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that’s when i could finally breathe

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Phillip Carlyle, son of the esteemed Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Carlyle, made front page headlines when he ran away.

Reporters had a field day when the news broke that Phillip Carlyle had fled his father’s multi-million dollar estate. In particular, one Mr. Bennett over at The Herald set aside his favorite thing to hate — P.T. Barnum’s “freak show circus” — to focus, instead, on the Carlyle boy.

It didn’t take long for the rumors to become downright outlandish. One rogue reporter published an article claiming that Phillip hadn’t run away — he’d been murdered by his own father’s hand. Soon after, other journalists started to sink their teeth into this theory.

Mr. and Mrs. Carlyle released their own statement to the press. No, they did not murder their only offspring, disgraced though he may be. That was utterly ridiculous. Offensive. Vile to even think about. They’d be suing every “gossip rag” that reported such garbage. They even threatened to go as far as to sue the city.

The Carlyles were adamant in their denial of involvement in anything that may have happened to their son.

But that then left the question...

Where was Phillip Carlyle?

*

The man leers down at Phillip. At one time, Phillip may have tried to defend himself, but now he only flinches away and tries to shrink into the dark corner of the alleyway. His clothes are ratted and torn, dirtied beyond recognition, but the man doesn’t seem to care. His hand strikes out like a snake, grabs Phillip by the jaw, squeezing and forcing his lips to pucker. His fingernails are long and dirty and dig into the soft skin of Phillip’s cheek.

The man grins. Several teeth are blackened or stained, others are missing. His breath washes over Phillip, sour and rancid, and makes him gag. “How about putting that pretty little mouth of yours to use, eh?”

Phillip whimpers, squeezes his eyes shut, tries to twist away. But he’s much thinner than before, his clothes hanging off him like rags, and doesn’t put up much of a fight. He flinches when he hears the familiar rustling of fabric, but has nowhere to run.

He’d fled without money, without valuables. He had nothing.

He could have headed to a homeless shelter, but... no. There aren’t many in the state, but the few that there are would have required his name, possibly identification. As soon as somebody heard the name “Carlyle,” they would have put two and two together. Reporters would be contacted, he would be flocked with questions. His parents would be notified, and his father...

No.

He can’t go back there.

So it is with his eyes squeezed shut, two tears streaking down his dirtied cheeks, that Phillip parts his lips and accepts his fate.

*

P.T. Barnum doesn’t pay much attention to the headlines... unless, of course, it is he who is being written about. He doesn’t know much about the Carlyle boy’s disappearance, only that it seems to have distracted Mr. Bennett for the time being. Normally, Barnum would be plotting ways to get his name back in the papers, but all Mr. Bennett seems to care about is dragging his name through the mud. It isn’t good publicity, so Barnum doesn’t want it. Good riddance to him.

No, instead Barnum is busy planning another round of recruiting circus acts. His audience wants something new so he is going to give it to them. He’ll travel the entire state of New York if he has to... perhaps he’ll even venture into Connecticut or New Jersey.

He plans to leave by train in the morning, and is going to keep W.D. Wheeler in charge. O’Malley thinks that Barnum is entrusting him, but... well, could you really trust a thief alone? He is going to be gone for a few days, perhaps a week. He can’t take any chances.

Charity, his former wife and mother to his two children, seems more concerned about the trip than he is.

“What if something goes wrong while you’re away?” she frets.

Barnum laughs. “What could happen? The circus catches fire?”

Charity purses her lips and says nothing.

He chuckles, kisses her cheek. “That would never happen. Everything is going to be fine.”

The next morning, he hugs Charity and kisses his daughters goodbye.

And then he’s off.

*

His left eye is so swollen shut that he can’t see out of it. Tears roll down his cheeks, stinging cuts, mixing with blood. He’s managed to get up, managed to move from his old alleyway into another, but he knows that it won’t keep them away for long.

All his energy seems to have seeped out of him at once. He curls into a ball and closes his eyes.

He sees his father. Theodore Carlyle’s angry face, normally so stoic even as he beats his only son, now enraged red. His own screams echo in his ears, useless pleas that fall from his lips. His mother wasn’t there, but he can see her watching in the corner, her lips pulled down into a tight frown, as she had many, many other beatings.

All because he’d been so careless.

Now, the ghosts of those injuries throb as if reminding him. Disgusting. Useless. Vile. He trembles, his left eye throbbing. That wasn’t because of his father... that was because somebody had been unhappy with his ‘performance.’ He can’t remember the man’s face now, they all run together.

It’s cold in the alleyway, he shivers. He has no idea what day it is, what week, what month. His stomach, once consistently filled with the privileges of a first-class life, now gnaws with hunger. He’s learning to ignore it. Doesn’t much care anymore if he winds up succumbing from starvation.

He hasn’t seen a reflection of himself in Lord knows how long, but he imagines he looks a mess. He stinks, too, he can smell it coming off himself in waves. The clothes he wears — the clothes off his back when he ran that night, once a fine outfit, now little more than dirty rags — are stained with dirt, blood, sweat. The seed of strangers.

Another wave crashes through him, this time equal parts from chill and tears.

Phillip sobs, alone.

*

Barnum is frustrated.

He’s seen a dozen acts, maybe twice that, and has yet to recruit a single one.

Phonies, all of them. Amateurs trying to scam a scammer.

There was one woman who claimed to have taught her pet pigeon to sing... more like she wasn’t quite right in the head. A man, about Barnum’s age, who claimed he could see into the future... but only after he was paid a dollar.

Barnum saw that one coming. Yeah, buddy. Give the man a dollar, he’d claim “theft is in your very near future,” and book it.

Honestly, he’s offended that any of these people believed they could make a fool out of him.

There had been one act that seemed promising, a trio of lion tamers. But nobody in that trio could have been above the age of ten, despite the fake mustaches they tried to pass off as real, and even Barnum can’t take children away from their own families. He, himself, is a father, after all.

Besides, he can’t even begin to imagine the outrage if one of those kiddos were hurt by any of his animals.

Barnum sighs, slumps in his train car as they begin to move again. Not for the first time, he regrets not asking someone in the troupe to come along. Lettie would have made good company.

He can only pray for better results at his next stop.

*

Some days, Phillip wonders why he doesn’t just kill himself.

Deep down, he knows why. When he was a child, he had an uncle — his father’s brother — who’d put the barrel of his own gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Neither of his parents bothered to hide this fact from their son, so he knew right away how his uncle had died.

They didn’t go to his funeral. They didn’t go because Phillip’s father held resentment towards the brother he once (supposedly) loved. Theodore believed that his brother had “taken the coward’s way out.” He said that his brother, his own flesh and blood, would be rotting in Hell for all eternity.

Phillip doesn’t commit suicide because, deep down, he is still afraid of disappointing his father.

So each day drags by and he hopes that hunger might kill him off instead.

Of course, he has never been so lucky.

*

Barnum whistles as he walks down the street. He is feeling surprisingly merry — he wouldn’t be recruiting anybody until tomorrow, but the people in this city greeted him with a much warmer reception than the liars and the thieves had at his last stop. He’s feeling good, hopeful, that he may be recruiting some talents yet.

Now, after a day touring the city and seeing what there was to see, he’s heading back to the room that he’s rented for the night. As he’d been leaving the shops, he ran into a perfectly sweet, elderly woman who’d given him an apple “for his troubles,” and now he raises the sweet fruit to his mouth, about to take a bite.

Somebody groans.

He stops. Lowers the apple, looks around.

There aren’t many people on the street — it’s a city, yes, though not nearly as busy as his home in New York — and nobody seems to have heard a thing. He’s stopped right outside a dark, empty alleyway.

Barnum shrugs and takes but a single step forward, eager to get on his way.

That groan again.

He stops again, scowls. Looks directly into the alleyway as he calls out, “Is anybody there?”

No response. But, he swears he heard—

Barnum, not even thinking about a potential threat, diverts his path and turns, instead, into the alley. It’s dirty and reeks of piss. He wrinkles his nose, reminded all too well of the many nights he himself slept without a roof over his head.

“Hello?” he calls out. Then, after a beat— “I’m not going to hurt you.”

Again, no response. His frown returns as he scans the alleyway.

It’s getting dark, the sun setting, but he sees it. Right where the orange light meets the shadows, a leg is stretched out just in his line of vision. Barnum grins and approaches eagerly.

The man — or boy, perhaps, Barnum can’t quite tell — recoils as Barnum’s shadow looms over him.

“Please,” he begs, voice cracked and dry, “no more.”

*

Phillip begins to weep as the man traps him into the corner. His tears mix with dirt and blood and snot.

“Please,” he begs, “no more.”

The man parts his lips, seemingly at a loss for what to say. Phillip doesn’t notice.

“Kill me,” he pleads, voice rising, high and hysterical, “If you’re going to anything, please, just kill me— I can’t— I d-don’t—“

He breaks. He can’t fucking stand it anymore and sobs more than he has in his entire life. His entire body trembles with the force of his tears and he waits, just waiting for the man to hit him or rape him or kill him or—

The man lowers to his knees and reaches out, gently brushing his fingers against Phillip’s cheek.

Phillip screams.

“Hey, hey!” Immediately, the man’s hand falls away and the man backs off. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

Phillip’s dry throat burns with the strain of screaming. He sobs.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” the man repeats. “What’s your name?”

Phillip doesn’t respond. His face is wet, his eyes burn.

“Do you want this?”

The man holds out something red and round. Phillip’s eyes widen, saliva filling his mouth.

An apple.

Can he even remember the last time he’s seen an apple?

Phillip’s eyes flick, hesitantly, up to the man’s face. The man’s face is calm, his eyes soft. They’re... hazel, maybe.

“It’s all right,” the man promises.

Phillip’s hands tremble so much as he takes the apple, he nearly drops it. He closes his eyes as he takes that first bite, apple juice exploding on his tongue. His eyelashes wetten with fresh tears.

“Not too quickly,” the man mumbles. “You don’t want to upset your stomach.”

Phillip tries to slow down, but it’s hard. When there isn’t anything left to the apple but the core, he feels like crying again.

He looks up at the man. “Thank you,” he whispers.

“I’m Phineas,” the man says. He still keeps away from Phillip, makes sure not to touch him. “Can you tell me your name?”

Phillip looks down into his lap as he shakes his head.

“All right, that’s okay.” The man — Phineas — pauses as if considering his next words. “Would you... would you like to come back to my hotel room with me?”

Phillip’s eyes blow wide open. He cries out, shakes his head in alarm as he tries desperately to shrink away. “No, no, please don’t—“

“Not like that!” Phineas is quick to say. “Not like that! I just... thought you’d like a bath. Maybe some more food and water, huh?”

As Phillip settles, his mouth pools with saliva again. That apple was the best thing he’s had in a long time, but he knows it’s not enough.

And... fresh water...

“You... you won’t—“

Phillip doesn’t, can’t, finish that thought, but Phineas seems to know what he’s asking all the same.

“I swear on it.”

*

Later, Barnum orders them both some meat and vegetable soup. He gets more for the boy than for himself even though he knows that, if the boy has gone a long period of time without a proper meal, and it very much looks as though that may be the case, it’s best to eat in small increments rather than all at once. Still, the boy must be starved and Barnum would rather they have too much food than not enough.

The boy, whose name Barnum still does not know, is in the bathroom. Has been for a long time. He’s on his third bath now — Barnum only knows this because he’s twice asked for a change of water. He is, quite literally, scrubbing himself down. Barnum can only begin to imagine the state of the tub itself... the maids are going to have a field day. Perhaps they’ll be kicked out, never to step foot in this specific hotel again.

At the moment, Barnum doesn’t much care.

He sets to figuring out what his ‘guest’ is going to wear. He can’t very well continue to wear the clothes Barnum had found him in, they’re tattered and filthy.

Filthy with things other than mud.

Barnum winces as he recalls the familiar, damning stains. Barnum isn’t a fool, he can imagine all too well the things the poor boy had been forced to do.

A knock on the door interrupts the man’s whirling thoughts, announcing that their meals have arrived. Suddenly, Barnum is struck with an idea and his eyes brighten. He grabs extra money from his belongings before opening the door.

The person at the door is a pretty young woman, probably a maid, who can’t be any older than her early twenties. He accepts the tray of food with a smile and a thanks, but he stops her with a request before she can move further down the hall.

“Would you mind running into town for me and grabbing an outfit? This should be more than enough for one full set, maybe two.” He gives the young woman the cash and, though he has no way of knowing the boy’s exact measurements, gives her an estimation of his sizes. “Of course, I would be more than happy to tip you upon your return.”

The request is a bit odd, but the young woman agrees with a smile and a, “Yes, sir.” He gives her the money and thanks her before sending her on her way and shutting the door.

With any luck, she’ll be back with an actual outfit. Barnum hopes she won’t just make off with the money... though, he really couldn’t blame her.

Barnum sighs. Fingers crossed, anyway.

He sets the bowls of soup on the table, then pauses. He isn’t sure how long his errand is going to take the woman, realizing that the boy’s soup might get cold.

There’s a small, portable stove in the corner of the room — a luxury that paying extra for nicer hotel rooms provides — and it’s this that Barnum uses to keep the boy’s soup warm.

Then he knocks on the washroom door. Not surprisingly, there’s no answer.

“Are you in there?” Barnum asks.

Silence stretches on for a long time. Finally, he hears a hesitant, “Y-Yes.”

“I’ve got a maid fetching you a fresh set of clothes. There’s soup waiting for you when you’re good and dressed.”

Silence again. Barnum doesn’t think the boy is going to answer... but then he hears an even quieter, “Thank you.”

The man can’t help a smile. “You’re welcome.”

Barnum himself decides that he’s going to go ahead and eat — there’s no telling how long the young woman  is going to be with her errand.

He takes his time eating, and there’s a knock on the door when he’s about three quarters of the way through his meal. Somewhat surprised, a wide smile spreads across his face and he gets up to answer it.

The young maid is standing there, true to her word, a bundle of clothes in her arms and a new pair of shoes dangling by her hand. She looks up at him and says, “I couldn’t buy two outfits, but you did have enough left over for a nice overcoat and mittens — it’s starting to get dreadfully cold at night. Ma says we’re in for a bad winter.”

“So we are.” Barnum takes the clothes and the shoes, thanks her, and gives her a generous tip. The girl’s eyes widen slightly — it’s surely more than she makes in an average week.

Before she leaves, Barnum calls out, “May I ask for your name?”

Her cheeks tinge a light pink. “Miss Elizabeth Maywell, sir.”

“Thank you, Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth leaves and Barnum shuts the door. He bends down, places the bundle of clothes with the shoes on top outside the washroom door, and straightens. He knocks again and calls out, “I’ve got a set of clothes here for you. They’re outside the door when you’re ready.”

Then he returns to finish off his meal. He makes it a point to sit with his back to the washroom door and, after a moment, he hears the door creak open and then close again. A few more minutes tick by, and then the door opens.

Barnum turns with a smile. “Your supper is on the—“

His words falter and his eyes widen. Now that the boy is scrubbed clean, seemingly not a speck of dirt or mud on him, he seems... extremely familiar. His hair, once greasy and matted and hanging in his face, is done up in a fresh style, not a lock out of place. His blue eyes seem brighter now that he’s not caked in filth. He’s still extremely thin and pale, dark shadows under his eyes, but...

“I know you!” Barnum exclaims, perhaps a little too loud in his excitement.

The boy — no, now that he’s bathed and dressed, Barnum can see that he is, very much, a man — jumps and looks at Barnum with wide, deer-like eyes.

“Carlyle,” Barnum breathes, “You’re the missing Carlyle boy!”

“Not missing,” the Carlyle boy mumbles. He averts his gaze, looks anywhere but directly at Barnum, “Ran away. And for good reason.”

“What was your name? Pip or Philippe, or—“

“Phillip,” he sighs, “My name... is Phillip. Phillip Carlyle.”

There’s a low grumbling sound and Phillip winces, puts a hand to his stomach. He still won’t look directly at Barnum.

“You need to eat,” Barnum insists. He takes the soup bowl from the stove and sets it on the table. “It should still be plenty warm. I’ll get you some water, too.”

Phillip seems wary as he slowly lowers himself into a chair, looking very much like he’s going to bolt any second.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Barnum states as he pours a glass of water and offers it to Phillip. Phillip hesitates, then takes it.

“I suppose you’re going to tell my parents where I am,” Phillip mutters. Despite the fact that he must — literally — be starving, he simply stirs his soup with a spoon.

“Why would I do that?” Barnum asks.

Phillip looks at him in disbelief.

“If you say you took off for good reason, then I believe it. I won’t contact anyone unless you want me to.”

Phillip stares down at his soup bowl. He doesn’t seem to know what to say.

“You need to eat,” Barnum urges gently.

So Phillip does, and he practically inhales the fresh glass of water like a man who’s been stranded in the Sahara. As soon as he takes his first bite of his first proper meal in... Barnum couldn’t even begin to guess how long... his appetite returns with a vengeance, and he struggles to remember to slow down as he shovels his supper into his mouth. After his first bowl, he finishes the little bit extra they had left over and drinks the broth.

“Good?” Barnum asks.

Wordlessly, Phillip nods. He looks like he might cry again.

“Thank you,” he whispers.

“You don’t need to thank me, Phillip.”

As they prepare to sleep for the night, Barnum lends Phillip an extra sleeping gown. He swims in it, the larger gown hanging off his too-skinny shoulders. This seems to embarrass him, and he retreats further back into a frightened shell.

The room, having been one that Barnum booked before stumbling along his surprise houseguest, only has one bed. It’s a double, but Barnum knows better than to get too close to Phillip.

“I’ll sleep on the floor,” Barnum proposes without being asked. “We’ve got extra blankets and pillows, I’ll be fine.”

Phillip’s voice isn’t anything more than a whisper. “Phineas, I couldn’t ask you to—“

“It’s all right,” Barnum interjects, “I’ll be fine. I’ve slept in worse places, it’ll be nice and cozy.”

Phillip hesitates, then nods.

Barnum doesn’t miss the fact that he looks relieved.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t take very long for them to settle. Barnum, in his nest of blankets and pillows, finds sleep easily even on the floor.

It’s sometime later, still in the dead of night, when Barnum wakes to pitch blackness and overhears Phillip retching in the washroom.

*

When he first introduced himself as Phineas, Phillip didn’t make the connection right away that he was actually P.T. Barnum of Barnum’s Circus.

After their night spent at the hotel, Phillip reluctantly agreed to go back to New York City with him. It is close to his parents’ old residence, but Phineas swears up and down that he will not throw Phillip to the wolves. So far, he has kept up on that promise.

He also makes no move to touch Phillip. Slowly, Phillip starts to relax, little by little, around him and, after a time, he allows the lightest of touches. A comforting hand on his shoulder, a friendly handshake. Those are okay.

He is allowed at the circus and meets Phineas’s circus acts. Anne and W.D. Wheeler, siblings who can soar through the air as easily as they’ve sprouted wings. Lettie Lutz, the bearded woman with a voice powerful enough to rattle the entire building. Charles Stratton, a misfit-turned-general on a horse whose lack of height is swiftly made up for by his quick wit and sharp tongue.

The circus troupe is more than friendly and accepts him into their circle easily enough. He is grateful for this and, though he is most often quiet around them, has seemed to accept this band of misfits as well.

Deep down, though, he knows he doesn’t belong.

Phineas has brought these people together, turned them into a family. They are beautiful, talented. Have learned to love life despite the things that separate them from the rest of society.

Phillip is the outlier. They don’t treat him as such, but he knows it’s so. He has no talents that are worthy of the circus. He is not outcasted because of how he was born — he is outcasted because he has allowed himself to stray from the path his father laid out for him. He is outcasted because he has been touched, ruined, soiled, by the hand of man, and he did nothing to stop it.

He is outcasted because it is he who gave into temptation in the first place, and it is he who is so foolish that he allowed his own father to catch him.

He doesn’t belong with these people.

And when Phineas Barnum — the bright, brilliant, beautiful man that he is — learns the truth, Phillip will be cast out again.

Thrown to the wolves to pick off what remains of the person he once was.

*

Though they, thankfully, do not hound Phillip, Barnum is swarmed by questions from his troupe.

Questions about how he found Phillip. About why Phillip was alone in that alleyway. About the state Phillip was in when Barnum stumbled across him. About anything they can do to help.

They are not malicious in nature, but Barnum suspects that Phillip knows he is being talked about.

The most popular question, though, is: Why doesn’t Phillip want to return to his parents?

Barnum has his suspicions, but doesn’t dare voice them to the rest of the troupe. Instead, he simply tells them that why Phillip doesn’t want to return home is Phillip’s business. He’s sure they have more questions, but he advises them against going after Phillip right now. He may think that they’re teaming up against him, and they do not want to make him feel trapped.

Lord knows he’s already had enough of that to deal with.

So the troupe backs off, as per Phineas’s orders, and Phillip seems to relax a little more. Phineas has set him up a little space in the office, and it’s there Phillip waits most nights during shows. He was wary when Phineas first set the shared office up, but now doesn’t seem to mind the shared private space as long as Phineas keeps to his side of the room.

It’s a few weeks after bringing Phillip to the circus for the first time when Phillip says, from his side of the office, “You were incredible out there.”

Barnum, who has settled down to do some paperwork between performances, looks up in surprise. “You saw the show?”

Phillip’s cheeks tinge pink. He pauses, then says, “I... got curious one night. I watch from behind the stands.”

Barnum beams. “Well, I’m glad you enjoyed it. Maybe you can join me out there sometime.”

He doesn’t expect Phillip to laugh. It’s a quiet, reserved sound, a soft chuckle that would be easily lost in the roar of a crowd.

It’s the most beautiful thing Barnum has ever heard.

*

It scares Phillip when going home with Phineas starts to become a little too familiar, a little too comforting.

And when did he start thinking of Phineas’s estate as “home”?

He still hasn’t told Phineas. Every time he tries to bring it up, he backs out. Phineas doesn’t push him, doesn’t try to force him to answer, but Phillip can see the questions burning behind the man’s eyes. He doesn’t question Phillip, but he wants to.

And Phillip is still too scared of losing all he’s gained.

He knows that, at some point, he has to let the public know that he’s still alive. He can’t keep hiding in Phineas’s house or behind the audience stands forever. But thinking about breaking his silence fills him with a horrific dread, terrible anxiety that, some nights, has him on his knees in a washroom in the dark. Phineas doesn’t know about the panic attacks. He’s been lucky so far — most of them happen while he’s alone in the middle of the night.

He’s scared to tell Phineas why he fled home. Fucking terrified.

But the undeniable, growing, blossoming attraction for the man who swept him away from city alleyways scares him a thousand times more.

*

It’s not uncommon for Barnum to become restless in the night. He has never been a heavy sleeper, especially thanks to the endless stretches of time on the streets as a young teen, and can often wake at the drop of a hat. When Charity and the girls still lived with him, he was constantly jostled by his wife slumbering aside him or one of his girls seeking water in the early hours of the morning.

Now, it is he who seeks water. He stirs, grunting as he sits up, and clears his throat. Dressed only in his sleeping gown, he thinks nothing of it as he crosses the room (feet bare) and enters the hall.

His houseguest has all but left his mind until they bump into each other on the stairway.

“Oh!” Phillip gasps. He is holding a candle and backs away as not to burn Barnum, nearly tumbling down the stairs as he stumbles on a step. He regains his footing, though the hand holding the candle trembles slightly. “Phineas, I’m sorry.”

Barnum doesn’t pay this any mind. He doesn’t mind Phillip’s rumpled sleeping gown or his messy, untamed hair. Instead, he is focused on Phillip’s face, lit aglow in the candle’s flame, and the tear tracks that travel down his cheeks. “You’ve been crying?”

Phillip stills. He averts his attention to the floor.

Then, in the silence of the stairwell, Barnum shocks them both by admitting, “I often hear you whimpering in the night.”

Phillip looks up, alarmed. His face reddens in the glow of the candle. “I’ve woken you? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—“

Barnum shakes his head. “Always been a restless sleeper. You could get up to wash your face and I’d probably wake. It’s certainly no fault of your own.”

Phillip shakes his head, looks down again. He says nothing.

“Is it the men? Do you have nightmares?” Barnum’s question is quiet, but Phillip stiffens all the same. His head snaps up in alarm and he nearly stumbles backward again, stopped only as Barnum reaches out and steadies him by the arm.

“H-How did you—“

“I’m not a fool, Phillip. I saw the state you and your clothes were in when I first found you. I saw the... stains.”

Phillip doesn’t know what to say. Fresh tears shine in the light of his dying candle.

“And,” Barnum takes a breath. His voice is suddenly shaky, thick with emotion, “I grew up on the streets. When my father died, I was left to fend for myself. I... know what men are capable of.”

Phillip’s gasp is audible.

The weight of Barnum’s confession hangs in the air between them.

“You—“

Barnum’s smile — or grimace, most like — is tight and small. “Yes.”

Phillip inhales sharply. “Does anyone—“

“I used to be married. Charity’s a lovely woman, I’ll have to introduce you sometime. I know she suspected — I never said so in as many words, but... she knew.”

“Phineas,” Phillip breathes out.

Barnum looks at him, eyes like amber honey in the light.

Phillip gulps. Phineas can see something — indecision, maybe — dancing behind his eyes.

“I...” Phillip hesitates. Gulps again.

“I need... I need to talk to you.”

*

“I knew it was foolish,” Phillip whispers. They sit together in the dim living room, Phillip on one couch and Phineas in his armchair. Phillip absently stirs at the cup of tea Phineas has made him, still so hot that steam rises from the drink. His eyes are an entire world away. “But, bringing those men home, behind my father’s back... it thrilled me, Phineas. It excited me in ways that only alcohol had ever done. I had never... ever... felt that alive in my entire adult life. Perhaps not since childhood.”

His words catch in his throat. He glances down, continues to stir his untouched tea.

“I knew the risks,” he says. “Of course I did. I’m not stupid. My father has always had a temper, and I have never been a son that he could... be proud of. I thought that, if I were caught, he’d disinherit me. Perhaps throw me into an arranged marriage. It’s not unheard of in the aristocracy.”

He cringes. His hands tremble so terribly that he has to set the cup of tea down.

“I’d been with men before, but I’d only been sneaking them home for... a year or so. It was— when my father finally caught me—“

He squeezes his eyes shut.

“He came home early from a black tie dinner with some of his associates. My mother wasn’t with him, she was away visiting her sister. He found... he found us on the couch, with my guest’s hand down my trousers.”

Tears leak from his eyes.

“I‘m not going to betray his name... I hope you understand that. My father... when my father found us, he fled out the back door so quickly that my father never even touched him.”

Shaky exhale.

“I, however, was not so lucky.”

He’s openly weeping.

“My father beat me within an inch of my life that night, Phineas. I still don’t know how I found the energy — pure adrenaline, I suppose — but somehow I made it out the door. I don’t even remember the trip to the train station, but I had just enough money on my person for a ticket out of the city... and that was all.”

Phineas interjects only one time to ask, “You didn’t go to a shelter?”

“They would have asked for identification,” Phillip whispers. “Especially given how beaten and bruised I was. As soon as they knew my name... I couldn’t go back there, Phineas.”

Phillip doesn’t look up when Phineas gets up from his chair and kneels on the floor in front of him. This time, when Phineas slowly reaches out to touch his face, Phillip flinches, but doesn’t scream or pull away.

Nonetheless, Phineas starts to back off the moment he feels Phillip flinch under his touch.

“No,” Phillip whispers, “It’s okay.”

“You didn’t deserve to go through any of that,” Phineas mumbles. Phillip’s face is wet with tears that he wipes away.

This time, Phillip meets his gaze.

“And,” he says, “Neither did you.”

*

“Phineas,” Phillip mumbles.

“Hmmm?”

“Can I...” There’s a pause. Then, “Can I kiss you?”

Barnum’s eyes widen.

“Are you sure?” he asks.

Phillip nods.

Barnum sucks in a breath.

“Yes.”

With Barnum kneeling on the floor as he is, Phillip sits taller than him. He watches as Phillip’s eyes widen, as if not believing that Barnum actually gave him permission.

Then Phillip leans forward and his lips are feather-soft.

Barnum suspects that Phillip is holding himself back, still restrained by trauma and uncertainty, but he doesn’t care. Phillip’s mouth is soft and sweet, the push of his lips warm against Barnum’s own, and Barnum responds to the kiss just as tenderly. It’s not a long kiss, but very well could have lasted a lifetime.

Phillip’s eyes are wide when the kiss breaks, and Barnum can feel the smile, equally as wide, pulling at his mouth.

“Wow,” Phillip breathes.

Barnum can’t help the laugh that escapes him. “Good?”

Blushing, Phillip ducks his head and nods.

Barnum’s wide grin softens into a a tender smile as he stands and offers a hand. “Come on,” he says, “it’s late. We should be getting back to bed.”

Phillip starts to take his hand, then hesitates.

“It’s all right. You can go back to your own room.”

Phillip visibly relaxes and takes Barnum’s hand. When he stands, he brushes his lips lightly against Barnum’s cheek, and it’s Barnum’s turn to flush pink.

“Thank you.”

*

Phillip is certain that last night was a dream.

But when he stumbles down the stairs and into the kitchen at five past ten, Phineas is there waiting for him. He sets his mug — coffee, probably — on the countertop and opens his arms.

Phillip stares at him only a moment.

Then he stumbles into Phineas’s arms and envelops himself into Phineas’s scent.

*

The first few times they kiss, Barnum lets Phillip initiate them. They’re soft and sweet, unsure at first, but each one growing with a confidence that Barnum has never before seen in the boy.

The first time that Barnum kisses Phillip, it’s after a show at the circus. They’re behind the audience stands, alone save for each other, and Barnum is high off the thrill of another successful performance. He kisses Phillip, unaware he’s even doing it until their mouths are pressed together, lips warm and slightly chapped.

He backs away immediately, apology ready at his tongue, but Phillip only shakes his head and pulls him closer by the lapels of his coat. Barnum sighs into Phillip’s mouth and Phillip tangles his fingers in the hair at the nape of Barnum’s neck.

Here, it is just the two of them.

Here, in this moment, Barnum feels he would do anything to keep Phillip safe.

*

There’s an unspoken, unofficial agreement between them that sex is off the table — for now.

Phillip isn’t ready. Isn’t sure he’ll ever be, though he hasn’t dismissed the idea completely. He just... can’t. Not now, but perhaps later.

Phineas understands. They don’t often speak of Phineas’s own experiences at the hands of scumbags during his own time on the streets, but Phineas does confide in Phillip one night. They’re lying together in Phineas’s bed (Phillip doesn’t sleep there, not yet, but has spent many nights on the cusp of sleep only for Phineas to carry him back to his own room) when Phineas quietly admits that it took him a few years to feel comfortable enough to lie with a woman. Even then, he has only done so a couple of times.

And was gifted two lovely little girls out of it.

The rest of the night is spent with Phineas telling Phillip stories of his daughters, and those stories bring a bright smile to Phillip’s face. He’s in the middle of a story about how Caroline and Helen tried to bring home a black and white “kitty,” only to discover that it was actually a skunk, when he cuts himself off and chuckles.

Phillip can barely keep his eyes open.

“Time to get you to bed, huh?”

Phineas shifts off the bed and starts to scoop Phillip up. Phillip shakes his head and slaps lightly at Phineas’s arm.

“No, no.”

Phineas pauses, confused. “Hmm?”

Phillip looks up at him. “Wanna stay here... with you, Phineas.”

“Are you certain?”

Phillip nods. Phineas smiles and lowers him, tucking him into bed.

Phillip is already slipping off into unconsciousness as Phineas mumbles, “Good night, darling. Sleep well.”

*

Barnum cannot describe the feeling of waking up with Phillip in his arms.

He’d stirred awake a few times in the night. Being a terribly light sleeper, he wasn’t accustom to having someone who wasn’t Charity sleeping beside him. But it’s here, now, with the early morning light shining through the window, when he truly pauses and relishes in the feeling of having Phillip pressed up against him.

When Barnum wakes, they’re face-to-face. Phillip has practically burrowed into his chest, one hand clutching tight at his nightshirt. Barnum smiles and plays with his hair.

He isn’t sure how much time passes. Normally, he’d be up and moving about, ready to start the day early, but he doesn’t move out of place with Phillip beside him. It could have been mere minutes or it could have been an hour or two later when Phillip stirs, sighs, and opens his eyes.

He startles when they make eye contact and pulls away from Barnum, hand falling from the nightshirt. But then he visibly relaxes and Barnum smiles as Phillip pulls him closer again. Phillip’s eyes flutter shut as Barnum brushes his lips against Phillip’s forehead.

“How’d you sleep?” he murmurs against Phillip’s skin.

“Mmm... all right. I dreamed of you.”

“Did you?” Barnum smiles.

“Mhm...” Suddenly, Phillip tenses and his tone changes as he makes eye contact. “...Phineas?”

“Hmm?”

“I think... I think I’m ready.”

“Ready?” Barnum echoes. He props himself up on an elbow, looks at Phillip. Soft, dark hair curls out from the neckline of his sleeping gown.

“I think I’m ready,” Phillip whispers, “To... speak to a reporter.”

*

A few days later, they decide it’s best to meet with Mr. Bennett at the circus rather than Phineas’s home.

There are no shows that day so the building is mostly deserted. There are a few acts around, Phineas usually keeps the building open for informal rehearsals, but they’re able to wait alone in the front entryway. Every once in awhile, they can hear distant laughter of the rehearsing performers.

They sit in two chairs, so close their legs brush together. Phillip’s heart is thundering in his ears and his breath has started to come out in short, uneven gasps.

“Hey,” Phineas murmurs. He rests his hand on Phillip’s knee, gives him a reassuring squeeze, “Everything is going to be fine. Bennett’s a hardass, but he’ll hear you out.”

Phillip’s laugh comes out high and shrill. He turns and kisses Phineas, quick and desperate. Phineas holds him close, keeps him steady. His hands are a soft, stabilizing pressure on Phillip’s face.

“Phineas,” Phillip whispers when the kiss breaks, “Phineas I think I, I—“

“Don’t say anything you don’t want to,” Phineas warns.

Phillip shakes his head. “I... I don’t know what this feeling is that I have for you, Phineas. I think it might be love.”

Phineas smiles and presses a kiss between Phillip’s eyes.

“I love you, too, darling,” Phineas whispers. He squeezes Phillip’s hand.

Phillip smiles at him and feels the tears pooling in his eyes. But he can’t do or say anything more — there’s a loud, sharp rap at the door.

Phineas smirks. “That most be our favorite reporter.”

They stand.

“Are you ready, darling?” Phineas asks. He squeezes Phillip’s hand once more before falling away.

Phillip nods once, gulps. His voice comes out in a whisper, but it’s steady and doesn’t falter.

“Ready as I’ll ever be.”

 

end