The night air was cold against Mike's face.
It took him a little while to feel it. He was still flushed with the exertion of it—the trapeze act itself, and the rush to get away after. His heart was going a mile a minute, and he hurried out into the street and just went, walking as quick as he could manage with the cane, coat thrown on haphazardly over the bright white costume he was still wearing.
But it was Paris. Probably nobody would think twice about it, even if they did see the spangles peeking out from underneath.
He kept going. It felt like he couldn't have turned around even if he'd wanted to. He'd been seized, gripped tight, by a relentless overwhelming tide; and it carried him all the way to the Place de la Concorde before it subsided, almost as quick as it had come, and left him there.
He ground to a halt, leaning heavily on his cane. He was shaking a little, arm trembling; he gulped in a breath, absently shifting his grip on the cane, and was distantly shocked by the ache in his knuckles. He'd been clutching it so tight he could hardly make his hand let go of it, and his fingers were cold but his palm was sweating.
He wanted to keep going. He wanted to run.
But he'd been walking too long already, and his bad leg was shrieking like the devil. He'd catch his breath, he told himself. He'd catch his breath, and think, and come up with a plan. Get out of the country, or—or find somewhere to hole up, somewhere he wouldn't be found. Somewhere he could drink himself into the gutter, and nobody would come looking.
So he stayed where he was. And the night air was cold against his hot face, coming off the Seine; and he stood there in the dark, gripping his cane, chest heaving, eyes stinging, looking out at the city lights and trying to pretend they weren't blurring, smearing. Trying to pretend that he hadn't been scooped hollow, that there was still anything left.
He'd come to a stop a bit to one side of the flow of traffic, since he was far from the only person walking along the Place de la Concorde at this hour—far from the only person who'd paused to look out at the river, either, for that matter. As if from a distance, the sound of hurrying steps came toward him, and he eased out of the way further still; somebody in a rush, sure, and wanting to pass by everybody walking slower, and here he was standing in their road. "Pardon," he said, "j'm'excuse," keeping his head ducked low, wiping absently at his wet cheeks.
Except the footsteps didn't keep on. They scraped to a halt right there by him. And Mike knew, knew, even without looking up, and covered his face with his hand, twisting away, wishing for one grim fierce second that he'd thrown himself in the goddamn river without wasting any time.
"Hey, Mike," Tino said.
Mike went still. Tino didn't sound angry. He hardly even sounded like Tino; he'd said it quietly, even a little bit carefully.
"Mike, where are you going?" And Mike didn't look up then either, but he didn't have to. He could feel it when Tino moved a cautious half-step closer. "Where are you going, huh?"
Mike squeezed his eyes shut behind his hand. "Oh, what does it matter?" he snapped, as sharp as he could manage. If he could only make Tino angry, then maybe it would be all right. Maybe everything would still work out the way it needed to.
He should have planned better. All those reporters asking questions, flash-bulbs popping, and if he'd only had the sense to say something cruel—Tino could have a temper, if you drove him to it. Mike had proven that.
Except as hot as it might blaze up, it went out just as quick. Otherwise Tino would never have pulled that triple, that glorious, beautiful triple; no net, only Mike to catch him, even though not five minutes earlier he'd have broken Mike's nose all over again if he could.
And if Tino could forgive him Lola, could forgive him for the whole mess all at once and trust him like that, what could Mike ever have told the reporters that would have kept Tino away from him?
Probably nothing, Mike thought grimly. Probably he'd never had a shot at all.
He rubbed his aching head, and didn't look up at Tino.
Who'd gone quiet, but not for long. "Well," Tino said at last, "I need to know what to pack, see? How many layers, how many sweaters. Swim shorts—no swim shorts. You know."
Mike bit down on a sigh. "Wherever I'm going, I'm going alone," he said. "You got a contract, Tino, a good one. You got a contract, you got a catcher, you got everything you ever wanted. Take it, all right? Take it."
"Sure, I have a catcher," Tino said. "I have a catcher and I'm keeping him, no matter how many handsprings I have to do."
"Handsprings," Mike repeated, and he hadn't meant to turn, hadn't meant to meet Tino's eyes, but he did.
"I'll do 'em the whole way across the Atlantic if I have to," Tino said, and the corner of his mouth was tugging up just a little, his gaze earnest and pleading on Mike's face.
He hadn't meant to do that either. It was just he couldn't help it, suddenly, looking at Tino and remembering Tino following him down the street. He'd thought it was a taunt at first, Tino and his fine strong legs doing what Mike would never be able to do again; he hadn't known better, back then. And then, once he had, turning to where he thought there'd be a face and finding Tino's shoes instead—and Tino on his hands, offering to walk with Mike the only way Mike could walk without the cane.
Tino took the laugh for encouragement, because Tino took everything for encouragement. He flashed that bright eager smile of his at Mike, hustled forward another two steps and put a hand on Mike's elbow.
And then he slowed, and bit his lip. He was still in his costume just like Mike, except he hadn't thought to throw a jacket on, and he looked bright and unreal, sparkling here and there whenever he moved and the lights caught it right. "The way I figure it," he said slowly, "signing a contract with Ringling North without you, when they'd never have looked at me twice if you hadn't taught me so much—well." He stopped and shook his head. "That would be at least as lousy a stunt to pull as—"
"As what I did with Lola?" Mike filled in bitterly.
Tino fell silent.
"Yeah, something like that," he agreed after a moment, but his temper really had burned out after all: he didn't sound half as angry as he should. He didn't sound angry at all.
He still had a hand on Mike's arm.
"Mike," he said, quiet. "Mike—don't go. Not like this. At least talk to me about it, will you? At least talk to me."
Mike closed his eyes.
It was a bad idea. He shouldn't listen to Tino. He couldn't afford to. He knew what he needed to do, and Tino was only going to try to talk him out of it. Because Tino didn't understand why; and with any luck at all he never would.
Mike bit his lip and twisted out from under Tino's hand, clutching his cane. As if it would help any, as if he had any chance of outrunning Tino—
Except he didn't even get the opportunity to try. Something shot across Tino's face that it would have been impossibly stupid to call "panic"; but whatever it was, it was there, and Tino caught him by the lapel of his jacket, got in front of him, so instead of moving away he was only crowding himself right into Tino.
"Please," Tino said. "Mike, please."
And oh, it would take a far, far stronger man than Mike Ribble to remain unwavering in the face of Tino; Tino right in front of him, Tino's wide eyes, the warm strong press of Tino's knuckles against Mike's chest through his coat.
"All right," Mike heard himself say, and maybe he would have been better off throwing himself in the Seine after all.
Mike couldn't stomach heading back to the circus. Even if he'd wanted to, there would still be a crowd there—and probably some more reporters hanging around, too. Not the best place for this conversation.
So he found himself leading Tino back to the hotel instead. The one where—oh, what a stupid thing to do!
But then Tino needed the reminder, didn't he? Hardly a bad thing if Mike kept the memory sharp instead of letting himself off the hook just because Tino seemed willing to. And they'd both be better off if Tino yelled at him, shoved him into the stairs all over again and left him there.
He couldn't quite talk himself into taking the same room, though. That was a step further than he wanted to go.
Tino kept his mouth shut while Mike paid, and followed Mike over but then paused at the base of the staircase going up. Mike glanced back and Tino looked up at him, eyes bright, and didn't say anything.
He didn't say anything on the way up, and he didn't say anything while Mike was screwing around trying to get the door open. Mike went in and shucked his coat off, and it was going to need a wash—just tossing it on like that after the act, he'd sweated all over the inside. He had half a mind to offer Tino a shower, a change of clothes; and if Tino took him up on it, he could wait till the water was on and then make a run for it—
"Why'd you try to leave, Mike?"
Mike shut his eyes. "Tino—"
"What made you run like that?" Tino persisted. "Every other stupid mean thing you've ever done to me was about the act. About keeping us together, just us, nobody coming between—"
It was stupid, but he couldn't help it. And of course Tino hadn't missed it; the way he fell silent said as much. Mike couldn't blame him one bit for talking about it like that, or for remembering everything Mike had told him. Looking at like that, sure, it didn't make sense at all—Mike couldn't bear the three-act, had almost set their whole partnership on fire over it, and the second Tino relented, went ahead and did the triple with him anyway, he was out?
Didn't make sense, unless you were Mike. Unless you knew what Mike had figured out, a split second that had felt like a lifetime, up there in the middle of his swing, feeling Tino's hands lock into place around his wrists and his hands around Tino's; and the only thing he could see, the only thing in the world, had been the look on Tino's face—had been Tino's eyes meeting his.
He'd understood, then. He'd understood, all at once, the desperate and inexplicable cruelty that had been driving him the whole time—why it had felt so urgent, so terribly necessary, that Tino listen to him. Why he'd resented it, with such sullen relentlessness, when Tino hadn't; why it had frustrated him so much, why he'd half made himself sick thinking about it. Why anything, anything, had seemed like a fair play in return.
He'd understood, and he'd gotten himself out of there as quick as he could. He'd had his coat in his hands—if only Tino hadn't been just as quick, hadn't caught him there at the door right in time for all the photographers to arrive—
But then he'd been the one who'd taught Tino to keep in time with him. So maybe he only had himself to blame.
"Mike?" Tino said.
Mike rubbed his forehead and bit at his mouth. "Look, Tino," he tried, except he didn't know what should come after. He didn't know what else to tell Tino, aside from the truth, and the truth was—he couldn't say that. He couldn't.
It made him feel sick all over again just thinking about it. Lola had been right about him, except she hadn't been right about why. Everything he'd done up till the triple, everything he'd been telling himself and Tino—about the integrity of the two-act, the purity of it, about how they were supposed to be with each other—had been the lousiest, thinnest, most pathetic kind of lie. He'd wanted Lola out, but not because it was best for the act, and not out of some kind of abstract, deeply-felt principle. He'd just—
He'd just wanted Tino to himself, that was all. He'd wanted Tino to himself, with such unbearable, blind, mindless greed that he hadn't even known it. Not until he'd gotten it, for that perfect breathless instant; and then, too late, he'd finally recognized his own want for what it was.
He screwed his eyes shut and rubbed his hand over his face. "Look, Tino," he said again, "I'm just trying to do the right thing, that's all."
It was even true—the closest to the whole truth that he could get, anyway. He was trying to do the right thing, finally. To get Tino clear at last of everybody who meant to use him, everybody who had something in mind for him that was to their own selfish benefit and not Tino's own. And if that meant getting him clear of Mike, too, then that was all right. At least with Ringling North there was a contract, money on the table; at least he'd be clear about what he expected from Tino and why.
But when he risked a glance at Tino, Tino didn't look convinced. "And what's that supposed to mean?" Tino demanded.
Because of course Tino didn't know any better than to push, even if all he was doing was making this harder than it already had been.
"What's it sound like it means?" Mike said tiredly.
And he couldn't—he couldn't keep looking at Tino. Even this, having Tino here with him, and behind a closed door, made his stupid gluttonous heart want things. Things it had no business wanting, things he had no right at all to ask for—
"I don't know, Mike," Tino said, a little sharper. "That's why I'm asking!" He stopped and bit his lip, like he hadn't meant to get quite so hot, and when he spoke again it was obvious he was deliberately trying to keep calm. "I just want to understand. I thought we were all right. I know I was angry with you. You hurt me and I wanted to hurt you back. But then when we were up there, I—" He shook his head, and the expression on his face became wistful, wondering, almost too much to even look at. "I wanted the triple more. I wanted the triple more, and all the rest of it went away."
"Even Lola," Tino added, soft and steady. "She's not going to forgive me for that, Mike, but it's true. She knew it and I know it. She didn't want to be anywhere near us, after." He paused, and took a step toward Mike. "Nobody comes between, you said. And I told you nobody was going to, but I didn't understand. I didn't understand that if it's a real two-act, really real, then nobody even wants to. Nobody could stand to try, when they can see from the start they're never going to get close.
"I didn't understand till we were up there. We were up there, and suddenly it was like everything else was just gone. When I threw that triple, I didn't even care there was no net, Mike. If you'd told me there never had been, that there wasn't any such thing as a net, right then I'd have believed you. There was nothing in the whole world but you and me—"
Mike couldn't bear to hear any more. He made a sound, an awful ragged sound, and pressed a hand over his stinging eyes, twisted blindly away from Tino and stumbled—his cane, he'd let go of his cane. The bright sharp burst of pain up his leg was almost welcome, some kind of excuse for the hot tears spilling over onto his fingers.
"Mike!" Tino said, and before Mike had even landed Tino was there, strong steady arm around Mike's chest. "Mike," Tino said again, tone troubled and bewildered both, and then he was easing closer still, adjusting his grip on Mike's torso, Mike's shoulders, to help him keep his weight off the bad ankle. "Mike, I—did I say something wrong? I didn't mean to. Gee, I'm sorry. I just wanted you to know I understand now."
Except he didn't. He didn't, couldn't, because Mike hadn't told him—because he believed all those stupid lies Mike had been telling this whole time, and he didn't know the truth.
Mike felt a funny, cold sort of calm come over him. He leaned into Tino's arms, swiped his hand across his eyes and his cheeks and then let it drop, and looked; and Tino was looking back at him, gaze wide-eyed and earnest, artlessly sincere. Mike had never been able to turn away from him, when he looked at Mike like that.
And even if Mike tried to go, it wouldn't matter. He'd follow. He'd do handsprings across the whole Atlantic. Mike wouldn't be able to reason with him, because Tino'd never listened to reason before and why should he start now?
Only one way left to make him understand, Mike thought distantly. The only one he couldn't argue with.
"No," he told Tino quietly. "You didn't say anything wrong, Tino. You didn't do anything wrong, either. It's me. It's me, I'm the problem. It's me," and then he reached up and got his hand around the back of Tino's neck, thumb just at the line of Tino's jaw. Tino's eyes went wider still, and his mouth dropped open a little in surprise, and Mike looked at it and then leaned in and kissed him.
It was a confession, that was all. Everything Mike couldn't say, couldn't bear to admit, given up in a way Tino couldn't ignore. So Tino would understand at last that it had never been about principle or partnership or the two-act; he'd realize why Mike had really done it all to him, and whatever he did to Mike then, it would only be as much as Mike deserved.
Tino froze under Mike's hands. His mouth had softened, slackening with startlement, and Mike should have just pulled away, just made his point and then let go—but he was never going to get another shot at this. He was never going to get to feel this again, and he couldn't help but press closer, kiss Tino harder, so at least he'd have the memory. All the rest of his life as a bitter lonely drunk, at least he'd have this to think of, and if he was lucky he wouldn't ever learn the good sense to be ashamed of it the way he should.
But at last Mike got a hold of himself and eased off. He let go of Tino, turned away and covered his face with his hand again and limped over to the crisp clean hotel bed, so he could sink down safely onto the corner.
"That's why," he said gently, into the silence. "That's why, Tino. All right?"
Tino didn't say anything.
"I can't—you can't—you'd better go, you see. You'd better go. Go on, get out of here."
Tino didn't move. Mike felt a brief surge of frustration. He'd just let Tino in on the whole ugly mess of himself, in a way that should have made it plenty clear there was nothing here Tino wanted any of. It should have gotten rid of Tino for good. It should have sent him out of Mike's reach, and no doubt about it. But instead he was just standing there. What else did he need? What more was Mike going to have to do to just get him to leave already?
And then Tino looked at him and swallowed, hard enough so Mike could see his throat move, and reached up with one hand to touch his own mouth. "Mike," he said blankly. "Mike, you—"
He didn't seem to know what to say next, how to ask what he must have wanted to ask.
So Mike went ahead and took pity on him. "Yeah. I didn't know at first. I didn't know," he corrected himself, "until the triple. Not that that's any excuse for how lousy I was acting. It was there the whole time, I think. I just didn't know."
And once Tino had heard that, it would all snap into place for him. He'd understand that Mike couldn't be trusted with him, that nothing Mike had done had been fair or right or sincere, not with something like that running underneath it all. He'd see how Mike had been jerking him around at least as bad as Lola—worse, even, claiming he was only trying to look out for Tino when that hadn't been half of what he'd been after.
Except the look of comprehension that was dawning across Tino's face was only that: comprehension.
"Oh," Tino said. "Oh."
Mike stared at him, and felt a twinge of apprehension. That wasn't the face of a man who knew what Mike deserved and meant to give it to him. "Tino—"
"I didn't know either," Tino said, still mostly sounding bewildered; and then he met Mike's eyes again and moved, crossed the length of floor between the door and the bed in a few quick strides, and caught Mike by the shoulders.
"Tino," Mike said, knocking his hands away, filled with panicked urgency. What was Tino doing? What was Tino thinking? Didn't he realize what Mike was talking about, what it meant? Then again, maybe Mike should have known better than to ask a man who'd throw himself at a stranger with no net to have the common sense to be angry—
"I guess I should have figured," Tino said, voice hushed. "But I didn't know either," and then before Mike could do anything about it, jerk free or belt him or get up and leave the room, he'd set a hand to Mike's face and was kissing him instead.
Mike was only stunned for a second, and then did jerk away, pushed at Tino's shoulders and said harshly, "What do you think you're doing?"
But Tino didn't waver. He took Mike's shove evenly and kept his feet under him, and didn't back off. He looked at Mike carefully, and of all things, he was—there was a smile waiting to break across his face, the corner of his mouth slanting up. "What's it seem like I'm doing?" he murmured, sly, and then leaned in and—and kissed Mike again.
Mike wrenched himself to stillness; there wasn't any other word for it, when he could feel himself just about shaking with the effort. He couldn't kiss back. He couldn't. He had to wait it out, that was all. Tino was taking pity on him, trying to be kind to him, or else still felt like he'd be cheating Mike out of that Ringling North contract if he let Mike go. That was all it was. He'd drop this whole stupid idea soon enough, he'd have to, as long as Mike didn't do anything rash.
So Mike sat there on the edge of the bed and kept his hands to himself, didn't move or reach for Tino or anything. And finally, after another moment—after a day, it felt like, Tino kissing him slow and sweet and easy, but of course it couldn't have been—it was over.
Except Tino didn't move away after. "Let go, Mike," he said against Mike's cheek, so low it was hardly more than a whisper. "Come on, let go. I got great hands, ask anybody. I'll catch you."
Mike closed his eyes for a second, and dragged in a shaky breath. "Tino," he said, and he'd meant it to be firm, chastising, but all it sounded like was yearning.
"You and me," Tino added, "we don't need any net." He hesitated, and then drew back just a little: just enough to see what he was doing, when he slid a hand down over Mike's heart. Over his bare chest, because their uniforms didn't cover that far, and Mike wished he had the guts to knock that hand away but knew he didn't, wanted to feel it on him far too badly. "We keep the same time, right?" Tino stopped and bit his lip, and then shook his head. "How could you—how could you think you'd tell me that, and I wouldn't have felt it, too, even if I hadn't figured out what it was? How could you think you were alone? How could you think I wouldn't—"
"Tino," Mike said again, helplessly.
"I just didn't know, that's all," Tino said, low and insistent, and his gaze on Mike's face was bright, intent, unwavering. "I saw you do a triple. Remember? That's the only reason I knew what I wanted, what to shoot for—how far it went. You didn't kiss me till two minutes ago, all right? I didn't know."
He brought his free hand up, rubbed his thumb along the curve of Mike's lip, and when Mike's breath caught audibly at the touch he looked—he looked amazed and glad, unafraid, the way Mike was starting to think he looked at everything dangerous and difficult: like he couldn't wait to learn how to do it, like once he had the trick of it he'd never stop.
He leaned in and pressed his lips to Mike's again. And this time Mike let his eyes fall shut, and flew.