mouth it increased his vomiting chances. Also because he was staring into the mirror, still fiddling with his wig over a flattened mohawk.

“We’re going to be awesome.”

There was something familiar about all of it—a different wig, a different time, and maybe different lighting, but the words of encouragement would always be the same. Joey would always be a timid little kitten before they went on stage, and then fifteen minutes into the show, Joey wouldn’t even be himself anymore.

Joey swallowed. “I told Nat I get nervous like this before a show, and she didn’t believe me.”

“Maybe she should be responsible for the barf bags, then.”

Joey swallowed again, looking wide-eyed and very silent. Zach had once offered him a glass of water when he was like this, thinking his throat was dry, but had wound up with the glass of water thrown up his lap.

Zach smiled to himself—he had a ton of gross stories like that. Some of them even featured Zach, which he only told if people got him drunk enough—after the show. Lesson #67848.

“Five minutes! Line up!”

Joey looked like he wanted to hide under his makeup chair, and Zach had never felt more like hugging Joey in his entire life.

John rushed past them in his red robes, climbing a set of stairs to a balcony entrance in the forest. Zach wondered if it would look badass, or mysterious, or hopefully both when John made his opening declaration. Would it surprise the audience to see the sirens rushing out? Would they be wondering what the fuck? at two bumbling French voyagers?

They would soon find out.

Behold us wayward monsters! We know not what becomes of us, only what begins.”

The swoosh of performers rushing out was a visual thrill in itself, until Zach snapped out of it and dragged Joey to their canoe.

The forest was dark and welcoming, hiding them perfectly as they heard the ”Yah!” of the sirens. Except this time there was an answering trill, and Zach felt his heart race at knowing the audience was out there, alive and waiting for them, anticipating what came next.

Zach dipped his paddle into the imaginary Canadian waters. When he finally saw the stars, he was lost—heart and soul—to a new world.

)O(
It was magic. Zach had never had an opening night go this well, prompting a voice at the back of his mind to please, for the love of God, not jinx it.

Everyone was made new in the spotlight. Each act wove the magic tighter and tighter, a new spell for each dancer, gymnast, and acrobat. The costumes were suddenly made of gold and diamonds, some unearthly material that drew Zach’s gaze and held it, enthralled.

He loved this fucking show. Even with John’s Amazonian soundtrack and Natalia’s weird contortions—his arms burning from the effort of paddling and pushing himself around—Zach wanted to stay in this world all night, perhaps forever.

When Zoe blew fire into the audience he heard his first gasps, and Zach was immensely proud of her. He would hear them again when Karl threw a knife at his head, followed by giggling as Joey handed over items for them to juggle.

The audience was perfect. Zach felt he had everyone in the palm of his hand, hanging on to his every action and word, outrageous or not. When he was curious about Anton’s high-wire, hiding with Joey behind a bush, he felt the audience lean closer in their seats, curious too. When Zoe and Eric danced and made the voyagers miss their wives, there was a great need that pulsed from the audience, making Zach keenly aware of every breathing thing.

They paddled their canoe to the center of the stage, and Zach knew what to expect. But when Joey gasped and pointed at the siren flying above them, Zach felt his mouth open, unbidden.

If everyone else left Zach enthralled, he could only describe watching Chris as enchanted. A word that didn’t make sense out of context, outside of Cirque, outside of this moment. But the stars caught Chris perfectly, his actions fluid and strong and leaving no doubt that maybe, just maybe, he could actually fly.

Zach’s heart was pounding, knowing that Chris was getting into position to dive. He had told himself beforehand not to look at the audience, not to be tempted—but there was no need for warnings. A rush of blood went to his head as Chris collided with his vision, scaring Zach so badly that he had to blink through the cries of the audience, readjust his sight to see that Chris was only still, so still, and hanging towards him in the familiar teardrop.

Zach took a deep breath—he had never been this scared shitless. Why was it so different now? It was all an illusion, it was all just an act. And yet Zach felt the itch in his palm, a genuine desire to touch the hand above him, to finally feel his warmth.

He stretched upwards, the moment pulled taut as Zach desperately wanted to see Chris’ face. Hadn’t that been his days, all along? His reality blurred as he wished for Chris to look at him, just this once, although his actions were timed to the music.

Blue eyes lazily opened, finding Zach’s in the spotlight. His tinted lips parted, and Zach suddenly wondered if they were taking too long, acting too obvious—what would life be like if it always matched this moment, with Chris always climbing and darting out of reach?

Zach fell back and watched as Chris soared upward, followed by massive applause and delight of the audience. Zach tried to catch his breath as his eyes followed the aerial circles, finally leading them offstage and towards home.

Zach picked up his paddle and barely minded Joey’s stride as, yes, he definitely wanted to go home, and most of all, definitely wanted to see Chris again. There was joy bursting in his chest, and Zach couldn’t tell whether it was the music, or the sirens, or his character waving at his little tent in the distance, eager to finally see his loved ones.

The applause was deafening as John sang his closing number, which was the cue for the sirens and voyagers to rush through the copper forest to wait for their encore. Zach couldn’t stand to leave the stage—he didn’t want to see the white dressing room, his actual reality, and all the dingy and cold colors outside of the Cirque.

He hid in the shadows where his canoe had been, his hands braced against the copper trees, and it was less painful. Light beams flickered in and out from the stage, and from them Zach could see another body approaching his space.

In a perfect world, Chris would already know all that he had to say. The words wouldn’t stutter and stop the flow from his lips, they’d only pour out and say, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I fucked up, I was mean. They’d make sense and bring Chris closer, so Zach could feel the breath on his cheek, see his individual eyelashes, feel the heat from his skin.

Chris was a tree away and John’s song was fading, and Zach couldn’t let it end like this. Zach just wanted to grab him and tell him and make everything okay again.

Instead he lurched forward, his lips babbling wordlessly until they spilled out, “I need you” in a harsh whisper. And he hoped to God that Chris had heard him, because now he couldn’t breathe and he couldn’t see and it was the most terrifying secret that Zach had never told anyone, ever, and he had nothing left.

Applause rang out again, flooding all sound, and Zach felt himself sink into a body beneath him. Hands smoothed over his shoulders, his arms, and finally tightened across his back as they held him close, pulling his head down to the crook of neck and shoulder. Zach breathed deep, and there was finally a sigh of relief as Zach felt Chris’ fingers at the back of his head, tangled beneath his costume to touch real skin, to touch his real self.

Zach closed his eyes, feeling the forest floor shake as the sirens rushed out again, ran past and almost collided with the two of them. Zach clutched at Chris’ waist, as if there was a current that threatened to break them apart. Moments ago Zach wanted to remain on the stage, but now he never wanted to leave this moment, never leave Chris, wondering if he’d ever feel this welcomed by another body again.

But it was their cue and Chris pulled away reluctantly, leaving Zach empty. Hands trailed down to Zach’s wrist, not letting go, and he felt it was almost too much to hope for.

Chris led him through the copper forest, and when Chris tightened his fingers they picked up their speed, finally bursting onto a stage of stars and cameras and a roaring crowd. There was a space near the front for the both of them, and Chris pulled them there, where the audience stole all of Zach’s attentions.

He was dying, he was sure of it. There were bright lights and deafening sounds and an overwhelming world of people. Joey was there, and Chris was there, and love was there—an immense love that Zach was told never existed on Earth, would never feel this encompassing. But the crowd stood up for them, cheered for them, and Zach was sure he would never feel this level of adoration again. It was addicting and heart-breaking and he soaked it in, trying to memorize what it felt like to stand on this stage, under these stars, and catch Chris smiling at him from the corner of his eye.

They had all lied—the world did revolve around Zach, at least in this moment. He didn’t know how long it would last, and Zach tried hard not to leave it—but when Joey’s fingers clenched with his, he knew it was time to go. This world and character would die for a night, and Zach was the cue for the death knell.

He raised Chris and Joey’s hands above his head, and the whole troupe followed in a wave until they were all bowing, all giving their respects to the audience. There was more applause and whistling, and everyone looked so fucking happy. But Zach knew that once he broke hands and turned around the whole troupe would leave, and the magic would wear off and fade as they ran backstage, back to their dressing room.

Zach swallowed courage and turned around, prepared for the worst—but when he did so Chris was still smiling at him, waiting for him to go first. When they ran back through the copper forest and into the real world, it was the one thing that Zach didn’t have to leave behind.

Chapter Text

Zach hated pigeons. He was with John, on this one—terroristic marauders.

“Go away,” he yelled, not wanting to throw any of the rocks near him. Joey would probably make a point that Zach was on their natural territory, after all. Couldn’t Zach just share space for a little while?

But Zach preferred to be grumpy. In the distance, he could see the yellow and blue-striped big top as it was slowly dismantled, the roof collapsing in a sudden rush. The circus tent had been in the skyline for 20 days, and now it was gone forever.

It was the most depressing thing Zach had ever seen. Their tour had finally ended in San Francisco, and Zach felt the overwhelming urge to go throw himself in the bay.

“Hey, stranger.”

Zach heard the footsteps on the pavement, then their sudden halt as Chris sat down next to him and crowded his space. He looked annoyingly cheerful, and Zach gave him a withering glare.

But Chris patted his back. “Don’t worry Zach, we can get you another circus.”

Zach clenched his jaw and moodily muttered, “There’ll never be another circus,” but he leaned into Chris’ touch, anyhow.

All the lights were dimming and being taken down, which was made more obvious by the setting sun. Not only was there was no big top, there was no spirit left—the soul of the show had been snuffed out.

Eclipse, his baby—it was over. The tour would be on hiatus, and even worse, in a year it’ll be taken up by another traveling production.

“San Francisco will miss the sights of you,” Chris said gently, his hand rubbing consoling circles on Zach’s shoulder.

“Because the world revolves around me?” Zach murmured, knowing that he was pressing his luck.

But Chris rolled his eyes, giving him an indulgent smile. “Yes, because it revolves around you.”

Zach finally quirked a lip at the confession. Chris had been egging Zach on since that unfortunate night in Amsterdam, when Zach had made the mistake of quietly confessing his feelings about curtain call. He hadn’t been able to live it down since.

“Glad you finally admitted it,” Zach said, bumping their shoulders. “Now if you can get the pigeons to go away, I’ll feel better.”

“Why? They’re way over there.” Chris pointed them out. “A good 30 feet away. That’s out of attack range.”

“Until they band together,” Zach said lowly. “Just you wait and see.”

Chris didn’t even look mildly impressed, instead angling his body to face Zach fully.

“We have somewhere to be in an hour, you know.”

Zach made a face—oh, he knew, all right.

“I’m thinking we’ll speed to the hotel, take a quick shower, get you dressed, and we’ll somehow arrive at the rehearsal dinner fashionably late.”

“I live my life fashionably late,” Zach said dramatically, then scoffed at the look on Chris’ face. “What?”

“You’re a hipster. That’s like anti-fashionably late.”

Zach looked away at the bay. “Whatever, I do what I want.”

“Your mother is going to kill me.”

Zach rolled his eyes. “No, you’re Ma’s new favorite person—she’d kill me first.”

It was true. As much as “Meet the Parents” had gone awkwardly, it was worth it to see Ma latch onto Chris, leaving Natalia in the dust.

Zach should probably not be gleeful about that.

“You don’t fool me,” Chris said and poked Zach’s shoulder. “My mom was chatting with Natalia, hogging all of her attention. I’m sure once Nat and your mother actually sit down together, I’ll be a far distant memory.”

Zach grimaced, supposing that was true. He had only chatted with Chris’ dad awkwardly at that dinner last week, as Gwynne had wanted to stay on the other side of the dining room. How long had they been divorced?

“Come on,” Chris said as he stood up. “The sooner you get there, the sooner you can get drunk.”

“Thank god,” Zach said. He knew it was the only way to deal with Joey’s shotgun wedding, try as Zach might to grin and bear it. As much as he wasn’t outright hostile to Natalia anymore, it was only because he was Joey’s best man—Zach could be polite, when need be.

Chris offered Zach a hand, and Zach felt the swaying momentum as he got to his feet, almost colliding with Chris. Except Chris took advantage of the situation, tugging Zach’s neck to bring his head down, stealing a kiss.

But it was never just one kiss. Zach liked them too much—liked them so much that he took them wherever he got them, oblivious to the world.

That was one juice box. But Zach had certainly gotten one in return, convincing Chris to hang out in Nevada for a while, learning the ways of Burning Man.

But they had to get through the wedding, first.

“You coming, or what?” Chris had started to walk ahead, away from the ghost of the big top. “Seriously, your mother will kill me.”

However, Chris knew better. He knew that he could walk ahead and maybe get some distance, but Zach would always follow. He was lured helplessly, but not hopelessly. Zach appreciated that Chris knew the difference.

After one final look at the empty skyline, Zach turned and left that life behind. He had new memories to make, starting tonight.