The street below his window was dark and wet. Despite the drizzling rain, people still milled about — showcasing a city that was just as alive by night as it was in the sunlight.
Mike had used to like that aspect of Paris; the feel of never being alone. Now it made him turn away, realization rising in his chest like bitter bile. Even if it had only been for a fleeting moment, he'd come to know the meaning of true companionship. The company Paris offered was a cruel joke in comparison to Tino.
But then, so were most things.
Grabbing his cane, he limped across the room. Part of him wanted to go out and find something to drink, while another just wanted to crawl into bed in order to find oblivion without having to venture outside.
The final part was screaming itself hoarse. Didn't matter, though. He wouldn't return to the circus. Wouldn't go to New York. Wouldn't see Tino ever again. And that was the way it should be.
Still, the inner voice wouldn't shut up. Intent on drowning it, Mike stalked to the door and wrenched it open.
Tino stood outside, hand raised in an aborted knock. He looked tired, his usual energetic presence dimmed. But he brightened upon seeing who'd opened the door; smile coming out like the morning sun.
"Mike, hey! Do you know how many hotels this city has? I was starting to think I'd never find you."
Mike just stared back, unable to formulate words. Tino's smile faded, as a frown slowly took its place. "Were you expecting someone else?" he asked.
"No," Mike managed to force out. "I was going to leave."
Mind finally catching up with the reality of the situation, Mike swallowed. "Sorry to say it, but Lola's not here."
"Lola?" Tino repeated.
"She planned on going to Marseille. You might still be able to catch her, if-"
"I'm not looking for Lola!" Tino snapped. "I've been running around Paris — knocking on doors and asking everyone I saw — looking for my catcher."
"Otto isn't here either."
Not waiting for a reply, and carefully avoiding looking at Tino, Mike took a step forward. However, his attempt to leave was quickly blocked.
Recognizing the demand for the plea it really was, Mike acquiesced. He stepped back, gesturing for Tino to enter.
The simple room suddenly felt a lot smaller. The ensuing silence didn't help either. It might as well have been a tangible wall between them; that wouldn't have seemed any more insurmountable to Mike.
He felt Tino's eyes on him, but was unable to return the gaze. Instead, he looked down, impassively noting that he was gripping his cane hard enough for his knuckles to have gone white.
"Come to New York with me, Mike."
He couldn't stop the slight chuckle from escaping his throat. It was just like Tino; to be so direct in his approach.
"I talked to John Ringling North," he hurriedly continued, perhaps misunderstanding Mike's chuckle. "I didn't ask for anything, really, just said that whatever agreement he used to have with you was fine with me. He wants to see us tomorrow, to sign the contract."
"Tino... I can't."
"Ribble and Orsini, remember?"
He remembered, and still wanted it. Desperately so, more than he'd ever wanted anything in his life. But that didn't make it right to say yes. For Tino's sake, the dream they'd shared had to die. It was as simple as that.
"Y'know," Tino said, forestalling Mike's reply. "After I got to know you, I began hating Otto. First time I met him, I wanted to throttle him for having let you fall."
"It wasn't his fault!" Mike exclaimed, his head snapping up to finally meet Tino's gaze.
"I still hated him for it."
"Is that it, then? You think you'll fall if he's your catcher?" Something inside of Mike constricted, and it took every bit of his willpower to not avert his eyes.
Tino shook his head. "No. For me, it has to be Ribble and Orsini. I'll fly to you, or no one at all."
Mike didn't reply. He couldn't.
After a while, Tino continued. "Otto came to see me once all the reporters were gone. I was gonna go find you, but he told me you'd already left. Hearing that made me worried, to say the least."
"Sorry," Mike replied automatically.
"You don't need to apologize. For that, or anything else."
That was the thing about Tino; he was honest. He never lied, and his face displayed all his emotions without the least bit of guile. So if he said something like that, he damn well meant it.
"I guess he must've seen how upset I was, because he told me about your chat," Tino continued.
Mike grimaced. "He never did know when to keep his mouth shut."
"Actually, he was just doing what you asked of him."
Tino stepped forward, closing the distance between them. "'Now that he's got it, don't let him lose it.' — that's what you told Otto."
"I refuse to lose you, Mike." Having said that, Tino leaned forward and kissed him.
It was a chaste contact, nothing more than a simple press of lips, but it undid Mike nonetheless. Without really meaning to, he parted his lips as his heart began to race. Tino's tongue slowly traced his bottom lip before accepting the invitation.
As the contact deepened Mike found himself kissing back. His arms found their way around Tino, cane falling unheeded to the floor.
They were both breathing hard when their mouths finally parted. They still held on to each other, close enough that Mike could almost feel Tino's heart beating alongside his.
"What?" he asked, voice breaking.
"I let go of the bar," Tino replied, lips twitching in an attempt to smile. "Now it's up to you."
"What?" Mike repeated, barely registering that he was sounding like a broken record.
"You can either catch me, or let me fall."
There was only one answer to that. "I'll never let you fall."
Tino's smile finally reached his eyes as he leaned forward, clearly intent on sealing the deal with another kiss. "I know."