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Beside the Lions and the Ladies

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Bailey still dreams about the circus sometimes.

The days are slow, spent mostly asleep. It makes his dreams unfurl with old desperation to recreate the circus in all its magic, like he's still 11, 13, 16 and standing in an empty field where his future was wrapped in black and stark white. His dreams are painted in desolation. They bear the shape of that old gnawing ache he harbored for the smooth iron gates, the painted tents--tattered and pallid in the sunshine--and the way the dull brown dirt shows through the chalky stripes and the black swirls painted over the circus grounds. His dreams of the circus are dull, empty and washed out in the way that memories inevitably fade. They are real, the duller daylight colors and the muted scents of smoke and popcorn. Still, they feel wrong with the real thing in vivid life on the other side of his eyelids.

Sometimes they are nearly nightmares.

He chases the boy with the red hair through his dreams, weaving in and out of tents he remembers, those he's sure exist but he can't be certain he saw. It used to be Poppet, in white, in black, in costumes that stood stark against the copper of her curls. These days she runs beside him. Behind him. Tearing after Widget with her hand tucked into his and fingers laced together as their feet pound soft through the monochrome of the circus' spiraling paths.

Everywhere Widget runs, the circus goes dark with the night sky and the faint twinkle of fairy lights. Bailey wakes with the taste of rich, dark caramel stuck in his teeth and Poppet's hair a fire against their pillows.

 

 

The charred feeling is bone-deep, hot and creaking along his joints and heavy in his dry lungs. His face is pressed into the soot of a black spiral on the circus ground.There are hands on his neck, the side of his face that isn't crushed into the dirt. It isn't Tsukiko, he thinks, but he doesn't know who else it could be. Bailey is almost certain he passed out at some point.

"Bailey, hey. Come on, wake up," Widget is mumbling frantically, mostly to himself. His knees are sooty and white in equal measure. Bailey thinks it must be Widget's hands on him. He can't speak yet, though he tries, settling instead to nod despite the sand and stones against his cheek.

The movement sends his vision black and spotty in turns, but he doesn't protest when Widget gets an arm underneath his body and hauls him to his feet. Beneath him the world is lurching away at a sickening angle, but Widget's arm is snug against his ribs. They move slowly, careful steps winding back and out to the twins' tents. By the end, Bailey is walking mostly on his own power and he thinks he could speak again if Widge wanted. He stays quiet though, tense.

Poppet is pacing inside when they push in through the canvas door. "You're okay! Are you okay?" Widget helps him sit in the plush overstuffed chair nearest the door, a steady hand pressed warm against Bailey's chest as they sink down. Poppet is in his space the moment Widget steps away, hands roaming his shoulders and face.

Widget slips out while Poppet is fussing at the raw scrape of his cheek. He locks eyes with Bailey as he lets himself out the door but he says nothing. Bailey isn't sure what the expression on Widget's face meant, but he's sure everything he's feeling is too close to the surface, too loud for Widget to avoid it.

 

 

When he saved the circus he bound them to it too: Poppet and Widget for the life of Bailey and the circus, alongside Marco and Celia for as long as they last. There wasn't time to ask if that was okay. On the morning she came to the farm, Poppet made her stance clear, that Bailey belonged with them if he could tear himself away from everything he'd ever known. Eventually, days after Marco put the ring in his palm, he told her they were bound to the circus. In the Paper Menagerie she laughed from behind a paper tiger swishing its tail.

"I would have been so hurt if you had done any different," she smiled. "Have you told Widge yet?" She winced just enough when he shook his head that he worried.

"There wasn't time to ask and I wasn't going to leave him."

"No, it's good that you did. Only. You should tell him what you've done."

 

What Bailey wanted was the circus. That want was once tangled inextricably with his search for Poppet. Her white glove, shock of red hair against the black and white sea, the fairy lilt of her voice. What he didn't know then, what he knows now is Widget too.

Widget is as indispensable to his happiness as Poppet.

Poppet was easy. She slipped back into familiarity after a single meeting, half a decade of memories earlier. Widget though. Widget is harder to catch. His hand, always just too far away. Coat sleeves heavy and long over the bones of his wrist, obscuring the easy path to his palms. Sometimes it's a solo excursion for cinnamon treats while Bailey and Poppet wait for their drinks, racing away up the pillow curves of the cloud maze without an invitation to chase, still always a stride and a heartbeat away.

But Bailey knows the weight of Widget's gaze on him, knows there's nothing hidden in the history that led him inexorably back to the circus and its canvas tents. Eventually, he assumes, Widget will settle into the newness of this. For Poppet, the occasional flashes of the future are a comfort, but the past doesn't offer much comfort to Widget. However he gets there, he has to get there mostly unaided by his gift, save to reinforce things as truth.

 

Poppet stalks over to him around the tiger, careful not to trample the paper toad at his feet as it hops away. She's grinning wide and radiant when she loops her arms around his neck and stretches up to kiss him. "Go find Widget," she says and there's something in her tone Bailey recognizes as a secret.

"What did you see?" he asks.

"Go. Find. Widget." She's still smiling when she shoos him out into the warm evening air.

 

In the Drawing Room, Widget is stretched up as high as he can reach toward the ceiling, dragging broad stripes of white into the velvet of the black chalkboard. He's digging in the chalk, thick strokes covering the wall like a blanket, falling on his shoulders like snow. Tonight he wears a snow white waistcoat over the stiff black fabric of his shirt. The sharp angles of it are softened by his sleeves rolled up to his elbows and the way his hair is long enough to start curling at the base of his skull.

"Widge." It's sharp in the silence. Bailey winces.

"You want me to read you?" Widget asks, and his tone is so resigned it barely sounds like a question. He must be radiating nerves. It's not the tone he meant to set.

"I don't know how to say it," he offers.

Widget's sigh is long suffering, but there's a smile curling soft around the edges of his mouth as he meets Bailey in the center of the room. "You need to work on your communication skills," he suggests. There isn't much space between them--Widget doesn't worry about personal space so much these days--and the scrutiny still makes heat flush the back of Bailey's neck. Widget has an arm crossed over his ribs, tapping the knuckles of his opposite hand against his mouth idly. It's a calculated look, neutral, and if he notices the heat spilling across Bailey's face he doesn't say.

Bailey tries not to be distracted, really tries to maintain eye contact rather than breaking away to stare at the poetry curving around the base of the room in a feminine script. He thinks hard about lighting the circus fire and their signatures in the book at the bottom. Despite his best effort not to convey his desperation to hold onto them while he focuses on his remorse, Bailey is certain Widget knows.

For a moment Widget's eyes lose focus and he breathes out, "Oh," and nothing more. The look is gone as quick as it came, gone behind a neutral mask.

There are limits to the circus, Bailey knows, but the tension is palpable enough he expects the words on the walls to march clean off to avoid the discomfort. It's silent but for the click of Widget's shiny black boots on the chalkboard slate beneath his feet. He doesn't say a word as he returns the chalk to the basin in the corner near where he was sketching out the arc of the sky. Click, click, the cadence of his feet as he makes his way back to where Bailey is scarcely breathing.

His face is still alarmingly blank, but he steps further into Bailey's space than he had even to read him. Careful, so careful, he presses his thumb against Bailey's pulse and lets his fingers curve solid and warm around the back of his neck. Surely he can feel the way Bailey is shaking beneath him, but he says nothing at all, just leans in enough to press his lips against Bailey's temple.

"Thank you," Widget murmurs before stepping away, click click click out into the swirl of the circus blacks and whites between the flaps of the tent.

 

After, in the intervening days, things don't change much. Widget is a little quieter, and he spends more of their circus walks focused on the red scarves and hats and waistcoats of the Rêveurs than on Bailey and Widget. It's pensive more than melancholy though. Poppet steals a piece of the warm cinnamon pastry right out from between his sticky fingers and tells him not to dwell on it so much.

Widget has always hidden behind his stories, as Poppet tells it. As Bailey has seen, he's openly cautious with himself while he knows the fundamental shape of everyone around him. Where Poppet is effusive and forthright, Widget skirts the depths of himself with the unfolding of the story itself, hides behind its words and phrases the way they weave through tents and spiraling walkways. The ends remain hidden, just glimpses disappearing into the darkness. At first glance that hasn't changed.

 

Bailey learns better.

 

Bedtime Stories is still his favorite tent, and he often finds himself there without intention while Poppet reads fortunes and Widget runs the big cats. There are new bottles lately. Daily. They are far and away Widget's best work, and he's hidden them in plain sight among all his old stories that haven't yet run out of potency. There's the smell of spiced cocoa and the sound of a Rêveur's buttoned boots crunching pearls near the ice gardens in a tiny red vial. Another, a rich plum bottle with a metal stopper on a delicate chain, that was the promise of an inclement weather party and the delighted shrieking of children as they spilled out of the white flaps of the cloud maze early one evening.

They don't seem especially significant when they first appear. One night though, after Bailey has made an early walk around by himself, contemplating a name for their cinnamon pastries and nibbling on chocolate mice, he finds himself in Bedtime Stories. There's a new vial this time, and it only catches his attention because it was so obviously meant to be hidden. Nothing is ever hidden in this room, not with intent, until now. It's frosted white glass, thin and unusually small. Bailey carefully unwedges the cork from its narrow mouth and breathes.

It smells like chalk more than anything at the start. Slowly the story builds though, the warm puffs of buttered popcorn from behind stiff painted linen, whiffs of spun sugar on a night breeze. Sweat. Racing heartbeats--a pair of them--and the way it felt to put a hand on the flush racing down Bailey's bare skin. Bailey has no idea if he was meant to find it. More accurately, he supposes, he's not sure when he was meant to find it. Too late to wonder now that he has.

Bailey corks the vial and takes it with him when he leaves the tent, careless with closing it discreetly behind him again. This time of night, between shows, there's no telling where Widget will be. Not the Hall of Mirrors, nor the Drawing Room. The latter sends a rush of heat to his ears, and Bailey resolves to ask Poppet.

 

She smiles indulgently at him when he pokes his head in through the beads without coming inside. There's not even time for Bailey to catch his breath and tell her what he wants, as though she doesn't know already. The stars scatter across the black velvet of her table with practiced grace and she answers his unspoken question, "The Room of Bones," without bothering to watch their landing.

 

Bailey finds him hunched over a golden case near the back corner. Across the glass cover Widget's tracing the outline of a femur with his fingertips and nodding absently to whatever story the bone is telling him. He straightens up and stops listening when Bailey comes to stand beside him.

"What brings you here?" he inquires.

"You," Bailey replies, and he presses the vial firmly into Widget's open palm. Widget looks at it for a moment, heat coloring the bridge of his nose and spots high up on his cheeks. When he looks at Bailey finally it's from under long lashes and with a sheepish grin.

"I don't know how to say it," he offers.

Bailey steps in closer until he can take the vial back and pocket it to take back later. "You need to work on your communication skills," he suggests in turn.

Widget's laugh is nearly as bright as Poppet's, and he pulls Bailey a little closer with a hand at his waist. "Do you think?" He closes the remaining distance and kisses Bailey carefully. He tastes like caramel and the exotic coffee from the cocoa tent. "It seems fine to me," Widget declares, triumphant despite the shy smile pulling at the corners of his mouth.