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“You need to learn to trust people,” he’d said. Which was true. But “trust me,” it meant. And as David responded with a smile and stars in his wide eyes, he regretted it immediately.

Now, watching David’s sleeping face- beautiful, meticulously unblemished, and more calmly open than he’d ever seen it, he was panicking. The familiar pit in the bottom of his stomach was cracking open. A chasm now, echoing a drumming of dread. He had to get up.

Throwing the quilt off himself he leapt out of bed and cursed the cold floor beneath his feet which spiked his already flurried heart-rate, then quickly turned to replace the quilt snugly around his sleeping boyfriend. No, not boyfriend. They weren’t ready for that. He wasn’t ready for that. ‘Guy he was dating.’ That label felt shallow and flippant. He knew he wanted more. On some level he knew David wanted more. And he knew that he couldn’t give it to him.

His life was a mess. This wasn’t the path he was supposed to be on. He was a professional birthday clown for god’s sake. 32 and caking an absurd red smile onto his face to blow up balloons at children’s parties. It was only supposed to be a short term thing, making a little bit of extra cash while he got through his economics degree on his way to a high-paying, prestigious career.

He’d always considered himself a funny guy, his strong sense of humour his primary armor growing up, and still powerful now in deflecting attention from his true emotional state. Why not monetise that? Stand-up comedy was an impractical option, and besides he never had the self-confidence to grab a microphone. Birthday parties for the rich kids on the other side of town were a reliable source of immediate income, and the makeup was a perfect mask to shield himself.

He had taken a liking to the work immediately, and when his college progress fell out from underneath him as he became overwhelmed with the pressure and the self-flagellating despair in his mind wouldn’t allow him to make it to lectures, somehow the parties became the only appointments he could keep. As a clown he could pretend. It was weird, but it was an escape. Eventually, it became his whole identity.

---

“Hi, are you David Rose? Did you book a clown? Am I at the right address? I do kids' parties. I don’t see any kids here?”

“No, yeah, you’re perfect, this is gonna be hilarious.” 

“Sure, if balloon animals are still your kind of comedy."

David's eyes lit up with joy. He lifted his face to the sky as if in gratitude to the gods. “Balloon animals! No I mean, it’s gonna be hilarious having you at my little sister’s party, with no actual kids, it’s a joke.”

“I’m a joke?”

David laughed.

“Jesus.”  

“No! I mean, like, well, you’re a clown” He gestured breezily at his wig, then his makeup…the bow, all the way down to his shoes.

Shame spreading through him, he bit his lip. “I’m a professional.” His voice quavered.

David grimaced, like he’d realised he’d touched a nerve. “No, of course, I’m being a dick.”

Quietly, “Yeah.”

David pouted at him. Then, “You’re very attractive.”

It caught him off guard. David, though clearly a dick, was very attractive too. “Excuse me?”

A pause. “Did I hurt your feelings?”

“No”, defensively. Then, pointing at the exaggerated smile painted on his face, dryly: “See?”

“You’re funny.”

“Well, I’m a clown.” He mimicked David’s gesture down his own body. David’s gaze followed, and lingered.

“It’s against my morals to hurt attractive people’s feelings.”

What the fuck was going on right now. He ventured a shrug: “Gosh, I must have done a really good job on my makeup today.”

Another laugh. “I didn’t know I was into sexy clowns either, but here we are.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Here we are?”

“Listen. You don’t have to do this party. It was a dumb idea. Let me make it up to you.” David stepped forward and touched him lightly, walking his fingers up his chest to caress his bow-tie.

Rare is the individual who would refuse such an offer from David Rose.

---

And here he was in David Rose’s suite, becoming more and more attached by the day, carrying this relationship along as though he could fit in to that lifestyle. As though he could be the partner David needed. Absurd. The greatest joke of his career so far. The version of himself who wasn’t so weak, who could continue earning top grades through to the end of his degree and land that job, who could afford designer clothes and understand cultural references beyond what the kids talked about at parties- that guy could have been David Rose’s boyfriend. This pathetic guy had to give up the fantasy.

But, “Trust me,” he’d said. God, why? He’d wanted to keep him around, is why. Flighty David Rose, well-documented commitment-phobe. He hadn’t known who David was when they’d met, but he’d done some research after that first tryst and found out a lot.

David had been connected with all sorts of people. There was gossip about some of them exploiting David for his family money. He must have learned to keep people at arms length, breaking all his relationships off himself- he couldn’t imagine anyone dumping David Rose, the man was a delight. Which is why it was such a surprise when he’d called him to meet up again. And then David had seemed surprised that he had showed up. ”Of course. I said I’d be here. You’ve got to learn to trust people, David.” The way he’d smiled at him then. God. Dazzling.

He wanted more of it, but he wasn't doing David any favours by sticking around. He had to leave, now. He felt delirious. Pacing around the room, he quickly grabbed his few belongings and stuffed them in his duffel bag. He stopped still when he returned to the bed.

David was still fast asleep, though his expression had changed- his brow furrowed in concern. He couldn’t bear it. He was still holding on to the last thing he’d grabbed- his face paint set. He perched on the edge of the bed and cradled the leather-lined box in his hands. It was a vast upgrade from what he'd had- a gift from David. He’d also given him M.A.C makeup brushes.

“The best,” David had assured him, deaf to his insistence that face-painting didn’t require such luxurious tools. “But so soooft,” he’d cooed, lightly brushing one of them on his face. It was soft. And it was tender.

He held that brush now, remembering. Then he reached out and caressed David’s face with it, eliciting a small, huffed sigh, which calmed David’s brow once more. Slowly, meditatively, he traced David’s features. He was going to remember them. When he came to his beautiful lips, still stuck in a small frown, he found himself tracing a smile over them. He wanted David to be happy. Lost in the thought, he opened one of the paint bottles and dipped the delicate brush in red. Bright, unambiguous, happy happy clown red.

There, he couldn’t have hurt him- he’s happy. See?

He walked out the door. His heart felt numb, and his lips bore a trace of red paint.

---

At first, David thought it would be a funny story. “You ever fucked a birthday clown? You know what they say about giant shoes!” He was considering making up some kind of Occupation Bingo. Maybe an ice cream man. A crossing guard. Fuckable people existed in all walks of life, it turns out. It was a fun thought, and a welcome distraction to occupy himself so he wouldn’t have to face the risks of relationships with people on his level that he might actually fall for. That theory went out the window after the first night. To his alarm, he found himself texting him asking to see him again. “You ever fucked a birthday clown?” is one thing, “You ever dated a birthday clown?” is a whole other thing, and highly off-brand for David Rose. And yet…

David sensed there was a sadness to him. And not just the tragedy of a life spent among children and the indignity of a water-squirting flower attached to rainbow suspenders. A sadness that he recognised, that bubbled under the surface and lended an edge and a purpose to his jokes, a depth to their sex, and a romantically forlorn expression to his face when he thought he wasn’t being watched.

He watched him perform at a party once, and marvelled at his transformation into this being of pure joy who delighted everyone in the room. It reminded him of himself at a gallery opening, only the costume was a little more colourful, and the audience much stickier. He’d never say that he saw a reflection of himself in a birthday clown, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t true. So when he asked for David’s trust, it somehow felt right, easy and natural to give it to him.

The morning (nearing noon) that he’d woken up to an empty bed (rare) and an odd sensation in the lower half of his face (less rare, but of a different nature this time), it took him a little while to comprehend the reality of the situation. Cosily tucked in as he was, he’d stayed in bed long enough to send a “Good morning! Last minute lunchtime gig? :)” text, receive an automated message that the number had been disconnected, worry, and leap to the decision to message the contacts in the FBI he’d conveniently acquired during Alexis’s various shenanigans to try and find his boyfriend. Not boyfriend.

Eventually, he dragged himself to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. The sight was frightening at first but as realisation dawned, that feeling soon changed to a pain that was all too familiar. And the big red smile on his face, insisting to the outside world his blithe indifference, that was familiar too.

----

“I think you would have an easier time of it, and maybe a bit more fun, if you just learned to trust people.”

“The last time I heard that, I was dating a birthday clown who painted my face in the night and was literally never seen from again.”

He’d said it like a joke. Like he always did. Transforming his trauma into a quippy little absurd “Oh, David!”.

When Patrick returned to the motel room with four sliders and a meticulously plated array of sides, as promised, and left again, as promised, David realised in a rush of clarity that he did trust Patrick. He couldn’t doubt a thing his boyfriend said when he looked at him with those earnest brown eyes, not if he tried. And he had told him he had nothing to worry about, so he didn’t. He’d said that not trusting people was his comfort zone, but this feeling, now that he recognised it, was the most comfortable thing he’d ever known. Trusting Patrick wasn’t the issue. This moment of peace was interrupted by a sudden jolt of anxiety as he remembered that Patrick wasn’t the only one who had asked for trust.

“Trust me,” David had whispered, holding himself closely above Patrick’s nervous, naked, gorgeous body, which shuddered in hungry anticipation of his first time taking David inside him. Every atom of David’s being in that moment was dedicated to making Patrick feel good, and trust was part of that. His eyes wide and calm, Patrick was as eager to give David his trust as he was to give him everything else he had since the day he first helped fill out his incorporation papers.

And David was understanding now that that trust remained outside of that moment, far beyond the limits of his bed. And that was it. Patrick had already cured him of the fear of trusting someone else, the issue now was the fear of having someone he cared about put their trust in him.  

His life was a mess. This wasn’t the path he was supposed to be on. He was living in a motel with his sister for god’s sake. 30ish and hadn’t done anything to be proud of until like six months ago. David knew he didn’t deserve that trust. He couldn’t handle that trust. He’s not qualified to protect that trust. He was just going to betray it some day, and the closer they got before that happened, the worse it would crush poor Patrick’s pure heart. And even if somehow David didn’t do something to fuck it all up in the future, chances are Patrick would find out about something from his past and have way more of a right to feel horrified and betrayed about it than David did about Rachel. He couldn’t keep this going.

 

Two nights later, after finally getting to sleep in the Crystal Elms honeymoon suite (he’d had to summon Stevie back from her tub exile before he felt secure enough to sleep), he dreamed:

Him, awake and panicking.

Patrick, sleeping next to him, an expression of blissful calm on his face, which changes slowly to a frown.

As David lifts his hand to soothe Patrick’s features, he finds he is holding a M.A.C 240S tapered brush, coated in red paint.

This is the moment.

This is the cue for the untrustworthy clown to turn and run forever.

His heart is breaking but his hand remains still.

Patrick stirs slightly. He reaches for David with eyes still closed. His hand finds David’s chest and he smiles.

Instinctively, David takes Patrick’s hand in his own.

The brush has disappeared.

Patrick smiles and nuzzles closer.

Like a wave of relief, David knows the clown’s cue is not his to take up.

He’s not going anywhere.

 

He’s not going anywhere.