There was something safe and secure about being twenty feet in the air, with only the curve of a hoop under your thighs holding you up. He spins around in a slow, lazy circle, legs dangling and hands loose on the hoop, eyes unseeing something in the distance. Somewhere below him, the world continues spinning and orbiting some celestial star, but up here, nothing can touch him. He is suspended in a space where the real world has no meaning.
Normally voices break his concentration, make him remember that there is a world he is supposed to belong to, but not hers. There is a quality in her voice that focuses him, makes this safe place safer. So instead of returning to the earth, he merely blinks out of his stare and looks down, down, down at the mass of red hair and an upturned face.
Princess Koriand’r of Tamaran could be an oddity herself, if she wasn’t royalty. Instead, her wealth and title protects her from the taunts and violence of America’s common man. There is something in her eyes though that tells him she is accustomed to mockery and bruises, mobs and fire, and he wants to bridge the distance between them and ask what tragedies she has seen, but he knows his place. He may not look an oddity, but he is an orphan in both name and home, a young man whose long-dead parents are immigrants of a mysterious, dangerous land he doesn’t know. He cannot return to the past, but he cannot move on because of his past, and so he stays trapped, moving from circus to circus in an attempt to find a home.
He isn’t sure why Koriand’r, with her exotic skin (is it black, is it brown; he cannot tell) is in America; why Koriand’r, with all her wealth, is endorsing and sponsoring a circus of particular people; why Koriand’r, with all her beauty and grace, looks at him like he is an answer she has been searching for. He isn’t anything at all: just a man on a rope with his eyes on the stars.
“Your highness,” he greets, because if there is one thing this evening taught him, it’s his place.
She frowns and something in his chest aches. “Dick,” she repeats. “Please. I wish to speak to you.”
He makes a sound; he has never been good at holding his tongue. “There’s nothing to say. Nothing is going to change.”
She takes a step forward, as if that can bridge the distance between them. “I did not mean to cause you pain tonight,” she says. “I merely wished to spend time with you.”
He’d been pleased when he’d gotten that invitation; although Bruce Wayne of Gotham City had taken some interest in him since that disaster fifteen years ago, going to a play in dress uniform was something he hadn’t been able to do as an adult. There would be safety in going with Donna Troy, the ringleader of Titan Circus; her position was known, and his as exotic acrobat was as well. It would have been safe and pleasant; he honestly liked Donna’s company, the ease of her practicality and vision, and the lack of expectations. But when he’d arrived and Koriand’r had been waiting for him, his stomach had gone through a series of flips he rarely felt on the ground.
People stared at him already: his skin tone wasn’t quite correct, he carried a slight accent when he got nervous, he could play the part of aristocrat but was too casual to wear the costume for long, he was too clever for street-flith, but too poor to be educated. People stared at Koriand’r for everything she was, but there was a respect there. She may have been an oddity and exotic and sensational, but she was foreign royalty. That was an armour no one could take away. She had reached for his arm, curling her hand around his bicep, and suddenly there were whispers and stares and then:
“I knew those freaks at the circus were easy, but I didn’t think the men could be bought too.”
“Since when does royalty need to scrape the bottom of the barrel for company?”
“How flexible do you think he really is?”
Dick rests his forehead on the curve of the hoop and closes his eyes. He wants- he wants so many things. Mostly he wishes that Donna had never found Princess Koriand’r and brought her to the circus. If they had never met, then they would never be in this position and he could be content in this new home he’d found. He had been making friends and family, he’d been securing a place that fit like a perfect sweater… And then she had stepped out into the light, and he’d reached for her as he swung through the air, and their eyes had met and-
Her eyes had been wide and hopeful and full of starlight and wonder and he’d thought: Oh.
“Unfortunately, your highness, that isn’t possible in the real world.”
“Of course it is,” she retorts, and her voice is as clear as her eyes had been. “There is nothing wrong with sharing company, and I do not understand what is so… taboo about us spending time together.”
“You mean besides the fact that you’re royalty and I’m an orphan gypsy who probably used his body to stay off the streets?” He knows what they say about him. He’s heard it all before. “I won’t be the reason why your reputation is tarnished.”
“Or this circus,” he adds, opening his eyes and raising his voice. “This place doesn’t have a lot of dignity - a circus never does - but Donna has some class, and we haven’t had any mobs or threats, and I won’t be the reason why tragedy comes here.” He moves his hands, sliding them up the hoop until he reaches the rope that connects him and his rope to the rafters in the roof. He grabs the rope, pulls himself up so he stands, and then moves up, abandoning his hoop, and this conversation, climbing hand over hand further up.
“Dick, stop!” she calls, voice carrying. “I am not finished speaking with you!”
“There’s nothing to say,” he calls back. “It is what it is, and it won’t ever change.”
He finally reaches the rafter and pulls himself up onto the metal. It’s cold under his hands, but he’s used to discomfort, and it is the work of seconds to situation himself on the top of the rafters. He must be thirty-five feet up now; he’s not in the centre tent, only one of the side ones, and so isn't as high as he could be, but it’s high enough. It has to be.
He looks down and watches Koriand’r stare up at him. She stays still for a long moment, looking up as if she can see him in the shadows of the tent roof. After several seconds, she huffs, looks around, and then stalks over to the pole that holds the ladder and some of the ropes. And then she starts to climb after him.
He pulls his legs up and smiles, resting his chin on his knees. He knows how far she’ll get; the ladder only goes up twenty feet; you need ropes to go further and she doesn’t have the training to pull herself up to his height. But he appreciates the gesture and effort. Maybe it makes him weak, but he wants her to chase him. He wants her to change his mind.
She gets as high as the ladder takes her, and then she grabs the hook they use to pull the swinging ropes, bars, and hoops over. It takes her a couple of tries, but she manages to hook the hoop he was using a couple of minutes ago, and pulls it towards her. With a steady foot, she steps into the hoop, hands curling around the upper curve and one foot on the bottom curve. He straightens as she inhales and then pushes off the landing, swinging out with both feet in the hoop.
The hoop and her swing almost to the other side, and Dick is already preparing himself to reach for the rope that it is swinging from, the one he has just climbed. He watches as it goes back and forth in long sweeps getting shorter, and Koriand’r holds tight and steady. As the rope steadies, he grabs it and helps it slow, waiting until it is practically still. Then, seeing that Koriand’r is slowly turning around like a doll on a music box, he tightens his grip and lets his lower body drop. One of his legs wrap around the rope and with the wrap he has around his palms, he slowly slides down the rope until his feet touch the top of the hoop. He looks down and sees Koriand’r looking up at him, head between his feet.
“Is there still nothing to say?” she asks, voice quiet.
He exhales long and hard, and then rests his head against the rope he is still holding. “I won’t hurt this show,” he says quietly. “It means too much to too many people.”
“I have no desire to hurt this show,”she assures him. “I love this show.”
And she does. He sees it in the way she talks to everyone every day, no matter what part they play, and the light on her face every night, and how she opens herself up to wonder and delight and doesn’t seem to care about how vulnerable it makes her.
“Kori,” he says, and it’s a nickname he shouldn’t let himself say, “we come from different worlds.”
“I do not understand this land,” she says with a frown. “The only difference between my strangeness and yours is our birth. If they knew the truth of my past--” and she cuts herself off, looking aside and pressing her lips together. “Why are you so unworthy of respect?” she continues, voice soft.
“Because I was born out of wedlock to circus parents from an unpronounceable town in Europe,” he answers. “They married after I was born,” he says with a shrug, “but the shame stays.”
She looks up at him with the same look as the first time they met. “You are beautiful,” she says. “How can they not see that?”
He feels his stomach clench and heat rise to his face. “That doesn’t change my place, Kori. I’m still just an orphaned acrobat. Your title protects you.”
“You mean it traps me.”
He can’t help the smile, although it is a sad one. “Walls work both ways, I guess. Keeps them from coming in and you from going out.”
She is quiet for a long moment. “I had hoped that joining the circus would break these walls. I do not care for them. I have never cared for them.”
“You haven’t joined the circus, Kori.” He chuckles when her head snaps up and she glares at him. “You’re a sponsor, not an act,” he explains, still smiling at her. “There’s a big difference.”
She pauses for a moment, considering that. Then: “But I do not have an act.”
“Everyone’s got an act, sweetheart,” and it slips out of him without permission, But he means it, and so he can’t take it back. “You just have to find yours.”
She stares at him, big green eyes in her dark face. “Will you continue to avoid me until I do find my act?”
He... well, wilts might be the best word for it. He takes his feet off the hoop, slides down the rope until he can hook his feet onto the bottom of the hoop, one foot between hers and the other settling beside one of hers. He wraps his elbows around the upper curve and props his chin up on the top of the hoop; her hands still grip the hoop, but her face comes closer to his.
It’s the closest he’s ever been to her, and even as his heart is racing, his stomach is calm. It’s completely terrifying and yet exactly where he’s supposed to be.
“Are you going to keep tracking me down if I avoid you?” he counters.
She tilts her head to one side. “Only if I feel that you do not want to avoid me. If I truly believed you despised me, I would leave you be.”
His lips curl up. “I definitely don’t despise you.”
Her lips curl up too and her eyes brighten and shimmer. “I know,” she says simply. She stares at him for a long moment, just looking at him. He lets her, because he doesn’t have anything to say and because her looking at him means he can look at her, and oh, what a wonder she is! “I do not understand you,” she breathes. “If you and I both want each other, then why are you allowing others to write our story?”
And something jolts in him, as if by saying those words she has given those feelings he’s been suppressing a power he can’t deny. He does want her, and he knows she wants him, but: “Because it’s impossible to rewrite it, Kori. We can’t the change the whole world.”
She makes a face, a face of struggle and resistance, and he reaches out, curls one hand around hers. She jolts, and he lets the shiver pass through him. “We can’t right now,” he says. “Maybe someday, but right now…” And he stares at their hands, their different skin tones, their different worlds, and how well they fit together. “Right now we can’t,” he finishes.
She is silent but he can hear her breathing. There is something incredibly intimate about this moment, suspended on a hoop between the sky and the ground, holding her hand and matching his breathing to hers. He doesn’t have to look at her to feel everything this moment has.
He doesn’t know how long they stand there -- it’s a couple of minutes at least. And then: “Dick?”
“I am merely curious as to how we are going to get down?”
And he loves her. He does, he does, he does. He looks up into her face, her eyes that are red-rimmed and concerned, and her slightly pinched face, and says, “Do you trust me?”
She says: “Of course.”