To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.
Mary Oliver — In Blackwater Woods
In the anticipatory darkness, the acrobat glitters, a lone star at the peak of the tent. A beat of silence passes where even the ringmaster's booming voice falls to a hush, the crowd watching with bated breath. Jaehyun hates hyperboles, but he swears he forgets to breathe when the man swoops downwards, an icy mirage of blue swinging from trapeze to trapeze.
A powerful, yet delicate dance. Calculated chaos. Beside him, Doyoung straightens in his seat.
"Impressed, are we?" Jaehyun whispers, and his friend settles his features into something more dignified. Still, like Jaehyun, he doesn't tear his eyes away from the acrobat, who dangles off a trapeze with one foot, fingers crooked to beckon at the audience.
"Who is he?" Doyoung asks, forgetting himself in a fit of childlike wonder that he would have loathed at any other time.
Jaehyun grins, having pestered Doyoung into accompanying him to the circus for days. "I haven't seen him before. He must be a new performer."
"Well, he must be frightened, in any case," Doyoung murmurs as the man twirls in mid-air, the combination of his impossible movements and the iridescence of his clothing lending him an ethereal appearance. The ringmaster may orchestrate the performance, but the acrobat controls the crowd, their reactions at the mercy of his every whim.
Privately, Jaehyun disagrees. The acrobat moves like someone who has nothing left to fear. He knows he's right, sees it in the graceful flourish of his limbs, the lack of hesitation when he jumps, and the brilliant smile between every elaborate twist. The roaring music crescendoes as the acrobat brings his performance to a close, hanging upside down from a trapeze, a rose caught between his teeth. His hair is coated in the same shimmering dust as his clothes.
He does not take the rope to the ground. Instead, he shuts his eyes, and drops. The crowd chokes back a scream, but Jaehyun notices that his grin hasn't faded. His heart quickens at the last minute twist, sinewy arms spread at the sides before he lands feet-first on the safety net, the soft thump echoing throughout the tent. The crowd erupts, and the acrobat drops into a elegant bow, hand hovering at his chest.
Their eyes meet over the cheering of the crowd, and Jaehyun can't bring himself to look away. He was right. He doesn't see the telltale mark of fear in those eyes, large and dark.
He doesn't see anything.
Losing Doyoung in the crowd is easy. Jaehyun knows he should be going back to the estate before someone misses him but time is a knife held over his head, and he's determined to not let the weight of his position fall onto his shoulders before he comes of age. So he follows the acrobat between the dark fabrics set behind the ringmaster's podium. Strangely enough, no one tries to stop him. Once the audience has filtered out, the big top becomes abruptly quiet. Even Jaehyun's footsteps feel too loud.
Behind the drapes, Jaehyun expects the same life and colour that the circus has bled into the town for the past week. He finds none of that brightness. In its place are discarded props, scraps of glittery fabrics and pots of cosmetics. He takes in the upturned chairs and tables strewn with various oddities. An ornate pocket watch catches his eye, and he reaches for it, despite all his breeding.
"I'm afraid the show is over for today," a silky voice rings out.
Jaehyun springs back, his embarrassment evaporating when he realizes it's the acrobat. His pale hair, which seemed to defy gravity earlier, falls soft over his forehead now. He's in the same clothes, the fabric stretching tight over his body, yet giving him the illusion of lightness that mesmerizes Jaehyun.
"Hello," Jaehyun whispers, feeling it appropriate. The acrobat is almost as tall as him, but he feels as if he'll disappear if he makes one wrong move. "You were...That was wonderful to watch."
"I'm glad my performance pleased you."
"I haven't seen you before. What's your name?"
He smiles slightly, an act that makes him look more real. Jaehyun didn't realize it before, but he’s barely older than him. He shows no signs of answering, instead picking up the pocket watch that Jaehyun was about to touch before.
"Are you new here?" Jaehyun continues, his elusiveness arousing his curiosity. "Or are you originally from this town?"
"Aren't you the curious one, Little Lord," the acrobat hums, rolling the pocket watch between his fingers.
"I'm not little," Jaehyun mutters. He's nearly eighteen, almost of age.
His smile grows. "But you are a Lord?"
"Are you always this evasive?" Jaehyun retorts, raising an eyebrow.
The acrobat stops spinning the watch, something in his gaze shifting as he looks at its face. His effortless posture stiffens. "You must leave now," he says, and Jaehyun opens his mouth to protest, "but I’ll answer one of your questions before you go. Choose wisely."
Jaehyun's first instinct is to argue, but he thinks better of it. If he's to see him again, he needs something better than a starstruck description. "Your name."
The acrobat moves closer, even if only to coax him towards the exit. His smile is now rigid instead of amused, and Jaehyun cannot focus on the pretty syllables of his name.
"Lee Taeyong," he says, getting close enough for his breath to ghost Jaehyun's skin. He gives him a gentle shove towards the drapes before Jaehyun can protest, and he almost knocks into someone else. The ringmaster, still in his elaborate riding habit of red and gold. He takes a step back, but his hand lands on Jaehyun's shoulder, a mix of curiosity and alarm on his face.
Jaehyun pulls his hood further up, but the man doesn't let go.
"I'm sorry," he blurts, pulling out of the man's grip and making a run for it, his heart pounding as loud as his boots against the floor. He doesn't stop until he puts the great canopy of tents behind him, ducking under workers carrying props and an assortment of equipment. Once he reaches the road, he stops to catch his breath, watching the red circus flags flutter lazily in the sky.
He will not be able to return tomorrow, he thinks, even as Taeyong's face plays in his mind.
Taeyong is no longer the elegant, effervescent creature he was the year before. Now, he is all fire that burns through Jaehyun's mind. A single feather is pinned to his hair, which is now dark, and Jaehyun can't take his eyes off it, a bright spot of scarlet in the air.
Jaehyun takes a leap of faith this time, pushing against the crowd to get to him before he disappears into the safety of the rear drapes. He doesn't think Taeyong will recognize him with his face covered, but his lips spread into a blinding smile that Jaehyun now knows is reserved to the public.
"Welcome back, Little Lord," he greets, keeping his voice low. "Although I suppose it's m’lord now."
"Just Jaehyun, thank you. Now, I believe you owe me a few answers."
Taeyong's smile dims just enough for it to be genuine. He nods towards the crowd around them, all clamouring for a bit of his attention. For a second, Jaehyun expects a quick dismissal, but he just pulls him by the shoulder, lips brushing against his ear when he whispers, "Meet me at the fortune teller's stall in 15 minutes."
Jaehyun ignores the apprehension building in his gut and hunts for the meeting place, which turns out to be a nondescript purple tent that is haloed by the setting sun. He waits, boots scuffing against the grass, ignoring curious glances. When he finally entertains the thought that Taeyong might not come, he does.
He looks a little harried, his vest askew over his loose cotton shirt, similar to the workman’s clothes Jaehyun is wearing. Somehow, it makes him more attractive.
"You waited," he says, tone wondrous.
"You asked," Jaehyun responds. "You left before I could get to know you last time."
"You're remarkably forward," Taeyong comments. "Though I shouldn't expect different from nobility."
"Seems like you've met your fair share. I tried to find you after you left, but not even my resources could track you down."
Taeyong casts his eyes skywards. "I go where this place goes. There's nothing tying me down elsewhere."
The resentment in his voice takes Jaehyun by surprise. Taeyong doesn't give him time to pry, pulling him down onto the soft grass with him. "So," he starts, "what does the son of a Marquess want with me?" He says the word Marquess with a slight foreign accent.
It's Jaehyun's turn to break eye contact. "You seem to have so much passion for what you do. I just wondered what it feels like to choose something rather than to have it thrust upon you."
"It's just a means to an end," Taeyong says, but he sounds a little closed-off. "Besides, if I could choose to be a noble like you, I would."
Jaehyun snorts. "You'd fit right in at those dreadful balls."
Taeyong grins, and it's not the mysterious smile he reserves for performances. It softens his face, bringing out his cheeks in a way that makes Jaehyun's heart stutter. "Why, m’lord," he starts, "do you mean to tell me you have two left feet?"
"I dance fine," Jaehyun retorts. "It's the company that's lacking."
"And the company you're in right now?"
Jaehyun scours Taeyong's face, the thick eyebrows and faint scar next to his eye. He looks unreal in the big top, but he looks painfully human now.
"Breathtaking," he answers.
Taeyong lets out a laugh that lacks humour. A stretch of silence passes where Jaehyun wonders if he said something wrong. He notices Taeyong has the gold pocket watch hanging from his belt, and he keeps checking the time..
"You can return if you want to," he murmurs.
"Thank you for the permission, m’lord," Taeyong teases, but he sounds grateful. He gets to his feet, hesitating for a moment before reaching into the pocket of his vest. He pulls the red cardinal feather he was wearing earlier, the ends fading into white.
"For the compliment," he adds, offering it to Jaehyun.
Jaehyun takes it, twirling it between his fingers as Taeyong makes for the tents, watching the evening light catch on the red strands.
Taeyong never stays long. Jaehyun meets him once or twice a year, sneaking out of his estate during the three weeks Cirque de Fantasie is in town, either spending time in Taeyong's own quarters or walking further up the field where the circus tents are pitched. Jaehyun is happy, but he feels as if he's reaching for something that isn't there, trying to clasp his fingers around air.
The more he gets to know Taeyong, the less he feels as if he knows him.
"Why don't you do something else?" Jaehyun asks him, when Taeyong is in a particularly withdrawn mood after a show. Despite how at home he looks on the trapeze, Taeyong doesn't enjoy the spotlight as much as Jaehyun thought he did.
"This is the one thing I can do," Taeyong responds bitterly. He's been ripping up grass, scattering bits of it on Jaehyun's clothes. He stops him, taking his long, thin fingers in his own.
"I'm sure there are other things you'd be good at, if you'd just try—,"
"Let it go, Jaehyun," Taeyong advises, sounding resigned. "I've tried enough, trust me."
Jaehyun swallows back his own frustration. "How can I when you make it so apparent that you're unhappy?"
Taeyong's eyes widen in that lovely way they do when he's caught off-guard. Repentant, he cups Jaehyun's chin in his hands, expression growing soft.
"I'm happy," he assures, "with you." His lips capture Jaehyun's in the gentlest of kisses, like the wind whispering through the branches of the tree they're seated under. Any argument he was about to make drowns in the taste of Taeyong's mouth, and the roughness of his fingers against his lips.
Jaehyun gets promised to another, and all he can think of is Taeyong. His face in place of the person he's supposed to spend the rest of his life with, his arm in Jaehyun's when they take strolls to get to know each other. Time has changed much about Jaehyun, but his fascination with Taeyong stays, as vibrant and alive as he was the first time he saw him.
"Please come back with me," Jaehyun pleads, his nose brushing the crook of Taeyong's neck, his skin still searing where Taeyong's hands have roamed. He stiffens under his touch, brushing a few strands of hair off Jaehyun's forehead.
"You know I can't," he says, careful. Always careful.
"Is this about my family?" Jaehyun presses, lifting his head. His voice is low, but fierce. "It won't matter. Titles can be bought, Taeyong. You know that."
"It's not your title, Little Lord," Taeyong murmurs, and the affectionate nickname stabs at Jaehyun's heart. "My place is here, and yours is back at your estate."
"With my betrothed," Jaehyun adds darkly. Taeyong's sad smile makes him feel guiltier than he should.
"With your betrothed."
Jaehyun doesn't often beg, but he does it now, his heart reigning triumphant over his head. "I don't want it to be anyone but you."
"My place is here, Jaehyun. I cannot leave." If Jaehyun were in his right mind, maybe he would notice the desperation in Taeyong's voice, willing him to understand. "Please don't make this harder than it is."
Jaehyun sits up, the cool blue fabric of Taeyong's sheets rustling beneath him. "I'll have all of you, or not at all."
Taeyong's hands slide off his shoulders, ringed fingers bunching into the sheets. His voice is soft, and measured.
"You've made your choice then."
It hurts worse to know that Taeyong made his long ago.
A year passes, but Jaehyun doesn't go back when Cirque de Fantasie returns, not at Doyoung's insistence or at the longing that festers in his heart. His betrothed calls off their, but he doesn’t mind. It was a promise broken before it was ever made. He settles into his father's shoes, managing border disputes and keeping track of the many lands under their name. It almost keeps his mind off Taeyong, until it doesn't.
He still likes taking trips into town in disguise. It helps him catch his breath, a reprieve from a life that was set out for him before he could have a say in it. It's during one of these excursions that he meets the ringmaster, who he almost doesn’t recognize in regular attire if not for his height and their memorable first encounter.
"It's you," the man remarks over the pile of books on his arms, most of them French titles on...myths? "The Lord."
"Marquess," Jaehyun corrects out of habit.
The ringmaster grins unashamedly. "Same thing. I haven't seen you around in a while."
Jaehyun's smile is tight. "I guess I've lost my taste for the circus."
The other man's smile drops. He seems to fight an internal battle before choosing his next words."That fool. He never told you, did he?"
"Told me what?"
"It's not my place to say. He's been hoping you would come back, though."
Jaehyun raises an eyebrow, but the ringmaster just shrugs. "Let's just say I've known him for a while. Do us all a favour and go see him. He's been moping for too long, even for his standards."
I cannot leave . Jaehyun hears it as clear as day, the plea in Taeyong's voice. A desperate apology. He thinks of the pocket watch he was always looking at, how they never met past evening, and the emptiness in Taeyong's eyes when they'd locked gazes over the crowd. Realization hits like a gong, and he swears.
"Are you still set up in the same place?"
"Always," the ringmaster responds, his smile knowing. Jaehyun is out the door before he can say more.
The years have been kind to Jaehyun, but they've left Taeyong utterly untouched. Jaehyun wonders how he didn't see it before, feeling that same ripple of nerves he did when they first met, staring in the face of something surreal.
"What happened to you?" he asks, aching to run his fingers over Taeyong's skin, making sure he's real.
Taeyong smile is pained. "I told you I can't leave. I'm bound to this place for as long as I exist."
The big top has never seemed more like a cage, its stripe-patterned walls closing in on the two of them. Jaehyun doesn't know the first thing about curses, but he does understand being trapped.
"Isn't there anything I can do to help?" he asks.
Taeyong hesitates before stretching out his hand. "You can stay with me. For a while."
Jaehyun takes it.
When Jaehyun becomes confined to his estate, Taeyong faces his own ultimatum. He waits until darkness falls over the circus, the pocket watch in his hands. He spots a spire in the distance, and thinks of Jaehyun, his warmth and unending loyalty. Gold mingles with green as the watch drops to the ground.
He toes the boundary line of the circus. Takes one step, then another.