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Hold your breath--it gets better

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Mike and Lola have been living together for a couple of weeks now, in a little garret on the other side of Paris from the Cirque d'hiver. The window's always flung wide open--Lola's a country girl and she likes to watch the pigeons--but the light never seems to get into the corners. Mike's got a job cleaning gutters and windows while he looks for something better. He isn't sure what would be better. All either of them knows is circus.

He's working up to asking Lola to marry him. He's afraid when he does, it'll break whatever spell made this seem like a good idea and she'll run back to Tino. She seems happy, though. Mostly. She's trying to seem happy. So is Mike. He thinks Lola's doing a better job of it than he is. It makes him feel like that dog in the cartoon, a stray someone dragged home and tried to pretend knew how to behave. Sooner or later, he'll start biting.

When Tino shows up at their door, Mike is both surprised and not surprised at all. Surprised he'd bother--but of course, the kid loves Lola. And not surprised he managed to track them down. Tino's a determined little shit when he wants to be. Mike and Lola are having breakfast, there are footsteps on the stairs and a knock, and Mike knows.

Lola doesn't. She stares at Mike when he jerks to his feet and goes to the open window instead of the door, standing there trying to get himself under control. "What is it, Mike? Surely that's only the mikman." She stands and tries to push her hair into some semblance of order anyway, peering at herself in the cracked, tiny mirror.

"You look beautiful," Mike pushes out through dry lips. It was grand while it lasted, anyway. He doesn't say it. She doesn't know it's over yet. He's going to grasp onto this moment with both hands until it slips through his fingers. Her little cry when she opens the door goes through him like the crack of a bone breaking.

She tries to shut the door in Tino's face. Mike doesn't know what the feeling that clogs his throat is.

"Let me in, Lola," Tino says, and shoves his way past her. Somehow Mike expected him to look different, but he doesn't; he's in the same faded sweater and jeans. Mike knows without looking that they're the ones with the torn-off pockets in the back. Mike shouldn't know that. One of the many reasons Tino shouldn't be here.

"How are you?" Tino asks, hunching his shoulders. Mike can't answer.

"We're fine, Tino," Lola says, with a nervous little laugh. "Just fine. And you? When are you going to New York?"

Tino's eyes dart between them. "When I've got an act," he says, half-defiantly.

"You have an act," Mike says harshly. "Otto--"

"I want you to come back," Tino says. He says it in a rush, but he meets Mike's eyes now and doesn't fidget. He thinks he's right and he isn't going to back down. Mike doesn't understand how someone so easy-going can be so stubborn. "Both of you. I don't care about any of it, I guess you'll be getting married, but that's all right, it'll just be the Ribbells and Orsini then." Tino wavers a little on that bit of earnest generosity, but he gets it out. "I just want you to come back."

Mike braces himself for the effort of dislodging him. He already feels exhausted. It's hard to want to get rid of Tino when Mike's so glad to see him. Lola doesn't say anything. She's watching Mike, waiting to see which way he goes.

Mike hardens his heart. "Otto's your catcher now."

Tino scuffs his toes on the floor and looks at the dirty floor. "I've been falling with Otto." He looks up at Mike. "It's not Otto's fault. I guess my clock is still keeping time with yours."

Mike can't breathe. "Then readjust it," he spits out.

Tino glares. "You think I'm pretty cheap, too, don't you? With a flyer like me, anybody can catch me!"

Mike bites his cheek and looks at Lola. She puts a hand on Tino's arm, softly. Mike wants to rip them apart. He wants to shove them out the door. He wants to be in the air, where none of this matters.

"Don't you see, Tino?" she asks. Her eyes hold Mike's, large and dark with those lashes like whips. "It's because he holds himself cheap--we want him and that must mean we'd take anyone."

Mike turns away from them, as quickly as he can. He leans on the windowsill. "I can't catch you," he says. "Don't ask me to."

"You won't let us fall." The certainty in Tino's voice makes Mike shiver. Mike noticed that from the first. Tino doesn't know a damn thing but the way he looks at you, it's like he thinks he's got all the secrets of the universe in his head and is just dying to show them to you. "Look at her, Mike."

Somehow, Mike turns back around. He looks at Lola.

"She was born for the spotlight. Are you really going to keep her here darning your socks?"

"I don't mind," Lola says quickly. But Mike looks her up and down and sees something. She's wearing brown and gray, a faded skirt and a soft sweater. She only wore colors before. She has a talent for costume, Lola does, and this is what she chose for her new life. Drab, dull. Is that what she expects out of being with him? Maybe she just doesn't think she deserves to shine, after whatever sin she thinks she committed.

All my life I wanted to get better and better, and be the best of all, she told him. Lola doesn't need more practice at pretending to be content. She's been doing that all her life. Mike doesn't want her damn penance.

"You should go with him," he tell her.

She flinches, a quick painful movement, and shakes her head. "Not without you."

He can't go back. He'll let them fall, one way or another. He has to make them understand that. "Come here, Tino," he says. His voice is hard and low. He sounds drunk. He isn't. He's been avoiding alcohol pretty carefully the last couple weeks.

Tino comes, obedient and eager as a puppy. Mike grabs a fistful of that stupid soft sweater and kisses him. He almost loses his balance doing it, but Tino catches him.

When Mike lets him go--he's seen that look on Tino's face before. After the triple. He stares at Mike with that awful, destroyed blankness--and just like then, his face breaks abruptly into joy. Mike watches uncomprehending. His lips burn where they touched Tino's. He feels as if everything good, everything happy he had left in him has been emptied out into Tino and replaced by stones.

"Lola," Tino says, "how do you feel about a three-act?"

Mike leans heavily on his cane. He can barely turn his head to look at her. She sucks in a breath, eyes wide. His brave, beautiful Lola. She takes a step, and then another. "Have I got top billing?" She's trying for a joke but her lips are trembling.

Mike's expression steadies her, though. She looks at him and calms right down. He doesn't know why. He doesn't know what's on his face.

"Am I supposed to be shocked?" she asks, her voice full of tenderness. "Everyone in that tent knew except for him."

Mike's stomach curls inward. Tino beams. Mike wants to wipe the smile off his face. He wants to hit him. His fists clench. He hates himself. "I can't catch you," he says again, his voice like gravel. "Either of you. Not on the ground. I don't have it in me."

Lola takes his hand and kisses it. "Up there, you help us fly," she says, and just that word--fly--his heart lifts up for a second before he remembers that he can't, that he'll never fly again. "Down here, we'll catch you."

Tino nods, as if it's that simple. "Come on," he says, grinning. "We'll show you what we can do." He pulls Lola towards him, turns them, lifts her up onto the windowsill. The sun hits her golden skin like a spotlight, and she wraps her legs around Tino and leans back, leans out over nothingness so the light slides over her curves and spills onto Tino. They're so beautiful it sticks in Mike's throat like too much honey.

Tino draws her smoothly back up, those beautiful hands of his on her upper arms. He kisses her neck. She's watching Mike. "Got any pointers for him?" she asks, laughing, pushing Tino's sweater down his arms and arching back and to the side to see Mike. Tino lets go of her waist to pull the sweater off and Mike can't breathe, she's going to fall, she's going to fly, he can feel it building in his throat like the moment when you let go of the bar and fall toward the net and if you don't remember to breathe you'll scream without even meaning to. He drags in a breath and Lola pulls Tino's T-shirt off. She shoots Mike a wicked look, watching him watch the muscles in Tino's shoulders. He knows them like the back of his hand. He's even touched them. He wants to touch them now. He can't. He won't. Tino shoots him a laughing look too and flexes his shoulder blades. Mike swallows hard and doesn't move.

Lola pulls off her own sweater, and then her shirt. Black lace cups her breasts, and then Tino's eager hands. He pushes the lace down and hesitates. He fumbles a little, glancing at Mike in embarrassment.

Mike can't help saying, "Lick your fingers. She likes--here, I'll show you." He pushes himself forward. The sun is hot when it hits his face. He blinks against it. There's a feeling in his chest like wings unfurling.