by Hikaru Yamaguchi
illustrated by beili
“Didn’t anyone ever warn you about carnies?”
Someone probably should have, I think. But if they had, I probably wouldn’t have listened anyway.
* * * * *
“The next performer is a spellbinding sensation so flexible you won’t believe his body and you won’t believe your eyes,” the ringmaster announces, voice booming throughout the big top. “Please, put your hands together for the incredible changeable man: Proteus!”
I clap dutifully along with the rest of the audience, not sure what to expect.
Darkness falls. A single figure appears, bathed in golden light at the center of the stage. Blond hair in a neatly tied bun, a full beard, and blue eyes that feel piercing even thirty rows back from the stage. Proteus begins to move, and I am lost–mesmerized.
He folds his body into shapes graceful and bizarre, beautiful and awkward. Joints bending backwards in addition to forwards, limbs splaying in ways I never imagined possible. It’s incredible.
Proteus’ act comes to a close and the audience cheers, none louder than I. A new performer takes the stage after, and then another, but all I can think about for the rest of the night is the blond contortionist.
Everyone files out after the show ends. I linger to speak with one of the performers, the reason I came to the circus in the first place.
“Yael, how do you still look so young?” I ask as I embrace her tiny, spandex-covered form. She’s not the scrawny kid with scuffed knees I remember, what with the purple hair and muscular acrobat’s body, but the eyes are exactly the same.
“Gymnastics. They say it stunts your growth,” she replies wryly, squeezing me back in an embrace like steel. “Enjoy the show?”
“It was incredible. You were amazing,” I say truthfully. “And so was the contortionist.”
“Ah, Proteus.” She gives me a knowing smile. “He is something else.”
“Do you want to a grab a drink? Catch up?” I ask. “I’m guessing a few things have happened in a decade.”
“Oh sure. Dyed my hair, got married, joined a circus. The usual.” She leads me back to the dressing area. “Let me get into normal clothes and we can hit a bar nearby.”
I wait as she changes behind a partition–more for the sake of my modesty than hers–and see a familiar man-bun out of the corner of my eye.
The contortionist is heading out of the tent, not having noticed me. There’s something about his gait that strikes me as slightly odd, and then I realize it’s because he’s wearing a pair of stiletto high heels. He hadn’t been wearing those onstage, had he? I can’t remember, but I’m pretty sure I would have noticed that.
Yael reemerges and I put the question of out my mind as we head out in search of alcohol. Priorities.
* * * * *
“This was fun,” I declare, forcing myself to enunciate the words clearly. After a few hours and several shots with Yael, I suspect I might be tipsy. She wanted to order more, but I was the one that cried uncle. Despite the fact that she’s roughly half my size, apparently I’m the lightweight. “I can’t believe you’re married, though. And to a woman, no less.”
“Isn’t it crazy? I used to love cock!” She shakes her head. “Didn’t see that one coming. But circus is a crazy place. Never know what you’re gonna find underneath the tent.”
“Very true,” I agree solemnly, concentrating on the formidable task of walking and not tripping over my own feet.
“Jasper, what time is it?”
I squint at my watch, willing the numbers into focus. “A little before midnight. I think.”
“Shit, I have to be up early.” She sighs. “Hey, you should come by the show tomorrow. I’ll leave you a free ticket at the box office. We can meet up after.”
“Sounds fantastic,” I say as I escort her to the entrance of her tent. “This is you, right?”
She peers inside and nearly pitches forward, catching herself on my arm. “Yep. All mine. Now get home safe, you hear me?”
I salute her. “Will do.”
She disappears inside and I turn to the task of finding my way out of the circus encampment. There are some lights scattered about, but most everyone seems to have retired already. Also, it turns out that tents tend to look very similar in the dark.
I wander for ten minutes, futilely searching for an exit. I give up and resign myself to asking the next person I see for directions. That plan doesn’t work out either, as there’s no one around to ask.
I move on to looking for a tent with occupants that might still be awake.
I stumble upon one, soft light shining through the entrance. I poke my head in, calling out softly, “Hello?”
“Yes?” The contortionist—Proteus–steps out from behind a tripartite screen. He’s barefoot, clad in a silk dressing gown. “What are you doing here?”
“Uh,” I blink, mind short-circuiting briefly. “I would have knocked, but, uh. Nowhere to. I’m tipsy, by the way. And lost.”
“Lost,” he repeats. “You came to see the show?”
“Yes. I’m friends with Yael. We went for drinks. I walked her home and now I’m having difficulty finding my way back to… mine.” I’m a bit dizzy with how handsome Proteus is up close.
He chuckles. “If I escort you out of the camp, will you be able to find your way?”
“Yes,” I say. “Er. Probably. It’s not too far of a walk. I think.”
“That’s not very reassuring.” He sounds amused. “Maybe you should take a seat and have some water. Sober up. If you to fall into a ditch, I’ll never hear the end of it from Yael.”
“A seat sounds good,” I say, plopping myself on the nearest surface–which, luckily, turns out to be a couch. I look down and appear to be sitting on a dress. “Sorry, am I interrupting? Do you have company?”
“Just me and you here,” Proteus replies, walking over with a bottle of water. Our fingers brush as he passes it to me.
“I saw your act,” I blurt out as I uncap the bottle. “You were amazing.”
“Thank you,” he says, sitting down beside me. It’s a small loveseat, which means he’s pretty close. Though my visual-spatial abilities aren’t the most reliable at the moment. “I’m glad you enjoyed the show.”
“How did you get into contorting?”
“Been doing it since ever since I can remember. As a kid, I’d do stuff like test how far my hand could bend back at the wrist.” He demonstrates. “When I was fifteen, I snuck into a circus show and fell in love. Knew this was what I’d do.”
“What is it about contorting?” I take a deep sip of water, feeling bold with the way Proteus’ gaze flickers to my mouth. “Why not trapeze or tightrope-walking or lion-taming?”
“I’ve always wanted to push the limits of what my body is capable of, what it can become.” He pauses. “Who I can be.”
“Well, you’ve done it. You do it every night, I mean.”
“And you—how do you know Yael?” Proteus asks.
“Grew up on the same block. We were family friends. Then she got her first touring job with a circus and she’s been traveling the globe ever since.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a freelancer. I code, design websites, develop apps–” I drain the rest of the water. “My parents think it’s a fancy way of saying unemployed, but I swear I do things in front of the computer besides look at porn.”
“Something wrong with looking at porn?” Proteus asks, voice seeming to drop an octave.
“Not at all,” I burble, leaning forward. His bare knee brushes against my jean-clad one, and I have never wished I were wearing shorts so much in my entire life.
“Gay porn?” He plucks the empty plastic bottle from my slack grip and tosses it neatly into the recycling bin. “Or straight?”
“Gay, straight, all kinds. I’m equal-opportunity.” I press my entire left thigh against his. When he doesn’t move away, I figure all the signals say go and lean in for a kiss.
His lips are soft, almost teasing in the way they kiss back. A bit of pressure, then a retreat, a slip of tongue that’s there and gone. It makes me want more.
He pulls me towards him, all athletic strength and grace. I clamor closer, fingers fumbling his silk robe open. He’s beautifully naked underneath, with a lovely cock firming up against his leg. I could stare at him for hours, but I don’t think he’d appreciate that, so I slide to my knees for something he will appreciate.
Proteus runs his fingers through my hair as I take his cock in my mouth. I start by sucking on the head, tonguing the slit and under the glans, gratified to feel his cock harden with each lick. He hums as he watches me take his whole dick in, seeming pleased.
“You’re good at this,” he says. “I’m not going to last long.”
I make a noise of acknowledgment and continue to lick. There’s nothing like going down on a beautiful man.
“Mm, fuck,” he murmurs, legs spreading wider. “Do you want me to pull out? Tap me twice on the thigh if you do.”
I wrap both my hands around the base of his cock and suck him in deeper to show how much I do not want him to pull out. Considerate and hot, what are the odds of that?
“Okay, I’m gonna–” Proteus sucks in a quick breath as his body tenses, eyes falling shut. I take a last quick breath through my nose and corkscrew down, his come hitting the back of my throat.
I wait before he’s completely finished before pulling off, swallowing the last of his come as I sit back. I lick my lips slowly as he watches through heavy-lidded eyes.
“Come here,” he says, voice a low sex-rasp.
I climb astride his lap, popping my straining fly open. He slides an arm around my waist, supporting my weight easily, and strokes the outline of my cock through my briefs.
I press my palms against his muscular chest and laugh, a little shaky. “I’m two pumps away, just warning you.”
“Then let’s get you out of that underwear before you ruin it, hm?” Despite Proteus’ words, he takes his sweet time sliding my pants and then my underwear down. Stopping to stroke my hip and cup my ass in the process.
“Fuck, fuck,” I mutter as I search for anything to stave off orgasm. I press forward for another kiss, which doesn’t help at all, and neither does the flicker of Proteus’ finger against my hole. “Fuck, I haven’t come untouched since I was a teenager but I–”
At the very last instant, Proteus’ fingers wrap around my cock and direct it up towards his abdomen, which I promptly splatter with semen.
I’d like to say that the afterglow was smooth and dignified. That I straightened myself up, left the tent, and walked home with a spring in my step.
The truth is: I came, kissed Proteus, and promptly passed out.
* * * * *
I wake up the next morning on his couch, half-covered in a blanket. Proteus is nowhere to be found and I am in dire need of a shower. I make my way out of the circus encampment–my sense of direction having been restored in sobriety and the full light of day.
I do get to walk back home with a spring in my step, though.
* * * * *
At home, I clean myself up, I do some work for a client, check some emails, and eat. All the usual life stuff.
That evening, I put on a fresh set of neatly ironed clothing, fuss with my hair, and hope the tiny bump on my jaw doesn’t grow into a full-blown zit. After sufficient primping, I return to the circus.
I arrive early in hopes of catching Yael, but she’s busy with rehearsals until the show. So I wander the grounds to see some of the attractions. There are the usual carnival claw games and concession stands, as well as smaller tents with various methods of alleviating fears over an uncertain future: palm reading, tarot, tea leaves.
What catches my attention is the table where a cardsharp is performing for a crowd.
There’s a hand-painted sign announcing her as ‘Teá the Talented’ (with a pronunciation guide of ‘Tay-uh’ underneath the word ‘Teá’). The epithet of Talented seems deserved, based on a number of impressive card tricks she performs. There’s the shuffling and arcing of cards in mid-air, tossing and catching, as well as minor magic.
I observe as she delivers instructions to a volunteer in a low, husky voice. The volunteer selects a card and stammers as he tells her what it is: a King of Spades. His mouth falls open in amazement as the card in his hand transforms into a Queen of Hearts.
The crowd applauds as she bows. There’s something oddly familiar about it, but I’m sure I’d remember meeting a woman as lovely as her before. I inch towards the front as most of the people disperse.
“Interested in a trick?” she asks, glancing at me through her lustrous curtain of blonde hair, which hides half her face.
“Depends on the trick,” I reply, watching her fingers fly as she shuffles.
“Picky one, are you?”
I lean against the table. “I have discerning taste.”
She presents a fan of cards across the table, face down. I choose one. Before I can flip it over, she stops me with a hand. “Don’t. I like surprises.”
“Guess we have something in common, then,” I say, not moving. Her hand rests on mine, still, warm.
“Adventurous. I like that.” She holds up a pen with her other hand. “Write your name on the back.”
I sign my name with a flourish and the card disappears into the deck. She shuffles and re-spreads the cards across the table, face up this time.
“Let’s see if I can discover your secret,” she says as she pulls out a three of hearts, flipping it over to reveal no signature. She flips a second card over—a two of diamonds. No signature.
“I don’t know if I can play a fair game with you,” Teá murmurs, glancing over at me coyly. “Are you the sort of man who always carries an extra ace?”
I start to protest that characterization and pause. There’s something in my right front pocket that hadn’t been there earlier, and it’s distinctly card-shaped. I pull it out and there it is: my signature on the back of an ace of clubs.
“Didn’t anyone ever warn you about carnies?” she murmurs, my watch dangling from her outstretched fingertips. I check my wrist—which of course is bare.
“Not sure it would have helped.” I hold out my wrist for her to put the watch back on, lingering as she fastens the clasp. “I’ve only got two eyes and both of them are currently distracted.”
The corners of Teá’s mouth quirk up. “That could be a dangerous state of affairs, Mr…”
“Farraday,” I say. “Jasper Farraday.”
“That’s quite a name. Perhaps you should be the one performing.”
“My mother hoped my eyes would be the same shade of green as the stone,” I reply. “Do you think she got her wish?”
“You’ve used that line before, haven’t you?” She sounds amused, but leans closer to peer into my eyes anyway. “I believe she did.”
I’ve looked into those beautiful eyes before, seen that exact a star pattern formed by the gold-flecked iris. There’s a familiar nose, a familiar mouth reddened with lipstick, and the unmistakable shape of an Adam’s apple. Teá is a freshly shaven Proteus, the amazing changeable man.
“Proteus,” I say.
“Yes, there’s someone around here that answers to that name,” Teá replies without batting an eye. “I believe he does a sword-swallowing act.”
“Pretty dress,” I say, touching a sleeve. “Looks better on you than on the couch.”
She looks down at her cards. “I wasn’t expecting to see you again.”
“Yael invited me back.” I catch Teá’s eye. “But I’d hoped we could talk.”
“Is it talking you’re interested in?”
“I’m a much better conversationalist when I’m sober. I swear.”
She ducks her head and chuckles. “I have to go. The show will be starting soon.”
“Can I come see you, after?”
She hesitates, face turned and expression hidden behind her hair. “Stop by my tent after the show,” she says, at last. “Not so late and not so drunk this time.”
“Okay,” I say, unable to stop the huge, goofy grin stretched across my face. “I’ll be there.”
* * * * *
“I should tell you that this isn’t a costume,” Teá says, later, when we’re in her tent alone. She’s wearing a new dress, a slinky red number with a high slit that shows off her smoothly shaved legs. Her hair is still tied up in a bun from her performance, her face in stage makeup. “I don’t dress this way as a show or for attention.”
“You dress this way often?” I ask, not sure what the proper terms might be. If there are any.
“I am Teá half the time, Proteus the other half.” She lifts her chin, as if daring me to challenge her. “This is who I am.”
“Okay,” I say. I find her (and him) beguiling either way. “Do you want to get dinner with me tomorrow night?”
“Do you care whether Teá or Proteus shows up?” Her expression is calm and collected, but I hear the faintest tremor in her voice. Her hands are clasped tightly together–neatly manicured pink on the top, callused and rough on the underside.
“I’m excited to find out,” I say, because it’s true. “As long as neither feels inclined to steal from me.”
“No promises,” she replies, and smiles.