It’s funny, Shirabu thinks, how one can go from being the promising star of a studio to being nothing but just another face in the crowd, roaming the streets with nowhere to go.
Only it isn’t funny at all, because he’s starving and cold and he has no idea where he’s going to sleep tonight. Maybe he should’ve kept his head down. Maybe he should’ve pretended not to notice the shady deals behind the curtains or the favors expected from the dancers in order to climb up the ranks and get a better role. He’s never quite learned how to keep his mouth shut, though. If he has to pay for his spotlight then he doesn’t want it.
‘You can all eat shit’ were his parting words from what had been his entire world for the last six years. Before that, he didn’t have anything at all, thrown from foster home to foster home because some rich couple wanted a kid with his cute looks but didn’t want to deal with the attitude that came with them.
You’re not supposed to miss something you never really had, yet there he is, sitting by the sidewalk and staring at the window of the cafe across the street. He’s not entirely sure what he’s more jealous of—the warm bread the kid on the other side of the glass is about to eat, or the fact that the kid has someone who actually cares enough to buy him warm bread. The former, he tells himself. His stomach grumbles in agreement. He doesn’t need anyone to care about him, he can do just fine on his own.
“You hungry?” a loud, cheerful voice pulls his attention to his right. Shirabu has no idea when the owner of the voice sat there, but he’s giving him the most curious look. He seems to be about his age, with determined eyes and a terrible taste in hairstyles.
“No,” Shirabu lies through his teeth.
“You sure?” a different voice asks.
“What do you want?” Shirabu turns to his left with a scowl. He’s met with wide, mischievous eyes and bright red hair.
“Well, Goshiki here thought you might be hungry,” the stranger says, “but you don’t seem to need our help.”
“You’re right. I don’t.”
“You’re new here,” Goshiki says. It’s a statement, not a question.
“Here?” Shirabu raises an eyebrow at him. He’s lived in this city his entire life, as far as he knows.
“On the streets, I mean.”
“We know everyone on the streets,” the red-haired stranger provides. “We don’t know you, though. I’m Tendou, by the way.”
Shirabu shrugs and gets to his feet. He has no interest in knowing them and the sooner he can get away from them, the better. They seem to have a different idea, though, as Goshiki speaks again, “Do you have a place to sleep?”
“Do I look like I have a place to sleep?” Shirabu asks, turning around just in time to see them exchange a look. Tendou nods and, whatever that means, it seems to please Goshiki.
“We know of a place where you can stay.”
Shirabu studies them for a minute, wondering what on Earth they could expect of him in return. “No thanks,” he says, turning to leave them behind. To his relief, they don’t follow him.
But they come back the next day, and the day after that, too. By the fourth day, Shirabu’s resolve starts crumbling down, tired of barely eating and struggling to sleep for more than two hours straight. That’s the only reason why he agrees to follow Goshiki all the way to the outskirts of the city, too immersed into his second-guessing to pay attention to his babbling until a “We’re here!” makes him stop on his tracks.
They’re at the entrance of a vast field, a huge white and purple tent at the end of a path marked with fairy lights. There are smaller tents around the main one, and he can hear music coming from… somewhere. It isn’t hard to guess what this place is.
“Please tell me this is not a circus,” he asks, hoping whoever this place belongs to just has an odd taste in decoration.
Goshiki opens his mouth but nothing comes out, instead looking back and forth from Shirabu to the sign right above their heads on the iron fence. ‘Shiratorizawa Circus’, it reads. Shirabu feels oddly disappointed. The last thing he wants is to be surrounded by clowns, and now he feels like one for thinking whatever Goshiki is offering could be good. He should’ve known, though: what else could someone expect from a pair of weirdos approaching a stranger on the streets and inviting them to stay with them?
“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what you want in return,” he says, turning back to Goshiki.
“We don’t want anything,” Goshiki blinks at him. “You’re gonna have to work, though.”
“What kind of work? I’m not a clown or… whatever it is you do here.”
Goshiki laughs at that and all Shirabu wants is to slap the smile off his face. “You haven’t been to a circus in a while, right?” He asks, not minding Shirabu’s lack of a reply. “I’m sure Ushijima-san can find something for you.”
“He’s our leader! C’mon, I’ll take you to meet him.”
Shirabu follows Goshiki into the main tent, desperately trying to hide how curious he is about… whatever this place is. He always thought a circus was supposed to be colorful, filled with music and light and laughter. Instead, he finds himself in near darkness. The inside of the tent is pitch-black fabric, the only light inside coming from a lamp on the table where Tendou is sitting with someone else. At least there’s laughter, if the ugly cackle coming out from Tendou’s mouth can be called that.
“I see you finally succeeded,” Tendou says with that annoying grin of his.
“Yep!” Goshiki sounds so proud of himself, Shirabu almost regrets giving him the satisfaction of coming with him. “Shirabu-san, these are Semi-san and… well, you’ve met Tendou-san.”
“I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist our Tsutomu for too long,” Tendou snickers, getting a smack to the back of the head before he can keep talking.
“Welcome,” Semi says, rolling his eyes at Tendou. “Don’t let him get under your skin, you’re better off ignoring him.”
“I can see that,” Shirabu replies in a flat tone.
“I’m looking for Ushijima-san,” Goshiki says, ignoring everything else going on. “Have you seen him?”
“He’s with the kittens!” Tendou announces, a suspicious smile curving his lips.
That should’ve been enough for Shirabu to know to expect something, but he’s past the point of caring. He just wants to get this over with, find out what they want, and get some sleep. Maybe he should’ve been more prepared. The walk to the huge, open cage right behind the main tent wasn’t enough to wake him up and he’s left standing with his mouth open when they find Ushijima there.
When told about kittens one would expect hand-sized cats and tiny meows that would melt the coldest of hearts. What he finds instead are two lions and a roar that sends a shiver down his spine. Not even Ushijima happens to be as he expected—he thought he’d meet a weirdo like everyone else he’s met here so far. Instead, he’s met with a stoic man and… well, maybe he is a bit of a weirdo. What kind of person sits with a lion resting its head on his lap?
“Goshiki tells me you’re in need of a place to stay,” is Ushijima’s greeting, as if there was absolutely nothing strange about hanging out with lions. All Shirabu can do is nod, frozen in place as the second lion studies him. “Have you ever been part of a circus?”
“No.” If Shirabu manages to stop himself from scoffing at the ridiculous idea, it’s because he’d much rather not lose his chance at finally finding a place to stay. That, and the two kittens still staring at him.
“What did you do before coming here?” Ushijima’s voice sounds so commanding Shirabu feels tiny as he looks back at him, swallowing around his dry tongue.
“I’m uh—I was a dancer.”
Ushijima throws a glance at Goshiki, who seems to be too excited about… what, exactly? “Any experience with acrobatics?”
Shirabu frowns. “Not a lot,” he admits, and something in Goshiki’s expression tells him that wasn’t the correct answer. “I’m a fast learner, though.”
It seems to be enough to please Ushijima, as he nods, a hand absently scratching behind the ear of the lion resting against him. “Good,” he says before turning to Goshiki. “Do you think you can train him in time for the new season?”
“Yessir!” Goshiki says before Shirabu even has a chance to complain. What could he possibly learn from someone like Goshiki?
As Shirabu finds out the following morning, there is something Goshiki can teach him. That doesn’t mean Shirabu is happy about it—who in their right mind would want to learn aerial acrobatics from Goshiki, of all people? Trusting Goshiki with his life when he’s holding him by the hand mid-air is not how Shirabu was expecting his days to go, but as bad as it sounds it feels safer than the alternative. As confident as Ushijima might be in Tendou and Yamagata’s fire dancing skills, Shirabu isn’t going anywhere near their act.
It’s not easy, but as weeks go by and their training gets more intense, Shirabu realizes he made the right choice. Goshiki not only surprises him by proving he’s more than capable of leading their act, but also by turning into someone else entirely when he’s in the air. All the awkwardness and overexcitement disappear the moment Goshiki’s feet leave the ground, only grace and elegance in his every move. It left Shirabu breathless when he first saw him practice by himself that first morning together. It still does now, two months later as they finish their last rehearsal before opening night.
The dark, boring inside of the tent starts making sense the night of the show. What during the day seems dull and lifeless comes alive when darkness falls, fairy lights all over the black fabric, lighting up as if they were stars. Shirabu doesn’t need to visit any other circus to be sure not a single one of them could compare to this, so magical it almost feels like he’s stepped into a whole new dimension. Even Shirabu himself feels like he belongs to a different world, with his skin-tight costume in purple shades, his dark lips and smokey eyes, and the crystals and feathers from his headpiece.
He’s never watched a full show. For the past few months, he kept telling himself he doesn’t care about it, he just wants to play his part, get his share of food, and that’s it. But when he hears the constant murmur of the audience, he can’t help but feel some of that excitement crawling into him.
Everything goes quiet when Oohira steps onto the stage, clad in his ringmaster uniform. He’s saying something, Shirabu can see his lips are moving all the way from where he’s peeking behind the curtains, but he can’t hear a word over the pounding of his heart in his ears. This isn’t just another rehearsal, this is the real thing and it might potentially decide his future. If his performance isn’t good enough tonight, he’s out, back to the streets.
By the time an elbow to his ribs pulls him from his thoughts, the show has started. Everyone’s acts are connected, from Tendou and Yamagata’s fire dancing to Ushijima’s lions jumping around the arena to Semi and Kawanishi swinging on the trapeze, intrinsically interwoven by music, a small string ensemble directed by Washijou.
A few notes from Soekawa’s violin signal their turn. A slow, steady rhythm follows Goshiki’s climb up the silk hanging over the center of the stage. After getting in position, Shirabu nods at Goshiki, takes a deep breath, and closes his eyes. The music goes in crescendo as more instruments join, guiding his every movement as he dances, his feet feeling lighter than ever before. He doesn’t need to see to know Goshiki is doing swirls all around him, the crowd gasping at every drop. He’s seen him practice long enough to be sure there’s no way he’d ever fall, and that’s why when the music stops Shirabu lifts his hand in the air without a single shred of doubt.
Adrenaline rushes through him as Goshiki literally sweeps him off his feet. He holds him by the hand, hooking a knee around the silk before reaching for Shirabu’s waist with his other hand and flipping himself upside down. Shirabu used to be terrified of these drops, now they’re exhilarating. Floating around the tent feels different than it did during rehearsal. It might be the music, or the costumes, or the magical atmosphere. Or maybe it’s him who’s different, every inch of his skin tingling with wonder after months of claiming this didn’t mean anything to him. Whatever it is, he hopes it never goes away.
Even hours later after the show has ended, he still feels that thrill. He understands now what Ushijima saw in this bunch of weirdos, and as much as Shirabu would hate to admit it, he thinks he wouldn’t mind spending more time around them. He actually feels like he belongs somewhere for the first time in a long time, if not ever. When he lived at the studio, he’d always seen it as a stepping stone, surrounded by faces he never bothered remembering because they wouldn’t be part of his life for too long. One day he’d leave them all behind without looking back.
It doesn’t feel that way when he looks at the faces surrounding him every night when the whole troupe gathers for dinner. And when they all get together to celebrate the first show of the season, they don’t even need to drag him along to join them for drinks.
Goshiki is talking Ushijima’s ear off about how well today went and all the tricks he’d like to try for the next season. Ushijima’s smile might not be as obvious as Tendou’s or Oohira’s, but it’s there when he looks at Shirabu across the table, a question written in his eyes. It’s a question Shirabu has asked himself more than once over the past few months, every time Goshiki mentions next season as if Shirabu’s presence were a given.
Shirabu thinks he has an answer, now: maybe being here for another season wouldn’t be so bad.