John loves his job as head rigger for Cirque Brilliance. The heavy scarring over half his face makes it a little hard to meet new people, but John's got a good crew and a nice found family, and he’s content with his lot in life.
When Cirque hires talent for a new show, John meets Bao, a bright, ever-cheerful acrobat. Bao seems drawn to John and becomes a constant presence at his side—talking to him during downtime, spending time with him at lunch, and generally seeking out his company.
John doesn't know what to make of this. Sure, he likes Bao—maybe a little too much, honestly—but he’s had enough experience to know that Bao couldn’t possibly like him back. Or so he thinks, anyway. Fortunately, Bao seems determined to prove him wrong.
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John added another note to his schematics and then stretched, back cracking, before he glanced at the time. It was getting late, and most of the crew had already gone home. There were some new cast members still milling around the base, popping in and out of rooms, learning the layout. A few had stuck their heads into the operations room, taken one look at John, and ducked right back out again.
John was pretty used to that with the newbies, especially the foreign ones who had language barriers on top of fear of the unknown. Then again, it wasn’t like Montreal was all that much better where the latter was concerned anyway. And he didn’t really care; his job was to make sure the performers stayed safe and that everything worked properly. He didn’t much need to talk to them, past explaining the rigging and talking about stage layout.
He was making his final notes on the rigging plan for tomorrow, when the door opened yet again. John glanced up to check who it was, maybe scare ’em away. Shorter guy, lean build but well muscled, Asian. One of the new performers, then. But he’d take off after catching sight of John, just like the others had.
Except he was coming in.
“Hello!” he said brightly, hand extended. “I am Bao Liu. Please excuse my English.”
“Evenin’.” John hesitated before putting out his own hand to shake. “John. Nice to meet you.”
Bao pumped his hand enthusiastically, grip firm. “I am saying nice to meet you to everyone. Very important to learn the whole team. You are last one I find!”
“Oh,” John said, a little nonplussed. “Well, uh, I’m part of the stage crew. Setup, rigging, that sort of stuff.”
“Ah, you are keeping us safe.” Bao grinned. “Very, very good to meet you. Thank you for your hard work.”
“No, uh, no problem. Just doing my job.”
Bao nodded and kept smiling and didn’t seem all that inclined to leave, so John added, “You a new acrobat, then?”
“Yes! I’m hand balancer and general gymnast. This is first time I will be performing outside China. Very exciting!”
“Oh. Good. Glad you’re excited. Welcome to Montreal.”
“Thank you!” And Bao stayed where he was.
“You, uh, liking it here?”
“Very much.” Bao nodded. “Very interesting. Very busy. I am very lucky Cirque chose to take me.”
“Yeah,” John said. He knew as well as anyone that the audition process for Cirque was brutal. They only took the best. This was a new show being created from the ground up, and they’d brought in a whole new cast for it from all over the world. “Congrats. That’s a big deal.”
Bao nodded again, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “It is getting late. I see you have work still. Have a good night. It was very good to meet you, John.” He stuck his hand out again.
John tamped down the sigh and shook. Bao clearly meant well. “Good to meet you too. Have a good night. Don’t get lost on the way back to the apartments.” That was kind of a joke—the Montreal studio base and the apartments that housed the in-training cast were all on the same property; Bao could walk it, if he was really so inclined. It was easier to set up an in-training cast in subsidized housing, especially when so many were from out of country, since they’d be here for six months to make a new show. After that, it would be time for touring.
John, being a permanent crew member and working on whatever shows Cirque offered him, had his own little apartment not too far from the studio. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for one guy. A place to keep his things and unwind alone.
“I will not get lost,” Bao said earnestly. “They are very close, and there is a bus.”
“Right,” John said. “Have a good night, now.”
“You as well!” And then he was out the door again.
John shook his head. Cirque got all types. Bao seemed nice enough, if excitable. From China, huh? Yeah, he remembered the other crew members saying something about a lot of Asian influence in this new show. Something about the natural elements and yin and yang, with a lot of aerial work, pyrotechnics, even some aquatic effects. It was going to be interesting to figure out all the details as the show got created, though the waterworks were gonna be the usual nightmare. At least all the fancy stuff wouldn’t come until later. For the first two months, rigging was just making sure mats were placed properly, lines and counterbalances were set, and nets were where they needed to be.
He was less looking forward to walking around the studio and prepping while the new cast gazed at him in horror, but what could you do. They always got used to him after a couple of weeks.
* * * * * * *
John looked up from where he was laying mats for the morning warm-ups. Bao was running across the room toward him.
“Good morning!” Bao said. He was just as cheerful as he’d been last night. “How are you?”
“Fine,” John replied, trying not to feel so confused. He had excused Bao’s lack of reaction yesterday as darkness or shadows and the fact that the guy was probably exhausted. But today, in broad daylight, there wasn’t even a flinch. It certainly wasn’t something he minded, god no, but it was unexpected, is all. “You’re up early.”
“I very much want to begin,” Bao said seriously. “Also, I was told that if I get up with the sun, I will better adjust to the time.”
“That’s good advice,” John said, finishing the last mat and then standing up.
“I hope so.” Bao smiled, pushing up onto his toes before settling down again. “I am very tired already, so I will make my body work even harder.”
Lord, how was he supposed to respond to that? “Sounds good.”
More acrobats started to trickle into the room, ready for morning warm-up, and Bao went over to greet almost everyone, calling to people by name or merely nodding when someone looked particularly grumpy. Half of them were probably still jet-lagged.
John checked over the last mat and then stepped to the side, nodding to Anastasia, the other rigger in today. She’d been on his team for a couple of years now, and was great. Smart, reliable, all that good stuff. And her being trilingual helped a ton, even though most of the cast and crew spoke at least passable English. It was just two of them today, and would be for the next while at least. No point bringing in a full rigging crew for what was essentially playtime.
Hard-core, exhausting playtime that would leave most of the performers bloody, but yeah. It didn’t hold a candle to when they started on the legit choreography.
“It’s an interesting group,” Anastasia said, watching the cast as they started warming up. “I think they’ll make a good show.”
John shrugged. “They always make a good show. Best of the best, remember?”
She waved a hand. “More heart in this group, I think.”
He chuckled. “You say that every time.”
“Mmm. Maybe this time, we will find someone for you, yes?”
He snorted. That was the other thing about Anastasia. She liked to, well, take advantage of the atmosphere. Cirque was long, exhausting days and nights, and you became close with your group. Hookups and relationships among the members were more than just common. Her last three boyfriends had been cast members. Last year she’d gotten it into her head that it was John’s turn.
She bumped his shoulder. “Don’t scoff, you’ll see. We’ll find you a nice boy, once they all get used to you.”
He snorted again. “What,” he drawled, scrubbing his left hand over the top of his head and down his cheek, the scar tissue there catching on the rough skin of his fingers. “You don’t think they’ll be drawn in by my pretty face?”
Anastasia clicked her tongue at him and went back to watching the performers appreciatively. John glanced over too. He picked out Bao immediately. The man was doing stretches in a circle with five other performers, three men and two women, and they were all talking back and forth about something. He felt his lips quirk. The guy certainly wasted no time, that was for sure. It looked like he really had made it his mission to know everyone as quickly as possible.
“I see a smile!” Anastasia immediately looked around. “Who for? Which one?”
John shrugged and tried to point to Bao without making it obvious he was singling him out. “He found me in Operations last night. Introduced himself. Excitable guy.”
“Ah.” She nodded. “I just met him today. He said hello while we were setting the mats.” She looked over at John. “He mentioned you, you know.”
Ah, there it was. “Yeah?”
“Mmm. He said he had met John, another rigger, last night, and asked if we were friends.”
“Oh,” John said, nonplussed.
“I told him we were, of course.”
John snorted. “Thanks.”
The coaches showed up and divided the cast into two groups for drills. Everyone jumped to get started, and John and Anastasia moved to the back of the room, at the ready for when the coaches needed something changed.
The first hour was just flexibility and conditioning—pretty routine. Anastasia pulled out her phone, and John grabbed the book he was in the middle of, both of them glancing up at intervals out of habit, scanning to make sure everything was still set right, still safe.
John looked up at the head coach, Constantine. “Yep?”
“We need half the floor for trampolines,” he said apologetically. “The other half can stay mats.”
“Will do.” John tucked his bookmark in place before snapping the book shut. He and Anastasia got up and started pulling mats to clear the space for the tramps.
“All right, people!” Constantine yelled in the background. “Five-minute break! Get water, all of you get water, take a breather, then right back here for tumbling!”
John and Anastasia moved as fast as they could to get the space redone with the tramps set up. John wished he’d known ahead of time that they wanted to work with trampolines; he had them down as needed after lunch, not in the morning. When they got a break, he’d grab Constantine and see if he couldn’t get an updated schedule.
The cast passed the time doing more floor exercises and tumbling on the mats, though it was clear Constantine was real happy once John gave him the all clear that the tramps were ready.
“Okay!” he called. “Group one, with me on trampoline, group two stays with Paula!” They divvied up and got back to work. John got tired just watching them.
“I always feel guilty that I am not exercising when I am here.” Anastasia sighed, not for the first time. “But then I remember how terrible I would look next to them.”
“You get plenty of exercise carting around mats,” John said. “And that’s what the weight room is for.” They watched as the floor mat group broke into two lines, one person somersaulting forward while the other did a front flip over them. “But, yeah, the weight room’s not gonna help you do that.”
“Maybe he could,” she said mischievously, nodding at the man who’d just completed his somersault and had leaped to his feet. Tall, dark, well muscled—obviously, they were all well muscled—and shoulder-length dreadlocks tied back with a cord.
“You have such a type,” John muttered. The trampoline group was doing the same drill, although they were bouncing a lot higher.
“And switch!” Constantine called a while later. John picked out Bao again as the two groups switched places. Bao glanced in his direction and gave him a smile and a wave.
“Friendly,” Anastasia noted.
“Obviously.” Bao was talking animatedly to the slight woman next to him. “Dunno how he’s got so much energy left.” All the other performers were keeping pace, but it was clear they were getting tired. They’d been going for a good three hours now, not including breaks.
“Have you got any of the general choreography yet?” Anastasia asked, after several more minutes.
John shook his head. “Just the basic idea of the show. Elements or something like that. Pyrotechnics, some aquatic effects—”
“That is going to be a bitch,” Anastasia interrupted, leaning back.
John sighed. “Yeah. With luck they’ll scrap it. I hate dealing with water.” Slippery, hard to see, and difficult to clean up quickly. Not something he liked incorporating into a stage show where a slip could mean someone’s life.
“But it’s gonna have the usual assortment,” he added. “Tumbling, aerial, pretty sure there’s a floor dance routine, the clowns of course, contortionists . . . I think like a third of the people here are also the martial arts group they brought in. They wanted some big kung fu numbers or something?”
“Oh right.” Anastasia nodded. “I remember that, I think. I’ll have to reread the paperwork.”
“Like it’ll make much difference,” John said with a shrug. “You know how much everything’ll change.”
“Also very true.” She pulled out her phone again and started moving her finger around the screen. “Still.”
[A] unique setting, with unique and interesting characters, and I recommend it to all who love a sweet MM romance between an unlikely couple.
[T]his book was just all things sweetness and light, but with a very solid core. . . . I am thoroughly charmed by this story and this author.
[S]uper cute, short story goodness.