"I wasn't bothering anyone. Why can't you just leave me alone?"
Kurt slid a clean black t-shirt over his head and left the backstage tent. He had lingered longer than usual and was alone on the path that lead towards the performers' living quarters, now a bright circle of trailers and tents. He could already hear the music and pitched chatter of voices telling him that the Les Chansons wrap party was already underway. It had been the last time Les Chansons de la Forêt would ever be performed and it seemed to Kurt that the whole circus regarded the event with a mixture of emotions that was part relief and part regret.
The show had been wildly successful, beyond even Wolfgang's imaginings. They played to a "straw house", circus parlance for a sold out performance, nearly every night and often afterwards members of the audience stayed behind to compliment their performances. It was a wonderful feeling, but they were exhausted. Unlike previous years they had not packed up and headed for winter quarters when it grew to cold too play in the tent, but booked themselves into indoor performance spaces, adapting the show to play in amphitheaters and concert halls. With Kurt's brief convalescence as the sole exception, they had toured for over a year, playing 8 shows a week, without a break. It was time for the merry-go-round to stop. Fall had at last come to the perpetual summer that was the mythical forest in which the story took place. Given the length of the tour, Kurt suspected this party would go on well into the night.
He could already picture it in his head. James, despite Brin's pleadings with him to come dance and despite having just finished directing a two hour show, would be at his keyboards or perhaps strumming a guitar with a huge grin on his face, surrounded by the Circus Gehlhaar band. Their audience would be Kurt's fellow performers who would no doubt find something as mundane as dancing an unacceptable way to celebrate. Fully warmed up from the evening's performance, they would be performing stunts that far exceeded what the paying customers had seen less than an hour before in an effort both to entertain and outdo each other. Whatever worries they might have had about the future would be put aside for an evening at least while they celebrated their accomplishments.
And they had a lot to celebrate. For Lars, Petra, Gretchen, and to a much lesser degree for him, it was their first time having such important roles within the show; it marked the transition from "circus brat" to "star attraction". Kurt had been playing these kinds of roles since he was very young, but he'd always known that the reason for this was his appearance. This time he wasn't a younger performer presented as a novelty. On stage with his peers as his equals at last, he had finally come into his own and could at last stop feeling like the circus mascot. Like Papa or Sven, it was now his skills that made him special and no longer his appearance. He could see himself with three of them, smiling and relaxed, so different than they had felt earlier that evening before the show.
While Kurt had waited at the curtain flap to make his solitary entrance he had been surprised by the unfamiliar tickle of butterflies in his stomach. Looking around the small backstage tent he had realized that he wasn't the only one stricken with an unexpected case of the jitters, nearly everyone else wore the same sullen expression that he did, as though they were about to go on trial rather than on stage. It was not the show they were worried about he knew, but what came after. When they left here, they would need to write and rehearse a new show, a prospect that was far more frightening than going on stage.
Could they do it again? Would the next show be as good or, as every artist hopes, be an improvement. Maybe what was so vexing was that sometimes it didn't feel so much like that they had created the show as it had happened to them. Would lightening strike twice or would Europe be left wondering what happened to that little circus who had seemed so promising and was never seen again? For one night at least, none of that mattered. And for many of Circus Gehlhaar's members, they had more to celebrate than just the close of a successful show.
For James and Brin, this night marked the completion of their first circus show as composer and choreographer and moreover showed that a "sheltered city kid from Manhattan" and his girlfriend could indeed survive on the road with a European traveling circus. Wolfgang had, of course, at last fulfilled his dream of creating something huge and "putting Circus Gehlhaar on the map". And given the positive reviews that continued to pour in via the news clipping service he had subscribed to, it wasn't just the audience who loved the show; the critics adored it as well. There were equal chances that he would be at the party, his arm draped casually over Maria's shoulder, or in his office already planning Circus Gehlhaar's next artistic tour de force. Kurt hoped it would be the former. He missed the days of driving with Wolfgang in the lorry making up silly nursery rhymes and sitting under the trees in the afternoon talking about music and books and movies. He couldn't remember the last time they'd fenced each other. It was always he, Lars, and Amanda now taking turns on the makeshift strip they'd marked out in tape on the tent floor.
Kurt shut his eyes and could see Christian dancing right up in front, his lanky build and goofy dancing style making it unimaginable that he could perform his bicycle tricks with such grace and athleticism. He lingered on his mind's image of Amanda, dancing with Christian no doubt, celebrating her first time performing with the circus she'd traveled with for her entire life. And standing a little bit back, surveying the scene in silence would be Margali, ever wise and watchful, a mother to them all.
In sudden flash of inspiration, Kurt pictured himself cutting in on Christian and asking her to dance. The idea made him smile and at the same time he felt his ears and cheeks grow hot. Did he dare?
There were no lights along the path, but that never mattered to him. It seemed that his eyes could pick out detail in darkness that no one else's could. That was why he didn't expect to be taken by surprise by a group of strangers on the path. They were just strolling through the darkness as though they did it all the time. He had barely a moment to leap into the trees above them.
"Wait, stop. What was that?"
Kurt watched in dismay as their footfalls came to a pause directly below him. There were three of them, and he was surprised to hear them speaking in English. They wore the same kind of baggy pants and shaggy haircuts that Christian favored. He had been thinking about the party, seeing his friends and family in his mind's eye and listening to the music playing in his head rather than the sounds in the world around him. Kurt shut his eyes and cursed his carelessness.
"Dude, I didn't hear anything. Let's go find him," another voice said.
Kurt's brow creased as he wondered who they were looking for.
"No, wait you guys, I swear something's up there." There was a long pause and Kurt could imagine the speaker's friends trying to figure out if he friend was serious or not. Kurt held his breath and released it with a sigh of relief a moment later when the three of them cracked up.
It was a familiar pattern. Whoever they were, they sounded like Christian too; not just like Americans, but the slow lazy English peppered with made up sounding words and cadences that constantly teetered on the edge of both humor and seriousness. It was this idiosyncrasy that gave Kurt the most trouble, so that even after knowing him for years, Christian was the only one who could still play practical jokes on Kurt just so long as they were delivered in his native California dialect.
After a minute or two of laughter and exchanging teasing remarks, they started walking again. Kurt, who had been holding his breath exhaled gratefully. He hadn't forgotten the episode in the trees in France four years earlier. The circumstances here were completely different, but still it wasn't something he wanted to repeat in any form. Kurt craned his neck to watch their progress; glad they were leaving though curious as to whom they were looking for.
There was something frightening about them though Kurt couldn't place it. Something about seeing three people together wearing baggy clothes bothered him as though within their slow drawling voices was a hidden menace that only he knew was there. Kurt leaned out a little further to make sure they were really gone. He put his hand out to grab a branch and it snapped off, falling to the ground with a rustle of leaves. Gritting his teeth, Kurt regained his balance and slid back to a more stable spot. Why did he have to pick that moment, out of his entire life, to be clumsy?
"There is something up there," one of them said. They dashed back to stand in the spot below Kurt and peered into the trees, straining to see into the darkness. So slowly that he hardly appeared to be moving at all, Kurt inched his way closer to the tree's thick trunk where he could blend in better.
"Why do these things always have to happen to me," he wondered miserably. It was hard to imagine that just a few minutes before he had been daydreaming about being at a party. The image of Amanda dancing faded from his mind as warmth turned to chill. His head filled instead with images of himself being pulled from the tree by rough hands, forced to the ground, and kicked. He found his rosary in his pocket and clenched it in his hands, willing them to stop shaking, and for his heart to stop hammering so loud it seemed to be drowning out the music from the party. Kurt shut his eyes, leaning against the cool bark of the tree. "You're safe here in the dark," he kept telling himself over and over, "they won't see you in the dark."
"Dude, got a flashlight?"
Kurt's breath caught in his throat at the words and he swallowed hard, trying to will his lungs to start working again. He shook his head. "Please say no. Please say no. No no no," he changed his mantra. Chanting it inaudibly, his lips moving, but without any sound coming out.
There was an exasperated sigh. "That would be negatory," said one of them in the familiar clipped voice Christian always used when he was losing his patience. Kurt drew in a relieved breath and exhaled. They would go away. They were going to leave him alone.
"Well, let me get mine. I want to see what's up there."
Kurt watched hopelessly as one of the silhouettes struggled for a moment to pull his arms out of the straps of his backpack and let it drop to the ground. He knew they couldn't see him in the trees, but if they shined a flashlight at him, they would. He wondered if he should just teleport. They would hear it, but they wouldn't be able to follow. He knew how it worked, how afterwards they would talk about the "creepy thing that happened to them in the woods", the rustling in the trees, the weird voices (which he was about to provide if only he could breathe normally), and finally the odd banging sound that seemed to signal the end of their troubles. Kurt opened his mouth to speak but his throat was so dry that nothing came out.
"Found it!" The figure below held up his hand in triumph. Kurt cringed, reflexively holding his hands, still clutching his rosary defensively up in front of his face. A moment later a white light shining up into his eyes blinded him.
Kurt held his hands up to his eyes and squinted. There was a long moment where nobody did or said anything. Kurt tried to shift and see beyond the glare, but his night vision was ruined rendering him as good as blind. Momentarily disorientated, he couldn't teleport either. He was trapped. There was nothing he could do but wait and be ready to defend himself if necessary.
But to his surprise the beam of light moved away from him as it's owner trained it on various tree branches.
"See anything?" One of them asked.
"No, it was a bird or something. Probably flew away." The flashlight holder said with a shrug. He shined the light around some more, passing over Kurt two or three more times without stopping. Kurt was so relieved he almost started laughing. They couldn't see him. He was safe. It was going to be all right.
"This is dumb Drew, let's go. We've got to find our boy and I want to talk to my hottie red head."
At the mention his "red head" Kurt felt his insides freeze. There was only one red head in the circus.
Amanda. They were talking about Amanda. Fear momentarily forgotten, Kurt moved forward. What did they want with Amanda? He inched back out on to the branch again, leaving the safety of the trunk behind he watched as "Drew" bent down and pulled his arms back through the straps of his pack. Kurt wasn't going to let them hurt her. As soon as they were out sight, he was going to teleport to where Amanda was and protect her from these people. His jaw was set in grim determination as he watched the Americans made their way towards the camp again, laughing amongst each other and chiding Drew over the flashlight.
"Thank you," Kurt whispered with a glance at the sky as he quickly made the sign of the cross over his chest. Almost as though in answer the branch below him broke.
The three Americans stopped and turned around.
Kurt tried to grab for another branch as he fell, but it broke too and he hit the ground with a thump as branches and leaves scattered around him. He was on his feet in an instant, shaking twigs from his hair as he faced his attackers. Drew, who evidently hadn't put the flashlight away, switched it on, shining the light into Kurt's face.
"Whoa. There was something up there," he said.
He had a split second to make a decision, but in that split second he remembered the humiliation of being tied up by Franco followed by Martuska's subsequent admonishment. This was peppered with the fractured half memories that were everything that happened on the Brighton Pier, he could recall being pinned to the floor by Stephani, leaping through tree branches on the run from men with guns and their dogs. He thought of Amanda, dancing with Christian when she could have been dancing with him, oblivious to the fact that these three strangers had come here looking for her. In that split second was condensed every moment he had ever spent running, hiding, or submitting. They were the only memories he had because it was all he had ever done.
They'd been trying to find him in that tree. They wanted to pull him down, to hurt him. He was sure of it. And if that weren't bad enough, they were talking about Amanda too. He wasn't going to let them hurt her, he wouldn't let them even touch her. For a moment no one moved as they regarded each other. Kurt realized he wasn't sure if he could move; it felt as though his feet had become rooted to the spot.
"Uh, Dude, what are… Are you okay… Um…" one of them stammered.
Kurt was moving before he even realized what he was doing. It was with a feeling of dreamlike unreality that Kurt closed the distance between them and snarling, threw himself at the flashlight holder hard enough to knock him to the ground. The source of the bright white light turned out to be a tiny keychain that Kurt extinguished as he ripped it from its owner's hand.
"Help! Get it off me!" he shouted. Kurt jumped back and stood over him with his tail twitching from side to side.
"Why are you looking for me? What do you want with Amanda?" Kurt demanded without realizing he'd spoken to him in German.
"What? I… I… don't speak…" The one on the ground started to say.
"Tell me! Tell why!" Still shouting in German, Kurt leaned in closer, trying to look as menacing as possible while years of playing an endless variety of demons and devils for the circus told him he didn't have to try very hard.
"What the hell? It was just a flashlight, what's your problem…" A voice from behind him said and Kurt felt a hand close around his arm.
Kurt didn't let him finish. He whirled around, balling one of his sturdy hands into a fist and swinging as hard as he could.
"I wasn't bothering anyone," Kurt shouted. "Why can't you just leave me alone?"
He felt hands grabbing at him and he teleported away only to return, leaping at his assailants from a new direction in an attempt to surprise them. They couldn't touch him; he wouldn't let them hurt him this time. This time he would hurt them and he would not stop until they understood that he was not a freak, that he was just trying to live his life, like they were, just like everybody else. He ignored the fact that it felt wrong, because wrong or not, it needed to be done. He needed to do it.
"Kurt? Holy shit Kurt, what are you doing?"
It was someone shouting in German that snapped him back to reality. He froze in place staring at his hand, which was slick with blood. He wasn't sure how it had gotten there. Had he really hit someone hard enough to make them bleed? His face was wet and when Kurt put a hand to his cheek, he realized he was crying.
Wolfgang and Lars were jogging down the hill towards him. It had been Wolfgang who had yelled.
"We heard shouting," Wolfgang said breathlessly. "What happened?"
"I… I was attacked… in the dark. They, they came after me," Kurt said trying to catch his breath, the strange suffocating feeling he'd felt in the tree was returning only this time it was for a different reason. He dropped to his knees with the sudden desire to curl up on the ground and never get up again.
"Are you okay?" Lars asked.
Kurt looked up, staring at Lars. "I'm…" But he couldn't answer. The way Lars was looking at him bothered him. He'd never seen that expression on Lars' face before. It was… Pity.
Lars switched on the large flashlight the Olson's kept in their trailer and trained it on the ground, picking up the silhouettes of his attackers, but Wolfgang kept staring at Kurt and Kurt realized that along with his shouting, they must have heard him teleporting, doing it over and over again.
"Why did you keep coming back?" Wolfgang asked him. Kurt could feel his gaze locked on him and he couldn't look away. He wasn't sure what to say other than what he had already said. Looking around him, the idea that these three scruffy Americans, now groaning and getting to their feet, represented a threat to anyone in the circus, particularly him, suddenly seemed ridiculous.
"I…" Kurt froze, his mouth open, unsure of what to say next. What was he doing? Alone, he had been sure he was in danger, but now, with Wolfgang and Lars here it all seemed so foolish.
"Here," Lars said tapping Kurt on the shoulder with a closed fist. Kurt turned and saw that Lars had his rosary, which must have fallen on the ground. He took it silently, running the beads over his hand and realizing they matched up with the drying blood. Kurt shut his eyes. It was like some kind of nightmare. He could see now that he had completely misjudged the situation, but moments ago he had been sure, so sure that his actions were right. But alone in the dark like that how could he have known?
It was one of the Americans, his voice thick and nasal sounding, that made Kurt realize exactly how wrong he'd been.
"Does anyone speak English?" he said, "We're here looking for a friend of ours. Christian Alexander. He's the guy who rides the bikes. Can anyone understand what I'm saying?"