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The Family We Choose for Ourselves

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The blow is so hard, so unexpected, that Phillip nearly falls. It is followed almost straight away by a second and if the first had been unexpected he feels he should have seen that one coming. 

As it is he staggers a good few paces, one hand instinctively clutching at his nose and mouth before he manages to find his balance. He stands there for a moment, bent double. There is a strange ringing in his ears and he doesn't know whether that's from the punches or the sheer humiliated anger of it all. He sucks in a long damp breath. Breathes out. Spits blood all over his parents' immaculate tiled floor. Their 'help' is going to have to scrub that floor all over again now. 

Phillip rights himself again and looks straight back at his parents. His mother, for her part, looks aghast. She has her hands raised to her mouth and what he can see of her face is pale. Whether that is because of her son's bleeding face or the mess he is still making of her hallway remains to be seen. Phillip's father is just glaring at him. The older man shakes out his hand. Phillip wants to laugh. He wants to ask his father how badly his hand is hurting and maybe offer to fetch him some ice for it before throwing it in the elder's face. Instead he takes a slow deliberate step forward. 

"Feel better now?" he asks. "Feel like a big man now that you've knocked your son around?" 

"Don't be petulant, Phillip." Phillip's father sounds calmer than he has all evening so maybe there was some truth in Phillip's words. "I am sorry it had to come to that."

"Oh really?" Phillip laughs, more blood trickling down from his split lip, his nose, from the inside of his mouth where he bit down hard. "Sorry it came to that? Not even 'sorry I hit you'?" He takes another step and then another until he's nearly toe to toe with his father. "I expect you'd like me to hit you back, wouldn't you? It would give you an excuse to do it again if nothing else."

The other man sneers and moves towards him. Phillip prides himself on the fact that he doesn't flinch. Beside him, his mother finally finds her voice. 

"Phillip, don't," she squeaks. "Don't do this." 

Phillip turns to her. Some of the venom leaves his voice when he speaks to her, but the disdain is still there. "Really? You're 'Phillip, don't'ing me after what he's just done?" Phillip chuckles at his own words, then dabs at his chin, stifling the gasp of pain the touch causes.

"Do not speak to your mother like that," his father snarls, grabbing Phillip’s arm tightly. 

Phillip turns to him once more and yanks himself free. "And it's fine for you to speak to me the way you have all evening? To talk about the people I love with such hatred?" 

"You are my son. I can talk to you however I want. And as for those people-"

Phillip cuts him off before he can speak further, before he can say something that really might push Phillip to violence. "I am your son. Not your property. And I think you both just lost the right to call yourselves parents." He walks backwards until he's out of arm's reach. It is not out of fear. It is out of common sense of knowing not to turn your back on the enemy. He turns only when he reaches the door. "Do not follow me," he says as he twists the handle. "I'm sure you couldn't bare the gossip that would come with chasing your bloodied son down the street."

He leaves with as much dignity as he can manage. If he slams the door hard enough to upset the precious antique vase his mother keeps beside it, so be it. It is only when Phillip reaches the end of the road that he realises he forgot to collect his coat. He draws the collar of his shirt a little tighter against the chill and the rapidly falling snow, and carries on walking. 

After about five minutes, Phillip manages to hail a carriage. Reassuring the frankly alarmed driver that he will not spill a drop of blood inside - or that he will pay for all costs if he does - he gets inside, and spends the journey back to the circus wondering where the evening had gone so wrong. 

It had gone wrong, he supposes, the moment he had decided to visit his family. They, or rather his mother, had sent him a letter earlier in the week requesting his presence for a family meal and 'an opportunity to discuss our difficulties'. He had every intention of rejecting the invite. He had not planned to respond at all and then had shoved the letter into his pocket to be forgotten about. Then Charity found it. Phillip had his arms full of stage props at the time and had asked her to reach into his pocket to grab the keys to the store shed. She saw the signature first, the fancy letterhead paper second and had looked at him with such curiosity that he had told her to go ahead and read it. He didn't see what harm it could do. 

A lot, apparently. 

"Oh Phillip, you simply must go," she'd told him, voice brimming with emotion. "I know things have been less than ideal between you but they're your family. I spent years not being on speaking terms with my family but now we’re trying to build bridges and what if this is your chance to make things right too? Wouldn't you like that?" 

And the truth was, Phillip would have liked that. He'd have liked it a lot. Yet still, here he is. 

This was not how Phillip had thought this night would end. The shouting, yes he had expected that. He had even anticipated that it might end with him storming out. But the violence, becoming a punch bag for his father...

While Phillip had been growing up, his father had not been an excessively cruel man. Distant, maybe. More interested in his business affairs and advancing his own station than in his son, certainly. He had constantly put more and more pressure upon Phillip, insisting good wasn’t good enough, Phillip had to be perfect. The perfect member of society. The perfect son.  But he had not been routinely violent. Phillip could count on one hand the times his father had struck him. All right, two hands. But at least half of those he knows he deserved. Probably. 

The journey across town is mercifully quick at this time of night. Almost everyone else is already at home, with their families. Families like the one Phillip no longer has. 

Phillip pays the driver, plus extra for the blood he may or may not have wiped on the door - it is hard to tell in the dark - and watches as the carriage pulls away into the night. At last, Phillip turns towards the looming circus tent and the only home he has left now. 

He skirts around the main tent, still and silent now, to the small settlement of assorted tents, caravans and sheds behind it. Some of the performers have homes elsewhere, homes with bricks and mortar, but a good number of them live here. They seem all the happier for it. There is a party going on tonight. At least, there is raucous laughter and off key singing coming from one of the bigger tents. Lamplight flickers and casts distorted shadows against the canvas as Phillip passes. He can hear Charles telling a loud, lewd story and people shrieking with laughter in response. Phillip pauses but doesn't go inside. He heads straight for his caravan. 

The door shut behind him does a little to drown out the noise, but does nothing to calm his rattled nerves. He brushes snow from his shoulders with shaking hands. He fumbles with matches and lamps and it's a wonder he doesn't set fire to the place. (Don't think about fire, don't think about burning. Don't. Do you really want to have another episode now on top of everything else?) 

Eventually he gets the lamp alight and sits gingerly on his bed. He puts his head in his hands and instantly regrets it, wincing and pulling back with fresh blood on his palms. What an absolute fucking mess he has made of this all. 

There is sudden loud banging at his door. Phillip startles badly and berates himself internally for being so quick to scare. 

"Hey, Caryle! We can see your light on in there, we know you're home."

"Lettie," Phillip sighs weakly. "Can you just give me a minute?"

"Not really," says Anne from the other side of the door. She sounds uncharacteristically giggly. Her voice becomes breathy in what Phillip supposes is meant to be a whisper for the next words, "We've got O'Clancy's vodka. And we've got precisely five minutes in which to drink it before he finds out that it's missing." 

There's more spluttering and jostling from the other side of the door. One of them must try the handle and find the door unlocked because it suddenly bursts inwards and Phillip jumps to his feet. 

It's not just Lettie and Anne on his doorstep, but also W.D., clutching the prized bottle to his chest. All three are on the silly side of tipsy. Both the girls are wearing dressing gowns over their clothes. Anne’s is hanging off one shoulder as she leans slightly on her brother. Her pink wig is perched atop Lettie's hair. They're grinning and nudging at each other like naughty school children. Phillip thinks he has seen Caroline and Helen pull off better attempts at 'innocent' when caught eating candy before dinner. 

Their laughter soon dies when they properly see Phillip's face. 

"Fuck," says W.D. 

Phillip’s mouth twitches with mirth. He can't help it. Man of few words that he is, when W.D. does choose to speak it is always with the best of sense of timing.

"Just about sums it up," Phillip admits. He moves aside to let his friends in. There's no point in trying to hide from them now. None of them move as Phillip flops down onto his bed. The three stand in the doorway, gaping at him.  "What are you waiting for?" he asks. "A royal summons?"

Lettie is the first to move. She's probably the least drunk. She's definitely able to hold her liquor better than the other two. "You're bleeding," she says, looking so damn concerned, in a perfect juxtaposition to the ludicrous wig she's still wearing.

"Well spotted," says Phillip dryly. 

"No, I mean you're really bleeding. Badly. Have you seen yourself?" 

"Haven't really had the chance yet." Phillip gestured towards the desk at the other end of the cramped room. "There's a mirror over there if you don't mind passing it." 

Lettie doesn't mind. She's not stumbling, but there is certain forced care in every placement of her feet as she walks the fee steps to the desk.  She at last remembers the wig and casts it aside haphazardly. Normally Anne would have something to say about that but she's still clutching at W.D.'s arm, staring at Phillip. The siblings follow mutely as Lettie returns to Phillip's bed. Lettie sits beside him while Anne sprawls on the floor. Her trapeze grace is gone as she leans against the bed, all long limbs and not knowing what to do with them. She looks up at Phillip with wide, desperate eyes.

"Shit," Phillip says upon seeing his reflection. He takes the mirror from Lettie and examines himself properly, turning his head from side to side. "Shit. I didn't realise it was this bad."

He’s a real state. His left eye is swollen. A cut over his eyebrow - from the ridiculous signet ring his father wears - oozes proficiently. His mouth and nose are worse. Both are bleeding heavily and are leaving a ghoulish red path over his chin and dripping down his neck. He can't tell if it's just the starting of bruising, or if there's something off in the alignment of his nose. He doesn't think it's broken but he's not sure.  

Phillip groans and leans back. He is surprised to find that Lettie has positioned herself behind him. She guides him to rest against her. Normally Phillip would protest, at least make a show of brushing off her mothering. For now he allows it, sinks into her arms. She makes a comfier prop than the wall would have done at least and her hands are hot against his chilled skin. 

Phillip tries to wipe himself clean. It's inefficient to say the least. His rubbing seems to open his busted lip more. Anne makes a low whining noise and wraps an arm around his leg. 

"Why are you even here?" Phillip asks, before adding hastily, "Not that I'm not grateful. I just thought you'd be... wanting to enjoy the party."

Anne shakes her head, apparently at an utter loss as to Phillip's idiocy. "As if we'd leave you like this."

"Why'd you leave the party in the first place?”

"We saw you were home," says W.D. from where he is crouched beside Phillip's right knee. "We thought that... that you might like to share the vodka." He holds up the bottle for needless emphasis. 

"Yeah?" Phillip tosses the mirror aside. It bounces softly against the mattress but Phillip wouldn't have cared if it shattered. He reaches instead for the vodka. "Not a bad idea, actually." He unscrews the lid and swigs deeply. It burns all the way down his throat. Not only that, but it washes the blood in his mouth down too and Phillip gags. The second swallow of alcohol goes down cleaner at any rate. 

"I don't think that's such a good idea," says Lettie. Her beard brushes against Phillip's ear as she tries to take the alcohol from him. 

"Why not? It kills the pain, doesn't it?" Phillip curls his body around the bottle like a child with a treasured toy. Lettie clicks her tongue at his childishness but then strokes her hand over his forehead, carding fingers through his hair. 

"You might need stitches," she says and moves her touch to above his eye. Phillip recoils instinctively, has nowhere to go except closer to Lettie. Her other hand is rubbing at the spot between his shoulder blades. 

"Are you going to tell us what happened?" asks Anne, softly. 

There's a baited silence as they wait for him to answer. Phillip fills it by taking another sip of vodka. 

"I got kicked in the face by one of the horses," then, rethinking that because he'd probably still be unconscious if it were true, "by one of the foals." 

More silence follows his words. Anne and W.D. are looking at each other, a silent conversation taking place between the two of them. Lettie takes the bottle from Phillip but only to take a mouthful from it herself. She passes to the left and the vodka does a full circuit and back to Phillip before she speaks. "That's... a really lousy excuse." 

"I dunno," says W.D., looking away from his sister and back to the pair on the bed. "He could have gone with 'I tripped'." 

"Or 'I walked into a doorframe'," Anne suggests. They’re talking lightly enough, but there’s a worried crease between Anne’s eyebrows and W.D.’s hands keep tensing at his sides, as though he longs to clench them into fists. Lettie’s embrace around Phillip grows just a little tighter.  

“It’s not an excuse,” Phillip mumbles, looking at his shoes rather than at any of them. “It’s what happened.”

“Where did you go tonight?” Anne asks, trying a new angle. “I saw you sneak off after the end of the show. I thought you were just going for a walk but...” She doesn’t finish her sentence, lets it trail off in hopes that Phillip will finish it for her. 

“Just for a walk,” he repeats instead. Parroting her words back at her is easier than coming up with fresh excuses. “Wanted some fresh air.”

He is not trying to protect his father. In truth, he doesn’t know why he doesn’t just say what happened. Except that...  Lettie will get upset. She might even cry. Phillip has never seen her cry for herself but he has seen her cry for others on numerous occasions. Anne will get quiet and insular in the way she always does when Phillip’s parents are mentioned. W.D. will just get mad. Phillip will probably have to stop him from marching straight to his parents’ house and confronting Phillip’s father personally. And stop him from taking half the circus along with him.  

So no, Phillip doesn’t say any more and lifts the bottle to his lips again. It is snatched away so suddenly that a good portion of alcohol sloshes down his shirt to mingle with the blood. 

“Phillip Carlyle!” Anne shouts, slamming the bottle to the floor. More vodka gets spilt but no one dares to say anything in the face of Anne’s newfound fury. “We are your friends. You do not lie to us. You do not show up with your face...smashed in... and give us feeble fucking excuses.” W.D.’s eyes widen. Phillip nearly gasps. He has never heard Anne swear and he doesn’t know if it’s the alcohol loosening her tongue or the sheer emotional state Phillip’s appearance has put her into. “You tell us what’s going on right now,” she continues, “or I’ll... I’ll...”

“Hit me?” Phillip suggests when she seems unable to come up with a suitable threat. 

 “No. But I’ll tell O’Clancy it was you who stole his vodka!” With that, she folds her arms across her chest so fiercely it must hurt. 

Ringing silence in the caravan follows as her tirade ends. Outside, the music of the party carries on. Phillip can make out Chang and Eng’s voices warbling together in a horrid attempt at a duet. 

Anne continues to glare at Phillip, who turns to W.D., lost for words. W.D.’s mouth is half open in shock. Then he splutters with laughter. Behind Phillip, Lettie makes a small strangled noise that might be her own stifled giggle. They can’t hold it in. Quite suddenly, the tension dissipates and they all start laughing properly, even Anne. Even Phillip, although it hurts to do so. Their laughter goes on for several minutes, fills the small space and makes everything seem right just for a little while. Then Phillip breaks off with a whimper, clutching at his face and Anne’s shoulders continue to shake but now they realise she has started crying instead.

W.D. crawls across the floor to her. He wraps her in his arms as she lets out a shuddering sob. 

“Oh, Anne... Don’t...” Phillip says. “I’m okay, really.” He longs to comfort her, but he doesn’t know how to. Not without getting blood all over her. 

The door to the caravan flies open once more. 

“All right you lot,” says a familiar voice, loud and jovial. “There is one seriously pissed off Russian looking for his vodka and I happen to know for a fact that three or four hooligans were seen heading in this direction with it, so...” Barnum trails off, taking in the scene in front of him. His gaze moves from Anne and W.D. on the floor, to Lettie, half cradling Phillip and finally to Phillip himself. He sucks in a quick harsh breath. “What happened?” 

Nobody answers at first. Phillip looks away and ducks his head to hide his face from view. He wipes self consciously at his nose. 

W.D. shifts, still holding Anne close. “It seems Phillip has... met with an accident,” he answers. Anne scoffs loudly into his shirt. 

Barnum just raises his eyebrows. “Oh yeah?” he asks. He steps closer, shutting the cold out once more. There isn’t much room, but he leans over Anne and W.D. towards Phillip. He knocks the younger man’s hands aside and gently, very gently, holds Phillip’s chin between his fingers. He eyes the damage critically. “I think I used to have a lot of accidents like that too, when I was living on the streets. Falling and landing on fists and stuff like that. Right, Phillip?” 

Phillip only glares in response, staring the older man down. After a few seconds Barnum lets go and moves back again. He leans against the desk for lack of anywhere else to go. “Does someone want to tell me what really happened?”

Lettie shifts from behind Phillip and he moves back into the warm space left by her absence. He rests against the wall, needing something solid behind him. 

“He won’t tell us,” says Lettie. She retrieves the bottle of vodka from the floor and sips from it neatly. “He says he was kicked in the face by a horse.”

“Bullshit,” says Barnum, almost instantly. 

“ ‘s what I said,”  mumbles Anne. She lifts her head from W.D.’s shoulder and wipes at her tears with her sleeve. 

Barnum looks around the group once more. He takes in the slur in Anne’s voice, the slight glassines to W.D.’s eyes and Lettie’s hands on the bottle. He sighs. “You’re drunk. All three of you.” 

“Not really,” protests W.D. “Not very.” 

“Enough that you shouldn’t be the ones dealing with this,” Barnum says firmly. Lettie glares at Phineas.

“Yeah, but like hell were we going to leave him, Barnum,” she says fiercely. 

“I know.” Phineas placates her. “You’ve done great. But I’ll take it from here.” He’s remarkably calm about this whole situation. Maybe, Phillip reminds himself as he pries the vodka from Lettie’s distracted grip, he really has had to deal with this himself before. 

“All right,” says Barnum again, the ringmaster in control of the situation again. “You three need to leave.” He holds up a hand to halt Lettie’s response. “I will look after Phillip. If you really want to help, you can fetch me a clean cloth and some water. Warm water preferably but I’ll take what I can get.” His eyes flicker again to Phillip. Without Lettie’s body heat against him, Phillip feels the cold more acutely than before. He is shaking though he tries to stop. “And a blanket,” Barnum adds. “It wouldn’t kill you to apologise to O’Clancy too. Tell him you’ll buy him a new bottle out of your next pay cheque. I wasn’t joking when I said he was mad.” 

“I dunno,” says W.D., getting to his feet. “I reckon I could take him.” 

Barnum rolls his eyes. “And proving the case for drunkenness, Mr William David Wheeler,” he mutters. W.D. tries to kick him for the use of his full name and misses. 

 “Nice try. Now scram,” is all Barnum says, fondly.  

Lettie doesn’t scram. She’s watching Phillip again, watching the way his hands play at the neck of the bottle. She reaches out and places one hand over his. Phillip twists his fingers to interlock them with Lettie’s and squeezes gently. 

“I’ll be fine,” he reassures her even though fine feels like a long way off to him.  

Anne gets to her feet , stubbornly refusing to take the steadying arm Barnum offers her to lean on. She brushes herself down, reties her robe a little tighter. She sways a little on her feet but then bends down to Phillip’s level. 

“I’m sorry I yelled,” she whispers, placing a kiss on the crown of his head – the one place she can reach to kiss him without hurting him. 

“It’s all right.”

“Come on,” says Barnum, opening the door and shepherding them out. “Cloth, water, blanket. Go on. Now.”

“Circus dad,” Anne grumbles on her way past. 

“Yeah yeah, and you’re all the annoying kids I never asked for.” But he gives her shoulder a comforting touch as she leaves. 

As soon as the other three have left, Phineas closes the door and locks it. He pauses, one hand still on the latch. “Unless you’d rather I left it un locked?” he asks. Phillip knows Phineas is giving him an out, a free exit in case he...panics, decides he needs to bolt. It irks Phillip. He’s not a traumatised battered housewife. 

“Leave it locked,” he says grumpily. Another mouthful of alcohol. It’s definitely going down easier now. 

“I’ll take that, thank you,” says Barnum and yet again Phillip finds the bottle being tugged out of his grip. Phillip watches curiously as the older man pulls a clean handkerchief from his pocket, holds it over the top of the bottle and tips it briefly. The handkerchief quickly dampens and Phineas rights the bottle again, placing it to one side. 

“Alcohol is actually better than water for this,” he says by way of explanation as he settles on the floor in front of Phillip. He shuffles close and holds up the dampened cloth. “This may sting a little.” He slowly starts to wipe at the cut over Phillip’s eye.

It does more than sting a little. It stings a lot. Phillip lets out a soft cry and flinches back, blinking accusingly at Barnum through fresh tears which he hasn’t shed all night. 

“Sorry,” says Phineas, but he continues to dab at the wound. “But this will clean the wound, stop it getting infected.” 

“Wh-what’s the water for, then?” stammers Phillip. He’s having a hard job holding in his whimpering but he is determined to not act like a child about this. It’s just pain. He can take it. 

“To get the three drunken buffoons out of our hair, mostly.”

“They weren’t that bad.” 

“You didn’t see how much beer they’d been drinking tonight, and that’s before they got into O’Clancy’s tent. They’d done about as much as they could do in their state.” Phineas grimaces in sympathy as he runs the handkerchief the length of the cut. Phillip’s hands tense until he feels his nails dig into his palms. “Also,” adds Phineas, “seeing you like this was upsetting them. I can’t look after them and you at the same time.”

“I don’t need looking after,” Phillip objects.

“Sure you don’t.” Phineas runs his fingers carefully along the cut, feeling it, testing to see how deep it goes. Apparently finding nothing of major concern, he sits back on his heels. “Just out of curiosity, what were you planning to do if they hadn’t turned up when they did? Lock yourself away until your face healed on its own?”

“I’d have... managed,” Phillip grumbles vaguely. 

“That’s what I thought.” Phineas refolds the handkerchief to a clean side, refreshes it with more alcohol and pushes himself forward once more. This time he uses his free hand to cradle the back of Phillip’s head while he touches the cloth to the younger man’s lip. When Phillip hisses with pain, Phineas rubs at his neck. He makes soft, shushing noises in between talking to Phillip. “It’s all right. You’re doing well. I know it hurts but it’s for your own good.” 

“You don’t,” Phillip says, voice thick with blood in his mouth and that dammed cloth on his lower lip which burns like a snake bite, “don’t have to talk to me like a child.”

“I’m not talking to you like you’re a child,” replies Phineas. “I’m talking to you like you’re my child and you’ve been hurt. There’s a difference.”  

Phillip flinches in a way that has nothing to do with pain. That comment cuts too close to bone. Too close to making him think about his parents. He thinks instead about Phineas and his girls. Caroline and Helen run around the circus, helping where they can, playing with the rest of the cast, getting under foot on occasion. Cuts and scrapes are a regular occurrence. Phillip has seen Phineas tend to Helen’s bruises, Caroline’s grazed knees. It is true that he is speaking to Phillip in exactly the same manner now. 

“I’m not your child though,” says Phillip when Phineas removes the cloth from his face and he can speak freer once more. He says it quietly, not harshly. He doesn’t want it to sound like a rejection. 

Phineas says nothing, but doesn’t seem to take offence. He gives Phillip’s hair one last soothing stroke before standing up to move a lamp closer to the bed.  More light is thrown onto Phillip. Phineas winces in sympathy again. “Are you ready to tell me what happened yet?”

There’s no point in lying. Not when Phineas already knows the truth. “Got hit,” Phillip says bluntly. 

“I guessed that much.” Phineas settles back into his previous position in front of Phillip. This time he pours some of the vodka over his own fingers then taps the side of Phillip’s jaw. “Open.” Phillip does so and allows Barnum to turn his head to the side, peering into his mouth to check the damage there. Phillip only yelps, startled, when Phineas slips his fingers into his open mouth. 

“Sorry,” says Barnum again. “But you’ve been bleeding a lot. I need to check where it’s coming from.”


“Pardon?” Phineas removes his fingers and lets Phillip reply properly. 

“Tongue. I bit my tongue.” 

“Let me have a look?” 

Phillip opens his mouth and allows Phineas access again. Phineas touches the edges of Phillip’s tongue, finds the cut where he bit down. He sweeps his fingers over it and steadies Phillip with his other arm so that he doesn’t pull away on reflex. He does a thorough job of his checking. He presses against Phillip’s teeth, presumably checking that none of them wobble loosely. Phillip can’t resist snapping at him playfully. 

“Careful,” warns Phineas, teasingly. “I’ll have you replacing Mattie as a second Dog Boy on his days off.” 

“There’s worse jobs.” 

Phineas smiles at him. “Good to hear you joking with me, Flip.” 

Phillip glowers. Caroline and Helen had taken to calling him Flip recently and while Phillip secretly adores it, he has no intention of admitting it to Barnum. 

He opens his mouth to protest aloud but is interrupted by a timid knock at the door. Phineas sighs and gets to his feet once more. He keeps his body between the door and Phillip as he answers, blocking the worst of the cold breeze and shielding him from view. Phillip doesn’t hear the words Phineas is saying to whoever is there, just gathers the soft, reassuring tone. Phillip takes the opportunity to snag the bottle of vodka for himself again and take a good few mouthfuls before Barnum notices. He’s zoning in and out. The alcohol is strong stuff, not aided by the fact Phillip is working on a mostly empty stomach.  (He hadn’t been able to eat much at his parents' house, his stomach too twisted into knots. Then he’d left before the main course was finished, no longer able to sit in their presence and listen to their hate-filled words.) 

Barnum kicks the door shut and returns to Phillip’s side with a bowl of water in his hands, a blanket draped over one shoulder. He sets the bowl down just long enough to wrap the blanket around Phillip’s shoulders. It’s a thick patchwork in bright colours and as Phillip holds it around himself, he realises it smells like Anne. 

Barnum doesn’t pass comment on the bottle now back in Phillip’s hands. He takes a fresh cloth from the edge of the bowl and dunks it into the water. With careful swipes his washes Phillip’s cut again, then his nose and chin, getting rid of what the vodka didn’t clean away. 

“The good news is,” says the ringmaster as he moves down to Phillip’s neck, mopping up the garish trail left there, “Your nose isn’t broken, and I don’t think your teeth are going to fall out any time soon. So you’ll still be pretty boy Phillip. Something you and Miss Wheeler can both be grateful for.” Phillip snorts. “Bad news is, you might needs stitches in that cut come the morning. And, I’m not leaving until you tell me who hit you.” 

Phillip falls silent and sullen once more. 

“I know you know who it was,” Phineas presses. “If it was just some random thug, one of the idiots who protests outside the tent, you’d say. You wouldn’t have hidden it from Anne and the others. Also,” he dips his touch to runs his fingers over Phillips knuckles, “you would have fought back.”   

Phillip takes another mouthful of vodka, partly to break Barnum’s touch and partly to buy time. He debates not answering at all. He could just sit here in silence. Barnum will get bored eventually and change the subject, or just leave. But he looks as worried as Lettie did, as worried as W.D. and Anne. More so. 

“If you must know,” sighs Phillip as he lowers the bottle, not seeing what good this will do, “it was my father.” 

“Your father?”

Phillip nods. He is not going to repeat it. 

Barnum swears long and low under his breath. He hangs his head and when he looks up at Phillip his expression is... broken. There’s no other word for it. “God, Phillip, why didn’t you say?”

“Because I didn’t want you to look at me like that,” Phillip huffs. 

“I’m sorry, it’s just I don’t understand. How did this happen? When did... Oh shit,” he swears again. “Charity said you were going to visit them,” he groans. “But she didn’t know when. If I’d known it was tonight I’d have done something. I’d have come with you.” 

“I don’t think that would have gone down very well.” 

“Well then I’d have waited outside. I’d have made sure you got home safely, made sure you didn’t have to walk like this. In the snow. In just your shirt. For Lord’s sake, did they throw you out without even letting you get your coat?” 

“They didn’t throw me out,” Phillip corrects. “Tried to stop me from leaving if anything.” Phineas makes a disgusted noise. “I just left my coat. I didn’t even think about it until I was outside.” 

Phineas is glaring. His hands shake in fury as he half throws the cloth back into the bowl. The once clear water is swirled red. “God,” he growls. “What I’d like to do if your old man was here right now.”

Phillip is taken aback. He’s never heard Barnum speak like this. He never imagined he was capable of rage like this and that it’s on Phillip’s behalf does uncomfortable things to the young man’s insides. 

“I’m sorry,” he says on reflex. 

“Don’t,” Barnum says, his voice much kinder, much sadder than before. “Don’t you dare apologise.” His eyes scan over Phillip’s body huddled beneath Anne’s blanket. “Did he hit you anywhere else?”

“No,” says Phillip, as casually as he can mange. “It was just my face.”

“Just your face,” Phineas echoes weakly. He bites his lip, worrying it and nearly biting clean through as a new question occurs to him. “Has he done this before?”

“Not often,” Phillip reassures him. “Never this badly. Just... normal stuff when I was a kid.” 

“Define ‘normal stuff’ in this situation, because I’m having trouble putting the two together.” Phineas sounds on the edge of getting really angry really quickly. Phillip thinks he’d better explain just as quickly. If Phineas decides he’d like to throw something, the only thing close at hand is the bowl of water diluted with blood and Phillip doesn’t fancy having to mop that up. 

“Just, you know, normal stuff. Couple of smacks to the face or a clip to the back of the head, when I got out of line. He caned me once for lying. It’s not that bad,” he adds hurriedly, hearing the angry growl in Barnum’s throat. “Heck, I’ve got friends whose fathers did far worse. Whipped them, beat them black and blue on a regular basis. One of my old school friends, he got his leg broken when he was twelve. Still walks with a limp, actually. What my father did was nothing. Just discipline. Normal. It’s what fathers do.”

“Never once,” says Barnum, the struggle to keep his temper evident in his voice, “have I ever hit Caroline or Helen.”

It gives Phillip pause for thought. He knows Phineas isn’t lying. Charity would probably string him up by his ankles from the top of the circus tent if he ever dared. But he wouldn’t anyway, because Phineas isn’t that sort of man. 

“Guess that makes you a great man then,” Phillip mumbles. 


“Doesn’t hurt that you’ve got two complete angels for daughters,” Phillip comments fairly. “Maybe if you had a useless disappointment like me for a son, you’d have been pushed to your limits by now.” 

The words leave Phillip before he can register them. He doesn’t know how to take them back, how to unsay them. They’re true, anyway. 

Barnum clearly disagrees. He puts his hands on Phillip’s as he goes to take another sip of vodka, stilling his movements. “If you were my son,” he says, his voice steady and sure, “I wouldn’t be disappointed in you.” He releases Phillip’s hands. “Worried about your drinking problem, maybe.” 

Phillip raises the bottle to his mouth and them mumbles around the glass lip, “If you were my dad, I wouldn’t have a drinking problem.” He swallows alcohol and regret at having spoken again. He doesn’t know if it’s the alcohol loosening his tongue or if he’s just tiered of keeping all of this inside. 

Phineas looks as though he’s just received a kick to the gut. “Is that it?” he asks brokenly. “Is that the reason?” 

Phillip shrugs. “One of many, I presume.” 

Phineas watches him for another long moment in that heartbroken way before rising to his feet. He puts the bowl on the desk, returns the discarded mirror to its previous spot and  wipes his hands on his trousers. He takes the vodka from Phillip. “I think you’ve had enough for now,” he says. Then he takes a mouthful himself. 

“Double standards,” Phillip grumbles. 

“Yeah, well.” Phineas recaps the bottle and places that on the desk too, well out of reach. He doesn’t sit on the floor again. He settles himself on the bed beside Phillip. “I think I need it after what you’ve just said. You’ve done nothing wrong,” he clarifies just to make sure there’s no mistake. His hands twitch in his lap, clearly longing to reach for Phillip but not daring to. Phillip saves him the bother and leans against him, only snuggling closer when Barnum wraps his arms around him. 

“You’re done with him by the way,” Phineas murmurs. “I don’t want you seeing him anymore. I know I have no right, I can’t actually force you not to but I don’t want him anywhere near you.”

“Relax, I wasn’t planning on going back.” 

“Good.” After a while of doing nothing more than stroking Phillip’s hair, Phineas asks, “Why did he hit you? There’s no reason, no excuse but...I want to know what did it. There must have been some tipping point.”

“He’d been saying a lot of stuff,” Phillip explains. The story tumbles out of him freely. “About the circus, about the company I keep. Then he said... something about Anne. Something not very pleasant. I couldn’t stand it so I got up and went to leave. They followed after me and, we were shouting at each other in the hallway. Then he got started on you and Charity and I,” Phillip hiccuped quietly, not sure if it was part laugh or part sob, “I said that you’d been better parents to me than they ever had. So he hit me.” Phillip shrugs again. “Guess that it caught a sore spot for him He always was a ‘blood’s thicker than water’ type. I forgot you don’t get to pick your family.”

Phineas tightens his embrace. “That’s a misquote, actually,” he says. “The full quote is ‘The blood of the covenant is stronger than the water of the womb’. So actually, it means the opposite of what most people think it does.” He brushes his lips over Phillip’s head, momentarily. He’s never been this affectionate with Phillip before. “Means that you’re wrong, Phillip. Sometimes you do get to pick.” 

A memory surfaces as Phillip leans against him. It had been Lettie’s birthday a couple of months back and halfway through the celebrations, Constantine had walked up to her. Blushing furiously beneath his tattoos, he’d thrust a scroll of paper at her. 

“It’s rubbish,” he’d said. “It’s crap. Throw it out. Burn it.” 

Lettie had done neither of those things. She’d unfurled it gently and looked at the words elaborately inked on it, at every loop and swirl Constantine had painted himself. Going pink to the edges of her beard she’d flung her arms around him and declared it was the best present ever, ignoring  the catcalling from Charles in the background. She’d pinned the scroll to the roof of her caravan so that every time she work up the words Friends are the family we choose for ourselves were the first thing she saw. 

Phillip doesn’t mention this to Phineas. He just thinks on those words and leans against the other man, who is solid and safe and warm. Phillip rubs his face against Barnum’s collar before groaning. 

“What is it?” asks the older man, concerned. 

“ ‘m gettin’ blood all over your shirt.”

“Is that all?” 

“Charity’ll see.”

“And? She’ll point me in the direction of the soap and tell me to get scrubbing if I want it clean.”

“But she’ll see,” Phillip insists. “She’ll see and she’ll know what happened and you can’t tell her. She’ll blame herself. She’s sort of the one who talked me into going.”

“She’s going to know anyway, kid,” Phineas says. “You’re cut and you’re going to be bruised like a peach come the morning.” 

Phillip groans again. “Is there any possibility that I can stay in here until it’s healed?” 

“Not a chance.” 

“Stay with me?” he tries instead. “Until morning? Don’t want to sleep on my own.” He clamps his jaw shut before he can say anything to further make a fool of himself. 

“Now that I can do,” declares Phineas, clearly sharing none of Phillip’s shame. He shifts Phillip in his arms, swinging his legs onto the bed and then laying down, pulling Phillip alongside him. "I'm here as long as you need me, kid."

"Not a kid."

"Sure you're not. Flip."

Phillip huffs indignantly.  

The bed is narrow, not really built for two grown men to share, but Phineas has never had any problems sharing personal space. He wraps his arms around Phillip’s waist and holds him close, like a child with an oversized teddy bear. Phillip turns into the hold, letting Phineas’ breath ghost across his face as he shuts his eyes.

“Do you want me to talk?” Phineas suggests.

Phillip shakes his head. “Just let me know you’re here.” It’s stupid. He knows Phineas is there, knows it in their shared breath and the arms around him.

The older man understands anyway. He twines Phillip’s hair around his fingers and after a moment, he begins to hum quietly. It is a soft, slow version of one of the songs from the show. Phillip lets it wash over him, calming him.

Sleep does not come straight away, aching and exhausted though Phillip is. He lays there, listening to Barnum and beyond that the party still going on. A great number of thoughts run through his head. He thinks about the morning, when he knows Anne and Lettie will be all over him, and W.D. will be hanging behind him, dogging his movements like an over protective shadow. He thinks about what the others will say. Charity will blame herself, there is no doubt about that. But Phillip is a big boy. Nobody forced him to go. He went because he wanted a chance to finally have some form of closure. 

He guesses he found it. 

He thinks about the words on the ceiling of Lettie’s caravan. 

He might have lost his natural parents tonight, but they weren’t his family. Not really. He may have left their house for good, but it wasn’t his home. 

This, here, right now. This was home.