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these hands could hold the world, but it'll never be enough

Chapter Text

 

 

.x.

 

You set off a dream in me. Getting louder, now. Can you hear it echoing?

 

.x.

 

 

He seeks Barnum out after the show ends.

After the kiss, and the wave of electrified exhilaration that fueled it, that Phillip was riding so high on, crashes.

He kissed Anne in front of a full house, effectively jeopardized her safety and the safety of the rest of the troupe, and, God damn it, he absolutely cannot manage the circus on his own. This was made abundantly, indisputably clear to him when his glaring lack of presence and authority failed to dismiss a group of rowdy protestors looking for a fight, resulting in the fire that--

No. No one blamed him. No one held him accountable for the act of hellish retribution carried out by a small group of hate-filled men with an oil lamp within their reach.

Especially not the ringmaster.

Which Phillip Carlyle is immeasurably, eternally grateful for. He doesn't imagine he could live with himself, could bear it, if P.T. Barnum blamed or resented him.

The Barnum family's home is tucked neatly at the end of a long dirt path lined on either side with trees beginning to shed their leaves for the approaching winter season. It's a vista that would, undoubtedly, be scenic and romantic in the light of day; warm beams of sunlight filtering through the trees to cast dappled shadows on the path below. Against the indigo blanket of the night sky, however, the trees appear twisted and gnarled, bending, buckling, and bowing with the wind as if their bark absorbed, and still retains, echoes of the master of the house's despair.

That of a man left to drown in the consequences of his ambition. 

Doing his best to not envision Phineas Barnum, unrepentantly proud, ostentatious, and ever striving to surpass the limitations of his station, reduced to roaming the vastness of his home, somnambulant with grief as he passes each empty room and corridor his wife and daughters once occupied, Phillip hastily ascends the steps leading to the entrance of the lavish estate.

He supposes it flies in the face of all etiquette and decorum to come calling at his partner's house in the dead of night without any prior warning or invitation. Surely it would even be selfish of him to ask Barnum to return to the circus when the man has just begun to reconcile with his family and regain what was lost to his blinding pursuit of more.

But, with regards to Barnum's other family, their family, it also flies in the face of simple etiquette, decorum, and courtesy, not to mention logic and reason, for said partner to hand Phillip the reins of their show and abandon the driver's seat with no prior warning.

Or, consultation. Or, coaching, or damn it.

Tugging at his overcoat, Phillip straightens and smooths it and hopes that he doesn't look as disheveled, thrown for a loop, and, frankly, petrified, as he feels. He inhales and clutches Barnum's treasured black top hat, the one left behind by Barnum's long deceased father, in a careful, solicitous, and unsteady- damn it, compose yourself, Carlyle. Handle this with some semblance of grace, like you weren't born this morning- hand, and lifts his other hand to knock at the enormous front doors. Soft, rhythmic taps just loud enough to get the attention of Barnum, and, hopefully, only Barnum.

The man's absurd hours are quite familiar to Phillip, thanks to frequent long nights in a shared office.

Nights spent pouring over bank statements and watching Barnum pace back and forth, the rhythm of his footfalls oddly comforting, as he dreamed up more crazy ideas and wild- and potentially life-threatening- new acts for the show. Conversations lasting long into the morning, discussing everything from politics, to plays and prose, to the animals' upkeep with the equal parts eccentric and enticing man over glasses of whisky. Sleep-deprivation and drink making Phillip's head pleasantly fuzzy and his tongue loose with his lowered guard, and it becoming increasingly apparent with every hour past that he and Barnum should part ways before Phillip could say or do something that both of them would regret.

Countless minutes totaling hours of trying, resolutely, to keep his gaze on the papers cluttering the desk, the assortment of pompously self-indulgent flyers and newspaper clippings plastered on the walls, anywhere but his former boss, as Barnum changed clothes.

Always suddenly and without so much as a prefatory word.

His shirt would be shed and his trousers dropped to don his extravagant costumed attire, and, come the day's end, the process would play out in reverse, the pair of riding breeches that Barnum partnered-ingeniously, though Phillip wouldn't dare admit it out loud- with his ringmaster ensemble swapped out for casual dress trousers.

Those damned riding breeches.

Like the rest of the deliberately provocative costume, they're tailored to fit Barnum perfectly, hugging every toned curve of his long legs, and clinging, distressingly snug, to his dangerously, gorgeously filled out posterior.

A posterior that Phillip has no business observing the globular shape of. None at all.

Gulping, he forcefully drives his unseemly commentary on the showman's nether regions from his mind.

Anne. Think of Anne.

He raises his hand to knock a second time, solemnly refusing to dwell on his usage of past tense verbs when thinking on sharing an office with Barnum… and the unsettled feeling that suffuses the pit of his stomach at this usage.

Of course Barnum will still be awake after midnight. Of course the matter will be resolved and their office will, once more, be enlivened by Barnum's wonderfully absorbing company, and their circus will again have its flamboyant peacock and insatiable visionary right where he belongs: striding about the ring and commanding the helm with effortless- and enthralling- authority.

Of course.

Phillip cannot afford to believe otherwise.

Though he is anticipating the man's appearance, Phillip still starts when the doors open to reveal Barnum standing behind them, a look of surprise on his face. "Phillip?" Barnum inquires. "I wasn't expecting to see you here, this late."

"No, I figured you weren't," Phillip muses, his smile tight, too obviously illegitimate.

"Come inside," Barnum's usual lopsided charmer- and swindler- 's smile pulls at the corners of his mouth. He takes Phillip by the crook of the elbow to usher him in.

Phillip feels his cheeks flush at the touch.

The thoughtless, impulsive, completely platonic touch that Barnum would readily use on any other member of their company.

Phillip thinks, again, of Anne. Soft curls fragrant as lilies, sweetly cloying jasmine-scented perfume, eyes like liquid amber, smooth skin and lightly callused fingertips, candied pink and vibrant purple, kissing her in full view of every person in the stands.

That was what he wanted. Anne. Fearless, stunning, radiant Anne. Being able to brave the world outside of the circus and bear all of its hatred and disapproval for her. Because she was by his side.

Wasn't it?

He swallows, his stomach wringing itself into apprehensive knots, because this shouldn't be a question.

"What can I do for you?" Barnum asks. He leans around Phillip to close the doors behind them, and his dizzyingly familiar- and intoxicating, devastatingly, more than any liquor- scent hits Phillip's nose as the action brings Barnum's chest inches away from Phillip's face.

Phillip has, though he knows he shouldn't, parsed out every fragrance tied inextricably to Barnum. Heady cologne married happily with redolent whisky aged to perfection. Fresh, clean linen bearing a vaguely powdery aroma, courtesy of the laundry soap that Charity Barnum uses. Roasted salt mingled with a specific sort of dusty scent distinct to peanut shells.

And notably absent.

An observation that sets off a wistful pang in Phillip's chest. This absence, simultaneously subtle and glaring, seems like only further, stomach-sinking confirmation of Barnum's decision to distance himself from the circus, where the legumes stashed within the shells are infamously sold as concession.

And, underneath them all, there is a scent that is entirely Phineas Taylor Barnum without any enhancements. One that makes Phillip's insides execute feats of acrobatics that would make Anne and W.D. jealous. Natural, innate, undefinable, and perilously alluring. Able to seduce men and women alike and reel them into Barnum's world of taboos paraded and fever dreams realized in the flesh. It conjures to mind promises of freedom and rebellion. Chaos, shameless hedonism and self-indulgence, and exhilaration. All punctuated by the faintest hint of charged, adrenalized sweat.

Sweat. Which--

The top three buttons of Barnum's shirt, undone, expose a bit of his breastbone. The lightly tanned flesh that covers it, the dusting of fine dark hairs curling against it, and all of them glisten in the cavernous, dimly lit front room with a sheen of--

Aware of his tongue creeping out to lick at his upper lip, Phillip immediately rebukes himself, biting down on the inside of his lower lip in his haste to pull his tongue back into his mouth, and subsequently grateful that he didn't manage to break the skin. He feels heat  burning, guilty and shameful, in his face, as traces of his partner's scent linger in his nose and lungs, clinging to them like the sweetest smoke.

Barnum remains outwardly unfazed, and Phillip prays that his telltale lapse of composure escaped the ringmaster's notice.

The former ringmaster, an unhelpful voice in Phillip's head bluntly reminds him. Former. Barnum relinquished his throne and, both figuratively and literally, left Phillip the crown, in his stead.

Phillip, who, contrary to Barnum's insistence, most decidedly does not have a flair for show business.

Phillip, whose creative scope is most certainly hindered by the confines and constraints of the world around them, unlike the man who came from nothing and made a name for himself by intentionally, brazenly ruffling feathers.

Phillip, who is supposed to be the sensible partner, the fixed, grounded structure to counter, and, when necessary, challenge Barnum's unpredictable force of nature… and went and pulled a stunt that rivals the Lind tour in terms of sheer recklessness.

Much as the crowds love the scandalous, the unusual, the completely atypical, and the thrill that comes with bearing witness to them, there is an inescapable sense that Phillip has taken things too far. Done more than simply given their audience a "good show".

If Anne had never drawn the ire of protestors, beforehand, she most certainly would, now.

Now that Phillip has effectively painted a target on her back.

A white man kissing a colored woman. Mixing races. The protests would escalate to riots in ways that they never had, before, and the fire that almost destroyed everything would be nothing compared to what a violent, bloodthirsty mob is capable of. Like tying a rope around Anne's lovely, slender

Phillip swallows sharply, imagining, even without injury, that he can taste the metallic tang of blood. "I wanted to speak with you about the decision you made, last night," he says. Right to the chase. No preamble. Strictly business.

The rest of their family needs Barnum as much as he does. His personal feelings- inappropriate, adulterous, dangerous personal feelings- are of no significance.

Barnum's eyes glimmer with something that looks like amusement, and, honestly, now is not the time. "You went to the trouble of boarding a train and traveling all this way, to discuss this with me?"

Swearing to himself, Phillip intends to comb his brain, draw up a mental script of what he means to say in order to breach this topic in a civil, professional manner. The moment his mouth opens, however, he makes the terrible, inexcusable mistake of allowing an organ other than his brain to do his thinking for him.

He lets inconsequential, perverse feelings supersede professionalism, resulting in spur of the moment improvisation.

His second damning error in less than twelve hours.

"I couldn't be certain I'd have the chance if I didn't seek you out, myself."

A muscle in Barnum's jaw tenses, and Phillip's chest constricts. Abruptly. Painfully.

He runs his fingers along the brim of the hat- the material is still silk-smooth, finely stitched as the day it was crafted in a hatter's shop, no sign of wear detectable; indicative of the amount of care and reverence Barnum has handled it with, over the years- torn between regretting his markedly callous choice of phrasing, and refusing to retract it.

Barnum knows that he made a mistake. He watched the culmination of all of his years of dreams and painstaking manual labor razed to the ground before his eyes, was humiliated in the papers, brought financial ruin upon himself, and nearly lost his wife because he didn't heed her sage words of warning.

Or, Phillip's .

Gingerly, mindful of the stumbles and crossroads that lead Barnum to his decision, Phillip treads forward. "P.T., I know you feel that your family deserves all of your attention, right now. Especially after" He swallows. A hot rush of unprecedented anger squeezing at his throat causes him to spit the words out with more bile than intended. "After the gross and malicious fabrication of your affair with Jenny."

"'Fabrication'," Barnum murmurs. His expression is vaguely pained. Clouded eyes, a humorless twitch at the corners of his mouth. The word brims with derision that seems to be aimed squarely at himself. "You may be the only one who views it that way."

Every nerve in Phillip's body goes cold. His mouth dries, pulse stutters, and his stomach both drops into the soles of his shoes, and wrenches, his fingers flexing with a desire to rest a comforting hand on Barnum's shoulder.

To ask him to clarify what he means by that.

Yes, Barnum was clearly enchanted by the Swedish nightingale, awestruck by the high swells and crescendoes of her vocals and her striking traditional beauty- a combination that leaves every one of Ms. Lind's audiences, even those composed of the most indifferent of snobs, enraptured, speechless, and overcome.

And, Phillip had had his misgivings- nasty, churning, roiling ones colored a bilious shade of green- about Barnum's interest in the renowned opera singer from the moment Barnum began to calculatingly size her up in the throne room at Buckingham palace.

But, Jenny Lind, for all of her worldly status and prestige, wound up being no more than another act. Another casualty of Barnum's unmatched ability to disarm and captivate with flattery and promises that drip like precious gems from his silver tongue until his listener has taken the bait and willingly attached themselves to the hook at the end of his line.

One, perhaps, of less significance to Barnum than the diverse collection he amassed in New York, as, in spite of his pride and his shortcomings, the oversights caused by his blinding ambition, he came back.

To his family, to the oddities, and to Phillip.

Who he ran to, latched onto, stark terror in his eyes, his voice.

Who he charged into certain death for.

And, that is precisely why he cannot leave them, again.

Phillip presses on, hoping, now, to prevent Barnum taking a more extensive foray into self-loathing and embitterment, as much as to steer the conversation back on course. "Even if that is the caseAnd, I struggle to imagine that it is, given the course of action you took before she pulled out of the tour."

He wonders if he's imagined the flicker of a smile- abashed but hopeful- pulling at Barnum's lips. He doesn't intend to wipe it from the man's face, if its appearance was more than a product of imagination, but the fact remains that he came here not to console, but to persuade.

Feelings are negligible.

"P.T., you have a second family that needs you, and a-- " The minute quaver to his voice, one that worms its way in despite Phillip's best efforts to stamp it out before it reaches his tongue, has Barnum emerging from his malaise to look at him.

The ringmaster's arched brows elevate, the lines worn into the skin above the bridge of his nose by age, by stress, by the unforgiving erosion of time, deepening. "Yes?" His ensnaring baritone is more breath than speech.

Something about the utterance of that one word, the breathy quality to Barnum's voice, the intensity of his stare, teases every hair lining Phillip's skin. Tingles on every pore.

The feelings he has tried his damnedest to suppress for months, since the night Barnum first locked that stare on him with the intention of masterfully wearing Phillip's nos down, transforming them into maybes, and triumphantly reeling him in once Phillip had attached himself to the hook at the end of Barnum's lure, resurface, knocking around urgently.

A bird caged within Phillip's chest, fighting to be freed.

It's a detestable attraction. Perverse and sinful and worthy of condemnation in every circle- carriage trade and beyond.

But

"Phin?" Charity Barnum's dulcet voice shatters the silence, and the tension between Phillip and Barnum dissipates, like heavy, sweltering summer's heat alleviated by a burst of rain.

Barnum clears his throat and raises his head to meet his wife where she stands on the winding staircase leading to the second floor of the sprawling manor. "Yes, sweetheart?"

Phillip acknowledges Charity with a brief glance, stomach twisting into knots, and returns to nervously toying with the brim of Barnum's hat.

It will always be Barnum's hat. Regardless of Barnum's attempt to bestow it upon an undeserving and unworthy Phillip.

"I meant to ask if you were coming back to bed, but" As Charity trails off, her gaze fixing on Phillip, Phillip resists the urge to squirm under it.

Thoughts be damned. They are not actions.

He simply stopped by to talk business with his partner. This is a professional house call. Nothing more.

Nothing like what Phillip--

With a polite half-smile, Phillip dips his head to Charity, every ounce of sense and moral fiber left within him screaming that he has overstepped and needs to see himself out. Now. "Please, pardon my intrusion." He feels Barnum shifting and his insides stir, stomach fluttering, palms perspiring, throat tightening, unnaturally attuned to the man's proximity. "I was just leaving."

"That's nonsense." Barnum's voice, tone dismissive as the shake of his head, sends a jolt through Phillip's chest. Long, quick strides bring Barnum to Phillip's side in a heartbeat, and he wraps a hand around Phillip's bicep. The fluttering in Phillip's stomach intensifies in tandem with Barnum's touch, flocks of butterflies joining the caged bird, all of them beating their wings against Phillip's meticulously maintained internal walls, desperate to escape.

Phillip gulps again.

He has Anne. After every hoop, hurdle, and obstacle, they've managed to at last surmount the walls standing between them and take control of their destinies, eschewing the rules and strictures of a small-minded society in order to be together.

He has Anne. Brilliant, breathtaking Anne, who is everything Phillip has ever wanted, and could ever want.

But Phillip feels himself subconsciously adding on, and hates himself for it.

But.

Barnum fixes Phillip in another intent stare, and within those eyes, past the impetuous obstinacy that has proven to grate on Phillip's last nerve, Phillip discerns a gleam. A flash of liquid gold. Hardened. Piercing. Unremitting.

One might go so far as to call it "protective".

"You took the last train of the night to get here, and there's no way I'm allowing you to leave. A strikingly handsome young man with a name that precedes him, aimlessly wandering the streets, searching for a place to stay? Disinherited or not, you'd attract all sorts of men with less than honorable intentions, and God only knows what they would--"

"Phineas," Charity starts, horrified, right at the exact moment Phillip interjects, "P.T.".

Challenging and questioning Barnum is a force of habit, near second nature, at this point. It is only as the dissension begins to take form that it occurs to Phillip that he has no alternative solution to offer up. His apartment is near the Bowery, a train and short carriage ride away from the countryside locale the Barnums have chosen to call home, and Barnum is right. Phillip boarded the last train of the night in order to get here. The earliest he can expect to catch the next train back is eight this morning.

Nine hours from now.

While he certainly isn't a child, and is more than capable of looking after himself, Phillip's opulent upbringing never endowed him with the skills necessary to defend himself against an assailant.

Stillhe is unwilling to impose upon the Barnums.

To provide himself with further temptation.

At least until Barnum declares softly, insistently, eyes boring right through Phillip almost pleadingly, hand warm on Phillip's piqued skin, "You're staying right here, tonight."

Weakness seeps into Phillip, permeating his chest in thick, lapping swells. He swallows and nods just perceptibly.

Barnum's eyes soften. A smile, a genuine, rending, wall-eradicating smile, pulls at the corners of his mouth.

The weakness curling inside of Phillip, the brush of its tendrils akin to the most luxurious of plumes, the softest of silks, has him returning the smile.

Until a dulcet voice calls, once more, "Phin."

Barnum looks to Charity, and Phillip's guilt is instantaneous.

He'd nearly forgotten that the poor woman was standing there.

Skimming his fingers over the brim of the hat, Phillip does his best to subtly withdraw from Barnum. We've done nothing wrong, he tells himself, even if the assurance feels hollow.

One of them truly is in the wrong. 

P.T. and I are merely business partners. Colleagues. Friends . Nothing more.

No matter what his sordid interest in the male form, the intense flutter in his chest Barnum induces every time he so much as glances Phillip's way or brushes a hand against Phillip's shoulder, the ache the man inspires to engulf Phillip's core every time he puts on his immodest crimson coat and steps into the center ring, wants the two of them to be.

No matter how much Phillip would love to drown in Barnum's whisky-colored eyes.

Something oddly cryptic passes between husband and wife before Charity, with a silent but visible sigh, relents.

Maybe, though Phillip fervently hopes this isn't the case, her interruption is more akin to a brewing storm than a pleasant light drizzle.

"He can use the guest bedroom," she murmurs.

Barnum gives her a smile. But, instead of dazzling and disarming, it instead, to Phillip's surprise, is subdued, diffident, fleeting.

More than a bit rattled by this, Phillip feels his brows furrow, his heartbeat kick into a pace that leaves him unsteadied. Barnum's demeanor has been off for quite some time. Since Phillip's arrival, since the fire, since Barnum returned from the tour, since he first began to sacrifice every unique and unconventional aspect of his makeup, the aspects that attracted Phillip to him, in the first place, in a bid to win over the suffocating "high brows" and myopic coterie comprising New York's insufferably restrictive upperclass. It should come as no shock that Barnum and Charity still have edges of their frayed relationship that require mending.

And, still…

Remembering himself and his manners, Phillip recovers enough sense of decorum to dip his head to Charity. "Thank you," he all but whispers.

Charity offers him a small smile, in return. "Of course. You're always welcome here, Phillip."

The assurance, gentle and earnest as everything else about the woman, does nothing but intensify the potency of the guilt gnawing at Phillip's insides.

Barnum clears his throat a second time. "Excuse us," he murmurs.

As if taking a cue from his words, the weight of the air surrounding the three of them increases tenfold without warning, pressing down on Phillip's shoulders, hard and unforgiving, and throbbing at the back of his neck.

Is evident in the crease of Barnum's brow, the twitch at the corners of his mouth, the nervous bobbing of his Adam's apple.

Present in the manner Charity holds her head and clasps her hands together at her waist, her shoulders bowed under her pink nightdress, brown eyes weary and forlorn.

Right as Phillip begins to worry that something between or within the three of them is being drawn perilously taut, threads beginning to unravel under the strain, drawing nearer and nearer to the verge of snapping like the nibs of his pens when he applies too much pressure, irate with a scene that isn't coming together the way he envisioned, the tension releases.

Phillip's chest burns when he draws in a breath, as if he has emerged from a body of frigid water, lungs aching, filled with piercing slivers of ice, ready to burst.

The eye-contact between husband and wife is broken slowly, almost harrowingly, like tearing off a fingernail that snags on the skin surrounding it. Then, Barnum ducks his head and passes Charity without another word, steering Phillip up the stairs and down a long hallway on the second floor.

Chewing at the inside of his cheek, Phillip tries to push aside his concerns. Does Charity suspect that? No. There's no way that Barnum would. Could

The vast dimensions of the Barnums' manor would bring to mind the Carlyle estate, with its similarly lengthy halls that stretch on and on, making travel from one end of the residence that Phillip declines to call a "home", to the other, far more of a hassle than it's worth, were it not for the presence of a feeling that Phillip can only describe as "cozy", present in every inch of the house.

The walls are colored a warm, inviting beige, and illuminated by soft candlelight that lends them a warmer glow, which the faint shadows cast by Phillip and Barnum glide against. Behind one door, opened just a crack, Phillip can make out the soft sounds of Caroline and Helen Barnum sleeping soundly, blissfully ignorant to the turmoils of adulthood and all of its impossible conflicts, enigmas, and complexities. Another door just two down is also left ajar, revealing a brief glimpse of the obviously lived-in master bedroom and the assorted garments strewn about its interior, including what appears to be one of Barnum's overcoats draped over the back of a chair.

Phillip notes, with a dim sense of satisfaction, that there aren't any members of a household staff within sight, and that there isn't so much as a spatter, a spot, or a speckle of sterile, demoralizing, "virtuous" white anywhere his eyes fall. Both things he welcomes warmly.

At last, Barnum pauses at a door three down from the end of the hallway. He twists the knob and maneuvers his hand to Phillip's back, giving him a gentle nudge forward and announcing needlessly, "Here we are."

Peering into the room, Phillip gives his eyes a moment to adjust to the change in lighting, silvery white, now, instead of muted umber, and begins to make out the furnishings.

A window set in the wall straight ahead, framed by curtains, partially open, that allow moonlight to stream in and pool on the floor in neat stripes, as if formed by the brushstrokes of a practiced hand.

A bed sitting directly adjacent to the window, a small armoire against the far wall on the right, and a bookcase with sparsely filled shelves lining the wall to the left.

And, a table and matching chair possessing an ornate backside of swooping arcs and spirals carved within its wooden framework; positioned the approximate middle distance between the bed and bookcase.

The longer he studies the curtains, the more it becomes apparent that they're a deep shade of maroon, and Phillip can't help the small smile that tugs at his lips. This was a result of Barnum's interesting choice of color palette, no doubt, and, somehow, that little bit of the showman's influence makes the empty, untouched guest room feel cozy, as well.

"Let me just get things set up for you," Barnum says, his voice jerking Phillip out of his unsuitably pleasant reverie. As Barnum leaves Phillip's side to "get things set up", any pleasant thoughts and feelings follow right behind him, leaving their warm place inside of Phillip vacant and permitting Phillip's guilt and anxieties to usurp it, promptly icing it over.

"P.T., this really isn't necessary."

Barnum, ever unfazed, hurries about the room as if he didn't hear Phillip, fluffing pillows, smoothing out bedsheets, and attempting- and failing- at discreetly dusting off the furniture.

It's an endearing sight, but "Honestly, you needn't go to such trouble for me. I really don't--"

"Phillip, you're a guest in this home. A treasured one, in fact, and are thus entitled to the same comforts as any member of the family."

This simple explanation, the claim that he is "treasured" by the Barnum family, by the man who swept him out of his comfortably miserable life and into a world that gifted him with more than he could have imagined possible, seizes Phillip's chest, amplifies the weakness that has a firm foothold inside of him, and shoves the admission out of his throat without any tact, grace, or dignity. "I kissed Anne."

Barnum pauses, but only to shoot Phillip one of his brilliant showman's grins. "That's fantastic news! About time, eh?"

"No. It--" Phillip flounders, his mouth unbearably dry and tongue like a useless clump of cotton sitting behind his teeth. On any other day, under any other circumstance, he would happily bask in Barnum's congratulations, in the pride warm and glowing in Barnum's voice and his eyes.

Right now, Phillip's stomach churns at the sight of it.

"P.T., it was a mistake."

Barnum is brought to a full halt, his hand freezing in the midst of tugging the final wrinkle out of the second blanket he has spread across the bed. He turns his entire body to face Phillip, bewilderment flooding his features. "What do you? Phil, you've been trailing after Anne since the moment you first set eyes on her. Surely you didn't--"

"I love her," Phillip says without hesitation. Every nerve in his body thrums with the overwhelming, incontestable truth of it. "Her beauty far exceeds that of Aphrodite, and her brilliance, her elegance, and her fearlessness are matched only by Athena, herself. I love her. Dearly. Fiercely. And the vitriol and small-mindedness of the world will do nothing to change that. I'm not ashamed that I kissed her before so many eyes, only that I She--" The words intended to finish that thought catch in his throat, lost in the fibrous mass of cotton.

"You've never had somebody look at you the way your parents looked at me," Anne had said.

But, Phillip always was "a bit of a scandal". He had "an act" long before he ran off with an exceptionally beguiling charlatan who boasts himself a humanitarian.

One more dishonest than any illusion Barnum sells.

"I cannot love her in the way she deserves," Phillip finally says, at last admitting what he has known, all along. Tears prick his eyes, his heart fractures, and his airway begins to close up, just as it did the night his cowardice prevailed and he withdrew his hand from Anne's, fearing his parents' wrath.

The night he became aware of Barnum's wavering loyalty to the show.

Their show.

Their family.

"Phillip, you" Barnum's eyes sweep over Phillip, his bewilderment not allayed, but exacerbated. "You are one of the most generous, courageous, and selfless men I've ever had the pleasure of knowing."

Phillip chokes out a wry, bitter laugh, his lips twisting into a sad mockery of a smile.

Honeyed words of deception from the mouth of a handsome conman with an exceptionally gifted silver-tongue.

That's all they are.

"Anne could not ask for, hope for, anyone better."

Lingering stares cast on handsome men at various soirées his parents dragged him to. Flirtations with these men as his nth glass of champagne began to take effect. Gladly discarding all care and inhibitions with every swig downed, and minimizing the distance between himself and these men until rumors that held more than a grain of truth were generated and spread and proliferated, and his father had to remind him of his "place". A shameful reliance on the cauterizing burn, the tingling numbness, the welcome detachment that goes hand in hand with whisky, bourbon, tonic, gin… 

Oh yes. Anne truly could not "hope" for anyone better.

When Phillip answers Barnum with silence and eyes focused on the floor beneath their feet, his heart heavy as the ballasts Anne and W.D. use to hoist themselves into the air, Barnum pulls a thick, patchwork quilt from the armoire, unfolds it, and spreads it across the bed.

"Come on," he murmurs. "You're tired."

All at once, as though his body needed a reminder for it to fully set in, exhaustion crashes over Phillip, the wave towering and heavy, knocking him off his feet, soaking right into the marrow of his bones, and seeping into every muscle.

Like a sledgehammer, rather than the chisel Barnum has been using to whittle and chip away at them, it finally ruptures Phillip's walls.

"Expecting you to take over for me on such short notice was unfair, and though you were absolutely spectacular and stepped up beautifully, you--"

Phillip's tears well over and his voice is brittle, strangled, as he relays hoarsely, "I need you."

The remainder of Barnum's sentence peters off.  He spins about, facing his younger partner with widened eyes. "Phillip?"

"I need you, Phineas." Phillip has never addressed Barnum by his proper given name. It's too familiar. Too intimate. But, it slips out with the tears streaking down his cheeks. "You left us, before, and The crowds come for you. I'm no replacement, no substitute, for you. I can't take over your show, or accept your hat, orPlease," he whispers. He begins to tremble, quake, crumble in on himself like the terrified child cowering from his father's furious glares and revolted sneers, before the last person he has ever wanted to see him break. But, he can't stop himself. Can't plug up the dam now that everything is flooding out of it.

Happy as he was- still is- to welcome Barnum back, forgive him, salvage his bountiful and far-reaching dreams from the ruins left behind, Phillip can no longer deny his own feelings of abandonment. They are an old wound, mostly scabbed over and healing with the steady administration of the salve that is Barnum's radiant, unbalancing grin, soaking in the hot enough to scald, but oddly soothing all the same bath of Barnum's intent and captivating stare, and drinking in the titillating rumble of Barnum's voice, sweet as peppermint tea and carrying more than a dash of sensuality, dark and rich, by the cupful.

But, Barnum leaving them, him, again would rip the scab off and tear the deep gouge open anew, Phillip bleeding out as he clutches futilely at the hole in his chest.

Phillip needs Barnum. Needs him back where he belongs. Needs him by his side. There is no magic, no sense of fulfillment, no joy to be had in arriving at the other side without the man who showed him that it not only exists, but is a reachable destination. Who brought him there with a steady, confident hand at his back. 

As he crumples, arms wrap around Phillip, and he feels himself being pulled into a solid chest that smells of every wonderful scent he missed so terribly during Barnum's agonizingly long tour.

That he allows himself to admit smells like home.

"Oh, Phillip." Barnum's voice is soft, teeming with contrition. "I shouldn't have sprung that on you without warning. I should have consulted with you, sought your approval before I" One of his hands finds its way to the back of Phillip's head, and his fingers, long and callused, thread softly into locks of closely cropped hair. "Phillip, I'm sorry."

Phillip sniffles and rests his face against Barnum's shoulder. He breathes him in as tears continue to slide over his cheeks, dripping down his chin, and hates himself for the relief, for the solace he finds in the older man's embrace. This is a shameful display. A squandering of any dignity and decorum tied to his respectable name, upbringing, and former position of wealth and power in elite society.

A betrayal of Anne.

But, Barnum's hand rubbing soothing circles beneath Phillip's shoulder blades, his large, strong, warm hand, and his other hand caressing Phillip's scalp and the nape of Phillip's neck, nullify any remaining shame eating at Phillip's insides.

"I never meant to leave you," Barnum murmurs. The low vibration of speech in his throat and the cavity of his chest is familiar, comforting. "But," he adds with what Phillip is sure is another self-disparaging smile, "you wouldn't know that from the way I've behaved."

"Impulsive and reckless is what I've come to expect from you." Phillip just dares to ghost his lips over the material of Barnum's shirt. This close to Barnum, the man's heartbeat a languid pulsing in his ears, his presence flooding Phillip's senses, Phillip finds Anne receding from his thoughts entirely.

Barnum's laugh is humorless, more of an attempt to dislodge gravel from his windpipe than an expression of mirth. His voice takes on a penitent tone. "I suppose I've given you no reason to expect any different."

"Perhaps, but" Phillip's fingers twine into the loose fabric on the back of Barnum's shirt. His chest swells, the topmost points of his jagged-edged anxiety slowly sanded down as he leans into the showman's body heat. "I seem to be taking after you, in that regard."

Barnum's hands pause their ministrations, and Phillip wonders if he has said something wrong, until he feels a gentle squeeze on the back of his neck and a low chuckle reverberating in Barnum's chest. "Now, don't tell me that. If we lose your sense and reason due to my terrible influence, what's to stop me from steering our circus right into the Atlantic?"

"What's to--"

Phillip stills, not quite daring to hope. "P.T.?"

"I'll come back. Of course I'll come back." Barnum's nose just grazes the top of Phillip's coiffure before he pulls back to meet Phillip's eyes, his hands gripping at Phillip's biceps. "Did you really think I could stay away?"

"Frankly," Phillip muses, a familiar smirk, teasing rather than acerbic, playing on his lips, "I was never convinced that long-term retirement is remotely feasible for you. I find it much more likely that you would drop dead where you stand if denied attention for more than a few hours."

Barnum's mouth twitches into a grin, and the hope Phillip has tried so hard to stifle, surges, full-force, through the entirety of him, enveloping his heart. "You know me all too well," Barnum says.

Phillip can take no argument with that.

"We can share ringmaster duties," Barnum goes on, already leaping back into the role- his role- of quixotic innovator, enterprising visionary, "alternate shows. Weekday afternoons and weekends for me, so I still have time with Caroline and Helen. You taking over evening shows during the week. We'll bring other acts to the forefront- crowd pleasers like Lettie, Tom, Anne and W.D., as well as new hires- to ensure you aren't exhausting yourself. We'll work something out. I'll arrange things so we're able to spend more time together, and--"

Phillip's heart leaps, staggering as it lands. False hope, he tells himself. Don't be lured in it by it.

But, Barnum's eyes are practically glowing as they train on Phillip's face, the shades of verdant and cobalt interspersed through the soft gold of his irises and ringing his pupils visible even with the subpar lighting. "Phillip, I--" He starts.

The false hope rising in Phillip's chest stabs like talons into the meat of his heart, piercing it.

Barnum pauses, lips parted. He shifts his hands, dragging them up, over the swell of Phillip's biceps, to rest on Phillip's shoulders, fingertips lightly kneading, palms grazing the line of Phillip's clavicle.

Phillip shivers; a mixture of muted ecstasy, desire, and agonizing optimism that makes him feel as though he's coming apart.

"I'm never leaving, again," Barnum promises. The mendacious glamour is gone, authenticity shining, brimming, teeming, radiating.

For once, Phillip believes him. Wholeheartedly. "Then, I believe I have something that belongs to you." He arches forward, reaches up, and places the hat- Barnum's hat- on top of Barnum's head. "Your crown, Circus King," he says, voice brimming with fondness. Deep-seated. Undying.

Barnum beams, his eyes crinkling at the corners and sparkling with a fiercely vibrant joy that has Phillip's heart trembling like it just might burst.

It's almost enough.

 

* * * *

 

Macassar oil. Ink. Pleasantly spicy aftershave. Expensive, lavender-scented laundry soap. A rich, musky cologne- not at all overpowering, but instantly detectable on the air, all the same, and leaving a candied taste on the tongue when inhaled, much like the malted liquors the wearer is so fond of imbibing. The faint scent of mint; sweet and enticing. Defined cheekbones, a strong, sharp jawline that could cut glass, and distinguished brows that together compose a strikingly, awe-inspiringly beautiful, but all too often upsettingly dour face. One that houses the bluest eyes Phineas Taylor Barnum has ever beheld. Bluer than gleaming sapphires, shimmering silk fabrics, oceans luminous with the sun's rays, clear, cloudless skies. A physique that, despite being tragically hidden under layers of largely achromatic clothing, easily rivals and outshines the most pulchritudinous of deities depicted in celebrated works of art. Astonishingly smooth and soft hands marked by a single writer's callus on the inside of the second finger on the right hand, and the faintest of scars- old and healing.

That's his Phillip.

Phineas can't pin down when, precisely, he began referring to Phillip as his, especially in a fashion that distinguishes his partner from the rest of the performers in their show. Lettie, Charles, O'Malley, the Wheeler siblings and the other oddities… They're all members of Barnum's company, and, ipso facto, his.

Phillip, however…

Phillip is a unique case. Special.

Phillip had, by far, the most to lose, and the most to gain in joining the circus. He was leaving behind a world that, in his own words, was "suffocating", with its adherence to orthodoxy and castrating notions of "virtue", along with an inheritance and every other privilege that came as part and parcel of his previous standing in high society. The same society that rejected and spit on men of such lowly origins as Philo and Phineas Barnum. A world that Charity fled from, and Phillip both disavowed, and was disavowed by. And, in disavowing this world, Phillip was entering a new one that promised him the freedom to dream unencumbered by restrictions or limitations. A world where inhibitions and preconceptions are discarded at the door, and people are able to embrace the differences that isolate them, have them cruelly labelled as "other", "wrong", "cursed", a "mistake".

When Phineas Taylor Barnum set his sights on Phillip Carlyle, made attaining him a goal that he pursued with single-minded determination and resolved to achieve by any means necessary, including- rather shamefully- taking advantage of the younger man's obvious and potentially concerning predilection for drink, he never could have imagined, even with his vast and unhampered ability to dream up the "crazy" and "unusual", that Phillip's own life would become collateral.

Something to be gambled, waged.

Something very nearly forfeited. All because Phineas put pride before loyalty, lost sight of what truly mattered in his quest to prove his worth to the very world that cast him out and left him to fend for himself when he was no more than a child.

Shifting about ever so slightly, mindful not to disturb Phillip, Phineas clutches his partner closer to his chest, rests his chin atop Phillip's head, and revels- just briefly, he tells, or perhaps advises himself- in the sound of Phillip's breathing. Gentle, languid, eased by greatly needed sleep.

That horrific night, surrounded by a hellish landscape of blistering heat, deafening roars that threatened to rupture their eardrums, beams splintering off, paint peeling from the walls, proudly displayed flyers and articles curling as they blackened at the edges, structures melting, collapsing, smoldering away, windows exploding into showers of bullet-like glass, all Phineas wanted to do was cradle Phillip in his arms. Wipe off the soot and ashes smudging Phillip's perfect, perfect face, whisper countless apologies into his mussed hair. Hair that Phineas would much rather have, should have, will if they make it out alive, muss with his own hand. Rumple, just to rid Phillip of one more restraint, release him from the firm chokehold the collar of uptight aristocracy has around his neck, see his prim and proper and pressed to perfection apprentice lax and unwound. He wanted to fuss over and tend to the bleeding wound that split the skin of Phillip's forehead.

He wanted to savor their reunion, inform Phillip that he had been right, all along, and Phineas was a fool for not listening to him. That this entire situation was Phineas's fault, and he would spend the rest of his life making things up to Phillip, to Charity and the girls, to Charles and Lettie and O'Malley and everyone else he left behind…

But, there was no time. The walls wouldn't hold. The very moment he found Phillip, heart-stoppingly still, at the heart of the inferno, the roof imploded, and the only world the both of them knew was destruction. Mindless, senseless, violent destruction.

The sound of Phillip's breathing, faint but there, thank God it was still there, was the one silver lining, the light in the darkness, a tether to cling to.

As Phillip nestles closer to Phineas, sighing softly in his sleep, Phineas feels the indentation of the scar left by the gash Phillip sustained in the fire. He wonders how many more scars, burns, blisters, cicatrixes, bruises, mar the canvas of Phillip's flesh, and how many of them could have been avoided entirely had Phineas simply stayed.

Unconsciously, unthinking, he runs a hand through Phillip's hair, brushing the pads of his work-roughened fingers through thick, silken brunet strands. The warmth of Phillip's body, the soft firmness of his muscle, the steady beat of his heart that Phineas can just feel through the barriers surrounding it… Phineas is suddenly hyperaware of all of it, and, for not the first time, he feels a desire to….

Never once has he acted on the physical, animal compulsion to betray Charity. Even during those long years of separation, where she was walled up in a horrendously droll finishing school at her father's behest, and Phineas worked the railroad and found himself propositioned by several older men who made up his superiors and overseers.

He was "such a pretty boy", they had said. Had "soft features", would look "quite lovely" on his knees. With his dark curls, they could bury a hand in his hair and almost pretend he was a woman.

The notion never repulsed him, as he supposed it should have. It inspired a peculiar curiosity more than anything else; a morbid fascination with the taboo, the perverse, the dangerous. Though, he had promised his heart and his life to Charity, and the satiation of any curiosity wasn't worth breaking these promises.

He never considered being unfaithful with Jenny Lind, and was utterly bewildered and aghast when he realized how Jenny had interpreted the nature of their strictly business relationship- her face mere inches from his, sea-colored eyes, full of intent, dropping, none-too subtly, hopefully, to his mouth.

But, Phillip

Dear, dear Phillip resurrected that same curiosity. Tempted it. Kindled and nursed it and let it grow limbs that reached far past the origin point of all carnal curiosities, budding leaves and flowers in Phineas's chest.

If P.T. Barnum were to lay with any man, it would, undoubtedly, be Phillip. He can think of no candidate more prime. Educated. Articulate and well-read. A skilled negotiator and suave aristocratic gentleman whose high-class parlance is rich as caramel and velveteen as the star-studded black canvas of the night sky. Teeming with ambition stifled by the society that bred it only to snuff it out. A doleful yet positively seraphic face in possession of those stunning eyes. Eyes that, behind a glaze resigned to a miserable life of whisky-drenched monotony, simply begged to be lit up with childlike wonder. Pleaded for someone to set the man possessing them free. Soft-spoken and reserved, but surprisingly spirited. A heart of purest gold despite being forged in a frigid wasteland where dreams and personality are sentenced to hang at the gallows.

All of this without even touching on Phillip's more salacious anatomical assets. Such as his shapely calves and wonderfully toned thighs, and the bewitching spherical curves of his exquisite rear end.

Yes, Phineas would choose Phillip. In a heartbeat. Always. And, he cannot possibly comprehend why Phillip would have such insecurities about his relationship with Anne Wheeler, even with Phineas's hunch about Phillip's alleged "scandal".

A hunch that Phillip wouldn't be opposed to lying with Phineas, either.

Though, Phineas could never be satisfied having Phillip for only one night. For one fleeting moment of heated passion stolen in the hours where folks of repute have long turned in, and it's only the beleaguered minds and hearts, and the scoundrels, drunks, and courtesans burning the midnight oil.

And, therein lies the problem.

The problem that becomes ever more pressing the longer he remains here, snug beside his partner, swathed in Phillip's warmth, and his soft sounds, and his undying allure.

Phineas does his best to move out from under Phillip without jarring him from his slumber. He has successfully maneuvered, with only some reluctance, away from Phillip, and is just swinging his legs over the side of the bed, preparing to stand, when he hears Phillip's voice, low, and rough and slightly slurred with sleep, call softly: "Phin."

The subsequent pang- longing, painfully, wistfully longing- in Phineas's chest freezes him right on the edge of the bed.

Charity is the only one who has ever called him Phin.

"Phil?" He replies, swallowing tightly around what feels suspiciously like a lump in his throat.

"You're leaving?"

Phineas feels Phillip shifting about, trying to sit up, and quickly turns, placing a hand on Phillip's chest to stop him. He feels sleep-warmed skin clothed in soft, fine cotton, and stretched taut over firm muscle, against his palm. "You needn't worry about that." His smile is soft. Sincere. The only kind of smile that he knows how to offer his dearest business partner, his Phillip, anymore. "Sleep. You can barely keep your eyes open, as it is."

Phillip complies with little fuss, lidded eyes falling closed, verifying Phineas's assessment. He begins to blindly fumble about for the blankets, and Phineas assists him, gathering both blankets and the quilt in his hands as Phillip, without any instruction, intuitively draws his legs in toward his body.

It occurs to Phineas, then, as he spies moonlight reflecting off of the surface of Phillip's dress shoes, that Phillip is still fully clothed. "Hold on just a second," he murmurs.

Phillip hums indulgently, his long black eyelashes fluttering against his cheeks like the gentle wingbeats of an idling butterfly.

Slowly, Phineas sets the blankets down and approaches Phillip. Ever so carefully, he begins relieving Phillip of first his scarf and over and waistcoats, then his tie, and finally, his shoes. Phillip's eyes seem to glow as he regards Phineas, as if harnessing the light of the moon for the express purpose of enhancing Phillip's beauty to unearthly levels.

When Phineas has slipped Phillip's shoes off and set them on the floor, he realizes that his hands are trembling just enough for it to be noticeable, and his throat is tight, the lump within it obvious. "There," he says, just to fill the silence. To give himself something other than Phillip, warm, relaxed, pliant and achingly beautiful, to focus on. "That's much better, isn't it?"

Phillip's lips twitch into an attempt at his signature bitingly sardonic smirk. It's softened by his half-asleep state, and the unmistakable affection in his gaze. "How kind of you to consider someone else's comfort, for once."

Phineas smiles, a fond chuckle at the back of his throat. "It's still the enemy of progress."

"And, you're still ridiculous."

He is, isn't he?

Taking the quilt and blankets into his hands, once more, Phineas pulls them up and drapes them neatly, with the same amount of care he would show Caroline, Helen, and Charity, over Phillip as Phillip lies on his side, stretching his legs out beneath his newly acquired source of warmth, and nestling his cheek into the pillows.

He's vulnerable, unguarded in a way that Phineas has never seen him, before. Even when intoxicated, Phillip dutifully maintains his internal walls, the old saying, in vino veritas, seemingly non-applicable to him. Right now, however, the melancholy that forever darkens his features is absent, just as it had been the previous evening- his smile wide and luminous as Phineas caught his eye during the show; as Phillip dashed into the center ring with sure-footed, buoyed steps to boisterous cheers and thunderous applause. It has been replaced by fatigue-inspired tranquility, and a soft, bleary-eyed stare from those glowing azure eyes that sends a spiked current of unbridled want ripping through Phineas's chest.

"Good night," he bids Phillip with some effort, his voice little more than a rough whisper.

Already on the cusp of slipping back into slumber, Phillip responds softly, adopting a dramatic lilt, "Alas. Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say 'good night' till it be morrow".

Phineas has enough perfunctory knowledge of the art form he derided to recognize the reply as a quotation from Shakespeare's mind and pen. Unless, of course, one were to believe the rumors that the renowned playwright employed the aid of a ghostwriter.

Phineas manages a chuckle at the predictability of his own former playwright, and brushes a kiss to Phillip's brow, then, with a last glance at his partner, whose dangerously captivating eyes are closed, his body relaxing into the embrace of sleep on a long, steady exhale, Phineas forces himself to leave the room; every pulsing beat of his heart urging him to stay.

Not like with Jenny. Jenny, who he mislead. Who he fled from when he realized the depth of his error.

Phillip was right. Charity was right.

He did not love Jenny Lind, yet he made the mistake of choosing her.

And, his hubris nearly cost him everything.

"Is everything all right with Phillip?" Charity asks when he rejoins her at last. The soft, silvery tones of her voice are a balm on his heart, cooling and soothing the instant they're applied. She's sitting on their bed with her right leg drawn into her chest, and it reminds Phineas of Phillip, mere moments ago.

Walls down, gaze soft, eyes glowing, strands of hair beginning to fall out of their immaculate style.

Warm, safe, and alive in his arms.

His heart gives another pang, and he cannot tell if it's from want, guilt, or a potent cocktail of both.

"Yes," he answers Charity easily, naturally. Together, they lift the blankets, slip in beneath them, and smooth them across their laps; their nightly ritual for years innumerable. For all that he promised her a life of adventure and excitement, luxury and riches beyond their wildest dreams, a part of him that feels very much like the miserable scrap of a boy huddled up, shivering in alleys during harsh weather conditions, the constant puling of his stomach disrupting his scant attempts at sleep, cherishes the quiet. The safe. Security, familiarity, a solid, not leaking roof over his head, a bed to sleep in, and the splash of color that brightens his world when it's at its most dismal and grey at his side.

Though, it is a small part.

Much, much smaller than the part of him that thirsts, hungers, aches for more. The part that lead him astray, toward glasses of champagne with royalty, sharing a train compartment with a woman he hardly knew, leaving his daughters calling out for him, voices heightened with desperation and despair, just as he once cried out, screamed with complete anguish, for Charity as a carriage took her away from him, decades prior.

To think that he brought hardship upon the very people whose lives he swore to improve. Precious Caroline and Helen. Darling Phillip. And, dearest--

"Actually… he wanted to discuss something with me."

Charity inclines her upper body toward him, her stare level, strong, fixed, and enduring as she, herself. "And, what was that?"

He faces her fully, eyes meeting hers. Never again will he block her out or hold her at arm's length. "He wants me to return to the circus."

"What did you say?" There is no judgement in Charity's gaze. No break in her voice.

She is strong. So strong. And, the fact that he nearly broke her… Sent her back to her bastard father with tears in her eyes…

"I said I would," Phineas answers her truthfully. He owes her that. "I promised him."

Charity holds his stare, then breaks away with the softest of sighs. "Oh, dear. You and your promises."

Phineas almost holds his breath. Almost dreads her answer.

Then, a soft smile begins to work its way across Charity's face. "Well… Go on." Phineas's expression must reflect his surprise flavored with a hint of disbelief, as Charity continues, "Phin, that show is important to you. And, honestly, what else are you supposed to do, all day?" She regards him with her head tipped, blond hair a silky, cascading curtain around her soft face and warmly glowing brown eyes, her voice brimming with fond amusement as she gives him a light nudge with her shoulder. "I can't see you sitting contentedly around the house, and I think another stuffy, menial office job would send you to an early grave."

Phineas considers questioning her, trying to backpedal, assure her that he could always take up some other line of work. The world will always be in want of a skilled tailor, especially after the Industrial Revolution lead to an exponential growth in textile production. And, he has considered taking up gardening as a hobby, so working as a florist isn't entirely out of the question.

But, he knows it would all be for show, and Charity knows it, too.

"I'm serious," she insists, tinkling laughter threading into her words. "You didn't go to all that trouble just to--"

Grinning wide enough to split his face, Phineas pulls Charity into him and kisses her fully. When he feels her smiling into the kiss, the light puff of a gentle laugh against his mouth, he pulls back to press a second kiss to the crown of her head, and her temple, and between her eyes. "Truly a goddess among men," he says. "Magnanimous, and merciful, and one who knows me very well."

"Unfortunately for the both of us," Charity replies. Lighthearted. Teasing. Perfect.

Phineas only grins- even more intensely, if possible.

Charity tips her head up, and Phineas meets her lips, plush and upturned wonderfully, beautifully at the corners, with his own, raising a hand to cradle the back of her head and lacing his fingers into her downy locks of hair. The rush of love he feels for her fills the entirety of him, pulses with a familiar warmth on the crest of every nerve.   

Yet… his mind conjures up images of Phillip. Misty blue eyes, voice quavering as Phillip relinquished his pride to admit, "I need you."

Phillip, who also knows him too well.

Phineas rests his chin atop Charity's head of soft, rose-scented hair, wraps his arms around her, and drinks in the feel of her against him, the light fluttering sound of her breath. All familiar. All comfortable. All representative of safety, and happiness, and the life he always intended for the two of them to share.

And, he acknowledges that something is missing. That, even after all of his recklessness, his ambition, his hunger, pride, and selfishness… he still wants more

A "more" that has, with every passing day, with increasing clarity, taken on the shape of a disgraced former playwright with a concerning predisposition toward drinking like a fish, a bitingly sardonic smirk with the wit to match, an adherence to utmost propriety even when Phineas pushes and prods him to the point of exasperation, and unearthly blue eyes that, when paired with a tragically scarce smile, could effortlessly disarm and ensnare even the most heartless of scoundrels.

A "more" that he has cradled in his arms only twice, but still knows he would do so again, and again, and again, if given the opportunity. And, might even never let go.