Hisoka notices the boy right away.
The circus is a crowded place, hectic with constant negotiations and fights and betrayals between the members who live as closely as family, albeit an extraordinarily large and particularly dysfunctional one. It’s the kind of place where you can find yourself sabotaged for a sharp word, where unfortunate though not-usually-lethal accidents are a matter to be expected that only a fool would fail to prepare for, where every conversation is a balancing act as certainly as the performances on the high wires that stretch dozens of meters above the hard-packed floor inside the circus tent itself. Hisoka sometimes feels as if he was always meant to be here, as if all the failed years of his life were only a rambling path to bring him exactly to this place where he can thrive with an enthusiasm well beyond the mere survival that was the best he used to have to hope for. By the end of his first week with the troupe he knows everyone by name and holds a handful of favors to fill out his hand in the endless game the other members play with themselves and each other, and his connections have flourished with the same ready lushness that he has himself.
The boy is something different. He’s an anomaly, an outsider, an intrusion so keen that Hisoka feels like he can sense his approach, as if the shift of his arms and the sound of his breathing are twanging along invisible spiderwebs wrapping the whole of the circus tents. That sense of difference is enough to grasp Hisoka’s attention and pull it aside from whatever subject his ever-flighty intrigue had lighted upon; and then he sees the stranger, and a flicker of interest narrows to a spotlight of fascination at once.
It’s his eyes. Hisoka knows how to read people, can pick apart fear or anger or lust or innocence with a glance, has learned to shadow the giveaway of his own gaze with a constant, unchanging mask of amusement that has become more true than otherwise, as the years have passed. Everyone gives something away in their eyes, whether it’s the brief, fleeting irritation of flaring temper or a suggestion of trauma buried so deep it has sunk into the marrow of their bones like the threads of a puppet just waiting to be pulled. But when Hisoka looks at this boy, reaching out to fit the shape of his identity in the cup of his palm, he is met with a darkness so absolute, so unassailable, that the fact of it shudders all the way down his spine. It’s as if he’s swallowed something of such heat or so much cold that he can’t tell the difference against his tongue, can only feel the strange intensity of awareness travelling down his throat to curl itself to a knot within the shape of his ribs, and in that moment Hisoka knows he has to meet this stranger.
It’s not difficult to follow him. Even when they’re not on stage the circus members carry some part of their routine in themselves, whether in clothes or makeup or just the fluid grace of their movement. The boy stands out among them, for all that he has an elegance to his stride not at all diminished by the directionless pace of his wandering, until Hisoka thinks he could see him from any distance across the compound. At any point Hisoka could close the gap between them, could couple the force of his gaze with the sound of his voice. By all rights he should, and sooner rather than later; while an audience is welcome and applauded in the space of the circus tent, the area behind the front gates ought to be restricted to residents only, as much to preserve the illusions many of them craft as to give them space away from the ever-hungry eyes of the crowd. But Hisoka doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even hurry his steps to close the expanse between himself and the boy’s slim shoulders; he just follows, trailing in the other’s wake with his attention so fixed that he hardly spares attention for those around him except to tip sideways and free of their gaze so he can continue his silent pursuit.
The boy makes it farther than he ought to. He stands out to Hisoka’s eyes, captures all of Hisoka’s attention; he ought to be as easy for any other member of the troupe to call out as a misfit and send back on his way to the front space, where the curious audience is relegated to wait. But he seems to melt away from right in front of people, always moving through gaps of attention or in mottled shadows that hide the greater part of his misplaced clothes and dark hair, until Hisoka begins to wonder if he might not be a thief, or a spy, trained to pass for normal and to go utterly unobserved at need. Hisoka finds himself smiling as he follows, a grin dragging the corner of his mouth up on delight as vivid as the color as blood and as sharp as the point of a knife; and then a figure steps forward out of a side path, so narrow an outsider wouldn’t even recognize it as a path at all, and the boy is stopped dead by a hand at his shoulder. Hisoka sees the woman frowning down at the boy, sees the crease of judgment at her forehead and the shape of her mouth opening to bring down the attention of the entire camp on this intruder, and he steps up as the same motion that stops the stranger’s forward progress, lifting his hand as he approaches to produce the show of a smile.
“He’s with me,” he calls, pitching his voice bright and carrying the way he does on stage, when he wishes to call eyes to him. The greater part of the people milling around him ignore this proclamation the same way they ignore the pontificating done in the constant rehearsals that occur in the camp, but the woman holding the stranger’s shoulder looks up, her attention sharpened out of the dull distraction of everyday by her discovery of an intruder. Hisoka lowers his hand and softens his smile as she looks at him, letting the expression shadow at his eyes instead of his mouth as he comes up to join the boy. “I’ve got the care of him.”
The woman narrows her eyes at Hisoka. She’s a contortionist, Hisoka has seen her bend herself into seemingly impossible shapes on stage; and she has as little flexibility for breaking the rules as her long limbs and well-used joints have in excess. “Strangers aren’t allowed backstage.”
“He’s not a stranger,” Hisoka purrs. “He’s a fan of mine and asked for a tour.” He ducks his head and flutters his lashes. “I can’t let down a paying customer.”
The woman looks Hisoka up and down, still frowning. Then she grimaces and pushes the boy’s shoulder to shove him at Hisoka. The stranger capitulates to the force, toppling forward as if there is no strength in his body to resist a physical demand from another, and Hisoka reaches out an arm without looking to catch the other’s frame in the crook of it. The boy falls against his support, his hand coming up on instinct to catch himself at Hisoka’s chest, and the woman rolls her eyes.
“When did whoring become something that required more than your own tent?” she asks. Hisoka doesn’t bother to answer the question with anything more than a proprietary slide of his hand against the boy’s waist and a baring of his teeth in a brighter smile. She wrinkles her nose at him and turns on her heel to walk away, leaving the stranger pressed into the curve of Hisoka’s arm and the bustle of the circus to continue unabated around them.
The boy doesn’t try to jerk away from Hisoka’s hold, even as the contortionist moves away and out of sight. He just stays as he fell, one hand against Hisoka’s chest and his weight dipping into the other’s shoulder. Even when he speaks there’s no motion that comes with it, just the sound of a voice clear and cool and distant like the sound of a stream running uncaring over the rocks that make up its shape. “Why did you do that?” He doesn’t even sound particularly curious; his tone is as if he’s going through a conversation by rote, like he’s playing a part on stage with the flat blankness of a brand-new actor.
Hisoka hums, settling the sound deep in his chest so it will thrum heat under the hand resting easily against him. “It seemed like it would be more fun this way.” He loosens his hold on the boy’s waist, although he draws the contact into a lingering caress as his hand slips over the other’s hip. The stranger doesn’t react at all to this, either to flinch away or to relax into it. He just holds still, as static as if he’s no more than a beautifully made doll, until Hisoka lets his arm fall. Only then does his hand at Hisoka’s chest tighten to push himself to stand on his own and collect his balance over his own feet. Hisoka wonders if he would have stayed where he was longer, if Hisoka had gone on holding him.
The boy steadies his footing on the hard-packed ground and lifts his chin to look around at their surroundings. It’s only after he’s taken stock that his dark gaze comes back to land that absolute black on Hisoka again and he dips his chin into a distant nod. “Thank you.”
Hisoka has never seen eyes like this before. They’re beyond dark, beyond black; the usual shine and reflection in the eyes of others is entirely absent, here, as if the boy’s stare is drinking light in with greedy hunger and refusing to let it free again. It’s impossible to get a read on his reaction; it’s hard even to tell what he’s paying attention to, only that his head and presumably his focus are presently turned in Hisoka’s direction rather than anywhere else. Hisoka’s blood shudders in his veins as if it’s electrified, as if he can feel the rush of his heartbeat pumping blood into and out of each individual limb wholly independently of his body.
“I can’t let you wander off now,” he says with airy lightness. “You are a stranger and that means you’re not supposed to be back here on your own.”
The stranger meets Hisoka’s gaze without so much as a flicker of his lashes to indicate his recognition of this. “I’m not,” he says. “You’ve been following me since I came in.”
Hisoka’s eyebrows lift in spite of himself and he lets his expression go, coupling his surprise with a brittle crack of a laugh as well. “You noticed that?” he says. “I didn’t think you had the least idea I was there.”
The boy’s shoulders lift. It looks like a shrug, except that it’s entirely divorced from any shift in his expression that would give it the appearance of something beyond a gesture learned but not understood. “I didn’t tell you that I knew,” he says, as if this is the most obvious thing in the world. “How would you tell?”
Hisoka stares at the boy in front of him. He’s tall for his age, which must be a few years short of Hisoka’s; his jaw is still soft with childhood, however enormous his eyes look in his paper-pale face, and his shoulders are narrow enough to match the slim length of arms and legs drawn into a growth spurt before their muscles can catch up. But there’s nothing of childhood in his features, none of the bright innocence of youth tucked behind the dark of his eyes or the slack soft of his mouth; there’s just darkness, an endless shadow to match the blank attention he’s turning on Hisoka. He looks like something created instead of born, built and set on a path to work through the motions of life without the reality of it. Hisoka has never been so fascinated by anyone in the whole of his life.
“What’s your name?” he asks, instead of answering the question gone stale and dry in the pause of silence between them.
The boy doesn’t blink at that either. “Illumi.” Hisoka waits for more -- a surname, or a reciprocal politeness if not interest in asking for his own -- but Illumi just stands there, gazing at him like he’s waiting for further instruction. Finally Hisoka tips his head to the side and bares his teeth to the razor’s edge of a smile.
“Good to meet you, Illumi.” He pulls the other’s name into a long, lingering drawl, shaping his lips and tongue and teeth around the form of it like it’s a meal he’s tearing to pieces to convert to sustenance in his body. “What are you doing here at the circus?”
“My family,” Illumi says, as flatly as if he’s answering an interrogation or reciting back answers. Hisoka can’t tell if his emotionlessness is sincerity or a cover for deception. It feels like standing on ice, like Hisoka’s a breath away from the heart-stopping adrenaline of feeling the earth slipping free from under his shoes. “They came to see the show.”
“And brought you along with them?” Hisoka purrs. “How lucky for me.” Illumi doesn’t react to this. Hisoka isn’t surprised, this time.
“Well,” he says, and reaches out to take Illumi’s hand hanging slack at his side. Illumi doesn’t pull back, even when Hisoka slides his hand to interlace their fingers. “I could give you the backstage tour of the circus, Illumi.”
Hisoka tugs against Illumi’s hand in his, Illumi turns to let himself be tugged into motion to follow, and there’s the sound of a voice, loud enough to echo over the tents and activity of the camp around them.
“Illumi.” There’s no force on the tone, nothing of the strain of anger that Hisoka might expect. Its only defining characteristic is its volume, and the deep resonance that speaks to a form that has filled out the height Illumi’s slender frame is still striving for. “We’re leaving.”
Illumi slides his hand free from Hisoka’s grip like he doesn’t feel the force of the other’s nails digging in to scratch at the back of his hand as he pulls himself loose. “I’m leaving,” he says, a flatter echo of that commanding tone. “Goodbye.” And he turns to walk away as easily as he came, a doll brought to life by a pull at the strings that guide him. Hisoka stares at Illumi’s retreating shoulders for a moment, watches the strange boy move out of his life as easily as he came into it; and then he moves, following Illumi with long strides to catch up over the distance the other has already travelled.
Illumi doesn’t turn at Hisoka’s approach, doesn’t give any sign that he notices the sound of the footsteps falling out of time with his own. He just keeps walking, neither faster nor slower than he was, without so much as a turn of his head to acknowledge the other. Hisoka doesn’t wait for him to. All he needs is a hold, now that he knows how tightly to grip; and then he’s reaching out, and banding his fingers around Illumi’s arm, and when the other pulls to swing himself free Hisoka jerks against precarious balance to yank Illumi back towards him. Illumi stumbles, his footing scuffing in the dirt as he is pulled to face Hisoka, and Hisoka is waiting for him.
“Wait,” Hisoka says, purring the word at the back of his throat. “I have a present for you.” He bares his teeth in a smile sharp enough to cut. “Something to remember me by.”
Illumi pulls against Hisoka’s hold on his wrist, tugging sharply without looking away from the other’s face. He’s stronger than he looks -- his slender arms must be wiry with muscle -- but Hisoka has his nails digging in against the soft inside of Illumi’s wrist, and after a moment Illumi subsides to let his arm hang slack in Hisoka’s hold. He blinks, his head cocks just slightly to the side. “What is it?”
Hisoka reaches into his pocket to pull free a foil-wrapped rectangle. “This.” Illumi’s head turns to follow the shine of the light off the foil around the stick of gum in Hisoka’s fingers. Hisoka keeps watching Illumi’s face, keeps his smile on his lips as he slides his thumb up to peel back the wrapping from the gum one-handed and with more of a flourish than is necessary. The wrapper falls to the ground but Illumi doesn’t look to follow it: his gaze is tracking Hisoka’s fingers as the other holds the stick upright.
“I don’t like sweets,” Illumi says, as calmly as if he’s stating a proven fact rather than a personal preference.
Hisoka lets a laugh come free from the inside of his chest. “You haven’t tried mine,” he says. He holds the stick of gum up, watching to see Illumi tracking the motion, before he brings it towards his own mouth. He catches the end between his teeth, bracing so delicately he’s hardly denting the soft at all, and lifts his chin to make an offer of the gum to Illumi.
Illumi gazes at Hisoka. Hisoka still can’t read anything from those eyes; even from this close they are entirely inscrutable, as distant as if they’re the night sky absent any pinpoints of starry light. He might be furious, might be intrigued, might be nothing at all; Hisoka has no idea what he will do next, and the uncertainty is enough to spike his pulse and flush his breathing to panting heat. They stand there, fixed in place by Hisoka’s grip and Illumi’s gaze; and then Illumi takes a step forward and leans in to catch the gum against the flat of his tongue. He doesn’t bite at the far end, doesn’t retain some distance between them; he tips in entirely, leaning forward until his parted lips brush cool against Hisoka’s own. Illumi’s tongue touches Hisoka’s lips, flicking against the other’s teeth to urge them apart, and Hisoka opens his mouth to this persuasion, ready to offer the whole of himself to Illumi’s tasting. Illumi’s tongue darts between Hisoka’s teeth, brushing heat against Hisoka’s own tongue; and then he’s pulling away, rocking back onto his heels as he closes his mouth around the gum, and Hisoka opens his eyes just as Illumi bites down against the stick in his mouth.
“Illumi!” The voice isn’t any closer than it was, still has no sense of anger on it, but there is a little more force, now, a demand rising from what was an assumed command at first. Illumi turns his head to track it.
“I’m leaving,” he says, and in Hisoka’s hold his wrist flexes, tightening on sudden strength that cords the tendons under the other’s hold to force Hisoka’s grip loose. Hisoka blinks and looks down to see what Illumi has just done, and Illumi presses his fingers tight together and slides free of Hisoka’s grip as if it’s nothing at all. By the time Hisoka looks back up Illumi has turned back to continue on his way, moving in the same perfectly straight line he was before Hisoka interrupted him.
Hisoka lifts his hand to wave. “Bye-bye!” he chirps, bright and sugar-sweet as the taste lingering at his lips. “I hope you like the gum!” Illumi doesn’t turn to respond to this but that doesn’t stop Hisoka grinning at his retreating back as he watches the other leave. Illumi continues on for several feet, walking away without any sign of looking back to Hisoka; then he takes a sharp right turn, and he’s gone, leaving just the lingering cool of his lips against Hisoka’s mouth. Hisoka stares at where he’s gone for a moment, feeling adrenaline thrum heartbeat-fast through him; and then he lifts his hand to look at his nails, where there’s a stain of crimson caught against the edges. He gazes at them for a moment, thinking of the feel of Illumi’s skin giving way under his grip, recalling the efficient heat of Illumi’s tongue sweeping into his mouth to claim what was offered, and Hisoka grins and closes his fingers to dig his nails in hard against the meat of his palm.
“I’m going to marry that boy someday,” he says, speaking to no one in particular; and then he opens his hand, and lifts his fingers to his lips to taste the sweet of his blood and Illumi’s both staining his bright-painted nails.