“Come out! I know you’re there!!”
A voice echoed through the dark alleyway followed by the sound of quick footsteps. With his cover blown, Keith ran from his spot behind a dumpster and booked it past the police officer calling out to him. The cop reached out to him but narrowly missed, fingers just grazing Keith’s arm, before he turned around and took off in a run too. For three years he’d been trying to catch Keith. The boy had been tossed around from foster home to foster home before deciding to run away and make it on his own. After months of following leads he finally tracked down which city Keith was in again and this time he wouldn’t let him slip away; not when he was so close.
Keith looked behind him for just a tick, frowning as the cop ran at his heels. He ignored all the shouts of “FREEZE!” and “STOP KEITH!!” and kept running as fast as his feet could take him. He had only been in the dingy city for three months now, even finding part time work at a garage to support himself. Jobs like that were hard to come by since he was technically underage. Nobody wanted to hire a 17 year old with minimal work experience and no solid home. Now all that was ruined by the stupid police officer catching up to him, but like hell was he getting caught and sent back to where he came from.
Looking around he saw the gated entrance to the city park just up ahead, probably the only place with trees for miles around. The guys at the garage once told him it was harmless during the day, but at night it was dangerous because then all that could be found inside were druggies and prostitutes. Some of them claimed that the forest was haunted, and every once in a while someone would go in and never come out. Keith was not much for rumors or superstition, and for now it seemed like the best place to hide until morning.
He changed direction on a dime and ran straight for the locked gate, ignoring the sign of what hours the park was open, and slipped between the bars. The cop, not knowing when to quit, ran up as well and without hesitating started climbing the bars. Keith didn't bother to look behind, he just kept running.
The night seemed to be darker in this place, maybe it was the dense trees blocking the lights from the buildings. The air felt heavier too, maybe it was because he was out of breath. Either way it was the perfect place to hide for the night. From the sound of the heavy thud behind him, he guessed that the cop finished climbing the fence and jumped the rest of the way down to follow after.
He must have ran for ten minutes when the trees around him began looking less and less like a park, and more like an untamed forest. When he was as deep as he could go, he froze realizing he wound up in front of what looked like, a circus.
There was a multitude tents, all different shapes and sizes but most of them were in various shades of dark purple and red. The closer you got to the center the larger they became until you reached the main tent. Several cages and booths were sprinkled around here and there, though it was too dark to see what was inside them.
Through the dark he saw a dim light shining in one of the gypsy wagons off to the side. It was nestled in a small group of other wagons, one being very large and wide and the other looking more like a bird cage. He crept up to it, and seeing there was no sign of life inside, snuck in through the back.
A small oil lamp burned on a cluttered vanity inside, giving him enough faint warm light to see. The walls were covered in decorative fliers and ribbons of all colors- though blue stood out predominantly. From the ceiling hung dried plants which filled the small space with sweet comforting smells. It was a little messy, with strange clothes and outfits thrown here and there, but it was cozier than any place Keith decided to crash since he came to the city.
Finally he noticed the bed, or more specifically, the resting figure that laid upon it. He jumped back when he first saw him, a young boy- probably about his age. He had a sharp nose, and long ropey limbs. Keith thought about running out when he noticed the boy wasn’t just sleeping on the bed, he was eerily still. His eyelids didn’t flicker, nor did his chest rise or fall. Cautiously he approached the tanned boy and hovered a tentative hand just above his mouth, there was no breath. The boy was a corpse.
Keith swallowed hard. Cozy wagon or not there was no way he was staying in the same room with a dead boy. Before he could sneak out the way he came, he heard the knob of the front door squeak and pulled open.
He scrambled into the wardrobe and hid. Through the crack of the doors he saw a figure approach the bed, someone tall wearing a long black robe and what looked like a bird’s mask. A glint of silver in its hand caught Keith’s attention. It reached out slowly to the boy, raising its hand to his chest, and the sight of the bony fingers unnatural and long made him gasp. He clasped his hands over his mouth silently cursing his stupidity. The person, the creature, paused and turned to look over its shoulder. It tilted its head to the side unnaturally, almost as if it were regarding the wardrobe with curiosity.
Keith was prepared for a knife, he was prepared for a gun, but he was not prepared for the blast of dark energy that shot out of its hand and into the wardrobe knocking him out immediately.
“Uuuuugh…” Keith groaned.
It took him a tick to put all the pieces together, but in no time he found himself struggling against ropes that bound him to a wooden chair and blinking furiously against a blindfold. “Hey!! Let me go, let me out of here!!!” He gritted his teeth and shouted hot and angry. The night was rapidly taking a turn from bad to worse.
His head jerked around hearing chuckling coming from behind.
“Well, look what snuck in.” A deep voice growled.
Whoever it was ripped the blindfold off from Keith’s eyes and he was met with two figures. The first person was a tall man, maybe three times his size. He had a gleaming yellow eye, an eye patch over the other and was covered head to toe in purple fur. The second person was much smaller, more hunched over with her face covered by a hood. From what features he could see, she had a narrow bony face and a crooked nose. With her pasty skin and spindly white hair she looked like a witch straight out of a fairy tale. He had to blink a few times, even bite the inside of his cheek, to make sure they were real.
"What are you?" He asked bravely, "What is this place?"
“You sure are an interesting one." The witch ignored his question and spoke in a raspy voice. "No friends. No family. On the run since you were 14. Come to join the circus have you?”
Keith pinned her with a glare, “How do you know all that??”
“We’re workers of this circus. Zarkon’s world famous circus.” She waved her hand around the tent.
“I've never heard of it. Just untie me you can't keep me here!!” He struggled uselessly in the ropes again.
The witch hmmmed in agreement throwing Keith off enough to stop struggling. “No, I suppose I can’t. Maybe I should have Sendak here fetch that police officer in the forest to come and take you."
"He's still out there." Sendak grunted, large bat-like ears flickering up and down. "I can hear him stumbling around."
The thought of being caught had his head shaking his head in protest.
“Didn't think so." Sendak growled.
Haggar pinned him with a look to say no more. "Tell you what," she mused, "you’re very interesting, and I sense within you great potential. You would be a wonderful addition to our circus, even if it is for a time.”
With a flick of her hand a desk and a contract appeared. The paper seemed to glow, and the words written on it were so small there was no way Keith could read it all.
The witch leaned in close and whispered in his ear, “If you sign this, I will grant you one wish. Whatever your heart desires, it will be yours.”
Keith eyed her disbelievingly. "You some kind of witch?"
Sendak snorted form the corner of the room.
"After all you've seen tonight you still doubt my power?" Haggar baited.
The magic of the druid, the strange appearance of these two people and the sudden appearance of the desk and contract that glowed. Clearly she had a certain power. He hesitated, thinking back to the boy on the bed. Was he the last person to make a wish with this witch?
“What’s the catch?”
Sensing something like desire in the boy, she waved her hand again a quill and ink bottle appeared next to the paper. The ropes around him uncoiled like snakes and fell limply to the ground.
“You have to stay in the circus for a time. Until the debt of your wish is paid.”
Ketih took a minute to think about what he went through the past few years- being chased to wits end. He was tired of all those cold nights hungry and sleeping on the ground or on benches. If he could have his wish, then he'd never have to worry about that again. He would finally be free. Staying at a circus for a few days wouldn't be so bad.
Silently he made a wish, reached for the quill and scribbled his name on the line, ignoring the voice in the back of his head that told him to think twice.
Just as soon as his name was signed the contract faded away from existence. The witch, mouth curled and eyes delighted, laughed loud and cruel.
A burning sensation seized Keith’s body, starting on his forehead spreading down quickly. He gripped his head falling out of the chair and writhed on the ground. It was like his forehead was being stabbed by fire pokers. His hands and the base of his spine exploded in pain and he heaved a couple of times trying to get cool air in his lungs but failing.
“Wh- WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?” He cried blinking through the black fog that was taking over his vision and clouding his mind.
“Oh, what a wonderful creation you turned out to be.” Haggar stood over him getting a better look.
“He’s a fire eater.” Sendak voiced also sounded approving, “We haven’t had one in the circus in a while.”
“Yes, Zarkon will be most pleased at the news.”
Keith glared at them, arms wrapped tightly around his middle as if he were trying to keep his organs from melting out of his body.
At Haggar’s command the druid silently appeared. It placed a hand on Keith's shoulders and teleported them back to the wagon he was found in, the one with the corpse. Maybe this is where they took the bodies to die. It magicked up an extra bed and threw him on it. Keith was out before he could shout or protest again, twice now the druid being the last person he saw before passing out. He was really starting to hate it.
The next morning was bright and sunny, as if what happened last night never occurred. A figure entered the wagon slamming the door behind him.
“Hey. Are you going to sleep all day or what?”
The voice, clearly annoyed, tried to rouse Keith out of bed, but the rhythmic sound of soft ticking lulled him back to sleep.
Keith vaguely felt his nose being pinched, and after a few ticks bolted upright sucking in air. He heard snickering and glared at the source of the sound. "Who're you?"
"Uhh, the name's Lance. I kind of live here, this is my wagon." He crossed his arms in a huff. "My wagon that I have to share with the likes of you. Not willingly, I might add."
A bit of clarity returned to Keith as he got a better look at Lance. He was the boy who was on the bed, the one with no heartbeat. But now he was moving and breathing and staring at him through narrow blue eyes.
“You’re that boy from last night. You- you were dead. How are you alive?“ Keith furrowed his eyebrows confused.
“Did you sneak into my room last night??! Oh I’m definitely not going to share with a crazy stalker.” He looked appalled at the thought. “I can’t believe this. I’m their top performer! I shouldn’t have to share my space with some psychopath whose going to mess up my beauty schedule just because he’s a 'fire eater.'” The boy ranted throwing air quotes in dramatically.
Fire eater. The word had him remembering the events that took place last night and the fiery pain that knocked him out. He brought his fingers to touch his forehead where it all started- but instead of meeting skin they touched something sharp and pointed. He shot up from the bed and pushed Lance to the side so he could see the vanity.
“Hey!” Lance shouted at him growing more and more annoyed.
Keith looked at his reflection, stunned at what he saw. On his forehead two shiny black horns jutted out and curved back slightly. His hands looked more like claws now, the color of his skin from his shoulder to his fingertips gradually darkened turning black and rough. And finally, he gulped, a spaded tail swished behind him.
He slowly turned around to face Lance who wasn’t bothering to hide his laughter.
“What happened to me!?”
“You’re stuck here now.” Lance stated as if it were obvious.
Keith shook his head, “Stuck?? What do you mean I’m stuck?”
“Well, you signed a contract with Haggar, right?” Lance said casually picking at his nails.
He looked at Keith with knowing eyes. “Welcome to Cirque Galra.”
Thanks for reading!
Lance opened the door to his wagon expecting Keith to follow behind. "Well?" He swung his arm widely gesturing for him to take the hint.
Keith ignored him. He stayed by the vanity, poking his horns and turned his head to get a closer look. They were warm, smooth and definitely attached to his skull. He leaned in as close as he could until a light clink of the horns hitting the mirror stopped him from getting closer.
"Oh come on!" Lance grabbed Keith by the wrist and pulled him away from the mirror and out of the wagon. "They're not going anywhere. You and your new parts will have plenty of time to get to know each other. Right now I have the boundless pleasure of giving you the tour so the faster I do this the faster you're out of my hair."
Keith wrenched his hand out of Lance's grip and stopped. "Hey! I need some answers before we go anywhere-"
"Ah-bah-bah-bah-bah," Lance flapped his hand in Keith's face, "I'm not here to solve all your problems. I'm just here to show you around. Now follow me so we can get this over with, I know a guy who will be more than happy to explain the fine details to you."
Keith huffed but not knowing what else to do follow behind. Lance jabbered away as they walked towards the center of the circus, pointing to the tents and saying what they were used for. A large round purple tent with blue and yellow spots is where they held the acrobatics show that was performed every other night; a short muted green tent was where they kept the feed for the ponies. After about the seventh or eighth tent Keith found his attention wondering away from what was around them and directed at who was around them. They passed several circus folk and he couldn’t stop himself from staring. There was a man with two faces who seemed to be arguing with himself. A couple of women sitting in a tank of water giggled when Lance winked and finger gunned them as he walked by, their limbs were long and webbed. They passed a long man with many arms sitting in a corner, rocking himself back and forth muttering something about alternate realities and stepping on cracks. It seemed his change was probably the mildest compared to what he saw, besides Lance who looked to be the only normal person in the camp.
Before he knew it they stopped in front of a simple medium sized tent that was identical to most of the others.
"...and this is where you'll eat, Hunk's inside. He's basically the coolest guy and great to hang out with. Be nice to him or I'll know. Pidge should be around too, she always comes late for food. Anyway you got all that?"
"Didn't you pay attention to anything I said?" Lance looked annoyed again. He rubbed his hands over his face, "You know what, doesn't matter. I did my job and you're not my problem anymore."
Keith looked around with an unguarded, lost expression. Lance sighed easing up a bit, remembering what it was like on his first day in the circus too. He remembered how lonely and scared he was trying to figure everything out on his own before even Hunk or Pidge joined. It was so long ago now the memory was hazy.
"Alright, just go in there and get something to eat. Hunk’ll explain everything, he’s good at that. Kind of. As long as you keep your head down and do your job you'll be fine. ‘Kay?"
Lance whirled around walking off briskly leaving Keith alone in front of the tent. He caught the eyes of some people who were watching him not too far away. Their whispering and pointing sent a wave of uneasiness down his spine. Swallowing he squared his shoulders and passed through the flaps of the tent.
Inside there were four rows of wooden tables with mismatching benches and chairs for seats. They were nearly empty by now, maybe six people still working on their food. Towards the back there was a simple cooking station. A large bear in a yellow apron and yellow bandanna wrapped around his head was ladling out what looked like green jello into a bowl for someone who was licking their lips. They muttered a quick thanks which had the bear beaming. He looked up and saw Keith before waving him over with a smile.
“Hi!” He greeted Keith warmly wiping a paw on his apron and stretching it out for him to shake. “I heard from Lance you’d be coming ‘round. My name’s Hunk, welcome to the circus!”
Keith shook his paw finding himself smiling in return, “Nice to meet you. I’m Keith.”
“You must be starving. Hang on, I’ve got just the thing.” He put on a mitten and leaned down, grabbing a couple of red hot coals from his oven and stacking them on a plate and sprinkled a little something over them which made a sizzling sound. “Here you go, fresh coals with a little bit of garlic salt to change up the flavor. You can go sit next to Pidge she’s sitting at that table over there and I’ll be over in a minute.”
“What am I supposed to do with these?” He took the plate from Hunk eyeing the coals uncertainly.
“Huh, it’s breakfast. You’re going to eat those of course. You’ve gotta keep your internal temperature up. They’ll taste better than they look, or, at least so I’m told. Didn’t Lance explain anything to you?”
“No.” Keith said sourly. “He just showed up in the morning and brought me here. He didn’t tell me anything useful.”
“Uuughhhh Lance.” Hunk grumbled throwing his head back in exasperation. “Okay, don’t worry. I'm going to finish up here and then we’ll give you the run down.”
Keith thanked him, eager for some enlightenment on what was going on, and went to the table Hunk pointed to. He sat in front of a small girl wearing large glasses, messy brown hair and her nose buried in a book. She seemed pretty normal too, except maybe some small white feathers that were growing in along with her hair.
“Hey Hunk, you done already?” She spoke not lifting her nose from her book, “Boss wants me to fix the cotton candy machine today. I know you have new flavors you want to try but I doubt anyone wants to eat salmon flavored cotton candy.”
He coughed into his hand finally pulling her eyes up from its pages.
“Oh, you’re not Hunk. Sorry about that I was just- wwoooaahhhhh!!”
Keith’s eyes widened as the girl dropped her book to the table and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “It's you!! I’ve heard about you! Or, more specifically what you are... I haven’t been in the circus long enough to see one like Hunk and Lance have! Come here a sec, let me get a better look!”
She reached over the table grabbing him by his horns and examined them with scientific curiosity. Over her shoulders he saw on her a pair of tiny wings flapping as she leaned and tried to balanced herself. They were white and molting, definitely too small for her to fly or do anything with.
“Interesting.” She murmured turning his head this way and that as she looked at the horns in all angles. “They’re so warm. Is it true you have a forked tongue? Can you see in the dark? And you have a tail! Can I touch it?”
“No, not sure, and I prefer if you didn’t.” He brought her hands away from his head. "It's Pidge right? Can you tell me what that is? I’ve been asking all day, what’s a fire eater?”
Pidge sat back in her seat, eyes still bright with interest. “It’s what you are. More specifically, it’s what you turned into when you made a wish and signed Haggar’s contract. No one has a choice of what they become when they change.”
Keith pushed his plate of coals away, “You mean I’m stuck this way? What kind of circus is this??”
The bench dipped as Hunk sat down beside him, placing a dish with a large uncooked fish in front of him. “Okay, so it’s like this. As I’m sure you know, this isn’t just a normal circus. Everyone here made a wish, signed a contract, and got turned into something. When you’ve paid your debt for your wish, you change back and you’re free to go.”
Keith hmmed as he thought. Last night, everything happened so fast. All he wanted to do was hide, he wasn’t thinking clearly with all that was going on. He never should have made that deal. “So I'm cursed.”
Hunk took a couple of bite from his fish before continuing, licking his fingers as he spoke. “I mean that’s one way of putting it. Some people have it worse than others. We used to have someone who was half bug, big antenna and these pincers that clicked together when he spoke.” Hunk made an imitation with his two front fingers wiggling in front of his face back and forth. “It was super creepy.”
“Oh Tanis!” Pidge scrunched her nose in a frown. “That guy was a jerk, he always ruined shows because he chewed on the wires.”
“Heh, yeah he was weird alright.” Hunk chuckled looking back at Keith again. “But being a fire eater isn’t so bad. Mostly they set you on fire or you do tricks. The crowd loves it. Compared to Lance you got off easy.”
“Got off easy?!” Keith stood up knocking his plate over, the coals rolled over the table and onto the floor leaving a burnt trail behind them. “Look at me! I’m a freak!! I’ve got claws and, and a tail!! How can you live like this? How can you live being trapped here as a bear and a bird?!”
Hunk flinched at his shouting and looked down, ears flattened with a hurt expression.
Pidge on the other hand stood up with her feathers fluffing in outrage. “We made our decisions. Don’t yell at us just because you were dumb enough to get tricked into signing!”
Keith looked at them before looking at his black hands. They were right. He was tricked by the witch, signing the contract was his fault. “I’m, sorry.” He slumped back onto the bench. “It’s a lot to process; I know you’re just trying to help.”
“It’s okay.” Hunk sniffed but looked a little cheerful again. “We’re all stuck here so, we’ve got to stick together.” He gave Keith a couple of heavy pats on the back before standing. “I’m going to get you some more coals.”
“Uhhh, great. Thanks big guy.” Keith smiled at him
They gave Keith another tour of the camp since the first one had been so fast- showing him where he’d be performing and how the camp ran.
Everyone had chores to be done. Hunk cooked the meals for the other members of the circus, Pidge kept up the equipment and technology running. His chores would be assigned at the end of the week. There wasn’t much sign of Haggar or Sendak, but he was assured they we’re never far off.
There was also no sign of Lance, which he was grateful for. The less time he interacted with the loud mouthed boy the better. He could tell from Hunk looking around every so often the big bear was keeping an eye out for his friend, though he had no idea why someone as nice as Hunk would be so attached to someone as obnoxious as Lance.
Overall he liked Hunk and Pidge. Hunk was kind enough to answer any question that came to his head, even throw in some jokes or cheesy puns to try and lighten the situation Keith found himself in. Pidge was pretty cool too, except every once in a while she would try to grab his tail so she could examine it. He still wasn’t quite used to a tail swishing around behind him, but comparing it to other appendages some of the circus freaks grew he wasn’t going to complain.
Circus freak. That’s what he essentially was now. The idea didn’t sit well in his head.
“Well, that’s my place.” Hunk pointed at his large wagon that was in a small circle with Pidge’s bird cage one and Lance’s blue one. It was a lot rounder than the other two and looked like it was used to handling the extra weight of the 800 pound brown bear. “You should come in! It’s kinda cramped inside, but it’s actually really nice!”
Pidge groaned, “No way! Don’t do it Keith the whole place smells like wild animal in there.”
Hunk growled, though it sounded more like a low rumbling whine, and opened his mouth to argue but stopped when he saw the druid approaching carrying someone in its arms. He bounded up to it, standing on his haunches to grabbing the load. “He overworked himself again huh?”
The druid didn’t respond, not that Hunk expected it to. Once he took Lance it turned to look at Keith who met its gaze with a glare, tail swishing agitatedly behind him. After a tense stare down it disappeared in a puff of black smoke.
Keith looked to Hunk seeing Pidge walk up and examine Lance’s hands.
“Woo, really did a number on them today.” Pidge murmured, turning his red hands over. “Looks like he went overboard. Probably still upset at everything; he can be such a diva sometimes.”
Hunk sighed but nodded. “It’ll be back later.”
Keith walked over to them seeing Lance quiet and unmoving in Hunk’s arms. He gave his body a quick once over seeing no signs of life from the boy again. “This is just like last night. Hunk, check and see if he has a pulse.”
Hunk, who answered every one of Keith’s questions so far, hesitated to answer. He lifted Lance higher, almost as if he were trying to take him out of Keith’s line of sight.
“Oh, you know Lance. He’s just sleeping. Very heavy sleeper is what he is. Can’t wake him up for anything.” His tone was almost defensive. “Pidge can he stay with you tonight?”
Pidge made a sound almost like squawking, “What?? You know the princess is going to have a fit when he wakes up in my wagon!” She crossed her arms stubbornly. Hunk gave her big brown bear eyes which had her finally surrendering. “Fine. Go put him on the bed. But you’re taking the blame tomorrow when he wakes up.”
He smiled heading to her wagon. She kicked his ankle, though he didn’t feel it through all the fur.
“Hey Pidge,” Keith put a hand on her shoulder pausing her from following Hunk. “what’s Lance’s curse?”
“You mean besides his giant ego?” She rolled her eyes before taking off her glasses to clean them. Frowning she looked serious for a moment. “That’s not my place to say. Most of us have obvious changes, like you Hunk and me. Some are more, complicated. But people can be kind of sensitive about it so don’t just go asking around, ‘kay?”
Keith nodded before reaching out to ruffle her hair feathers. Pidge had a soft side to her, reminding him something of a little sister. “I got it.”
The next day Keith woke up to banging and loud noise. He groaned in his bed wondering if he’d ever wake up peacefully again. What was worse, waking up on a park bench or waking up to the world’s most irritating person?
Said person who was slamming the door open again, glaring at him and spitting feathers out of his mouth. “This is all your fault.” He gritted out icily.
Keith sat up rubbing his face tiredly. “What exactly did I do this time?” His voice was just as cold and sarcastic.
“This!” Lance bent over threading fingers through his hair ruffling the feathers out. “Every time I stay in Pidge’s wagon, I’m spitting out feathers for days! And I missed my nightly skin care routine! You think it’s easy being this good looking? Hmmmm?”
Keith rolled his eyes falling backwards to the bed muttering to himself, “You think it’s easy listening to you screech about it all the time?”
Lance finished shaking out all the feathers, well, most of them, and walked to his wardrobe pulling out an outfit placing it on the foot of Keith’s bed. “Your first show is starting today. They had me make this last night for you.”
He sat up in the bed again reaching for the new clothes. It was a black outfit made of fine material and had a flame pattern tastefully embroidered in shiny red thread by hand. He didn’t think he ever held finer clothes- his own were a couple of years old and, well worn. He really he didn’t have that many possessions since he moved around so much, besides the what he wore and a small pocket knife, the only other gift he’d ever received his whole life.
“You made this?” He lifted the clothes up looking a little impressed before giving Lance a look. “How did you get my measurements?”
“I’ve been the circus’ tailor longer than you’ve been alive.” Lance snorted, “You think I can’t tell you’re measurements just by looking at you? Think again. Now then, the material has been treated and is fireproof so you won’t be walking away from your performance in the buff. You’re welcome for that by the way.”
He remembered what Pidge said last night, “Did you burn your hands doing this?”
Lance flushed a little at the question and shoved his hands down his pockets. “They’re fine! Just get dressed. Hunk’ll take you to the tent to get breakfast. Then someone will meet you there and get you ready for your performance.”
“Performance?” Keith questioned. It was only his second day. Weren’t they starting him too soon?
“Relax. You won’t be doing anything that actually requires any actual talent. All you need to do is wear that and look pretty. You can manage that, right?”
Keith got up and stormed out of the wagon to meet Hunk, but not before flipping Lance the bird. The situation was bad enough and Lance’s off-putting attitude was really getting under his skin. He had done nothing for him so far but create more questions than were solved, but as soon as he did his performance the sooner he was going to be out of here and away from him.
He and Hunk ate breakfast together. Just like yesterday, Hunk was the one who provided clarity in this crazy place.
“Oh wow, I guess that is a little fast. They're probably just excited to get you out there. It has been a long time since we’ve had a new act.”
“Great.” Keith bit out, his jaw tired from clenching it for so long. “So what do I do?”
Before Hunk could continue, Haxus showed up.
“Ohhh, it’s him. Good luck man, Haxus would make a nun swear. Try not to kill him or anything.” Hunk bumped Keith’s elbow and got up to leave from the table.
“You’re the fire eater, Keith or something?” Haxus asked approaching the table and looking Keith down his nose.
“Yeah.” He answered bluntly.
Haxus sneered at his attitude but turned on his heel to lead him away. “Follow me.”
Against all odds, Keith couldn’t believe there was a person in the whole camp who was more irritating than Lance. Haxus was a tall, bony, angular man with reptilian features. Apparently he was Sendak’s crony, though the way he carried on and treated others you’d think he owned the circus and everyone in it.
He barked orders like Keith was some kind of lesser being and threw in snide demeaning comments every chance he got. Sure Lance was childish and exasperating, but Haxus proved to be cynical, almost cruel. He spoke poorly of almost everyone they passed and Keith eventually just tuned him out. It was either that or punch him in the face and he’d rather not go against Hunk’s advice, he hasn’t steered him wrong so far. So with herculean effort he restrained himself and listened to the instructions.
When they reached a glass room Haxus impatiently showed Keith what he would be doing which was, as he expected, standing still and being set aflame for the crowd to watch. His first “performance” was five minutes later and a small crowd gathered as a curtain was drawn revealing his room. Everyone seemed fascinated and intrigued at the sight of him.
At first the fire unnerved him but by he quickly discovered he actually liked being engulfed in flames. The fire lapped and surrounded his body like a warm blanket; it gave him almost a peaceful feeling. The gawking faces pointing and gasping, however, he loathed.
After a couple “performances” dinner time came around and he actually looked forward to it somewhat. He quickly changed, throwing the black costume on a chair, and went to the meal tent. At least he got to eat with Hunk and Pidge, even better there was no Lance in sight. He sat down with coals again which had a taste he couldn’t quite place, but made his stomach feel warm and full. After chewing a few he told them how he came close to dislocating Haxus’ jaw and about his act.
“See?” Hunk said pleased. “I told you it would be easy. That’s so cool that you’re fire proof. It’s like, a super power or something. If I were fireproof, it would make cooking a whole lot easier. I wonder I’d still need a temperature thermometer for the meat?”
Hunk noticed Pidge eating slowly and looking around. She was one of the few who actually ate normal food and Keith was almost jealous of her. As good as the coal was, Hunk’s normal food looked fantastic.
“What’s up Pidge? Don’t like the spaghetti?”
“I can’t believe Lance is skipping dinner again.” The young girl huffed. “I mean, he doesn’t really eat but he usually comes anyway.”
“Who cares.” Keith mumbled biting into one of his burning coals. “Probably still hates me.”
“I guess it’s just taking him a while to, warm up, to you?” Hunk elbowed Keith. “Get it?”
Keith smiled a little mid-chew.
“Just be glad he’s not flirting with you.” Pidge smirked.
He shivered in disgust, horrified at the thought. “Okay well,” He opted to change the subject, “I finished my duty. How many times do I need to be set on fire until I pay my debt?”
Hunk stilled looking worriedly at him. “Uhhh…”
“What?” He frowned at the hesitance.
“We, don’t know. No one really knows how long their contract lasts...” Pidge replied, “I’ve been here six years, but that’s nothing compared to some of the others.”
Keith looked stricken at her. He turned his head to Hunk who was rubbing his paws together nervously.
“22 years.” he mumbled, head downcast.
“22 years?!” Keith shouted drawing attention from everyone in the tent.
“Yeah. Lance’s been here for almost 60.”
“But,” Keith swallowed thickly trying to process new information all over again. All of a sudden the warmth in his stomach from the coals felt like cold dead weight. “he looks my age. Acts my age. How can he be 60 years old?”
“Didn’t you read the contract? There are a couple of rules, see? You can’t talk about your wish, you can’t leave until the debt is paid, you don’t age 'cause that would mean dying before it’s paid off. There are more, it’s in the fine print.” Hunk tried to calm Keith down who was looking more and more furious. His horns were beginning to glow and hot steam was coming out of the sides of his mouth.
“Like hell am I staying here for years!! I don’t care what I look like I’m leaving now!” He got up and stormed from the table ignoring Hunk and Pidge’s shouts for him to stop.
Once outside he took off in a run. He ran passed everyone and everything until he saw the edge of the circus and a little far off the wild forest of trees.
“KEITH STOP!!” Hunk shouted, now running on all fours with Pidge on his back catching up fairly quickly. With every step Keith took a burnt impression of his footprint was left behind in the ground so he was easy to follow.
The familiar shout had Keith sprinting faster. He would never be caught, never be held back again. He didn’t even care if he looked like this for the rest of his life; he had to get out now. He finally reached the edge of the forest, the trees looking as dark and twisted as the night he came, but the second he crossed into the edge his body seized. Black electricity surged through him and fried his nerves, much like the druid’s magic.
He heard several voices shout behind him but was too paralyzed to turn around and face them.
“Hunk no! You’ll get zapped too!!”
“We’ve got to do something!! Sendak will come if we don’t, he’ll- he’ll terminate Keith’s contract!!”
“If we cross we won’t be able to come back either! He’ll terminate all our contracts!!”
Keith felt a hand grip his arm and pull him back onto the circus grounds. Instantly the pain was gone, now replaced with exhaustion.
The four of them were quiet for a moment. Pidge and Hunk stared at Lance in shock, who was gripping his arm that looked like it was bent in a funny angle. All Keith could hear was the sound of them breathing, a couple of sniffs from Hunk, and a steady ticking noise. Then before they could get their wits about them Sendak and the druid appeared.
“What happened here?” Sendak sneered down at Keith with who was on the ground singed and still trying to shake off the magic. “Did he breech the contract?” He barked.
“N-No! No he, I mean he did a little, kind of? When you say breech what do you mean specifically because Keith here, he uhhh-“
“He- didn’t necessarily breech the contract! Look he’s still intact!! Besides, he didn’t mean to-“
“What Hunk and Pidge mean to say, is no.” Lance stood his ground, words quickly leaving his lips. “He didn’t breech anything. Not purposely of course. He just saw something shiny in the forest and didn’t know about the barrier. It won’t happen again.”
“That’s not what it looks like to me. Looks like the little runaway tried to escape.”
“Maybe that’s what it looks like but it’s not what happened. It’s not really fair to fault him when you and Haggar didn’t give him the chance to read what he was getting into. How was he supposed to know all the rules, I’ve been here for ages and I still don’t know all the rules. Besides, do you really want to get rid of your second greatest act so soon? You saw the crowd he drew in. More will definitely come tomorrow, I bet double.”
Sendak regarded Lance through a narrow eye; the yellow now was just a sliver. He seemed to be looking for something in Lance’s face but not finding it he nodded. “Whoever crosses the border again will be dealt with by me personally, and trust me, you’ll be wishing Haggar ripped your contract.” He looked at Lance’s arm, “Get to the med tent and fix yourself up.”
After a final warning glare Sendak and the druid poofed away.
“Phew.” Lance sagged and patted Hunk on the shoulder to get the bear to stop crying. “That was close. But of course, there’s no situation I can’t smooth talk my way out of.” Lance gave Hunk and Pidge a weak smile, holding onto his broken arm like it was an object he was just carrying around.
Hunk grunted approaching Lance worriedly, “Want me to walk with you back?”
“What this?” Lance tipped his head to the side still grinning up at Hunk, “This is nothing. Take care of spitfire over there I’ll be fine. Just make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid again.”
Hunk nodded with a mighty sniff smiling at his friend before bending down to pick Keith.
Keith watched Lance walk off without so much of a backwards glance or whine about his arm. The ringing in his ears finally stopped and he couldn’t hide a guilty look at almost getting them all into deep trouble.
Hunk jostled him, “Don’t worry man. You weren’t out there too long, you’ll be fine.”
“Lance will be fine too.” Pidge piped up all the worry gone from her face. “It’s not the first time they had to patch him up.”
Keith sighed and struggled out of Hunk’s hold to walk the rest of the way back. So far all he managed to do was invade Lance’s home, give him more work to do and now seemed to have a broken arm because of him. His actions also almost got Hunk and Pidge in trouble too from the looks of it, though they insisted they were all going to be fine. No wonder Lance hated him.
As they walked back a question popped into Keith’s mind, “What did you mean by, terminated contract?”
Pidge, who was walking close beside him, looked up. “Haggar keeps all of the contracts. If she rips yours, you die.” She answered matter-of-factly.
Keith waited in the gypsy wagon for Lance to show up after that. He didn't really know what else to do. Despite insisting they were fine, everyone seemed to be knocked off their kilter after what happened, so they went their separate ways for the night.
He walked over to the vanity. It was a mess, covered in bottles of lotions, creams and knickknacks he knocked over that morning. He picked up a couple of things reading the labels and put them back down. Not really knowing why, he pulled open a drawer to see what else he could find. Inside there were a couple of brushes and combs, some sewing needles and bunched up thread too tangled to be useful, and a picture wedged in the corner just barely peeking out from under the mess. He carefully took it out. It looked really old, faded at the edges, but he could make out the smiling faces of at least seven or eight different people. Most of them shared the same angular features or long wiry limbs of Lance. It must have been his family. He looked at what must have been his mother and father, their kind faces smiling along with all their children. Lance stood close to them, younger looking but just as happy. One of his sisters look particularly close as she hung off of him, face pressed close to his arm. His chest ached a little, wondering what it was like to have such a good thing and give it all up to live here. Why would he ever give this up?
When he heard someone walking up the steps he shoved the picture in his pocket and shut the drawer. Lance walked into the room. He eyed Keith standing in front of the vanity but said nothing as he made his way to his bed and started kicking off his shoes.
Keith was at a loss of what to say but he knew he had to say something. He noticed Lance’s arm was no longer bent and he seemed to be using it just fine, as if it had never been broken in the first place. “How’s your arm?” He pushed off the vanity awkwardly and sat on his bed.
Keith inhaled deeply, “Look. About what happened back there…”
Lance had that sour look on his face again, nose scrunched like he smelled something really foul. “I didn’t do it to save you. I did it for Pidge and Hunk.” He snapped.
“I was just going to say thank you.” Keith huffed, his tail tapping his bed agitatedly. He reached over and held it down annoyed that it was giving away his emotions.
Lance looked at him as if that were the last thing he expected Keith to say. “Oh.” He rubbed his arm feeling abashed. “Well, you’re welcome.”
They got ready for bed, backs to each other the whole time, and laid down still not facing each other. Keith almost found himself breathing in and out to the ticking again as he tried to calm his mind and sleep. He had been reminded time and time again that he needed to be patient. Told by his-
“So,” Lance mumbled out, though his voice didn’t have the usual bite. “aside from that stunt you pulled…..”
Keith frowned at that but waited for him to continue.
“how did your first performance go?”
He shifted in his bed, “Like you said, they set me on fire. Not much talent involved.”
“Heh, told you.” Lance snorted before continuing after a few ticks of silence. “Did the costume singe?”
“No.” Keith responded, edge also gone from his voice.
Even if it was short, it was their first civil conversation they had since he got there. Someone muttered good night, and eventually he fell asleep, relieved the tension was gone and wondering if Lance felt it too.
Thanks for reading!
The next morning Keith didn’t wake up to his nose being pinched or the sound of screaming. He woke up to an empty wagon, no sign of Lance other than his bed being freshly made. He got up, swinging his legs over the side of his bed and sat for a minute taking in everything that had happened. The last three days had been the most eventful days in his life and it didn’t seem like anything would be slowing down. Now that he transformed into a fire eater and was basically a prisoner in the circus, he was expected to work off his debt by “performing” several times a day, which was basically being lit on fire for the audience to crowd around and ogle. They didn’t seem to waste any time as yesterday was his first performance. He had been told that in a month’s time they’d be moving to fire breathing, but for now he was to adapt to his new body. His hands were still black and clawed, horns sharp and pointy and his tail seemed to react to his emotions better than he did. Right now it hung limply over the side of his bed, the end of it twitching a little as he felt his stomach growl. Time for breakfast.
As he made his way over to the meal tent, he noticed a couple of people greeted him, a couple of them even waved. They seemed to be used to his presence now and were over the initial star struck awe of a rare fire eater joining the circus. A couple of young looking performers already dressed in their colorful costumes came up.
“Are you, the new fire eater?” The young boy holding a trumpet asked in a high squeaky voice. He looked at Keith with wide curious eyes, though he seemed polite enough.
Keith tried not to stare too long at the boy’s abnormally large ears. They were the size of dinner plates and wiggled while he spoke. “Uhh, yeah. That’s me.”
“Wow!” The boy turned to his companion, an older looking girl with hair covering nearly all her face and skin that looked like candle wax.
“Is it true you burn anything you touch?” She asked warily looking at his hands.
“I don’t burn things.” He responded curtly.
“Then what about those?” She pointed to the trail of burnt footprints leading to the forest that he made in the grass last night. “Didn’t you make them?”
Keith frowned uncomfortably. “That was an accident. Look, I’ve got to go.”
“Okay! Nice meeting you!” The boy waved at him again still smiling and looking friendly.
When Keith entered the meal tent he looked right away for familiar faces. Off to the side, sitting at their usual table, was Hunk and Pidge and this time Lance was with them. He held Hunk’s large paw in front of him, using it as a shield as Pidge brought her spoon back ready to fling a bit of eggs at Lance when she saw an opening. He wasn’t used to seeing Lance in a good mood like this, smiling and laughing without a care. His eyes were bright and happy with the attention he was getting from his friends.
“Hey Keith!” Pidge waved him over wildly. “Get over here!”
He walked to the table and sat in front of her.
“Morning sleeping beauty.” Lance snickered looking unbothered when Pidge elbowed him in the ribs. “What??”
“Can’t you be a decent person for like, two ticks?” She scolded him.
“It’s fine Pidge,” Keith spoke before smirking at Lance. “sleeping beauty huh?” Keith said surprised at himself for such a response, but the look on Lance’s blossoming red face and spluttering was worth it.
“I didn’t mean it like that!”
Hunk swatted at him almost knocking him off the bench, “OOOhhhh, someone’s red~” He teased before standing up with his plate of fish bones and began lumbering to his cooking station. “Keith, you hungry man? I’m trying some new stuff with the coal so you’ll have to tell me if it’s good. Or if it even tastes any different. Cooking is hard when you can’t taste the food.”
“Heh, sure thing.” He gave Hunk a thumbs up.
“So.” Pidge spoke up with a mouth full of eggs. “They gonna set you on fire again today?”
Keith shrugged, “Yeah.”
Really the performances were no big deal. He didn’t understand how watching a person being set on fire was entertaining, but apparently it was, and the more people he drew in the sooner he could leave. At least that’s how he understood it.
“Well, be sure to have your clothes treated every three or four days, unless you want to walk off the stage in the buff. Last I checked your show wasn’t that kind of performance.”
Pidge looked up talking with the last bit of egg in her mouth, “What kind of performance?”
“Oh my gosh.” Lance held back for a moment before hugging her tightly and patted her on the head like he would a child. “You’re so innocent. I can’t corrupt you. What kind of person would I be if I tarnished our little pigeon?”
“What the heck?! GET OFF LANCE!!!”
Keith’s mouth quirked upward as he watched the two fuss and tease each other again. When Hunk came back he found Pidge smacking Lance in the back with a freed arm and Lance looking completely unfazed as he held on.
“He called her cute?” Hunk asked placing the burning coals in front of Keith.
“Innocent.” Keith answered taking one of the coals in his fingers and popping it in his mouth. “Hmmm,” he looked up as he chewed, “what is that?”
“It’s uhh, just some seasoning.”
“Oh. I like it.”
“Really? You can taste it? I kinda figured the flavor would just burn off.” Hunk stopped twiddling his paws and grinned, pleased at the news.
Keith gave him a small smile back and ate the rest of his…. food.
With another shove and a few choice words that had Lance gasping in fake shock, Pidge finally got him off. They played and bantered a little while longer, Hunk winced and told them to be careful not to break the dishes, and Keith mostly watched in interest.
“Why aren’t you in the back cooking, bear.”
A sharp voice snapped them out of their happy world and back into reality. Keith looked up to see Haxus looking at them with his usual disapproving gaze. He looked at Hunk with an eyebrow raised in a pointed arch, regarding him as if he was a stain on the tent. Keith opened his mouth to say something but was beaten to it by Hunk settling a paw on his shoulder, giving a strained smile at Haxus.
“No worries, I’m on my w-“
“Then get going.” Haxus cut him off impatiently. “Breakfast will be ending soon and you need to start preparing lunch.”
Lance frowned as he watched one of his best friends sulk to the back of the tent. “See Haxus,” he bit out, “if you had any tact, you might be able to actually make friends.”
“Then how’s this for tact, your performances have been cut to just once a week.” Haxus snapped at Lance, returning his gaze with a cold, humorless glare. He continued before Lance had a chance to protest. “You’ll be focusing on mending and repairing the tents and costumes. Get started with the acrobatic tent and make sure it’s patched up by the end of the day. Keith, you’ll be performing doubly in his place. Now get to work, all of you. I don’t want to see you here wasting time when I get back.”
Haxus spun around and strode out, a couple of the other circus folk tripping to get out of his path. Keith watched with apprehension as Lance’s expressions changed from shock, to disbelief, and finally to anger. Anger that was directed at him with a scowl.
“What?” Keith questioned but glared right back.
Pidge looked up trying to meet Lance’s eyes. “Lance, use your head for a tick. You know it’s not his fau-“
“Yes it is!” The tanned boy shot up from the table, eyes flashing with anger and frustration. He glared at Keith desperate for anyone to blame. “It’s always like this!! People who actually try to do something special end up getting pushed to the side as soon as one of his kind shows up!!”
“One of my kind?” Keith stood up getting in Lance’s face defiantly. “How are you blaming me, I didn’t choose this!!”
“So what do you want, a medal? Just because you’re lucky enough to be a fire eater and you’re not replaceable!! I bet you-“ Before he could get another heated word out, his voice stopped abruptly. He placed a hand over his chest, giving his shirt a squeeze as he breathing turned heavy and labored. “J-just forget it.”
Lance stormed out leaving Keith baffled yet again. It was like a switch was flipped inside him once he got too emotional. He sat down and trained his eyes on his coals, now cold and unappetizing. His clawed fists clenched and unclenched and his tail flicked angrily as he thought about what Lance said. He was, replaceable? It was like trying to solve a puzzle without all the pieces and all it gave him was a headache.
“Well.” Pidge drummed her hands on the table exhaling loudly. “There goes the morning.”
Keith spared her a glance. “None of this makes any sense.”
“It never really stops feeling that way.” Pidge countered.
“He’s the one being unreasonable; it’s not my fault whatever he had planned got canceled.”
“No, it’s not. But think about it from his perspective. He’s pretty much accepted that he’s going to be stuck here forever, so he tries to make himself useful. Because if you’re not useful,” Pidge held her hands in front of her pretending to hold a piece of paper and tore it in half making a ripping noise.
Keith nodded. “He can’t ever leave the circus? Why?”
“Quiznack!” Pidge covered her mouth at a loss for words for a moment, stunned she let that slip. “H- his wish…“ she looked around worriedly, “we’re not able to talk about the wishes we make. But Lance’s wish, it was a big one. We overheard Sendak talking one day, he said it’s more likely they’ll run out of uses for Lance before he pays off his debt.”
Keith sat behind the curtains of his stage. He was changed into his performance outfit and would be on in about three minutes, this would be the last time getting set on fire for the day and he could already hear the crowd outside growing and chatting excitedly for the show. He growled frustrated, pushing his hair back from out of his eyes.
“What am I even doing…”
A squeak caught his attention, an orange mouse sat in front of him putting a tiny paw on his shoe as if to comfort him. It looked up and meet Keith’s questioning stare with sympathetic eyes.
“Are you,” Keith began, feeling kind of stupid for trying to talk to a mouse. But if he hadn’t seen weirder things already at this place a talking mouse wouldn’t exactly seem out of place, “a part of the circus?”
The mouse nodded, its impressive whiskers bouncing up and down with the motion.
“How long have you been here?”
The mouse stretched its tiny arms as far as it could. It grabbed its tail and held it out making its reach even farther.
“How long is that?” Keith blinked. “Longer than Lance?”
It nodded quickly, looking almost happy at the mention of Lance’s name. The mouse sat down on the floor and grabbed its tail again. It made swinging motions with the tip, pretending to sew something in its lap.
“You sew too? Kind of small to be sewing aren’t you?”
It shook its head, it’s ears flopping around in the motion.
Keith frowned, the game of charades was a lot harder when guessing from something so small. “You, taught him how to sew?”
The mouse nodded looking pleased again.
Keith frowned, “Well, what do you want? Are you trying to here to tell me I'm in the wrong too?"
The mouse shook its head and patted Keith’s shoe once again. It gave Keith a sympathetic look, crossing it’s arms in thought.
“Look. I don’t care if Lance likes me or not,” Keith continued ignoring the way the mouse tilted its head as if to say ‘oh really?’ “it’s just, I don’t know how to fix this? I hate being trapped and told what to do, and everything just keeps getting worse and worse I can’t control it!” He hung his head down at the next realization. “And now I’m unloading on a mouse. What’s wrong with me?”
The orange mouse jumped up and down, scurrying between his legs to bring Keith’s attention back on it. It began scribbling in the dirt floor, a word appearing in unexpectedly need handwriting.
It nodded looking eager.
“So what? You mean his performance?”
The mouse made a motion with its arms, spinning them in a circle trying to help Keith to connect the dots. They were interrupted by the loud sound of a drumroll followed by applause.
“I,” Keith stood up quickly, the back opening of the curtain began to draw leading to his glass chamber where he would be set on fire, “stay here. I’ll be right back.”
Shielding his eyes a little from the spotlight, he walked into the glass room that was housed inside the great purple and red tent. Once his eyes adjusted to the light, he looked around at the crowd already gasping at the sight of him. The group of people was larger than last time, some of them standing on the benches to get a better look. Someone he didn’t recognize made his introduction and quickly the glass room was filled with fire again. He folded his arms frowning and waited for the show to end. After it ended he snuck to the back of the tent only to find the mouse was gone. Even its tiny footprints vanished. The only evidence it left behind was the word Friday with a hastily drawn circle around it.
Since he was finished with his performance, he decided to look around some more. Walking around, he noticed the people who came to visit the circus were taking the odd workers very well. It was almost like they were used to seeing people with animal-like features or enlarged physical traits. Most people took a second to gawk and stare but no one approached the performers or took pictures. Maybe it was a spell, but Keith had a sinking feeling that just as soon as they left they would forget all they’ve seen and be left with only a vague memory of the fun they had at the circus. They wouldn’t know that the performers were literally trapped here, or that time held still for them until they were free.
Still sinking in his downward spiral of thoughts he didn’t notice he was approaching someone until he bumped into her. He stumbled backwards a little, rubbing his nose where he knocked into her. It was like he walked into a wall the body was so hard and tough.
“O-oh. Excuse me, are you okay?”
“Yeah. I just, wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.”
Keith looked up meeting the eyes of a very tall girl. Her body was firm and almost seem to be made of stone, her shoulders were broad and her arms heavy. Despite her large physique, he was taken back by her soft, polite voice, and a sweet face.
“I see. Well, I am glad you are unharmed Keith.”
He gave her a look, trying to remember if they’ve met or not. He thought he’d remember meeting someone with such a large, physique. “……”
The girl looked surprised at herself. “Shay! My name is Shay. Hunk has told me much about you.”
“He did?” Keith asked nervously.
Shay held a hand up to her mouth. “Only good things, I promise. He only has good things to say about other people. He told me about how you don't like cinnamon on your coal, and that you're something called a smokeheater, I think.”
Keith shrugged. "It's not all that great."
"I see. Well, Hunk seemed to be quite impressed. He said you were cool. Hunk is, very kindhearted." Shay's cheeks darkened, though it was kind of hard to tell against the dim grey of her skin tone.
“Yeah,” he nodded, “I haven’t known him for too long but that sounds like him.” He relaxed a little accepting her explanation. “Are you two good friends?”
“Oh yes!” Shay answered honestly, blushing a little despite herself. “I am in charge of bringing the ingredients for the meals he cooks. I have a vegetable garden I tend just to the side of the circus. There are pumpkins, squash, a few berry bushes, you should come and see it! Would you like to see it?”
Keith nodded. She seemed pleasant and he had nothing better to do so he followed behind her as they made their way to a nice garden behind all the tents and away from all the commotion. It was surrounded by an old fence with peeling white paint that only came up to his knees and really didn’t seem like it was made for keeping anyone out. There was an impressive amount of well-tended vegetables growing from the ground, even a few fruit trees bearing apples ready to pick. Shay knelt down beside a row of squash and began picking small weeds that began to sprout. Wordlessly Keith knelt down with her and began to help.
It was peaceful, and working like this kept his mind off all the other things that were bothering him. His performances didn't require much effort, leaving him to stew in his thoughts as he was engulfed in the flames. But moving around picking vegetables and cutting away dead plants kept his hands and his mind occupied. They worked in comfortable silence, every once in a while Shay would hand him something or give him more specific instructions helping him in his first time gardening.
“Please take this to the compost.”
“Those tomatoes over there are ripe; will you put them in this basket for dinner?”
“Please wear gloves while you pull the weeds, to protect your hands.”
“It’s fine, I don’t need them.”
“…… alright, hand them over.”
They started pretty late in the day and after a short while the sun began to set, the guests were all nearly gone and the circus grew quiet. Gardening ended much sooner than he hoped but the short amount of time cleared his head and he found himself promising Shay he would come back when he could. Shay smiled brightly seeming delighted at his offer. She saw him off with a handful of blueberries as a thank you for all his hard work.
As he walked back to the wagon he looked down at the blueberries in his hand. They were a little dirty, but he didn’t mind as he gave one a quick rub on his sleeve and plopped it in his mouth. Instead of the soft sweetness of the blueberry though, he tasted nothing. He tried another, and another, even stuffed the rest of the handful in his mouth but no taste would come. He sighed. This is why he couldn’t eat normal food he supposed. It was tasteless. They didn’t even feel like they settled in his stomach the way coal seemed to do.
Finally he came to the wagon. Lance was laying on his bed, faced down and not moving. When Keith entered he sat on his bed, too tired to be tense. He stared at Lance’s back, looking for a rise and fall in his chest, but made no move to physically check.
“It’s not polite to stare, you know.” Lance muttered into his pillow. “I’m not dead. I know you keep asking.”
Keith huffed slightly embarrassed at his statement. Like a switch a tiny spark of annoyance seemed to flicker back on. “Since when do you know anything about being polite?” He bit back sharply.
Lance groaned into his pillow before sighing deeply. “I was getting to that okay? Give me a tick.” He pushed himself up and sat cross-legged on the bed rubbing the back of his neck. “Look. I-“ He struggled pushing the words up and out of his mouth. “I- didn’t mean to snap at you. Back there at breakfast. With the whole performance thing. I shouldn’t have been so quick to blame you… and stuff-” His voice trailed off as he found a particular spot on one of his many quilts very interesting.
“You’re, apologizing?” Keith was taken aback.
“Well don’t sound so surprised. People apologize every day it’s not some great thing.”
“If you say that one more time I’m taking it back.” Lance huffed indignantly.
“Huh.” Keith laid back in his bed doing his best to pretend he was still reeling at Lance’s words. He was caught off guard by it and took the chance to rub it in a little. Maybe it was petty, but he didn't really care. “I mean,” he continued, “I would expect it from Pidge or Hunk. But from you?”
Lance stood up and plopped himself next to Keith on his bed jolting him with the bounce. “Hey, I’m actually a very charming person once you get to know me. Beneath this gorgeous exterior is an even more gorgeous personality.”
“Uh huh. Now get off my bed.” Keith deadpanned before kicking Lance. He didn’t use much force but Lance ended up toppling over onto a pile of quilts.
“This is my wagon!” Lance threw his arms in the air huffing as he got back on his own bed.
“So what prompted you to the apology?” Keith asked.
Lance pinched his lips looking at him but it seemed Keith was asking out of genuine curiosity, this time at least.
“Can’t a guy just come to a mature decision on his own?”
“He can if his name’s not Lance.” Keith’s smile was sly as if he won some little contest in his head.
“Oh har har.” Lance rolled his eyes but smiled in return. “Fine. I talked with a little friend of mine. She saw I was upset and we had kind of a heart to heart. Cooled me down a bit so I could sew the costumes without attaching my fingers to them.”
“Your friend wasn’t an orange mouse, was it?”
“Yeah! Did you meet her too?”
“I did. Before they set me on fire."
"She and I go way back."
Lance's smile turned soft at the thought of his little friend. Keith kept an eye on his expression, having a hard time looking away from the fondness of his face.
"She was one of the first members of the circus you know. I came here not too long after her and for a while it was just the two of us. She taught me how to sew and snuck fabric for me to make all these quilts. I, uhh..." Lance looked at Keith catching his eye and looked away embarrassed, "for a while I didn't open up to people. I thought everyone here was, competition. You know, the better you do the faster you get out. Those are the terms anyway. But she and I, we're stuck in the same boat. After I wished for my, mmmm-" Lance's mouth clamped shut as the curse held the words back. His lips curled in and he looked like he was sucking on something sour until he finally gave up trying to get it out. "Anyway I guess that's why I got so heated today. Sometimes I still get competitive. I guess I saw you as a rival before you even knew what was going on here."
"Yeah well, I guess I've kind of been causing you trouble since I got here."
"Dude, I'm still weirded out about you creeping into my wagon at night."
"Shut up it wasn't like that!"
Keith frowned as Lance sniggered.
"This whole place is weird. I thought I was going crazy talking to a mouse.”
“Heh, there’s no such thing as crazy in this circus. Unless your normal. Normal people are crazy!” Lance laughed to himself.
“You’re one to talk, you're the most normal looking circus freak I’ve seen since I got here.” Keith bit his lip as soon as the words came out. “I just mean, you don’t have antlers, or, a tail or something.” His own tail thumped the bed nervously.
“Yeah. Lucky me.”
There was a tense silence for a few minutes. Keith felt like he was trying to swallow an orange and Lance looked like he was struggling with the same thing. Lance seemed to able to get the orange down much quicker than Keith when he finally cleared his voice and piped up.
“You should come to my performance.” He reached over to turn out the lamp for bed. A small truce.
“Sure, I guess.” Keith changed grateful for the darkness. He changed quietly and settled down to sleep. He drifted to what the mouse wrote in the dirt. "Is it on Friday?"
“Y-yeah." Lance smiled, impressed Keith knew when it was. "Good. I'm holding you to it.” Lance said before sighing a little too loudly. “It’ll knock your socks off. Way cooler than being lit on fire.”
“Let’s see them light you on fire then, see how easy it is.”
“Hhhmmmmm, I think I’ll pass.”
Keith chuckled under his breath.
Someone whispered goodnight, and Keith fell asleep to the sound of ticking in his head again.
Did I say we would find out what Lance's change was in this chapter? I meant in a few more chapters, sorry! Some things got rearranged in the story so it was pushed back. Thanks for reading!
Keith raised the bottom of his shirt to wipe the sweat and soil off his brow. The blue shirt was getting dirty and he probably would have felt bad for poking holes through the thin fabric with his clawed hands if it wasn’t for the scolding he received from its owner at the discovery of dirt on his performance costume from a couple of days ago when he first helped Shay in her garden. He hadn’t even thanked him for the shirt yet, Lance left before he could, but maybe this was just Lance’s way of being thoughtful. They were still getting used to each other and Lance letting Keith use any of his belongings was nice for him. All of Keith’s worldly possessions came down to the clothes on his back and a useful red pocket knife he carried around all the time. He didn’t have anything else, except-
Shay got startled when Keith dropped the basket of apples he was carrying. Frantically he dug around in his pocket of his old pants and pulled out a faded picture. It seemed to be okay, maybe a little curled at the edges from being in his pants for so long.
“What is wrong Keith?” Shay came over to help pick up the apples he unceremoniously dropped.
Keith stuck the picture back inside his pocket. He felt so stupid not returning this; he would have to sneak it back in the wagon before Lance noticed but that shouldn’t be too hard as long as he did it soon.
“Nothing. I just, remembered I have to do something. I’m going to take off.” He threw the rest of the apples he dropped in the basket as fast as he could.
“I understand. Thank you very much for helping me again.” Shay nodded. “If it is on your way, could you take these apples to Hunk? It is important he gets them.”
“Sure.” Keith took the apples without question. The meal tent was on his way and Lance seemed busy with repairing the tents so he was bound to miss him. At least that was what he hoped until he ran face to face with the boy entering the tent.
“Lance!” Keith exclaimed on accident.
Lance looked at him bewildered by the greeting. “Keith!” He shouted right back in his face. “See how annoying that is?” He took in the evidence of gardening on his shirt and apples in Keith’s arms. “Are those from Shay?”
Keith nodded, tail flicking a little as he tried to look as calm as possible.
“Perfect timing! Come on I was just talking to Hunk about something come with me.”
He pulled Keith into the tent. Hunk was busy chopping and seasoning potatoes to put in the oven. It was almost comical to see a large brown bear somehow hold a knife and chop clean potatoes with more ease than he’d most humans do before. He still had his yellow bandanna on but was wearing a white apron this time with a couple patches of cutesy teddy bear print sewn on; it wasn’t very hard to guess who took the liberty to make those additions. The stitches were clean and precise, courtesy of ‘the tailor’.
“Hunky bear!” Lance called with a teasing smile he wore naturally.
Hunk looked up from the potatoes. He made eye contact with Keith and made a grumbling whine with his throat. “Oh, come on Lance. Don’t call me that, especially with people around. What if it catches on? Pidge’ll never let me live it down if everyone starts calling me Hunky bear!”
“Alright alright don’t get your apron in a twist Winnie the Pooh.”
Hunk growled. “Keith, if you don’t stop Lance I’m going to sit on him.”
“Be my guest.” He shrugged putting the basket down on a counter.
Hunk gasped bounding over then stood up on his haunches to look at the apples. They were beautiful and red, perfectly ripe.
“Know what these are?” Lance asked slyly picking one of them up and tossing them from hand to hand. “Apples, for paifala.”
Keith raised an eyebrow, momentarily distracted from what he originally set out to do. “What’s paifala?”
“It’s something my grandma used to make. Like a pastry. I was talking about it the other day. Normally you use pineapple in it but we don’t have that so I was thinking of using apple as a substitute.”
“Yeah but who were you talking about this to?” Lance prodded.
“I mean, I ask Shay for apples.” Hunk picked one of them up. “She was probably just, being nice.”
“Because she likes you! Hunk, my brother, my dearest friend, she’s totally into you.”
Hunk dropped the apple
“I mean, as much as I hate to say it, he’s kind of right.” Keith agreed. “She talks about you pretty often.”
“Whatdoesshesay?” Hunk asked desperately, grasping Keith by the shoulders and hoisting him up so they met face to face as if he weighed nothing.
“I don’t know, good things?” Keith squirmed to get down. “That you’re really nice, and you think about others. She brings you up pretty often.”
“I knew it! I knew it I knew it Iknewit!” Lance did a little victory dance around the kitchen. “You have to tell her. I don’t know how much longer I can watch you two dance around each other.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea…”
“This is it! You’ve got to make a move. No time like the present, you can make her a fancy diner or something. You’ve got time for it right, you’re almost done.”
“No- I don’t-“
Lance was deaf to them as he spun around the tent mind buzzing with ideas.
“How long does it take to make a couple paifala? Keith and I will be your wingmen, we’ll set up the ambiance! You just bring the food and-”
“Lance! It. Can’t. Work.” Hunk brought his paw down on the counter, squishing the apple he held with the force.
“Look at me!” He accidentally bore his teeth as he spoke, shrinking back at the realization. His ears turned down flat as he took a more defeated tone. “I’m a bear. Who in their right mind would like an animal like me?”
Lance seemed to inflate with something at Hunk’s words, not quite angry but just about there. “No. No you’re not a bear, you’re human! You have hands and, and legs! Maybe not right now, but you did and will again. You keep forgetting that fact!”
“Keith and I are going to set things up for you and Shay. You just make those paifala.”
Hunk paused, looking at the resolution in Lance’s face and seemed to shift from uncertainty to trust. “….okay.”
“And you better make enough for us too! I want one of your grandma’s paifala to celebrate hooking the two of you up.”
“Heh, okay okay!”
Once Lance was satisfied at seeing Hunk begin to prepare the apples he left the tent to get to work, Keith walking briskly aside him.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Keith asked.
“Oh yeah. Hunk’s had a thing for Shay for a while and this’ll give them a push in the right direction. I have a way with these things you know; romance is one of my specialties.”
“Sure you do.” He said unconvinced.
“Living here,” Lance waived a hand around at the tents and some of the performers milling around at the end of their day, “experiencing the same thing day after day, it can get rough. You start to forget who you were and where you came from. Some of us even forget why we want to leave. That’s why you’ve gotta take every little thing that makes you happy and make the most of it, you know?”
“You haven’t.” Keith stopped walking causing Lance to pause too. “You've been here the longest and you haven’t forgotten.”
“Well, I have them to break up my days. And technically you now, I guess.” Lance shrugged awkwardly. There was an odd twisting knot in Keith’s stomach at the admission and it was strange, but not entirely unpleasant.
“Alright.” Keith nodded, firming up his resolve. “Let’s get this done.”
Lance smiled looking the happiest Keith had seen him since he arrived. It was a pleasant sight.
Keith and Lance split up from there. Keith was tasked with finding a table and chairs large enough for the two of them while Lance brought things to set the mood. The circus was already pretty crammed; it was hard to find a place where they could have some privacy so they settled on setting up the table behind Hunk’s wagon so they would at least be able to eat dinner uninterrupted.
Because of their size Keith had to carry the chairs back one at a time. When he came back with the second chair he found Lance adding the last touches to the table. There was a clean white sheet covering the table, a small glass vase filled with soft smelling lavender, and a string of lights hanging overhead, simple and not overly romantic- which is how Hunk would like it.
Lance fussed the last minute over the placement of the lights, added a few candles to the table for good measure, and adjusted the angle of the chairs a bit more before deeming it good enough.
“I think they’re coming.” Keith listened and heard the sound of heavy footsteps approaching.
“Okay, let’s get back to the meal tent to cover for Hunk. Pidge is there now but she’ll need help when everyone starts piling in.”
They found Pidge struggling to balance and dish up three plates of vegetables at once and rushed over to help.
“About time! Keith, you can dish out the meat, Lance check the oven I think something’s burning in there! And wear mitts before you reach in there this time!”
Keith and Lance took a tick to glance at each other before getting to work. The space was kind of tight for three people behind the counter; the trio brushed shoulders as they passed and Keith had to keep his tail close to keep anyone from stepping on it. After a few minutes they found a good rhythm and figured out how to work together. Lance kept an eye on the food that was keeping warm so it wouldn’t burn while passing seasonings as needed; Pidge continued dishing up the baked vegetables and held out the plate for Keith to pile on different meats, green food goo or whatever else the person ate.
“You think it’s going well?” Lance brushed up beside Keith handing him a bowl of worms to give to a beetle looking girl snapping her pincer like mandibles hungrily.
Keith held in a gag as he gave the bowl to the girl and continued cutting meat. “I think so? He's not back yet and dinner's almost over so, that's a good sign.”
“How did it look?” Pidge piped up standing on the other side of Keith’s other side. “Did you go all out?”
“Really nice, though the candles may have been much.” Keith said with a smirk.
Lance elbowed him. “The candles were the perfect touch; girls love that kind of thing. Right Pidge?”
She shrugged. “How should I know? Do you see me eating by candlelight?”
“Guess I’ll have to take you on a date then.”
“Gross!!” She exclaimed sticking out her tongue.
“What do you mean gross??” Lance put a hand to his heart as if wounded. “I’m a catch!”
“That’s like going on a date with a dorky brother or something. No thank you.” She plopped the veggies on the last plate and finally the line for food was gone.
“True. Very true. Well, as your older brother then I have the right to be super picky with who dates you. Not that that’s going to happen for a while, you’ve got time kid.”
Lance ruffled Pidge’s hair with a playful affection. "You can be the estranged cousin no one likes and shows up to family reunions every once in a while." He grinned to Keith.
“It’s a step up from what I already have.” Keith shrugged and began gathering the pots and pans to clean.
“You don’t have family?” Pidge asked in a lower tone.
“Not anything blood related, no. I guess I have someone, kind of like a brother. But he’s long gone by now.”
“Why?” Pidge pressed further, genuinely curious.
Keith tried to answer but before he could even form the words in his mind his lips became pinched together just as he considered talking about it. He couldn’t even get his jaw to unclench; it was like someone was holding it shut. The feeling wasn’t painful, but incredibly frustrating.
“Oh. Your wish had to do with him. With your family,” Lance left out the word ‘too’ from his sentence that the others obviously sensed.
“Yeah.” Keith grabbed the rest of the pots and pans and began cleaning up. His thoughts turned to Shiro, the closest thing he had to a brother, knowing he would never see him again. He hoped to feel satisfied about that. It was good that he wasn’t a part of Shiro’s life anymore, that was exactly what he wanted. But instead of comfort the thought left him hollow. Before they finished cleaning Hunk stepped into the tent looking dazed and happy. Pidge and Lance ran to him demanding to know how the night went and for all the juicy details.
“Did she like the lights?”
“How was the food?”
“What did she say?”
“Are you guys going out again?”
Hunk responded to the questions with a simple smile. “It was really, really nice. Thanks guys.”
Pidge and Lance seemed to accept his answer from the way they straightened and beamed at him.
Hunk walked up to the two of them and pressed his forehead to theirs. After the quick gesture Hunk crowded up Keith’s space and bent down to push his forehead to Keith’s sweaty one, not having trouble avoiding his horns.
“Is, this a bear thing?” He asked as Hunk backed up.
“It’s cultural more than anything else.” He rubbed the back of his neck.
“Guess your fam now.” Lance knocked Keith with his elbow. “Hunk accepted you as one of his own. No going back.”
“That was the first part of initiation. The second is him threatening to sit on you but never following through.” Pidge nodded.
Hunk laughed and ruffled Pidge’s hair making her squawk and bat his hand away.
The day’s exhaustion finally caught up with them and all four made their way to their wagons for the night. It seemed like Hunk took the liberty of cleaning up after the date for which the other were grateful. The dinner was pretty rushed and Keith thought he was too tired to lift a cup much less the huge chairs and table. All his thoughts now zeroed in on the smell of dried flowers and comfy quilted bed that awaited him.
They all muttered a tired good night and went into their respective wagons for the night. Somehow he found the energy to change out of his clothes before climbing into bed and settling in for the night. His eyes shot open though as he felt a hand tug on his quilt. Adjusting to the dark he was able to pick up Lance’s shape but not much else.
“I’m glad,” Lance spoke in the darkness, letting go of the quilt now that he had Keith’s attention, “Hunk is happy.”
“Yeah, we make a pretty good team.”
They smiled at each other for a few ticks before turning away and falling asleep.
The next several days passed by quickly. Hunk seemed to have a bit more pep in his step during the day and got caught every once in a while whistling while he cooked. Shay seemed to be in higher spirits too as she tended to have a more dreamy expression when gardened lost in her thoughts. Half of the circus was stuck between thinking the puppy love was adorable, while the other half thought the sweetness was disgusting. No one cared enough to really be bothered by it though; as long as there was food to eat and work to be done they carried on in their own business. Hunk kept true to his promise and gave each of his friends a sample of paifala. Pidge was quite taken with the pastry, her wings shook happily as she ate in a not very lady like fashion. And though Keith didn’t actually see Lance eat it, Lance assured Hunk it looked and smelled delicious.
The closer it got to Friday louder and more insistent Lance became about his performance. Keith knew if he missed it there would be no living it down- so it was either be there, or have Lance hold it over his head for the rest of his life. Or, at least for the rest of his time knowing him, because from what he was told once he left the circus’ barrier all his memories would fog and he wouldn’t remember a vast majority of what he experienced. At best it would all be a hazy dream. Everything they did would be forgotten, but he could dwell on that later.
Finally the day came for Lance’s performance. Keith was cutting it close as his own performance ended just before which gave him about fifteen minutes to change and rush over, hopefully he wouldn’t miss the beginning.
Luckily he arrived just as the opening began.
“Hey.” Hunk greeted him as he approached the tent. “You’re just in time. The seats are full but you can stand here in the back. It’s actually probably a really good view.”
“Okay. Is Pidge here too? I didn’t see her.” Keith looked around for a flash of green or a sign of feathers.
“She’s in the back of the tent, on the other side behind those bleachers. She’s in charge of the lights and sound. I’m handing out popcorn so I have to move around for a bit. You’ll be fine on your own right?”
Keith gave him a look that seemed to say ‘do I look like I’m twelve to you?’
“Oh gosh. Sarcasm through the eyes, Lance is rubbing off on you I better warn Pidge.”
Keith snorted as Hunk walked off moving towards a call from someone in the audience for popcorn.
From the back Keith looked around the medium sized tent. It was bigger than his own performance tent which had about eight rows of seats that seemed to cram everyone uncomfortably together as they craned to get a better look at him. This one had aluminum bleachers that rose up about fifteen seats, the whole tent could probably fit about two hundred people he guessed. They all seemed to be enjoying the opening act which was a series of performers and trained horses. The performers did a number of tricks and impressive balancing feats as they ran their complicated routine around the tent.
When the lights began to dim, the horses and their trainers retreated out of the tent in a showy way. There was a shift in mood as the lighting turned into a cool blue and soft guitar music from the band began to play. Three silk scarves fluttered down from the top of the tent with their performers descending on them a moment after.
From what Keith could see, they all had their faces painted and wore identical blue costumes. The middle performer stood out wearing a simple circlet around his head with a red gem in the center that gleamed when the light hit it. It kept the focus on him as it was the only source of warm light in the tent, flashing like a beacon to keep the audience captivated- though it wasn't completely necessary- his complicated bends and contortions alone were enough to draw everyone's eyes. He twisted and flew as if here were liquid, as flexible as the sash he held on to.
Keith could practically hear the audience hold their breath as they watched the main performer climb the top of the scarf and let himself fall, spiraling downward stopping when his face was inches above the ground. The drop caused his breath to leave his lungs which was only audible because of the slight pause in music and Keith realized that not only was he dancing with the others in the air, but singing as he did so.
The song came to an end and the aerial silk performers slid down gracefully, bowing to the audience who was practically roaring with applause.
It was when Keith made eye contact with the middle performer when he realized it was actually Lance. Lance met his eyes with a flushed grin, clearly soaking in the cheers from the audience, and sent Keith a wink before exiting with the other performers.
Everyone moved to leave quickly after that. He saw Hunk and Pidge start towards the back of the tent to catch Lance; he moved to follow but was stopped by Sendak grabbing his arm with his large hand and yanking him back.
“You seem to have too much free time on your hands lately, gardening, setting up stupid little gatherings, going to performances not your own. You do know it’s your success that gets you out, not his.”
Keith gritted his teeth and ripped his arm out of his grip. He could literally feel his temperature rising as the horns on his head began to heat up. Sendak watched him though glowing yellow eyes, sizing up his reaction.
“I’m doing my job. Some things are also important.”
“Oh? As important as your freedom?” Sendak growled knowingly.
He smirked when Keith’s shoulders dropped as struggled to come up with a reply.
“Why are you telling me this anyway?” Keith narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “I thought you’d want to keep up the shows as long as possible, not help me get out faster.”
Sendak made a gravely sound in his throat Keith guessed was a laugh. “Don’t mistake my intentions, I’m not helping you. I’m putting you in your place. The workers here are not your friends.” He gave Keith’s chest a hard poke. “As soon as they leave, they’ll forget you and everything that’s happened, if it’s soon at all. You’re here to work, to make good of the deal you made-”
“The deal you tricked me into making!” Keith shouted. He tasted ash on his tongue as smoke began seeping out of the side of his mouth in his frustration.
“You were the one eager to sign.” Sendak reminded him, smiling cruelly at the memory. “What? Is this the first time you’ve had to deal with the consequences of your actions? Have you ever not run away from your problems before?” He goaded on.
Keith’s horns were glowing bright red with heat now, his tail snapped back and forth behind him like a whip. “What. Do you know. About my problems.” He spoke harshly, jaw set so tight it was beginning to ache. Claws all of a sudden didn’t seem like such a bad thing, he was just a breath away from attacking Sendak.
“Everything.” Sendak sneered. “I don’t think I’ve ever known a more pathetic wish than yours.”
Keith snapped. He raised a clawed hand and punched Sendak as hard as he could in the jaw. The blow did little more than make him take a small step back, but the surprise and fury on Sendak’s face counted as a victory for Keith.
“You’re really going to regret that.” Sendak hissed darkly, eyes promising punishment in his near future. “Now clean up this tent.”
Keith grudgingly cleaned up after the audience on his own. There were snack boxes to pick up, popcorn to sweep and equipment to put away. He was practically fuming, but despite himself, Sendak’s words were starting to get to him. He found himself questioning again, was this worth it? If he focused on his own performances, he wouldn’t have to be here as long, especially since his shows were getting so popular. He could do more entertaining things and be out of here faster than the others. He wouldn’t have to clean up at the end of shows, or help Shay out in the garden, or see Pidge laugh so hard at a joke her knees buckle so he has to catch her, or have Hunk fuss over him at dinner time making sure he had enough to eat, or see Lance give him genuine smiles making his sharp face soften and blue eyes shine.
He shook his head to clear the weird road his train of thought led him down. If he kept thinking that way, he’d start thinking that this place wasn’t so bad. And that’s not what he wanted, was it?
It was pretty late when he left the tent and headed back to his and Lance’s wagon. He walked up the few steps- knowing Lance he expected him to be sitting eagerly on his bed, waiting to be showered with even more praise than he already received. But instead of a smiling Lance, he was welcomed by the remains of what looked like the aftermath of a small tornado. Quilts were strewn across the floor, the wardrobe’s doors were open with clothes tossed down around it, the vanity’s drawers were ripped out and contents scattered on its surface. Nothing looked untouched.
“Lance?” Keith called. What if he got attacked for some reason? Did he get in trouble for his attack on Sendak, was this the punishment? His mind leapt to conclusions as he walked over the mess. “Lance!? Where are you, are you here??”
He paused, hearing a sniffle come from the back. Throwing the door open he found Lance sitting on the back steps, still wearing his blue costume, hugging his legs to his chest.
“Hey. What’s wrong, are you hurt or something?” Keith briefly wondered where Pidge and Hunk were while Lance was in such a state of distress.
Lance shook his head before looking at Keith. The paint was a bit smudged from having his head on his knees, but his face was dry and he could still see some of the detail that went into the makeup. Dry face aside the boy looked utterly heartbroken.
“It’s gone. The only thing I had left of them.” His voice came out warbled and wet.
“What’s gone?” Keith sat down next to him. The stairs were narrow, but they both managed to fit on the same step.
“My picture of my family! It’s the only thing I managed to save of them for so long. Everything else is gone, and they-” His voice caught in his throat. He made a quiet anguished sound and laid his head back on his knees.
“The picture of y- OH!” Keith reached into his pocket and pulled out the photo. “I’m sorry. Lance I’m so sorry! I have it, I didn’t mean to take it I was going to return it sooner! Things just got so busy and I didn’t mean to put it in my pocket. Here.”
Lance looked at Keith with wide eyes before snatching the picture. He pressed the curled edges straight again and turned it over, making sure there was no damage. Letting out a shuddering breath he pressed the picture to his chest.
Keith waited for Lance to yell at him, or storm off or something dramatic, but Lance surprised him for a second time that night by curling the photo like it was the most precious thing in the world and leaning on Keith tiredly.
“Thank you.” He mumbled. “Thankyouthankyouthankyou. Thank goodness… you had it. I thought maybe Haggar found it. She’d destroy it for sure. I’d get… in so much trouble for keeping it for so long.”
Keith was too stunned to move. “Aren’t you, mad at me?”
Lance sighed. “Yeah, probably. But I’m, too tired. I’ll… be mad at you tomorrow. And you know you… deserve it… too… so you better… prepare… for… the storm, mullet head.” Lance spoke, seeming to struggle more and more to form the words. When he finished his sentence his head hung down tiredly.
“Heh, in that case I should have blamed Pidge.” Keith waited for a response from Lance but he remained motionless, picture clenched tightly in his hand. “Man that performance must have wiped you out. Come on lets go inside.” Keith nudged him as he began to slip down.
Lance remained unresponsive to the movement. There seemed to be no sign of life from the boy- there was no rise or fall from his chest and Keith felt no breath even though his face was right above his shoulder.
Keith shifted causing Lance to slide off him.
“Lance, come on. Wake up. Do you want to sleep out here or on your bed?”
Keith remembered back to several weeks ago, when he first saw Lance as unresponsive in his bed, then when he was handed to the druid a few days later. He thought the boy was dead.
Thanks for reading!
Good? Bad? Things are heating up in the next few chapters, any suggestions on writing improvement?
Keith only fumbled once when he lifted Lance up and carried him inside the wagon. The boy weighed next to nothing, but the mess of clothes, knick knacks and quilts strewn about the floor made it challenging for him to move around in the tight space. He managed to lay lance down on his bed and hovered over him as he tried to figure out what to do next.
What, what do I do now? He thought trying not to panic. Should I get Hunk, or maybe Pidge? She’s smart she would probably know what to do. He ran his hands through his hair and looked through the window. It was too dark to make out the birdcage wagon that was about 50 yards away. He knew Hunk Pidge and Lance were keeping something from him for a while now; and wondered if Lance passing out have something to do with it. Deciding this was the best course of action, he walked over the mess again yanking the door open and, in his hurry, bumped into the tall figure silently standing outside. After stumbling back he looked up to see the Druid looking over his shoulder at Lance. It tilted its head to the side, making clicking sounds with every inhale of breath, and it started making its way to him. The unnatural head movement sent a shiver down Keith’s spine and he remembered Sendak’s threat just earlier that night. He moved to stand in front of it in an attempt to shield Lance from its sight.
“Get out of here.” He demanded through gritted teeth.
The druid didn’t pause as it shoved Keith out of its way and trapped him against the wall with invisible binds. With him restrained it approached the bed, deaf to his shouts and hissing threats not to approach the boy.
“Don’t hurt him!! Sendak said he would get me , leave Lance out of it!! Are you listening??”
Looking over Lance’s inanimate body, it tilted its head spotting the picture clutched tightly in the boy’s hand. Keith’s movements became more jerky and desperate as the druid slipped it out from his pinched fingers. It silenced Keith shouting with a flick of its fingers over its shoulder. Keith now watched mutely as the druid examined the picture.
Don’t destroy it. Please. He thought desperately, as if it would somehow his plea would reach the strange creature.
Keith blinked in surprise when it placed the picture back down on the pillow by Lance’s head and proceeded to lift Lance’s shirt up. There in the middle of his chest was a small silver plate with a hole in the center right above where his heart would be. It took out a matching silver key from inside its sleeve and began winding. After about ten slow turns of the key it withdrew from Lance and left the wagon without a backwards glance.
As soon as it descended the stairs Keith was released of its hold. He stumbled over to Lance, noting now where that soft ticking noise had been coming from. There was still no rise or decent from Lance’s chest, but rather, when he strained to hear he could make out the faintest sound of gears and cogs turning just underneath his skin. He leaned in to get a better look at the plate and keyhole when a hand not so gently became acquainted with his face and pushed him away.
“What the heck man??” Lance shuffled up, cheeks stained bright red as he yanked down his shirt. “Personal space issues much?”
Keith swallowed hard and had the decency to also look embarrassed. “I, uhhh…” he struggled a bit trying to explain himself, “the druid! He, it, whatever it is came into the room and lifted, lifted your shirt up. He wound you up with a key just now!”
Lance placed a hand over where Keith now knew where the keyhole would be. “Yeah. It does that from time to time.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Lance began picking at the frayed patches of a quilt not looking necessarily uncomfortable, but also not knowing what to say next.
“Did you know it was coming tonight?” Keith asked.
“I forgot. I’ve so been busy with the show and everything that’s happened, it slipped my mind." Lance shrugged. Hey uhh, how many times did it turn the key? Did you count?”
“Nine or ten, I think?”
“Ten?? You’ve got to be kidding that’s less than last time! This is so frustrating, it’s like they want me to stop working.” He grumbled, crossing his arms and falling back to the bed like a petulant child giving a tantrum.
“So, what are you?” Keith sat down next to Lance, seeing the boy wasn't disturbed at what happened.
If Lance wasn’t used to Keith’s bluntness by now, he would’ve kicked him. Hard. But in the weeks they’ve spent together he learned that his bluntness was evidence of social awkwardness rather than rudeness. Keith didn’t mince words or soften his language when he spoke, which was nice. Lance secretly liked Keith’s sincerity and transparency. Once you got under Keith’s brusque personality, he was good to put your trust in.
“A puppet, I guess?” Lance offered truthfully. “I’ve got gears inside that keep me going. They’re actually pretty cool looking do you wanna see?”
Keith shook his head. “No, that’s-”
But Lance already pulled his shirt off and opened his plate- it took everything in Keith not to wince at the action. The gap was just big enough for him to stick a hand in, inside he saw small gears crowded around and turning to a pulse much like a steady heartbeat. He could hear the ticking clearly now with the gears unobstructed.
“I mean, at least I don’t have tentacles or antlers, right?” Lance chuckled humorously, closing the plate before dust could get in and lowered his shirt back down. “I can’t eat or feel pain, I don’t need to sleep but it makes the winding last longer. I’m just a bunch of gears and coils in human skin. A puppet. Replaceable.”
Keith knew these last few words weren’t his own. This was Lance, the loud, competitive, obnoxious, kind-hearted boy who put those he loved before himself. He helped Hunk in the kitchen when the bear was overwhelmed with work, he made Pidge snort with laughter and smothered her with brotherly affection anytime he saw her sad, he cleaned and mended all of Keith’s outfits so he could focus on his performances. These hurtful words sounded like they were repeatedly thrown at him too many times over to be recited mechanically like this, and from the downcast way Lance spoke, he seemed to believe they were true.
“Replaceable?” Keith echoed trying to reign in Do they think you’re replaceable?”
Keith held up the picture of Lance’s family in front of them, making Lance’s breath catch at the sight of them even though he’s looked at it countless times.
“Do they think you’re replaceable?”
Keith asked again, now pointing out the window towards Hunk and Pidge’s wagons. Lance couldn’t do anything but shake his head, still in a rare moment of being stunned to silence. Keith then leaned forward placing a hand over Lance’s.
“Do I think you’re replaceable?”
Lance looked deeply into Keith’s eyes trying to figure out the answer. When he didn’t confirm or deny the question, Keith gave his hand a firm squeeze and Lance surged forward pressing his lips to the corner of Keiths mouth. After a few seconds Keith yanked back, his face and horns growing red and hot enough the air began to ripple around them.
“I’m sorry!” Lance threw his hands around wildly. “Oh gosh why did I- I- that was- forget I did that!! It never happened we can go back to how we usually are, just please don’t burn down my wagon!!”
“What?” Fire licked the air as Keith spoke making Lance actually swallow in fear.
“Don’t be mad at me! You just said I mattered! I THOUGHT WE WERE HAVING A MOMENT!!”
All reservation seemed to have left the boy in his nervous scramble for words and trying to cover up his utter embarrassment.
“I’M NOT MAD! AND I DIDN’T SAY YOU MATTERED I SAID YOU’RE NOT REPLACEABLE!!”
“DEPENDS ON WHO YOU ASK!!”
“SO WERE WE HAVING A MOMENT OR NOT ??!”
“WE WERE UNTIL YOU STARTED SHOUTING!!!”
“WELL YOU’RE SHOUTING TOO!!!”
“WOULD YOU STOP ??!”
Keith moved forward to kiss Lance with his hands cupping around his face. The kiss was longer, resolute, and they both closed their eyes in hoping it wouldn’t end. Pretending for just a minute that this was all there was instead of the circus and their curse. While Lance didn’t seem to need air though, for Keith it remained a necessity so he broke the kiss. He didn’t seem to regret parting when he got a look at Lance’s goofy, kiss happy face.
“You like me~” Lance teased with a dreamy expression.
“So?” Keith huffed in amusement. “You don’t seem to have a problem with that.”
“Heh, I don’t. I like you too.”
They both smiled at the confirmation, Lance feeling giddy and Keith feeling lighter than he had in a long time. He picked up a corner of the quilt and began wiping the smudged makeup on Lance’s face and smiled a little to himself when the boy leaned forward taking a shine very quickly to his action. It seemed like the performance happened years ago, even though it was only earlier that night. His trail of thoughts led again to Sendak and his threat.
He reached over and squeezed Lance’s shoulder. “We’re getting out of here.”
Lance’s content smile melted away as he came back to reality. “Okay, sure. We .”
“I’m serious Lance.” Keith pressed on, shaking him by the shoulders little. “I’m getting you out of here. And Hunk and Pidge and Shay too. We’re all getting out of here I don’t care what it takes. I’ve been in tough situations before and there’s always a way out. I won’t leave without you, you hear me.”
Lance wanted to laugh. He wanted to shake his head and forget idea. The thought of him leaving the circus, being able to taste garlic knots again, feel something when he stubbed his foot, it was enough to make him cry if he could. He locked up that hope long ago before it destroyed him. It was selfish to get attached like this, he knew, but for Keith he would allow himself and deal with the consequences later.
As expected, things didn’t exactly improve after that night. The group no longer had time to eat together or chat at the end of the day.
Hunk and Pidge worked doggedly around the clock as tasks were heaped upon them. Hunk cooked and cleaned non-stop. He had less time and less ingredients to create new recipes for everyone to try. The meals he served were healthy but bland, and helpers that usually aided him were moved to attend other duties leaving him to scrub plates pots and pans on his own before immediately starting on the next meal.
Pidge’s responsibility with the equipment of the circus was tripled. She rushed around repairing light fixtures, untangling wires, or making sure sound systems worked. There always seemed to be something to be fixed or changed last minute. Her patience was spread so thin her wings started molting out of stress leaving a trail of tiny brown feathers whenever she ran to the next task.
Lance was busy with his act, mending all the tents and an ever growing mountain of costumes to touch up or completely redo. A couple of times Keith searched for him late at night only to find him completely frozen mid stitch as he fixed up a hole in one of the far tents. He only got four turns of the key and had to be wound every three days now, which means more visits from the druid who Keith detested.
The guilt tore at Keith as he watched Hunk exhaustedly serve food, Pidge cry in frustration, or search for Lance because he stopped ticking somewhere again. In his mind that was worse than being yelled at by Praxus or his own abundantly increased workload. It seemed like it was Sendak’s personal mission to keep the group so busy they didn’t have time to talk to each other, much less plan how they were going to break Haggar’s curse.
“I think they’re trying to kill us.” Hunk let out a heavy breath as they sat together behind their wagons. They got up early to finish cleaning the entire circus and had a few precious minutes of spare time to catch their breath before going back to their usual tasks.
“I know.” Pidge piped up looking thoroughly exhausted. “Any thoughts on how to break the spell, because true loves kiss doesn’t seem like it’s going to cut it in this story.”
Lance looked embarrassed but laughed as he sat behind Pidge and straightened her feathers. Hunk and Pidge noticed almost immediately the shift in Keith and Lance’s relationship like they were waiting for it to happen. The first few days of teasing were, merciless.
“I don’t know. Maybe we’re not trying enough. Come here Keith, plant one on me like you mean it.” He threw Keith a leer and puckered his lips.
Pidge threw an elbow back, catching Lance in the stomach but not causing him any pain. “You two are sickening!”
“Don’t be jealous!” Pidge squawked as he reached forward and hugged her from behind. “You lost your chance, now you’re stuck in friendzone limbo forever.”
Pidge rolled her eyes at Lance. “So, do we actually have any ideas then? What about sending a message out with a radio or something?”
Hunk shook his head from where he laid on the grass. “Radio waves don’t cross the barrier, written messages get erased. And Lucy…” his voice tapered off after mentioning her name.
Keith looked from Lance to Hunk who seemed to be sharing deep looks. “Who’s Lucy?” He asked.
Hunk cleared his throat and continued, “She was in the circus years ago, but she was only here for a few days. She tried stealing someone’s phone to call her family but Haggar caught her before she could even push a button and her contract was ripped.”
“Nothing leaves the circus. Not even waste.” Lance signed and rested his head on top of Pidge’s who didn’t seem to shake him off.
“If only there was a way to make someone remember….” Pidge thought out loud.
Before they could think more about that a wide framed circus worker swung around the wagons and approached them.
“Hey Prorok.” Lance said not looking worried by his stormy expression. “How are things?”
Prorok stomped in front of them and puffed out his chest in an effort to intimidate them. He was also large and more animal than man with a large jaw and huge protruding teeth. “What do you think you’re doing sitting around while there’s work to be done,” a low growl from the back of his throat intertwined with his words, “do you want your contracts to be torn? Get up now!”
Hunk sat up quickly and Pidge’s feathers poofed up in anger.
“We’ve been working ourselves to the bone here!” She cried. “All our chores this morning are finished we’ve only been sitting for five minutes!!”
“If you have time to spare you should be working, Haggar’s orders!!” Prorok barked with all the authority he could muster.
Pidge stood up shaking off the warning hand Lance put on her as soon as she felt it. She had enough. The stress and work for weeks had her at wits end and hearing that she couldn’t even sit down for a few minutes was the final straw. She stomped over to him and craned her neck upward to meet his yellow eyes with fiery determination. “If you have time to yell at us why don’t you untangle wires for six hours straight instead of coming over here and barking orders you big gorilla!!” She snapped.
“Why you insolent little welp ! You’re going to regret those words I’ll let the witch deal with you.” Prorok reached forward and grabbed the back of her hair in a tight grip causing her to give a short pained screech.
Lance and Keith jumped to their feet but it was Hunk who barreled forward knocking Prorok away and roared in his face with a ferocity no one in the circus had ever seen from the bear. The tents began shook with his shout but before he finished his threatening display both he and Pidge disappeared in a puff of purple smoke.
“Haggar no!!” Lance shouted looking around with a lost and fearful expression. “I was the one who decided we should all take a break it’s my fau-” Lance disappeared in a puff of smoke too.
“Lance!!” Keith looked around expecting to be taken next but nothing happened. He yelled at Prorok, Haggar, Sendak, anyone he could think of shouting threats and accusations saying whatever he could to be taken to them as well. The other circus performers watched from hidden spots as Prorok took the angry boy forcefully towards his performance tent to be restrained. They didn’t know what to fear more, Keith for trying to light several tents on fire in his path or the galra running to hose the boy down. Once in the tent they shoved him in the glass box and chained him down to an uncomfortable metal chair and there he stayed.
Four days later Keith was still tied to the chair. Shay came in a few times to give him cold hard coal to eat which was utterly disgusting, but he didn’t complain. The only things out of his mouth were questions about his friends. Were they safe? Had she seen them? A guard was present all the time to monitor Keith which scared Shay from answering, but the sad look in her eyes made the coal he was fed plummet to the bottom of his stomach with icy dread.
His performances continued even though he refused to participate in any way. Now he was just being drenched in fire that shot at him from the corners of the box, but it seemed to be enough to entertain the audience who seemed to be lost in a hazy stupor as they stumbled into the tent to see the show.
On the fifth day, someone caught his eye. Wide shoulders, a familiar tuft of white hair, a scar across the bridge of his nose. The galra guard who monitored him was luckily outside due to the crowd filling the tent to max capacity and didn’t see Keith jerk his head to make sure it was who he thought it was.
His first instinct was to hide. He didn’t ever want Shiro to see him, and especially not like this, a freak who wasn’t quite human anymore. He swallowed his fear down and called out to the man he desperately needed help from once again, “Shiro!! Shiro! It’s me!!”
Shiro made his way to the front of the crowd, gave the box a quizzical look before shrugging and walking out of the tent.
Sorry about the long wait!! With school out of the way I finally have time to continue the story now and I'm determined to finish!
Thanks for reading!