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the world unwinds inside of me

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Believe in me

And drink the wine

And take my hand

And fill me up

 

 

.c.

 

 

With a last look at Charity and their precious girls- his entire world before it expanded to encompass so many others, including the young man who left his side to dash right back into the hellish blaze, the young man he convinced to leave his easy life of wealth and luxury to join him and his world of excitement and chaos; beautiful, breathtaking, perfect Phillip Carlyle who he absolutely cannot lose- Phineas Taylor Barnum turns and runs into the fire, discarding his coat in the doorway. His heart pounds in his temples and races, almost nauseatingly, against his throat.

Immediately, smoke accosts his face, filling his nose, stinging his eyes, pouring into his lungs. He coughs, and ignores every instinct of self-preservation screaming for him to turn back and run into the arms of his wife and daughters. Leave Phillip to his own devices.

He'll be damned. This fire is his own fault. If he had only listened to Phillip and Charity and not abandoned and betrayed everyone who looked to him, who trusted him to give them a place in the world after they had been cruelly denied it, instead of being swept up in the tide of adoration rippling out from people who never would have paid him any mind outside of circles of gossip and appalled stares had he not bent to their safe, comfortable, suffocating restrictions and sacrificed who he is.

If he had not lost sight of who he is, Phillip wouldn't be in a life-threatening situation, right now. He would be safe; to court Anne Wheeler, to live his life the way he chooses without anyone else's rules imposed on him, to be there for Barnum to behold, to touch, to…

Barnum has to find him. Has to save him. Has to right this most egregious wrong. It's one thing if he goes down in a hail of smoke and fire, but not Phillip.

Not Phillip.

He tries to call the younger man's name, turning his head this way and that, pleading and praying to divine entities that he has never fully believed in for a response to meet his ears.

All that answers him is the crackling of the fire, and the splintering of the foundations holding the roof above their heads.

"Phillip!" He calls out again, his voice rising and breaking with desperation, terror that quakes deep within and threatens bring him to his knees. "Phil--" The second syllable is lost to a cough that leaves his throat raw and the taste of ash on his tongue.

A terrible cracking sound rings out, and a beam of wood splits right down the center, crashing into the floor and sending a stream of sparking embers into the air.

It must be only a matter of seconds until the roof gives way.

"Phillip!"

At last, he hears it- ever so faint, weakened by exposure to smoke, but there, all the same: his name.

"Phin."

Barnum has never run so fast in his life.

Phillip's eyes are closed, body limp when he reaches him, but he gathers the younger man into his arms, longing to tend to the bleeding gash in his forehead, reassure him that Anne made it out, that she's okay, wipe the smudges of ash from Phillip's striking face, but there is no time. He has hardly a moment to check for Phillip's pulse before the room explodes in a torrent of deafening sound, flame, splintered wood, and shards of glass.

Barnum hugs Phillip to his chest, using his own body as a shield as the shards graze the exposed flesh of his cheek and his hands.

Above them, stars are visible under a blanket of curling black smoke, confirming Barnum's worst fears.

The roof has caved in. And, their exit-

His spine curves with the force of the choking cough ripped from him. Panic rises, twisting and constricting in his chest. They're barricaded in.

A mountain of broken beams and assorted rubble sits before them, and walls of flame surround them on all sides.

An apology to the oddities with all of their perfect peculiarities that he tried, out of pure selfishness, to hide away, to O'Malley, to Caroline, Helen, Charity, and Phillip forms on Barnum's tongue, but he won't lend it a voice, yet.

Apologizing means accepting that he and Phillip are meant to die, here.

Pressing Phillip's face into his chest to prevent him taking in any more smoke, Barnum rises to his feet, staggering, and somehow, with the weight of the entire world on his shoulders and in his arms, surmounts the obstruction in their path.

The cool night air hitting his face is welcome as water to a man stranded in the desert. He gulps down as much of it as he can, more coughs erupting from him in his eagerness.

"Daddy!" He hears Helen's sweet voice calling, and, adjusting his grip on Phillip to allow him room to breathe, Barnum rushes toward that voice on legs that struggle to hold him, the both of them, upright.

Through clouding, tunneling vision, he makes out Charity's blond hair, Caroline's teary eyes, Lettie's broad, bearded form, and Helen's petite body in Charity's arms, among the crowd of horrified onlookers. He stumbles to them, and, with what remains of his strength, places Phillip gently on the ground before him.

Phillip's arm slipping, slack, from around his neck, and the just barely there fluttering of breath in Phillip's chest are the last things that Phineas Barnum knows as another fit of coughing buckles his legs and sends him to the ground beside Phillip.

He hopes that saving the younger man's life was enough.

Enough to compensate for the words that he will never…

 

.c.

 

A feeling that something is wrong, something remains unfinished, that someone isn't here who is supposed to be twists and turns and contorts within Barnum until his eyes open to a dimly lit, unfamiliar off-white room lined with cots and stinking of antiseptics.

These are fixtures of a hospital. But, if he is here, then where is-

"Phillip?" Barnum calls out, his voice hoarse from disuse and smoke inhalation.

"I was wondering when you might rejoin the land of the living," comes the response in a velvety baritone sweeter than any opera piece crooned by a Swedish songbird.

Barnum's heart rockets into his throat, and he turns to find Phillip Carlyle- breathtaking as ever, even with bleary eyes, remnants of ash caking his face, and an undressed wound near his hairline- on the cot beside his. His smile is instantaneous, his chest flooding with a swirling river of emotions when Phillip returns it.

Phillip Carlyle with a genuine smile brightening his near habitually dour face. There's a sight to behold.

"You talk in your sleep, you know," Phillip says, the corners of his mouth quirking with amusement.

"Do I? Did I reveal any embarrassing secrets?"

"Nothing I could use against you, tragically," Phillip quips with a feigned sigh. His wit is as sharp and biting as Barnum remembers.

God, it's been too long.

"Well, that's terrifically anticlimactic."

Phillip lets out a peal of quiet laughter. It's a sound that Barnum finds himself cherishing and wishing would grace his ears for all eternity. All too abruptly, the laughter fades from Phillip's features, taking its luminosity with it, as his expression sobers. He swallows, the corners of his mouth downturning, and ventures, warily, "You came back."

"I had to," Barnum says, speaking the truth as plainly as he can.

"Why?" Phillip's stare is searching, his eyes that are bluer than the sky, bluer than the sea, bluer than any shade achieved by paints and dyes, trying to peer right through Barnum's flesh to his soul.

Barnum recalls Jenny Lind, that damned kiss that he never should have allowed her to pull him into. He isn't sure why he has chosen Phillip as his confidante, but the admission slips out of him. "Miss Lind was under the impression that our relationship ran deeper than strictly business. And…" For the first time in his life, he feels legitimate shame sweeping through him, weighing heavily on his midsection. "I fueled that impression by misleading her." 

"You are a flatterer, P.T., a showman. You charm and entice with your words. Jenny should have known what she was getting into," Phillip answers evenly. The intensity of his stare does not waver.

Barnum should be ashamed of himself for the rush of pleasant emotions that chases out his shame at Phillip referring to him as a showman rather than a scoundrel. Even though scoundrel feels like the vastly more apt descriptor. "And, so should I."

Journalists, cameras. The scandal of that kiss would be front page news in every paper across the damn country. It would get to Charity, and she…

"What am I going to tell Charity?" He ponders aloud without meaning to, his voice soft and broken.

"She loves you. I'm sure she'll be willing to overlook this transgression. You…" There's the sound of Phillip swallowing, and his voice lowers so that Barnum has to strain to hear him. Despite the distance between them, there is an openness to this conversation, to the way they're regarding one another, that feels intimate as whispers exchanged while huddled in the most secluded corner of a tavern. "You came back to her. That would be enough for me."

"I came back for you, as well," Barnum longs to tell Phillip with a potent ache in his chest, sharp as the glass that scored his skin.

But, that is a wall that he may not ever be able to break.

 

.c.

 

They spend the next day in the droll, anemic, and enervating hospital discussing how the circus fared during Barnum's absence. Though he never doubted Phillip's management skills, it pleases him greatly to hear about the full houses leaving with bright eyes and smiling faces when the final act of the night drew to a close. The topic soon veers to their favorite pieces of literature. Phillip's are unsurprisingly traditional; plays by Homer, plays and sonnets by Shakespeare, Macbeth being particularly near and dear to his heart.

Barnum pledges to both Phillip and himself to expand Phillip's literary palette; introduce him to more mythological tales and fables, poetry, share his tomes about astronomy and the constellations dotting the night sky. He wants to treat Phillip to as many aspects of life as he can, ensure that his life is full to make up for the fact that it was almost taken from him by a cruel stroke of fate, all because Barnum failed to listen to him and risked everything on a gamble that left all they loved in ruins.

There is no arguing between them, as there was the last time Barnum saw Phillip, spoke to him, had him in arm's reach before he left for the disastrous tour. Merely amicable banter and companionable bickering that occasionally leads to one of Barnum's saucier comebacks causing Phillip's cheeks to turn a becoming shade of pink.

Maybe not all is lost, Barnum allows himself to think as Phillip slips into a peaceful slumber, life pulsing and vibrant under his skin and the remnants of the fire clinging to it. So long as a man is still living, he has the power to change his situation. And, he and Phillip both survived.

 

.c.

 

Barnum is discharged from the hospital a day, or so, in advance of Phillip, due to the varying extent of their injuries.

He feels Phillip's eyes fixed on him as he dresses behind the privacy screen. Under different circumstances, he would tease Phillip about it, ask if a doctor slipped him something. But, the air in this room, between the two of them, is drawn almost dangerously tight, like a violin string ready to snap if one so much as plucks it wrong.

"Phineas," Phillip starts as Barnum emerges from behind the screen, changed back into his singed and dirtied clothes from the night of the fire.

The rest of whatever he meant to say, or ask, fizzles out and fades into the ether.

Phillip's gaze at last drifts from Barnum to someone just behind him, and Barnum follows that line of sight to Anne Wheeler heading toward Phillip's cot, her strides long and elegant. The quiet confidence that carries her forward suggests that this isn't her first visit.

Barnum meets her eye, giving her a slight smile that she returns with a spark of surprise flaring behind her eyes and quirking her brow.

Her attention returns to Phillip, and she pulls up a stool at his bedside, impressing Barnum with her daring. Phillip takes the hand that Anne offers him, curling his fingers around it.

A strange, sinking sensation pulls at Barnum's chest. He dismisses it as a longing to return to Charity. To recognize it, call it by its real name, would be asking for the world to separate into fault lines and split at the seams.

Phillip and Anne speak to each other in soft tones, and Barnum feels an inclination to remain and protect them from any member of the hospital staff who intends to hassle them. But, he has no right to intrude.

Silently, he exits the way Anne came, and tells himself that he is imagining Phillip's eyes following his every step.

 

.c.

 

The fallout of Barnum's error and blind recklessness is immediate. He returns to the home that he worked for twenty-five years to gift to Charity, to find it empty.

A note inscribed in Charity's delicate calligraphy sits on top of the paper with its damning headline and equally damning illustration of P.T. Barnum's most appalling and abhorrent display. His mea culpa

I'm sorry, Phin, but it seems you need more than I, or our family, could ever give you.

He holds the note in a trembling hand, picking up just a trace of Charity's scent clinging to the parchment; the last wisp of a soul departing from the body it resided in.

Then, there is no showman, no spotlight, no thrill of the act and no crowd to awe and please. Just a broken man brought to his knees, tears cascading down his face as his world is ripped away from him.

 

.c.

 

He falls back on Phillip's vice; one the younger man indulges in to a concerning and potentially unhealthy degree, but who is Barnum to judge when he has every intention of drowning his sorrows and everything else in the largest amount of liquor that what remains in his pockets can buy?

A pint and a half in and the world softens around the edges, but still feels as jagged and colorless as before. The well of misery and shame inside of Barnum yawns impossibly wider, stretching deeper and deeper with every bitter swallow.

He's just finished the second and is preparing to order the third when a tiny hand on his arm stops him.

It's Charles, and Lettie, and W.D, Wheeler, Chang and Eng, The Irish Giant, and the rest of the oddities who are no longer simply performers in Barnum's Circus, but members of his family. They're angry with him, as he expected, but not because he betrayed or abandoned them.

"You're giving up on us," Lettie says breathlessly, her eyes glistening with unshed tears.

But, he isn't. No more than he could give up on Phillip, and no more than he can give up on…

Hugging the bearded woman to him, Barnum promises her that he will make everything right, and orders a round for the troupe on his tab.

 

.c.

 

Charity has relocated herself and the girls to her father's home. The sting of betrayal has no place festering inside of Barnum, as it was Charity's back he might as well have twisted a knife into, but it exists, all the same.

It takes a lot of promises- honest, sincere, Phineas Taylor Barnum laid bare and open in front of Charity with no charm to dazzle and distract her, no persuasive and purposefully romantic spoken prose in the name of winning her over- and even some pleading, but, Phillip was right.

Once again.

Charity loves him. Barnum sees the depth of that love shining in her eyes, hears it in the tremor of her voice, feels it in the pace of her heartbeat when he is finally able to embrace her, and tastes it in the tears dampening her lips when he brings her into a long kiss that he savors as though it is both their very first and their very last.

"I love you," he swears in whispers against her mouth. "I love you and our family so much," he promises, lips grazing her forehead and hands stroking her face.

"I know you do," she answers. "But, is it enough for you?"

Fear quakes at the heart of him. "Of course it is," he assures her.

Charity bites at her lip and asks, her voice hardly more than a whisper, "What about Phillip?"

Barnum's throat constricts, his heart pitched about in a ruthless tide of emotion: shame at having betrayed Charity, once more, and an intense welling of hope and excitement at the mere prospect that anything could ever come of him and… "What about him?" He asks, forcing his voice to stay even.

Charity cups her hand over Barnum's. Gently, surprisingly gently, she presses, "He looked at you before he ran back into that fire. I have eyes, Phin."

"Wh-What are you saying?" He asks, insides atremble because he genuinely does not know.

"I want you to be happy." Charity holds his gaze, drawing a caressing thumb over the back of his hand. "I want to be what makes you happy. Phillip is good with Caroline and Helen. They love him." A small smile and a hint of laughter accompany her next observation, "From what I hear, he even knows how to keep some of your crazier ideas in check."

Barnum searches her eyes, soft brown, so familiar to him, yielding and gentle where Phillip's gaze pierces him clean through. Love and gratitude immense enough to sweep him away flood him just looking at her.

"You can be too much for one person to handle, sometimes," Charity admits. "But… maybe with two people…" Her words dissolve into laughter as Barnum scoops her up and twirls her, kissing her face and heralding her as a brilliant, beautiful, and merciful goddess descended to Earth.

He later takes his delightedly squealing daughters into his arms, ignoring the pointed glare like daggers in his backside from his father in-law, and holds onto them with every intention of never letting go, determined to keep their world intact.

 

.c.

 

Things mend and resolve quickly, after that.

Phillip, beautiful, magnanimous, remarkable Phillip, newly released from the hospital, is willing to put his ten percent ownership of the show and all of its profits toward procuring a new home for the two of them and the rest of their family. His only stipulation being that Barnum accept him as a partner, an equal.

His eyes shine with fierce radiance and earnestness in his still injured face.

Barnum isn't willing to let Phillip gamble everything that he has, not when everything else- his inheritance, his claim to his family legacy, his standing among the upperclass elite- has been snatched away from him.

But, that stare paired with a dip of Phillip's head and a raise of his eyebrows, has Barnum willing to promise him the world. A partnership feels paltry by comparison. He takes the hand that Phillip offers him and basks in the brilliance of the resulting smile, returning it with the utmost ease and sincerity.

Their family breaks into cheers and peals of joyous laughter around them, and, standing on the smoking vestiges of his hard work, his dreams, his years of steadfast dedication, holding Phillip Carlyle's warm hand and feeling that hand clasped around his, Phineas Barnum feels like he has finally found the world he has been seeking his entire life.

 

.c.

 

Phillip finds him in the dressing area, long after the infectious buzz, fervor, and excitement of a successful first show since relocation to tents stationed beside the docks have died down, and the rest of their family have exited the main tent to retire to their caravans for the night, all of them slightly tipsy on the high of their triumphant rebirth… And, a few glasses of champagne.

"I saw Charity with Caroline and Helen in the audience, tonight," Phillip says.

Barnum catches the reflection of Phillip's strikingly prepossessing face in the mirror as he removes his top hat and sets to work on his tie. "She accepted my apology, just as you said she would."

Phillip smiles, softly. There is no barb to follow it, simply a murmur of, "I'm glad for you. For all three of you."

Something hangs unspoken, a sentence without a proper end.

"I suppose I never-- " Barnum starts at the same time Phillip ventures, "P.T., I didn't get to--"

Barnum chuckles and a flustered Phillip's cheeks start to pink. "Go ahead," he encourages the younger man. He undoes the knot of his tie and slips it from around his neck.

Phillip licks at his upper lip, a simple, natural action that incites a flare of heat in the pit of Barnum's stomach. Visibly probing his brain for words, Phillip says, slowly, "You saved me. Anne told me that you… "

Barnum's pulse picks up. He turns away from the mirror to face Phillip directly.

"You… " Phillip's jaw trembles as he swallows and breathes, desperately, "Phineas."

Be it by the tone of Phillip's voice piercing Barnum's core, the need glowing in those unbelievably blue eyes, or Barnum's own feelings that he can no longer deny, the violin string has been plucked. And, it snaps.

The distance between Phillip and Barnum becomes a thing of the past at unfathomable speed as the men come together in a tangled mess of limbs, lips, and teeth. Barnum bites at Phillip's lower lip, tastes every millimetre, every hidden crevice of his mouth. He pulls the younger man's hips against his and crushes their chests flush together.

Moans, pure, liquid, and unbridled rise from Phillip, and he clutches at the material of Barnum's signature vibrant red ringmaster's coat, bunching his fists in it. "Ph-Phin," he pleads breathlessly.

A responding growl sounding off in his throat, Barnum drives Phillip back, and back still, until he collides with a wall. Bracing Phillip against that wall, he yanks at the collar of Phillip's shirt, exposing the untouched flesh of his neck. Electric heat surges and pulses between them. "Anne?" Barnum asks, needing to know, before he surrenders to the waves of undulating desire beating at him with greater intensity every passing moment, that he isn't about to do to another relationship what he nearly did to his own.

"We're friends," Phillip gasps. "Good friends. She knows that I… You… God," he whines, "P.T., don't stop."

Moaning at the raw need, so much need, in Phillip's voice, Barnum licks at Phillip's jaw, and then, drawn to the fluttering of breath that he can feel beneath his mouth, sinks his teeth into Phillip's neck.

Phillip's body seizes with the force of the moan pulled from him. He spreads his legs, hips jutting forward, and slips his hands around to unfasten the buttons on Barnum's shirt, his fingers shaking in his eagerness. "Fuck," he whispers. "Fuck, Phin." 

"Phillip," Barnum groans. "Phil~lip." He intentionally draws the two syllables out, relishing the delicious shiver the low timbre of his voice inspires. "You like being roughed up, a bit, do you?"

Phillip's eyes lift to meet Barnum's, wide with the shock of being found out, of someone discovering a secret that he, himself, was unconscious of. "I… I don't--"

Barnum takes hold of Phillip's chin, killing off the rest of the protest as it begins to form. "Don't lie to me, Phillip," he says darkly, staring into Phillip's eyes to make certain Phillip is enlightened to how absolutely uncompromising he is about this.

Phillip meets the stare with wide, searching eyes, his heart hammering audibly, cheeks flushed scarlet, and breaths hitching to a ragged staccato rhythm.

"It does neither one of us any good. You need to be honest with me, or nothing further is going to happen, here."

"I…" Phillip sucks in a breath and nods. "I will. I will," he swears resolutely.

"Good," Barnum replies, his voice a deep husk. He loosens his grip and litters kisses over Phillip's brow, cheeks, and the bridge of his nose.

Phillip's hands wander away from the buttons of Barnum's dress shirt to the accoutrements of the ringmaster coat. His fingers skim over gold buttons and gilding, the ornate, sweeping curls woven in golden thread starting from under the cuffs and dancing up the forearms. It's clear that the coat is an object of particular fascination to Phillip, and Barnum notes this with a wicked grin.

"Phillip?" He asks, leaning in to ghost his lips over the shell of Phillip's ear.

Phillip shivers, again, emitting a low moan.

Barnum suppresses a snigger. "Can I try something?"

"Yes." Phillip nods and closes his eyes, his breath hitching with anticipation.

Smirking at more of that need being so readily exhibited, Barnum unfastens Phillip's trousers, and slides the material of his coat over the rigid column of heated skin he has revealed.

The loudest cry yet comes from Phillip, followed by pants, and a hissed, "Shit."

"Like that?" Barnum growls.

"P.T., I-- ohh." Phillip grips at the coat as Barnum teases him with it, again, taunting him with each slow drag of the material. "Yes," he murmurs. He tries to buck his hips into the caresses, but Barnum uses his solid bodyweight and height advantage to hold his younger partner in place.

"Is this a fetish of yours, Phillip?" Barnum nips up Phillip's throat to the strong curve of his jaw. Nuzzling into it, he muses, "How many times have you imagined me fucking you in this coat?"

"Phineas!" The moan erupts from Phillip, heightened by his embarrassment and undeniable arousal.

Barnum can't help but laugh, low in his throat, incredulous that this is happening, that he gets to have this after all of his folly, and thrilled to his very marrow to have Phillip Carlyle coming undone in his hands.

Their hips grind together, the combination of the fabric of Barnum's own trousers and his coat creating unbelievable friction that has both of them gasping into the almost non-existent space between them.

"You…" Phillip pants. "You want this as much as I do, so." The strangled moan welling out of Barnum's throat between his parted lips, and the ache starting in his core and fanning out to engulf his entire body, are confirmation of this, and Phillip observes them with a devilish smirk curling his mouth. His eyes flash beneath the veil of his long, thick black lashes. "Don't keep the fantasy confined to my imagination," he whispers hotly, punctuating the statement with a playful nip to Barnum's lower lip.

 

.c.

 

In one of the vacant caravans, reserved in case another act signs up for the show, Barnum claims Phillip, that night; stripped bare but for his coat, as Phillip wanted.

He marks Phillip as his own with his lips and his teeth. He sucks at the point of Phillip's pulse, right beside his Adam's apple, savoring what that thrumming pulse represents. He covers every inch of Phillip's sculpted and every bit the likeness of a marble Adonis chest in open-mouthed kisses and nips, and licks long stripes on Phillip's gooseflesh stippled skin that draw shuddering breaths from his partner's lungs. He touches him everywhere, nails scraping, marking; teases the sensitive skin on Phillip's toned abdomen and thighs with the cool metal of the buttons on his coat; thoroughly prepares Phillip with his fingers, spreads Phillip's legs, and takes him and fills him completely and impossibly full like no one else ever has before.

Or ever will.

Barnum will make sure of that. Phillip is his.

And, Phillip knows it, taking everything that Barnum has to give and crying out, begging for more, harder, faster, deeper, there, right there, please, Phin, when Barnum lets up for even a minute to give Phillip space to breathe and affirm that he is holding up under the near unrelenting barrage.

From the night he first saw Phillip across the room, snatching a second glass of champagne off of a tray and downing it without hesitation to detach himself from the rest of the upperclass snobs at the party, P.T. Barnum knew that there was a deeply unsatisfied part of Phillip Carlyle that was simply asking to be freed and waiting for someone to come along and offer him an avenue for seeking that freedom.

Now, that part of Phillip is desperately, wildly, eagerly embracing his newfound freedom like a captive animal released from its cage at long last; arms wound around Barnum's neck, hips arching up far as they can, meeting every single one of Barnum's thrusts as completely unabashed cries wrapped in a litany of curses spill from Phillip's lips.

Phillip is more beautiful than he has ever been as he unravels beneath Barnum, swept up wholly, utterly in the throes of a passion he seems to have been devoid of his entire life. And, it is very likely that he was, until Barnum found him. Tears of bliss well in his eyes, he calls out Barnum's name as if it's a prayer, and it is absolutely intoxicating.

When Phillip reaches his climax, his staggered gasps and moans break into sobs, and he makes a mess most inappropriate for a gentleman of the aristocracy. He, himself, is a mess. His formerly immaculately styled hair is damp and ruffled, his lips are kissed red and bruised, and an assortment of possessive marks dot his neck, shoulders, collarbone, and chest.

He is thoroughly debauched, but his eyes are shining with euphoria, and he reciprocates the deep kiss that Barnum takes him into, blissful hums, not far off from the purrs of a cat, vibrating in his throat.

Barnum knows, then, that Phillip Carlyle has stolen his heart, and he makes certain that Phillip knows it, too, calling out Phillip's name amidst a stream of gushing praise as he finishes and fills Phillip all over again.

He holds Phillip as they ride out the aftershocks, and settles, bones loose and liquefied with contentment and exhaustion, beside Phillip, feathering kisses over his face. "You did so well. You did brilliantly," he tells him. "Oh, Phillip, you are extraordinary."

Phillip, eyes half-closed, glazed with a rapturous fatigue, kisses back and pushes his face into Barnum's chest, hands clutching at the lapels of the coat. "Thank you," he whispers.

"No, darling, thank you. You are the sun shining heartily upon this circus, and sharing the joy you bring to us all."

"Phin." Phillip sounds close to tears.

"It's all right. It's all right." Barnum kisses the crown of Phillip's head and nuzzles into his hair. It's silky, thick, and carries a fresh, clean, lightly fragrant scent. He leaves Phillip's side only long enough to remove his coat and retrieve a patchwork quilt. The material of the quilt is coarse, but thick, enough to keep the two of them warm overnight. Half-asleep, himself, he lies back down and entwines himself with Phillip, legs interlocking. He drapes first the coat, then the quilt over them, and draws Phillip into his chest.

With a peaceful sigh, Phillip snuggles closer and drifts off, and Barnum follows right behind him, content to dwell in this small, intimate world they have created.

 

.c.

 

Blinding white sunlight streaming through the window rouses Barnum. He wakes to a warmth at his back and recognizes Phillip's toned arm draped across his midsection. The intense rush of affection flooding his heart is unsurprising to him, and a soft smile plays on his lips as he turns to take in his partner's tranquil expression.

His body, accustomed to rising with the sun, urges him to jump up, begin preparations for the day ahead, get right to business and tackle every matter at hand. But, Phillip murmuring in a hushed, sleepy voice, his words thick, "Don't go. Phin… stay," is all the persuasion that he needs to linger.

"A while longer," he tells Phillip, and himself, nuzzling into Phillip's hair and tightening the embrace. "Just a while longer."

 

.c.

 

They do their best to exit the caravan as inconspicuously as possible, but Lettie, Anne, W.D., Charles, and a few others seem to have surmised what transpired between the pair of ringmasters.

Their teasing smirks, bouts of laughter, and irreverent comments are a reassurance; a demonstration that this company accepts them as they are.

Barnum claps Phillip on the back, and revels in his slow, timid, but grateful nevertheless, smile.

Under a tent of vivid red and gold teeming with the glow of colored lights, their family of outcasts has found its place in the world, at last. And, Phillip Carlyle and P.T. Barnum have found theirs, as well.

 

.c.

 

To celebrate Caroline making excellent marks on a book report, and Helen's stunning show and tell exposé on the circus, Barnum and Charity decide to treat the girls to ice cream. (In actuality, it was Barnum's idea. Charity gave an affectionate roll of her eyes and acquiesced.)

En route to the ice cream parlor, Helen stops herself mid-recount of the "heroic escapades" she and a classmate got up to while pretending to be Lettie and the show's Dog Boy, to exclaim, "Phillip!"

Caroline joins in, both girls taking up the call until they draw the attention of the handsome man almost lost to the crowd with his small stature.

Smile lighting his face, Phillip heads their way, and opens his arms to let the two little whirlwinds tackle him in a fierce hug.

Charity laughs as the girls bombard Phillip with a series of questions that become increasingly difficult for him to answer the higher and faster they pile on. "Girls, settle down. Let Phillip catch his breath."

Phillip shoots her a grateful look. 

"What brings you this way?" Barnum asks, His heart stirs at the sight of Phillip; clean, wound completely closed up, leaving only the faintest of scars near the line of his impeccably styled hair, skin and eyes almost gleaming under the waning sunlight.

"I had an errand or two to take care of."

"Well," Charity says, "we were headed to the ice cream shop to treat these two for their achievements--"

"Outstanding achievements," Barnum chips in, earning bright smiles and giggles from his daughters, and a small, indulgent grin from Phillip.

"--in school," Charity finishes with a light, playfully exasperated shake of her head.

Barnum simply grins.

"Ice cream, huh?" Phillip asks Helen and Caroline.

"Oh, you should come, too!" Caroline exclaims. "Mommy, daddy, can Phillip come with us?"

"Yes, can he?" Helen chimes in without missing a beat.

Charity smiles softly, already yielding, and Barnum answers, "He most certainly can."

Phillip's distinct eyebrows quirk with bemusement, but he allows Caroline and Helen to take hold of his hands and tug him toward their destination.

Charity and the girls have simple, unpretentious orders- strawberry cones for Charity and Caroline, and chocolate for Helen. Barnum, himself, requests pistachio and peanuts, earning a questioning look from Phillip, whose order is, once more, an unsurprisingly plain and traditional vanilla.

"Still adhering to our comfort zone, are we?" Barnum asks Phillip in a low, casual tone as he slides the young woman behind the counter the sum required to cover the cost of the five cones.

In lieu of an answer, Phillip holds Barnum's eyes as he gives the spiral of vanilla ice cream a long, swirling lick, intentionally flicking the tip of his tongue over his upper lip to catch any left behind.

Heat flashes, feral, through Barnum's core. "Bold of you," he practically growls, raising his brows and giving Phillip a toothy, impressed smirk. He has to restrain himself from yanking Phillip toward him and tasting the traces of vanilla clinging to his full lips and thick pink tongue.

Phillip's eyes glint as he returns the smirk. "What can I say? You inspire it in me."

 

.c.

 

Late night, backstage rendezvous become a regular occurrence, the location in consistent flux. Beneath the stands is a favorite for its accessibility when they're feeling especially daring; deserted tents, caravans, and an empty room in the Barnums' home when Charity and the girls are away, visiting her family, are preferred for their privacy, seclusion, and for providing the opportunity to take things slow and revel in the moment.

Not that Barnum would ever complain about any of his and Phillip's hastier, messier couplings, the pace pushed to a frantic one that has both of them on the verge of breaking as they chase that sweet release. But, something can be said for quieter, softer meetings where their time is entirely their own, and they can speak to one another in the hazy afterglow, gates down, voices low, heartbeats languorous and synchronized.

It is Phillip's shift as ringmaster, tonight, and from an anonymous place in the crowds filling the stands, Barnum watches.

Phillip's command of the ring is less forceful and upfront in the manner it captivates an audience, but spellbinding all the same. He struts and prances about, his movements fluid, free. His voice soars and sails, that rich baritone silvery and honeyed. His eyes shine and his smile is dazzlingly radiant. He is very much at home under the spotlight. And, he knows how to please a crowd, amping things up to a frenetic degree that charges the air with anticipation and leaves the audience eager for more, before smoothly withdrawing to allow the performers to take center ring and own their show.

Barnum is proud of him, immensely so, and tells him this as he meets up with him in the shadows under the stands after the crowds have emptied out. He captures Phillip's mouth in a long, passionate kiss that leaves the younger man slightly dazed.

"P.T., I…"

Barnum tilts his head, eyes flickering over Phillip to show his partner that he has his full attention.

Phillip shakes himself from his daze and tugs at the sleeve of Barnum's coat, pulling him toward the dressing area. "I have something for you."

When they have distanced themselves from the din of the crowds, their world consisting of no more than the two of them and the space within it they have claimed for themselves, Phillip offers Barnum a neatly creased card. The outside of it is an unremarkable white, but the inside…

Is decorated in artful etchings penned in crimson ink outlined by glittering gold. They read:

 

"Love wakes anew this throbbing heart, and we are never old."

 

"Ralph Waldo Emerson", Phillip murmurs.

Barnum lifts his eyes from the card to take in Phillip's sheepish expression; eyes averted and posture demure.

"You quoted 'The World-Soul' to me, that night, and… Phineas... " Words are lodging in Phillip's throat, causing him visible strain as he works to extract them. Barnum spares him any more of it.

"Come here," he says.

Raising his eyes, revealing that they are shimmering wetly, Phillip moves into Barnum's open arms and folds into the embrace. "Of all the people in this circus," he says softly, "I never expected to fall for the infamous, disreputable, scandal-generating, and quite possibly insane ringmaster."

"I prefer the term 'eccentric'," Barnum says, just as softly. His heart tremors with the love filling it well past the brim, to its bursting point, and then some. 

Phillip lets out a laugh and stands on his toes to bring their lips together, once more.

P.T. Barnum's world unwound and unraveled, leaving him torn and frayed. But, from that spool of thread, cloth was woven anew, and the patchwork of manic colors and aberrant patterns is the finest tapestry he has ever beheld.