Harlequin Airs


Illustrated by

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The grave marker was new, as was the grave. In the three weeks since the earth had been opened, the ground had begun to settle and the grass to conceal the scars left by spades and trampling feet.

Ray Doyle dropped to his heels to gather the remains of once-beautiful flowers, now wilted and discolored. Plucking up a few contorted petals that had broken free, he meticulously picked through the tall blades until nothing marred the smooth green surface of the lawn. Only then did he lay down his own offering, perfectly formed purple and maroon tulips, each of which had been individually selected. The colors pleased him in their solemnity, unlike the falsely gay, bright yellow daffodils or riotous pansies others had brought to the churchyard. These flowers signified mourning--something Doyle himself seemed incapable of.

Strange, how losing a partner had left him empty, but not grieving. Chandra Malik had been a good partner and undoubtedly deserved better. Her family--mother and two sisters--had shunned her in death as they had in life because Chandra had chosen a way not to their liking. Her own partner, while appreciating her warrior's skills, keen intellect, and unflagging persistence, had never encouraged her overtures of friendship--for Doyle kept his distance from everyone.

Otherwise he might be hurting now, instead of feeling nothing. And nothing was far preferable to the shocking agony of having one's heart torn out--something Doyle could speak of with first-hand knowledge. Almost ten years ago to the day of Chandra's death, he had lost his first partner. Only that one had been the focus of his life and the promise of his future. Keith had died in a fall, too. In neither case had Doyle been to blame, even though he had always held himself accountable for Keith's sudden loss of balance, his pin-wheeling attempt to steady himself, the horrific, headlong plummet down, down to the net, where, more horribly still, he had landed wrong, his neck snapped in an instant.

Chandra, reckless in her rush to obtain a more protected position during simulated hostilities, had sought a foothold where none existed, and, having too soon relinquished her tenuous grip on a venting tube, had simply skidded off the edge of the four-story roof.

Shouting her name, Doyle had abseiled down from the chimney he had been sheltering behind, and still shouting, had raced across the stone pavement to crouch beside her motionless body. Finding amber eyes staring fixedly at nothing, Doyle had finally stopped shouting. Then, wordless, he had walked away.

It had been very different when Keith had died. He had fought like a wild thing in order to stay at his mate's side. With one ear still pressed to the broad, clammy chest--despite a vain search for a heartbeat or the slightest evidence of respiration--Doyle had raged at the others to get help. His shattered voice had risen to the peak of the big canvas tent in a wounded howl. Later, in the caravan he had shared with the older boy, he had quieted at last, and from then on his pain had become mute, burrowed deep inside for years-long hibernation. With Keith gone, the days and weeks had crept by, many months passing before Doyle had come to realize that his life had not ended on the floor of the circus ring as well. Yet, comprehending this had had no effect on the walls being erected around wounds that had festered, their rot slow and pervasive. To Doyle, paradoxically, keeping the hurt with him at all times protected him from future wounding.

And so, as he wadded the remnants of decaying flowers into the empty plastic wrap, he knew only regret--not unbearable torment.

In their own way, the flowers said all he had never put into words. "Good bye, Chan," Doyle whispered. Perhaps he would bring her marigolds in the autumn--if he came back at all.

He might. She had, after all, been a good mate.

"How did your hair get so long?" Cowley demanded, regarding Agent 4.5 with some consternation.

Wryly tugging at his shaggy, collar-length hair, newly struck through with grey highlights, Doyle said, "You wanted it straightened."

"Aye, I did. Perhaps it's time I imposed a uniform length--even for such as you." Still eyeing Doyle as though he were a bug mounted on a board, Cowley added, "And isn't there rather a lot of white in your beard?"

"Apparently as you instructed, sir," Doyle pointed out. "If you prefer, I'll be more than happy to shave it off and start over."

"With what this little transformation cost the Department, I think not." Circling Doyle one last time, the sandy-haired Scot harrumphed his opinion of Doyle's altered features and waved him into the chair in front of his desk. "That will have to do, I'm afraid. It should be a sufficiently radical change--including the earring."

Repressing a grin, Doyle ran a finger round the offending object and said presumptuously, "Perhaps you'd like to tell me why such a 'radical' change was necessary?"

"In my own time, Doyle."

"Sir." This a game they had played often in the past, Doyle settled in for a lengthy wait. Cowley limped round the huge, oak desk and sat down in his aged leather chair. It creaked once as he rocked back, the dully gleaming material readily molding to his body. Doyle noticed the faint grimace that accompanied this move; obviously the Old Man's leg was giving him gyp. Without asking permission, Doyle rose and stepped across to the sideboard that housed Cowley's liquor. He took out two glasses and poured a goodly portion into one--and a lethal amount into the other. The latter he silently handed across to Cowley before resuming his place.

"Thank you, Doyle--although I do not recall inviting you to share one with me."

"Kindness should never go unrewarded," Doyle intoned piously.

"Hm." The controller of CI5 drained his portion in a single swallow, eyes flickering as the numbing liquid scorched down his throat.

Sedately sipping from his own glass, Doyle raised a brow in question. "Another?"

"No, this will do." Cowley began to shuffle through a stack of papers, finally stopping at one that apparently caught his eye. "Macklin says you are quite impressive in tumbling routines both on the ground and on the fixed trapeze."

"Surely that doesn't surprise you?"

Cowley drew a noncommittal face. "Perhaps it does. After all, it has been ten years since you worked with the circus."


"He says your timing is uncanny."

Doyle raised the rim of the glass to his lips and said nothing.

"Have you heard of Circus Sergei?"


"We have reason to believe that it is being used as a way station for IRA armaments and explosives."

"Donal O'Shea." Doyle gestured at his face and hair. "That's why you had all this done--so I wouldn't be identified."

"That's right. And although I would prefer not to send you into an operation that might involve him, I don't have another agent who has your abilities."

"And which abilities," Doyle drawled inquiringly, "might those be?"

"Aerial and equestrian."

A taut smile tugged at the corners of Doyle's mouth. "Don't you think I look a bit old for the part?"

"Premature gray, Doyle. Your expensive hairdresser only advanced the process."

Acknowledging this with a slight sideways toss of the head, Doyle asked, "So am I already in, or is this a sell?"

"A sell." Cowley drew a large photograph out of the sheaf of papers and passed it across the desk to his agent. "Sergei, otherwise known as Alfred Weatherby--"

"And proprietor of Circus Sergei." Doyle studied the round, fleshy face of the man in the picture with cursory interest. According to the description on the back, Sergei was of medium height, overweight, and a "controlled" alcoholic. Flipping the photo back over in his hand, Doyle memorized the small, dog-like eyes, the thin mouth, and receding hairline. Alfred Weatherby would be easily recognized.

"That's correct," Cowley said evenly. "I have reason to believe that Mr. Weatherby has ties to the IRA--not necessarily happy ones."

"Blackmail or collusion?"

"At this point, I do not know. It is notable, however, that his circus manages to survive at a time when small circuses are becoming nonexistent. Circus Sergei is a touring tent circus, but seldom moves and is not known for attracting overly large audiences."

"If he's so obvious about it, why not shut him down?"

"We will--as soon as we have identified the key players in this particular side-show."

Doyle only just refrained from rolling his eyes; sometimes Cowley could be unbearably droll.

"Describe the circus."

"A single ring, dependent on equestrian routines, jugglers, dog tricks-- and some aerial acts, one of which is reputed to be reasonably good, but not outstandingly so."

"Established acts are resistant to newcomers," Doyle remarked.

"The Falconis have fallen on unfortunate times just recently. About a year ago, Victor shattered his arm in a stunt that finished badly; last month, Arturo broke his shoulder in a contra temp outside a pub."

"So who's doing the flying?" Doyle wondered out loud.

"Victor was replaced by a young man named William Bodie." Cowley plucked another photo from the manila folder and shoved it to the edge of the desk. "To my uncertain knowledge, Arturo has yet to be replaced."

Thoughtfully scratching at his still-unfamiliar beard, Doyle let his eyes slowly roam over the full-body, color photograph of William Bodie. The man was superbly built, his upper torso displaying excellent musculature, clearly visible through the skintight, plunging-necklined, body stocking that clung to him from shoulders to toes; from the hips down, he was sleek and compactly solid. His hands--braced on his hips-- were large and strong-looking; conversely, his feet, encased in flyer's slippers, were proportionately small and neat.

It was Bodie's face, however, that commanded Doyle's attention once he had examined the overall man. No one, Doyle decided, should be so bloody good-looking. Even the severe cut of his hair so smoothly hugging his head only served to emphasize the perfect shape of Bodie's skull and face. Thick, dark brows curved over watchful eyes of a remarkable shade of blue. Comfortably set in the center of his face, Bodie's nose yet bore faint evidence of having been broken sometime in his past; incongruously, it also curved slightly upward on the end, which contradicted to some extent the otherwise hard cast of his features. His mouth drew Doyle's eyes like a magnet: the upper lip was a little longer and fuller than the bottom one, and together they formed an intriguing pout that begged personal attention.

Glancing up belatedly to find Cowley patiently awaiting his observations, Doyle offered vaguely, "He must be a catcher."


"On the trapeze. He isn't built like a flyer."

"Quite right," Cowley said approvingly. "Although he takes on whatever is required of him. Since his latest flyer was disabled, he has begun to perform on the fixed bars alone."

Doyle nodded. "Yes, he'd be quite good there." He gave Cowley a questioning look. "Is he suspected of involvement with the Provisional Army as well?"

"No. But, then, there is little known about William Bodie. He ran away to sea at an early age, then jumped ship in South Africa--it was there he took his circus training. Eventually he returned to England, signed up with the Army, was briefly seconded to the SAS--honorably discharged from service, I might add--but there are gaps in his profile. Our computers have not been able to fill them in as adequately as I would prefer."

"Suspected until proven innocent."

Cowley raised a chilly smile. "It is usually safer that way."

Rubbing his thumb under the tip of his nose, Doyle hazarded, "This isn't pertinent--but did CI5 have anything to do with Victor or Arturo's unfortunate accidents?"

Two pale blue eyes peered at him from over the rims of black-framed glasses. "A cogent question, Doyle; but you are correct when you state that it is not pertinent."

"Should I expect trouble from the Falconis?"

"The original Falconis have returned to Manchester for continued recuperation. They will not bother you."

Hearing dismissal in Cowley's tone, Doyle moved to another subject. "You said I'll be working with horses as well?"

"That's right," Cowley said. "Sergei's circus utilizes several different horse routines: dressage, of course; riderless horses that perform upon command; and trick-riding acts."

"Liberty and voltige," Doyle said.


"Horses performing riderless are liberty horses; horses cantering round the ring with a human or animal rider performing stunts off their backs are voltige horses, sometimes also called resinbacks--because of the sticky substance applied to give a rider greater leverage."

"I see."

Doyle shrugged unrepentantly. "Sorry, sir."

"It's coming back to you, then," Cowley stated with casual emphasis.

His expression carefully free of emotion, Doyle replied, "Never completely goes away."

Cowley steepled his fingers together over the files lying flat on his desk. "You have admitted to--but never explained--unhappy feelings regarding your time with the circus, Doyle. Do you think perhaps it would be profitable to discuss the reason for those feelings at this time?"

Doyle let his gaze fall to the scuffed white toe of his trainer. "It isn't pertinent," he answered finally, with only the faintest trace of insolence.

Unfazed, Cowley said, "As you wish. It need not be said--"

"--but you will anyway." A fabricated smile did little to soften the resentment in his voice.

Cowley's sandy-lashed eyes narrowed to slits. "I shall. Should personal considerations affect this operation--"

"They never have; they never will."

"Aye, but I've not sent you back to the circus before, Doyle, now have I?"


"Och, laddie, don't play with me! You're being sent to Circus Sergei to convince Mr. Weatherby that you are the man he should hire, only so you can be my eyes and ears. Should you uncover something of interest, you are to contact this Department immediately. You are not to act on your own. Do you understand?"

Doyle's brows angled darkly over his eyes. "That's all?"

"Think about it: Circus Sergei is only a way station. Once we have a lead to supply movements, we will want to follow up unnoticed rather than jeopardize your cover."

Swallowing hard against a bile-hot surge of anger, Doyle comprehended Cowley's purpose all too clearly. "Why don't you be honest? You're taking me out of action because you think I won't be up to par without Chandra."

"Is that what I mean, Doyle?" Cowley asked very quietly.

"Oh, c'mon! I've been with you for six years now. I know how you protect your agents when they've lost a partner. You had me down in bloody Records for a week after she fell, and then you packed me off to Macklin to prepare for this! You don't need me--"

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"On the contrary, you're the only agent I have who can pull this off with any degree of credibility. Exceptional horsemanship and trapeze experience are scarcely standard requirements for joining the Squad."

Quelling another outburst with effort, Doyle could not deny the Old Man's logic--even if he knew on a gut level that Cowley was trying to coddle him. Shipping him off to Circus Sergei for an indefinite period of time, with nothing more to do than ride well-trained horses and defy gravity on the trapeze whilst remaining on the look-out for suspicious transport movement, would ensure that Doyle was completely removed from what had of late become a highly fraught existence.

Cowley broke into his thoughts. "You've been to visit Miss Malik's family?"

"Yes, of course," Doyle replied sharply. "They refused to take her personal effects, just as I expected. I turned everything over to Housing."

"You weren't at the services."

Flinching at Cowley's words, if not the neutral tone of his voice, Doyle said, "No. But if it will make you feel better, I did visit her grave today."

"It doesn't matter how I feel, Doyle."

Back teeth set tightly together, Doyle fixed his superior with a cold, green stare. "No one had been to the grave-site since the day of the services, sir. All the flowers were in need of burial themselves."

Cowley allowed himself a fleeting smile. "I expect you took her fresh ones."

Fighting the urge to vent his animosity on Cowley, Doyle sucked in a deep breath before asking quite emotionlessly, "Where will I find Circus Sergei?"


Grimacing despite himself, Doyle hissed, "Newcastle!"

"The heather is in bloom."

Unthinkingly tracing the ridge of his broken cheekbone, Doyle muttered, "And the wind blows cold over those moors. Lovely."

Cowley sifted through his pile of documents before coming up with another slim folder. This he pulled out and slapped onto the desk within Doyle's reach. "There is more."

For the first time since stepping into Cowley's office, Doyle felt a sliver of uneasiness scrape his spine. "Yes?" He took up the file and opened it. It was a brief description of William Bodie, his apparent interests, habits and activities.

"You will need to gain Bodie's confidence."

As Doyle scanned through the information, he reminded Cowley, "You said that Bodie doesn't know anything of importance."

"I said he isn't suspected of involvement; not the same thing at all."

"Well, it shouldn't be a problem, then," Doyle mused. "Since I'll be working with him so close--" His heart advanced a beat.

Shooting a penetrating look Cowley's way, Doyle forced himself to reread the information that had just fallen before his eyes before sitting back in the chair and quietly closing the dossier in his lap. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"

Watching him inscrutably, Cowley murmured, "You will have to be more specific."

"Bodie's gay."

"So it appears."

"With all respect, sir, I'm not."

Cowley said nothing.

After a moment's silence, Doyle said stiffly, "Have I missed something?"

"There is no one else capable of taking on this assignment, Doyle."

"So you want me to mince in there and mata hari information out of Bodie?"

"I don't remember seduction in the line of duty posing a problem for you in the past."

"Those were women," Doyle said with heavy sarcasm.

"Requiring no emotional attachment, only sex."

"Wasn't aware that queer sex was encouraged, sir."

Sighing softly, Cowley laid his hands upon the desk and regarded his agent levelly. "You're telling me the idea is abhorrent to you?"

"Of course--it's what I'm supposed to tell you, isn't it?"

"I've seen your psych profile, Doyle. It includes, as you know, a sexual evaluation as well."

Sitting motionless, Doyle stated, "I've never engaged in homosexual sex."

"But not," Cowley said, almost gently, "for lack of wanting."

At that moment, Doyle could not have said whether he was angrier at Cowley for addressing a subject that had been held taboo in his own mind for years--or himself because it was true. "What happens afterward?" he asked, his face a carefully composed mask. "What happens to my record?"

Cowley laughed shortly and without humor. "Do you seriously believe that there are no other gay agents in my employ?"

"None I've noticed wearing signs, no, sir."

"Nor will you. As in all sexual relationships, the Department's only concern is that they be undertaken with reasonable discretion and caution."

Glancing down at the papers resting on his knees, Doyle discovered that he had shuffled the photograph of William Bodie onto the top. Looking into that intense blue gaze with a premonition of disaster, he said hollowly, "Right. When do I leave?"

The ride to Doyle's flat was undertaken by rote. Had anyone questioned him immediately upon arrival, he could not have said by what route he had returned home, nor whether he had encountered anything worthy of comment. Of all the conversations he had ever participated in with Cowley, none had ever left him quite so off balance.

After all these years!

There had been men who had attracted him in the past, of course, men who had frequented his dreams, men who had supplied the fantasy fulfillment of more than one otherwise lengthy night, and men who had taunted him with their gayness while he had always subverted his. He had not lied to Cowley; not one of those men had ever shared his bed, nor, more realistically, provided relief in a furtive meeting in the lavs. Not even Keith--the first man he had ever loved. After thirty years of unfailing restraint, it was almost dizzying to be given, in essence, free rein to sample something previously forbidden.

He entertained the idea of going out immediately to find someone who would be willing to unburden him of his virginity. That thought lasted only long enough for Cowley's words regarding discretion and caution to intrude and, consequently, to quite effectively put the kibosh to the very notion.

Feeling somewhat disheartened, Doyle spent the next two hours setting his flat to rights before beginning his packing. It was while eating a light meal of eggs and cheese that he turned his mind back to the conversation with Cowley--and the assignment awaiting him. Two weeks on the moors outside Newcastle--for that was the length of time Cowley had predicted would pass before the IRA made another move--playing the role of a simple aerialist-cum-equestrian, whilst luring William Bodie to his bed, would provide the holiday Doyle had gone so long without.

For all its ingenuity, the manipulative intent scraped at Doyle like a tongue brushing across a jagged molar, never quite forgotten, and very difficult to live with comfortably.

Once he had shut off the boiler for the central heating, removed all the perishables from his cupboards and refrigerator, and engaged both sets of locks to the flat, Doyle had come to view the entire venture in a very different light. He would do this job for Cowley, as agreed. After that, however, he would seriously consider departing from CI5's elite company. Somehow the prospect of being nothing more than a toy to be dressed and sexed at whim was no longer to his liking; perhaps it was simply time Doyle found something else to do with his life.

The roads to Newcastle were cold and damp, the frigid air cutting through Doyle's leather jacket and jeans like a harpy's talons. A car would have been his preferred mode of transportation in the bleakest days of March, but far more difficult to explain to a jaded circus troupe than the aged bike on which he now found himself. In fact, his gold Capri, containing most of the groceries that had been rescued from his pantry, had probably already been picked up by the motor pool.

Not far out of London, it was brought home to him that he had not dressed as warmly as he might have done. But Doyle chose to persevere, grateful if nothing else, for the helmet visor which afforded his face some small protection.

He drove for hours through spells of rain and fierce winds, even a squall of snow. Breaking the tedium of the road with few stops, he occupied his protesting mind with thoughts of the days to come. The trapeze work was of no concern, and he knew he had a good seat on a horse. Undercover operations, however, had never appealed. While he was quite capable of second-guessing the duplicitous intellect, given the choice, he preferred to make less strenuous use of his own keen wits.

Consoling himself with the promise that once this operation was over, he would play no more roles, Doyle contemplated Cowley's probable reactions to his resignation. Would he be angry? Resigned? Relieved?

Relieved, Doyle decided. Cowley tolerated much from him, far more than from his other agents. Of course, there were few who had survived as long as Doyle, fewer still who had contrived to keep body and soul together to the same degree--however much Kate Ross might disagree.

"I've seen your psych profile, Doyle," Cowley had said. Courtesy of Miss Kate Ross, undoubtedly. Save for the fact that he was virtually frozen to his seat, Doyle would have squirmed at that particularly unpleasant thought. Although why it should bother him, when she had merely deduced the truth, he could not quite say. In any case, Doyle had lived his life in the only way he knew how. It had kept him reasonably sane for ten years--and six of those had been spent in the employ of CI5.

Finding himself increasingly uncomfortable with his own ruminations, Doyle shut out his personal concerns, concentrating on the wet roads and the cutting cold to the exclusion of all else. By the time he reached the outskirts of Newcastle, he wanted nothing more than a hot bath and dry clothing, a warm meal, and a soft bed to lay his aching body on. Beyond that, nothing else mattered.



All lowering clouds and icy drizzle, dawn put in an inauspicious appearance the following day. Undismayed, Doyle bolstered himself with a stern cup of tea and two rounds of toast before venturing forth from the inexpensive bed and breakfast he had booked into the evening before. The first exultant gust of bitter air almost stopped him in his tracks, however, for the warmth of the bed he had just abandoned lured him like a siren. But it would not do to lie in this morning; unfortunately, circus people rose with the first greying of day.

He guided the bike out of the quiet, but otherwise undistinguished section of town. The buildings here were very old and some in desperate need of repair. A few homeless people huddled in a shop doorway, their misery apparent in exhausted faces and cramped forms. Familiar with their kind in London, Doyle noted to himself in passing that such sights had been unknown in England only a few short years before. Accepting this as just one more inequity outside his influence, he kept his eye on the rain-slick streets and the odd, venturesome cat. The single headlamp of the bike had little effect in illuminating the moisture-laden air; accordingly, Doyle drove very slowly.

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Nearly half an hour went by before concrete and stone gave way to rolling moorland. The great tent encompassing the single ring loomed out of the fog like a huge, unlikely mushroom, as out of place in these untamed surroundings as wild horses in the city. Doyle brought the bike to a stop with a quarter of a mile yet to go, and shut off the engine. Walking the cumbersome vehicle along the rutted lane, water dripping off his hair and beard, he wondered if he would reach the main entrance before ice settled permanently in his marrow.

The old smells reached him first: sawdust, wet canvas, horse. Underlying all else was the mingled essence of humanity, ripe both with sweat and florid perfume--the dizzying blend forgotten until this instant, yet immediately recognized and savored.

Today, he mused with a sudden lifting of spirits, I ran away to join the circus.

Pushing the bike through thick, sloppy grass, Doyle went straight up to the main entrance, and ignoring a muttered, "'Ere, what you about?" walked inside. After mounting the motorcycle on its stand, he strolled into the broad center aisle, which led to the great ring.

"C'mon, Roge, you'll have to do better than that!" The exasperated voice emanated from the man hanging upside down on the catcher's trapeze. Doyle was absurdly pleased that the sturdy baritone matched exactly the timbre and tone he had ascribed to the William Bodie of his imagination.

The object of Bodie's exhortation awkwardly returned to the flyer's platform, steadying himself as he clung to the vertical supports. A short, thin man, "Roge" took a few seconds to catch his breath before throwing out the hook to retrieve the trapeze.

Even from his vantage point many meters away, Doyle could see that the man was ill-suited for this particular profession, his body defensively crabbed rather than poised eagerly for flight.

"The show opens on Wednesday," a bored and faintly menacing voice announced behind him. "Go away."

"Tegler said you were looking for a flyer." Doyle turned round to face his accoster, a man of middle height and expanded girth. There stood Alfred Weatherby--Sergei. "As far as I can tell, you're still looking."

"Get out of here, before I apply my boot to your bottom," the owner of Circus Sergei said, unimpressed.

"If you've already hired him, you've made a mistake," Doyle said confidently. He stared daringly into Sergei's hazel eyes.

Sergei looked him over from head to toe--with an unnecessarily lengthy lay-over at Doyle's crotch. "Surely you're not suggesting yourself as his replacement? A bit long in the tooth, aren't you?"

Doyle smiled broadly, letting his impudent gaze linger on Sergei's face, instead. "I am, actually--suggesting myself, that is." He gave his beard a tug. "Premature, y'know. 'M only twenty-seven," he lied.

"Really? And when was the last time you spoke with Teg--"

"Roger, damn it! You stupid bugger!"

The hapless Roger plowed into the net. He landed rough. Winded, it took him a minute before he could lift himself off the ropes.

"Let me show you," Doyle insisted. "You won't regret it."

Sergei looked up at Bodie who was coming down the web, then back at Doyle, who willed him through wide-set, appealing green eyes, to agree.

A cynical smile touching his mouth, Sergei shrugged, "Why not? You couldn't possibly be worse."

Sensing that Sergei's permission was tenuous at best, Doyle rapidly stripped off his jacket, jeans, bulky sweater, and shoes, revealing a warm woollen leotard underneath. Solidly and simply black, the snug material dramatically emphasized his rough-hewn leanness.

"Who the hell--"

Disregarding Bodie's incipient objection, Doyle strode up to the web nearest one of the fixed traps and sprang onto it, at once pulling himself strongly upward. Several yards from his destination, he stopped, then continued his progress by rolling up the unanchored rope, head over heel, alternately using one hand and one foot as the pivot around which he revolved. With smooth agility, Doyle made the difficult feat appear childishly simple. In fact, he was sweating freely by the time he reached his destination, for that particular stunt was also particularly demanding. Allowing himself no time for recovery, however, he swung away from the web, both hands settling firmly round the roughened surface of the fixed bar.

Utilizing finely honed upper body strength and his own innate sinuousness, Doyle rolled over the bar, then dropped forward--and caught himself by his heels at the last instant. Folding in half, he brought himself up between his feet, forearms and outer thighs straining, and deliberately forced his ankles upward along the metal rods from which the trap was suspended, until he stood on his hands. After a quick look at his audience--Sergei was almost smiling, Bodie's face was closed, and the displaced Roger had a distinctly disgruntled air about him--Doyle sprang into a murderous routine of fixed bar acrobatics that were quite patently calculated to impress.

Finishing with a triumphant pirouette, he struck a dramatic pose, lightly balanced on one foot. The number of viewers had grown. A thin young man with short, light brown hair sat astride a bay mare, her reins held by a stockily built fellow in green wellingtons standing a few yards behind Sergei. Four or five people had gathered in the shadows at the main entrance, and a small group lined the outside of the ring.

"You up there!" Sergei called.

"Yes?" Doyle's voice was unaffected by his exertions.

"Your name, please?"


"Well, Doyle, I should like to see how well you fly."

Only then did Doyle notice that Bodie had taken to the ladder which gave access to the catcher's trapeze. Climbing the rungs from the outside, in the way peculiar to all aerialists, Bodie quickly ascended.

Taking a deep breath, Doyle leaped across the short space separating him from the nearest web. From there he propelled himself to the next dangling rope, and the next beyond that, until he came to alight on the flyer's platform. Heart beating smartly, he paused long enough to take advantage of the resin sack attached to one of the right-hand cables and liberally dusted his palms and wrists with the white powder.

Bodie sat on the padded bar opposite him, waiting patiently but none too encouragingly for Doyle to complete his preparations. "A simple fly- over," he said flatly.

"Right." Forced to recapture the trapeze that had been allowed to hang free after the man named Roger had botched his last stunt, Doyle kept an eye on Bodie, who deftly looped his knees over his own bar, then curved his body backward, initiating his swing. Bracing himself with care, Doyle gauged Bodie's arc, then pushed off from the platform.

In an instant he was transported back through time, to a moment nearly ten years before--his last performance on a trapeze. The arena had been overflowing with enthusiastic, cheering people, heat from the crowd rising suffocatingly forty feet above the sawdust floor. There had been that final somersault, the third of three, then a successful leap into Barry's waiting hands--and the audience had roared its approval and pleaded for more. In the next moment, diving into the net, Doyle had intended never to fly again, for he had fulfilled his commitment--and his promise to Keith.

Yet here he was, no longer the heart-broken child, but a man--and a man with a purpose. Purpose or no, there was nothing to compare with the electric sensation of soaring high above the ring, surrounded by the unique trappings that had always removed the circus from the mundanity of the "real" world. More than that, this was something Doyle excelled at. He had known it then, and he knew it now. His body believed that it could defy gravity, it thrummed with that belief, and trusted in it implicitly.

Doyle lowered his legs to increase the speed of his backswing, eyes on Bodie all the time. He approved the other man's economical movements, the broadly defined shoulder musculature that bespoke his strength and possibly skill, and the concentrated attention that assured Doyle he would be there when Doyle's hands sought his.

Gliding forward again, Doyle lifted his chest onto the bar, calculating distances more by instinct than precise measurement, waiting for that one instant when--

He left the bar, arms extended, knowing that Bodie would be blind to his approach until Doyle was almost upon him. Two sets of hands clapped around two sets of wrists simultaneously. Remembering the lessons learned over a decade before, Doyle tried to make himself an extension of Bodie, his weight evenly distributed and following the flow of Bodie's momentum.

"Thank you," Doyle said, just loudly enough for Bodie to hear, as they completed the furthest point of their outside arc and started inward again. "I thought you might not bother."

"Maybe next time I won't," Bodie said expressionlessly. As neatly as train couplings, their hands broke apart, and Doyle pirouetted away with the ease and grace of a dancer to seize the flyer's trap, which had swung back on its own momentum to meet him.

At the opposite end of his flight, Doyle left the bar and stepped onto the platform. Many feet below, Sergei called, "Something more difficult, Bodie."

His voice came as a surprise to Doyle, who had unwittingly divorced himself from the presence of others, having too effortlessly recreated the old illusion that he and his partner were alone in the rarefied heights of the tent top.

Perched on the bar again, Bodie eyed Doyle briefly. "A bird's nest from the trap, change from hands to feet, and fly back to the bar."

"Okay," Doyle agreed, aware as Bodie was that, while the maneuvers he was about to undertake looked simple, they required considerable control and timing. In fact, without previous practice sessions to prepare for such stunts, Bodie was inviting Doyle's failure.

And yet--

Keith had been an excellent catcher; Barry almost as good. But Bodie had known precisely where Doyle would be and when he would be there--no fumbling, no uncertainty. Reluctant to put a name to this unlooked for affinity, Doyle took control of the flyer's trapeze once more and lunged out into open space like a long absent lover reaching for his mate.

Unnoticed, Doyle's undercover persona was already coming to the fore.

While Bodie approached their cross-over position, Doyle lifted his knees into his chest, then unfolded his legs to prop his feet on the bar in front of him. With a smooth, rocking motion backwards he seemed to turn inside out, torso and shoulders brought to the fore and legs curved back behind his head, his toes closing the circle begun by his fingers--the characteristic configuration of the "bird's nest."

They reached the center of the ring at the same time. At that well calculated instant, with Bodie placed just a little below and in front of him, Doyle let go his hands, and was taken at once into Bodie's imperturbable safekeeping. For less than a heartbeat, Doyle lay stretched full-length between Bodie and the flyer's bar. Then he broke all contact with the trap, calling on his own highly developed skill and strength to ease the sudden demand on Bodie. Between them, they achieved an effortless-looking transition free of sudden snaps or lurches.

Exhilaration burst within Doyle's chest; he wanted to shout with unfettered joy. Bodie was magic! His grip was sure, his timing impeccable. Doyle had never known a partner so attuned to his every intention. Bodie was quite simply astonishing.

Without hesitation, Doyle indicated he was ready to carry on with the next part of the stipulated stunt. Using the other man's solid strength for leverage, Doyle kicked his lower body up and over, employing more muscle than momentum in order to give the illusion of gliding. And then he let go, dropping head first toward the net, trusting to the stranger on the catcher's trapeze to arrest his fall.

Doyle was caught and held. The blood rushed into his head, gravity and centrifugal force reminding him why he had always preferred the flyer's spot. After hanging this way for a few seconds, Doyle curved up from the waist and exchanged his feet for his hands. Immediately thereafter, he was abandoned by Bodie as they had prearranged. Pirouetting twice, Doyle came out of the second spin reaching for his own trap, which glided into his hands as though summoned. He soared across the scant distance to the platform with great style and verve, and came off in a dashing pose.

While he had hoped to persuade Sergei that he should be made a member of the circus' flying team based on outstanding ability, with Bodie as his partner, proving his worth had been made simplistic in the extreme. Flushed with success, Doyle stood tensely on the slat, waiting while Bodie settled several yards away on his padded trap.

"Bodie!" Doyle said his name clearly.

The other man raised his head. Even from this considerable distance, Doyle could see the indigo richness of Bodie's eyes. He wished, briefly and without hope, that there were some spark of welcome for him.

There wasn't. Recalling himself to his duty, Doyle raised one finger and thumb, both outstretched, and cocked his head in question.

A shadow crossed Bodie's face, and Doyle feared that he would be refused. But the instant passed and the dark head nodded, a curt inclination that signified agreement and nothing more.

Accepting that much with gratitude, Doyle applied a little more resin, watching from under his lashes as Bodie, head down once more, plaited his legs round his bar and began to rebuild his powerful, fluid swing.

Bodie's understanding of what Doyle wanted was made evident in his protracted curve and increased speed. With the new rhythm fixed deep within the instinctual core of him, Doyle leapt from his own platform to keep their mid-air rendezvous.

Nothing intruded--no sound, no scent, no physical discomfort--as Doyle took himself higher than he had before. Subliminally aware of Bodie's every move, Doyle concentrated on him exclusively. It was there they must meet--that exact spot where the path of their pendulums overlapped. Confident that now was the moment he must act, Doyle left the bar. Tucking himself into a tight ball, he hurtled backward in a perfect double somersault. Blood singing with excitement, Doyle uncurled, braking his headlong rush by stretching out to his full length.

Large and square, Bodie's hands waited for him.

"You're incredible!" Doyle gasped as Bodie tightened his grip round Doyle's thin wrists.

Dark anger lurked in Bodie's eyes. With magnificent control and impossible strength, he unhurriedly drew Doyle closer until they were face to face and scant inches apart. He pronounced coldly, "And you're a prima donna." With an abrupt twist, he tore his hands free.

Taken by surprise, Doyle pitched toward the ground. The image of Keith slamming into the net--too fast, too hard--flared shockingly in his frozen mind. Half a second later, and with no more time to spare, he remembered to flip over so that he landed properly on his back. Surging with adrenalin, Doyle used the force of the rebound to fling himself high into the air. With head thrown back, chest thrust forward, and arms spread behind him like half-folded wings, he looked for all the world like a phoenix reborn.

This time, when he hit the ropes, he gave himself a second or two to recover, then clambered onto hands and knees and headed toward the spreader cords. Light applause, spontaneous and unexpected, greeted him as he vaulted from the edge of the net onto sawdust and trampled grass.

"That was not kind of Bodie," Sergei said with vast understatement, his rueful face nevertheless glowing with elation as he met Doyle.

"He's a show-off," Bodie snarled. He alighted from one of the webs onto the ground a few yards away.

"He is exceptional. He even made you look good, Bodie."

"Bodie's right." Gratefully taking the towel that was shoved at him from seemingly nowhere, Doyle rubbed at his sweating chest and shoulders. "I shouldn't have done that."

"But you will do it again!" Sergei enthused. "Many times!"

"You've hired Roger for the spot," Bodie reminded him coldly.

"And so I've unhired him." As if sensing the volatility of Bodie's mood, Sergei stepped round to face him fully, hands spread wide as if pleading for understanding. "Come now, Bodie, you cannot possibly compare him with Doyle. Roger is not suited to the trapeze--Doyle was born for it. How can you argue?"

"That kind of stunt could get us both killed, that's how."

"And your Roger wouldn't do that with his clumsiness? Look, Bodie," Sergei's voice dropped to a low, rough whisper. "Keep your balls out of the act, eh? You'll find someone else to warm your bed. Bodie!"

By then already several yards away, Bodie halted abruptly. Back stiff, hands clenched at his sides, he stood a moment, unmoving. Then, slowly coming round on one heel, Bodie regarded Sergei without expression. "I expect you want me to tell him?"

"It would be better coming from you, don't you think?"

Back teeth working under taut muscle, Bodie simply nodded. He gave Doyle an unfriendly, all encompassing glare, then continued on his way toward the main entrance.

"Do not worry about Bodie," Sergei assured Doyle, reading his troubled countenance with ease. "He is a good man." He clapped a hand on Doyle's shoulder. "But you know that." With a bob of his head he indicated the top of the tent. "You were superb, both of you."

A huge warmth pressed up against Doyle's back. He leaned into it, cushioned by the broad flank of the bay mare. Sergei shot a stern look past Doyle's head and sidled several steps away.

"Your things," a soft voice murmured.

Glancing up over his shoulder, Doyle smiled his appreciation at the young man who sat astride the mare. He took the loosely bundled effects a little shakily. "Thanks," he said.

"Where are you staying?" Sergei demanded.

"In town." Balancing himself against the horse's flanks, Doyle began to wriggle into his jeans.

"Do you perform for money--or for the love of it?"

Pausing with one leg half inserted, Doyle countered, "What d'you think?"

Sergei grinned wolfishly. "I understand. But we are a small circus. I can provide you with a reasonable wage--and a caravan of your own." At Doyle's turn of surprise, Sergei continued, "Yes, that is unusual. It is a ... little caravan, but you will find it comfortable for one person--" Distracted as the soft, dark hair on Doyle's chest disappeared beneath the bulky sweater, Sergei faltered. "--or two."

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The reddish-haired man who held the horse's reins handed over Doyle's leather jacket. Nodding his appreciation, Doyle put it on, then concentrated on shoving his left foot into his shoe. "What else?"

"Else?" Sergei asked blankly.

"As you say, this is a small circus. Your people must double up. What else would you want me to do?"

A little taken aback by Doyle's candor, Sergei pulled at his lower lip before answering. "I'd thought to discuss that later," he admitted. "But since you have brought it up--"

"I'm a decent rider--voltige, haute école," Doyle informed him. "If you need a rider, that is."

"Simon handles the voltige act," Sergei said, offhandedly indicating the slim young man mounted on the bay. "But high school?" His eyes focussed on some private vision. "Yes! A mirror act-- You and Bodie--"

"Bodie rides?"

"Beautifully. Better than he catches."

"That I'll have to see," Doyle exclaimed softly.

"And you will. This is perfect!" Coming up sharply on a sudden thought, Sergei asked bluntly, "Do you ride as well as you fly?"

"No." Doyle spoke honestly. "But I don't think you'll be disappointed."

According Doyle another overly familiar head-to-toe examination, Sergei said warmly, "I'm sure I won't."

Coming upright on both feet, Doyle smartly patted the horse's shoulder. "When d'you want me to start?"

"Immediately, of course! You will have to fetch your things, I expect. When you return, Bodie will show you round."

Doyle was openly skeptical.

"I promise you." Sergei once more laid a hand on Doyle's shoulder; Doyle only just resisted the urge to knock it away. "There will be no trouble."

"If you say so." He studied Sergei a long moment. "Okay. I'll be off, then. Should be back inside an hour."

Doyle lightly stepped away, inordinately relieved when Sergei's hand remained with its owner. As he strode toward the main entrance, he paused to wave his thanks to Simon and his companion. They silently acknowledged him by way of a nod from the man on the ground and a waggle of fingers from Simon.

Just inside the entrance, Doyle came to stand by his bike. Taking it off the stand, Doyle heard his name called and looked across the length of the center aisle at the heavyset Sergei. "Yes?"

"Don't ever bring that thing into the tent again--right?"

Doyle gave a dismissive shrug. "Wouldn't think of it."

Early fog gave way to a hazy mid-morning. With visibility greatly increased, Doyle was given a much better idea of the layout of Circus Sergei on his return from town. Once more on foot, pushing the heavy bike at his side, he noted the standard arrangement of the small sideshow tent running at right angles to the big top--although "big top" was a misnomer in comparison to the term as it was used in the States. European circuses--including English ones--rarely housed more than a single ring. They were, accordingly, much less prepossessing--but less intimidating as well, in Doyle's opinion.

From the road he could make out the east end of what was likely the animal quarters; a whiff of somewhat gamey air confirmed his guess. To the west, the extra long caravan used for equipment storage protruded from behind the staked canvas of the Big Tent. Somewhere between the two would be the costume tent--a catch-all place which would be used by performers as a changing room, and by all as a storage area where the assorted outfits and small props could be kept at ready. The performers' caravans and removal lorries were undoubtedly situated in the vehicle park Doyle had passed a short distance back--and the former would certainly provide more in the way of amenities than this relatively barren stretch of land could offer--electricity and running water amongst them.

Still, it was beautiful country, he decided, taking in lazily rolling, mist-enshrouded hills and lush green dales. A bitterly fresh breeze lifted the thick, straight hair off Doyle's forehead, eliciting muttered thanks in Cowley's name for his having dictated Doyle's new beard; in this unforgiving climate, its protection would serve him well. Rubbing fretfully at the pliant, but presently aching, implant that fleshed out his right cheekbone, Doyle also had to admit that Cowley had been right regarding something else: The heather was voluminously in bloom, its rich purple hues stippling the moors for miles in all directions.

In Doyle's absence, the circus had come alive. Roustabouts eyed him incuriously, although the bike came in for a few interested glances. A man with a dour expression, a cigarette dangling from his bottom lip, juggled six knives, all long-bladed with sawn-off hafts. Two short men, one quite wiry, the other pot-bellied and stocky, practiced a leap-frog routine utilizing rigorous acrobatics. A young woman wearing a carpenter's apron and belt, poised dangerously on a yawing ladder while applying touch-up paint to the valance decorating the sideshow tent.

Eyes roving over seemingly endless activity, Doyle almost didn't see the small boy, followed by a larger girl, who erupted from between one of the refreshments stands and the main tent right in front of him before they had nearly bowled him over. Giggling, they fleetly put themselves out of reach even though Doyle did nothing to threaten or reproach them. Their antics only added to his already amiable humor.

Otherwise, Doyle passed unaccosted--although certainly not unnoticed. Word of him would have swept through the circus community like wildfire. While he might not be welcomed, he had been accepted--as was made clear by the occasional nod of greeting. A stranger let loose on the compound would have been met with impersonal hostility and promptly escorted off the grounds.

Bodie alone was the reason for the ease of his transition--Bodie who should have made things much more difficult for him. After all, the catcher appeared to have a personal stake in the man who had previously shared the upper rigging with him. Against all logic, however, Bodie had been scrupulously fair--until the end, of course, when he had flung Doyle into the net. But even that seeming lapse was not unjustified given Doyle's arrogant posturing and flagrant self-promotion. And there would certainly be those of the old school who would mark Bodie's action a true and necessary test of the full extent of Doyle's abilities-- especially since a planned dive into the net could turn out disastrously if one was not thoroughly trained. A fall not planned could easily become fatal.

Keith had proven that with devastating finality.

For whatever reasons, Bodie had allowed him to succeed--and now, Doyle was returned to his youth: in the circus again. Inhaling the rich, pungent odors that gave freedom to memories long suppressed, Doyle secured the bike and strode up to the main entry.

It was time he found Bodie.

Inside the tent, the net had been removed to allow full access to the ring. A voltige horse, the same bay mare Doyle had seen earlier, cantered round and round, Simon leaping expertly on and off her back. Two young men--one thin and wiry, the other stockily overweight--and a woman were gathered left of center, apparently working out the specifics of a clown routine. Right of center, a stocky, older woman conducted five or six dogs--they wove in and around and over each other too swiftly for Doyle to get an accurate count--in a marvellous display of natural ability and training.

"So you came back."

Doyle started at the sound of the other man's voice.

Bodie stood in the gloom a few feet away, shoulders resting against an intermediary tent pole, arms folded loosely across his chest.

"Any reason I shouldn't've?"

"Not in your case," Bodie drawled. "Although someone a little brighter might've noticed he wasn't welcome."

"Someone brighter would probably have chosen another profession, as well."

Bodie seemed to mull this over; then, without a hint of humor, he said, "Undoubtedly."

Realizing that all the running would be left to him, Doyle held out his hand. "Ray Doyle."

The hand was deliberately ignored. Pushing away from the pole, Bodie replied, "Bodie." He sauntered through the canvas flap to the outside, leaving Doyle to decide whether he would follow his new partner, or club him.

Doyle decided, for the moment, to follow.

Two urchins and a dog sat on Doyle's bike. At sight of the two men, the children bolted, leaving the tail-wagging terrier to its fate. Bodie chucked the dog under its chin; he was rewarded by the swath of a wetly lapping tongue across his hand.

"You'd better bring that along," he advised shortly, indicating the bike, "or someone'll add it to their act."

Paying no attention to the dog, which looked to have taken up residence, Doyle rocked the bike off its stand and started pushing it beside him. "Where to?"

"Sergei said to get you settled in. 'S only about fifteen minutes away."

"We could ride it in less."

"The walk'll do you good--and we need to get a few things straight." When Doyle would have headed down the gravel road, Bodie gestured him toward the costume tent, which as Doyle had surmised, stood between the equipment caravan and the animal stables. "This way."

"What sorts of things?" Doyle asked, manhandling the unwieldy machine back up the slow incline, almost losing the small dog who managed to maintain her regal perch only through a bout of fast-footed agility.

They walked past the refreshments stand and around a trio of milling teen-agers, who were oblivious to their presence. Behind the animal enclosure, a couple of lorries were parked, along with an old Land Rover and a rusted motor scooter. Idly casting an eye over these, Doyle noted that the ground still bore the impressions of heavier vehicles that had likely been gone for several days if the amount of rainwater accumulated in their tracks was any indication.

Filing this information for future reference, Doyle looked up to find that they were approaching the edge of the circus grounds, the boundary marked by the beginning of untamed tall grass and heather.

"Don't worry," Bodie assured him, correctly interpreting Doyle's grunt of protest. "There's a path."

Holding his tongue, but prepared for a treacherous slog, Doyle was cynically surprised when the trampled-down path Bodie had spoken of came into view. By now their small canine stowaway was standing with her front paws balanced on the handlebars, back legs spread wide, hind paws searching for purchase on the enamel-painted surface of the petrol tank. Doyle stopped long enough to strip off his jacket; he unceremoniously raised the animal onto it and resumed the clipped pace set by Bodie.

"Are you always so accommodating?"

"I was getting hot and the dog needs something to stand on; worked out well for both of us."

"If she'd stayed where she belongs, there wouldn't've--"

Doyle let out a laugh. "Like me, you mean?"

"Just like you," Bodie said equably.

To Doyle's relief the path was wide enough to allow them to walk side by side, even with the bike between them. "I'd heard there was an opening for a flyer. You don't really think I'd've just turned round and gone back to London when I saw that other bloke, do you?"

Bodie smiled to himself. "'You'd heard there was an opening.' Tell the truth, Doyle."

"I-- What d'you mean?"

"Flyers like you are bloody rare--not only are you damned good, you look damned good. So why aren't you already with a circus? And why would you want a job with Circus Sergei?" The sneering enunciation of the last two words explicitly conveyed Bodie's opinion of his current employment. "There're only two reasons I can think of why you'd be willing to work here."

"Let's have it, then: What are they? C'mon. The suspense is killing me."

"You've either got something to hide--or something to prove."

Doyle's lips twitched into a smile. "Well, you're certainly right about the latter. How long d'you reckon it'll take me to prove I can work with an unfriendly chap like you?"

"We'll get to that in a bit." Bodie bent over and picked up a small stone. "Don't fuck me around, Doyle. If you're looking for a bolthole, this isn't it. The local coppers take great pleasure in turning the place over when we least expect it--circus reputation being what it is, y'know."

"Of course I do. Well, the next time they stop in, I'll be sure to introduce myself. I'm not running from anything or anyone, Bodie." Critically studying the man beside him, Doyle demanded, "And what about you? You're as good as I am on the trapeze--why are you working with Circus Sergei?"

Bodie's answer was slow in coming. He chucked the rock into the heather. "Because no one else will have me," he stated quietly. He looked across at Doyle with remote eyes. "Never forget that."

A few minutes later the path opened onto the back of the caravan site. Doyle followed Bodie's lead alongside the concrete curb to the opening that allowed him to wheel the bike through without difficulty. He suspected this courtesy was more for the sake of their four-legged companion than for him, but he left the thought unspoken.

Bodie came to a stop in front of a small, faded green caravan. "This one's yours." While not overly roomy, it appeared to have all the requisite utility hook-ups which would make life more than adequately comfortable.

Taking the single key from Bodie's hand, Doyle remarked, "Do all of these belong to the circus?"

"Most of 'em. We moved in, in March. Not too many folks anxious to sleep in a tin when there's cheap accommodations available."

"Well, at least none of your lot is sleeping on a doorstep," Doyle commented, remembering the bereft individuals he had seen earlier in the day.

"Not unless they want to," Bodie agreed. He pointed toward another caravan, white with blood-red stripes. "That's Sergei's; the next one belongs to Aidan and Zoe--two of the clowns; Simon and Derek in the first blue one; I'm in the other."

"I met Simon," Doyle remembered, as he silently marked the placement of each vehicle. "Derek wouldn't be the bloke who was leading the horse?"

"He would. Our animal trainer, is Derek--the big animals, that is. You saw Hannah--she was putting the pups through their paces. She handles the small baggage."

"Oh, right." Having parked the bike on its stand, Doyle went up onto the box steps and unlocked the door of the caravan. As the door swung wide, both he and Bodie could see clearly into the interior.

"Roger's doing?" Doyle asked wryly, taking in the wholesale devastation on display with little surprise.

"Almost certainly." Bodie followed him inside, the small terrier at his heels.

Kicking through the rubble, Doyle wandered about his new home with a sense of foreboding that he took pains to keep concealed.

"At least he left the teapot--slightly nicked--and kettle intact," Bodie remarked, and dropped onto his heels to retrieve a tea bag from the various objects littering the floor. "Get out of that, Basil." He shoved the dog away from a smashed jar that had once contained mango chutney.


Bodie raised his head and explained, "Because she's faulty. Never gets her tricks right. Fawlty--you know. Think she must've had another name at one time; but no one remembers it anymore."


"Here, you idiot dog," Bodie growled, and dumped a lamb steak in front of her. He strode past Doyle to a tall, narrow cupboard. "Seems to me I remember seeing--yep, here it is." After liberating the broom out of the cluttered confines of the cupboard, he thrust the handle into Doyle's hands. "Looks to be the only worthwhile thing that didn't get thrown on the floor. You start sweeping up in there; I'll see what I can do with the kitchen."

"Thanks, Bodie. But I can take care of it."

"Nah. 'S my fault, in a way."

"Is it?"

"I know you heard what Sergei said--about me and Roger. It narked Roger off, me giving you a fair shot--and, he thought I'd want to go with him."

Doyle frowned, perplexed. "He couldn't've been here long. Or did you know him from before?"

"Why d'you say that? That he couldn't've been here long?"

Eyes wide and blank, Doyle sought a way to cover his near-lapse. "Well, I only heard about the opening just on a week ago. 'S taken me this long to get up here."

"You're talking about after Arturo got his shoulder broken. Actually Roger used to help with the rigging. I taught him most of what he knew from larking about."

"And Sergei was going to allow him up there?" It was not necessary to explain where "up there" was.

Bodie's lip curled with disgust. "It was Sergei's idea altogether. He happened upon us one morning, trying it out on the bars. Roger let himself be talked into it."

"So, why--if he was a good rigger," Doyle ventured delicately, "did Sergei let him go?"

"You know why, Doyle," Bodie replied. "Hard enough to keep the balance right when there isn't someone hanging about who resents being taken out of the spotlight."

"True. Watch the dog, mate!" This, as the terrier prepared to spring across the floor with the half-gnawed lamb-chop clamped firmly between her teeth. "Sure you should've given her that? The local sheep'll be quavering in their boots from now on."

"Probably not." Bodie carried the dog to the door and set her on the first step. "Off with you, mutt!"

By the time tea was brewed, Doyle had swept up much of the damage and piled it in a corner by the entry rug. As he worked, he picked out a few--very few--salvageable items. For the most part, Roger's rampage had been quite thorough.

Bodie cleaned off the countertops in the kitchen; there the destruction had been limited to a few spilled dry goods and the odd smashed jar or bottle. Like Doyle, he worked steadily and without complaint.

After half an hour, they had restored a remarkable degree of cleanliness to the caravan.

"Thanks, Bodie," Doyle said sincerely, sipping now-cold tea. "I owe you."

Bodie shook his head. "Not for this."

Looking at the other man curiously, Doyle asked warily, "What, then?"

"Your new job. I could've fixed it so nothing worked right, and you know it."

"I do. So why help me out?"

The question was not immediately answered. "I'm not even quite sure, really. Maybe because I wanted to try my hand with a real flyer for a change."

"Or maybe you were just tired of Roger?"

Bodie's eyes shot up to Doyle's face. "Maybe." He poured the remains of his tea into the sink. "Why I did doesn't matter; we're stuck with each other. But there are a few rules I'm going to insist on--or you can just find someone else to catch you."

Raising his almost empty cup to his mouth, Doyle murmured, "And what are they, these rules of yours?"

"We work out every day--starting today--on the ground, and the bars."

"On the ground?"

"Exercise. Calisthenics. I have a routine set up; we'll go through it together." Bodie waited for this to register, then continued, "The circus opens to the public Wednesday--but you won't start performing until Wednesday next."

"Wednesday ne--!"

"That's right. I want to be sure that today wasn't a fluke. I've caught for a lot of people, Doyle; can fly myself, for that matter. It was too easy with you."

Doyle gave Bodie a sudden, infectious grin. "We were good, weren't we!"

"Dynamite," Bodie agreed blandly. "I haven't told Sergei yet about the postponement, but I know he won't like it. If you want to force the issue, he'll back you. Guaranteed. But if you want to fly with me, we'll do things my way."

"Practice or performance--doesn't matter," Doyle declared. "Just so long as I'm flying."

For the first time since Doyle had met him, a genuine smile appeared on Bodie's lips. It was a small smile, and if he had blinked, Doyle would have missed it altogether. Following their inauspicious beginnings, Doyle could not help but be cheered.

Basil lay atop Doyle's bike, nose down between her front paws, stringy bits of gristle lumped together in the middle of the leather jacket that once more served as her pillow. Spying her first, Bodie commented, "Looks like you've acquired an admirer, mate."

"Wha--! You little bit--"

At Doyle's arrival, the animal sat bolt upright, ears pricked, eyes fastened on him, displaying no signs of trepidation.

"In fact, I'd say you've been adopted," Bodie said, malice evident in his smile.

"Until I return her to her rightful owner." Doyle scooped the dog up and tucked her under one arm while he shook the remains of her meal out of his jacket with the other. "Messy bugger," he complained.

"Hasn't got one--owner, that is," Bodie stated. "Hannah gave up on her ages ago."

"She was with a couple of children when we came out of the tent."

"Sorry, mate, not hers." Bodie chuckled as Doyle draped the jacket over the handlebars and lifted the dog onto his shoulder. "Though, I'd have to say you're getting what you deserve, treating the brainless bitch like that."

"Ta, Bodie."


On the way back to the compound, Doyle requested a guided tour; Bodie was agreeable. Returning by the same route as they had gone out, Bodie directed him to the equipment caravan as the first structure they encountered. He offered to show Doyle inside; since this would save Doyle having to break in at a later time, he accepted with alacrity.

"Shouldn't this be kept locked?" he asked, as Bodie waved him through the folded-up tent flap.

"Riley checks everything in at the end of the day. You haven't met Riley yet; he's our ringmaster."

"Not much in here, is there?" Doyle observed. It had just occurred to him that a single caravan could not possibly contain all the odds and ends necessary to equip a circus--even a small one, like Circus Sergei.

"No, you're right. There are a few storage lorries on the outer edge of the caravan site, and another set up to the east of the animal compound. It's a bit larger, but you'd've missed seeing it from the road."

"Certainly did." Glancing casually over the interior of the caravan, Doyle memorized every container, each pile of rigging, every mound of folded canvas swatches, dismantled curbing, all the associated paraphernalia that must be at hand to keep the circus functional at all times.

Careful not to linger, Doyle gestured toward the door. Basil swayed precariously as he went down the steps, but maintained her balance with the sure-footed nimbleness of the circus dog.

"Costume tent." Bodie waved a hand at the long canvas structure a few yards away. "You'll soon know the inside of this." They circled round to the back opening. A covered corridor connected the dressing tent to the Big Top. Bodie walked under the drawn up flap first. Ducking automatically to keep the dog from being swept off his shoulder, Doyle noted nothing of possible importance here, and less space to hide it in-- yet there was much that immediately seized the eye and held its interest.

"What d'you wear on the rigging?"

A large rack, running full length along one side of the tent, was festooned with garish outfits--large, Victorian bustled gowns, strikingly sequinned robes, striped and dotted clown's suits, outsize jodhpurs, stiffly starched formal shirts with standing collars, cutaway jackets, an array of leotards in multiple sizes and colors--all the varied uniforms of the circus.

"Something like this." Bodie went to the far end of the rack and drew out a limply hanging, dark purple leotard. A swirl of spangles and rhinestones, reminiscent of a Catherine wheel, decorated what there was of the plunging front; a simple starburst of sequins flared over both hips.

"Not bad." Coming up from behind, Doyle fingered the material admiringly. "The blue's nice, too."

"The black you had on this morning worked well," Bodie noted dryly.

"That's me woollies, mate. Don't expect they'd do much for the audience."

"Did wonders for Sergei."

Absorbing this comment with a slight twist in his middle, Doyle slowly focussed on Bodie's face. "You wouldn't be implying that's why Sergei took me on?"

Bodie shook his head. "At least--not entirely. He's bright enough, is Sergei; even he could see you're a good flyer."

"Should I expect trouble from him?"

"Somehow I don't think him trying it on would bother you overly much."

Doyle's chin edged upward, heavy lids hooding jade-green eyes. "I haven't been that obvious."

"Not at all," Bodie assured him. "It's more what you haven't done that's given you away."

"Oh, yes?"

He was treated to another of Bodie's fleeting smiles. "You didn't flinch when Sergei mentioned Roger and me; for that matter, you didn't flinch when I mentioned it."

"And on that basis, you've assumed I'm gay, too?"

"Well, that--and the way you've given me the once-over, more than once, yeah."

Doyle turned away abruptly, almost dislodging Basil. "Sorry, pup," he muttered. "It doesn't hurt to look," he added defiantly to Bodie.


Idly petting the animal's flank, Doyle said sedately, "So who makes the decision regarding what we wear?"

Restoring the leotard to its place, Bodie wandered down the length of the rack. Stopping a third of the way along, he drew forth an elaborate Regency outfit, complete with tiered ruffle at throat and wrist, tight, dark brown breeches, flared fawn jacket, and curved-brimmed hat. "Simon, for the most part."

"Simon?" Doyle's eyes were on the costume which Bodie held out at arm's length. "What've you got there--oh, for the haute école routine, right?"

"Right. Simon's always done up the costumes for the horse acts--this is his work--and I recently inveigled him to add the flyer's leotards to his repertoire. Stitches on the sparkly bits, that sort of thing."

"He did that back there?" Doyle pointed a long finger toward the purple leotard, of which only a thin strip of sleeve was visible from this angle.

"He did."

"Very nice."

"Tries to complement the performers, to dramatize their own appearance, y'know?"

"What've you been wearing, then?"

Bodie only smiled enigmatically at him. "C'mon, I'll show you the rest of the layout, then we'll see if we can cadge an early lunch from Simon and Derek."

Doyle chose his words with care. "You said they share a place. Are they always together?"

Pushing the flap of the tent opening wider so Doyle could pass through, Bodie gestured toward the large animal tent, which stood several yards away. "Put it this way: I've heard Circus Sergei called Circus Sir Gay more than once."

"Nothing like subtlety," Doyle observed.

The animal stables were ripe with the presence of horse, and an odor Doyle couldn't quite put a name to. Basil opted for other company when they started into the tent; with a powerful leap, she sprang to the ground and disappeared round the side, effectively distracting Doyle from further speculation.

"She got up Mickey's nose one day when she was a pup; been very cautious of those sharp hooves ever since," Bodie explained, when Doyle quirked his brows at him.

Experiencing a curious combination of abandonment and relief now the dog had left him, Doyle walked with Bodie past the horse stalls. The two men and the bay mare he had met in the ring were grouped together in the middle of the wide stables alleyway. At her head, Simon was rubbing the horse's shoulders down one-handed with long, loving strokes, while keeping her leadshank firmly gripped in his other fist. Derek, his back to them, held her left foreleg between his knees, inspecting the shoe.

"Simon, Derek--Ray Doyle." Bodie's introduction was terse, but nevertheless encouraging--he had actually remembered Doyle's first name.

"Hello." Doyle extended his hand, wondering if it would be refused once more.

It was accepted without hesitation, Simon enclosing it in his long, thin fingers. Hunched awkwardly, Derek only glanced round, his broad features watchful but not what Doyle would describe as completely unfriendly.

"Good to meet you, Ray--or would you rather be called by your surname, like Bodie?" Simon asked.

"Doesn't matter."

"All right. Ray, it is. So--what d'you think of your new home?"

"It'll do." Doyle pointed round at the stalls and the few small animal enclosures. "I count eight horses; no big animals?"

Simon glanced down at Derek, who answered his unspoken communication with the slightest of shrugs. "It's an equestrian circus, really."

"And you're very good." It was said matter-of-factly and without emphasis--but with complete honesty. Doyle did not fail to notice that his question had been sidestepped.

"Wait'll you see the actual routine," Simon smiled disarmingly.

"Typical of Simon's low-key approach to the world," Bodie explained cryptically. "The two of you wouldn't be taking a break for lunch any time soon?"

Releasing the mare's foreleg, Derek stood up and took the leadshank from Simon. He nodded with an abrupt, up-down motion, capping his agreement with a jab to his companion's ribs.

"As a matter of fact, we are. Why don't you join us?" Simon invited with acid good humor.

"We wouldn't want to be a nuisance," Bodie demurred.

"You couldn't be anything else, Bodie." Simon looked on as Derek walked the mare down the length of the narrow tent. "She's doing fine, Derry. You must have imagined it."

Scowling blackly, Derek turned the mare and brought her back.

"Put her in her stall--didn't you just say you're hungry?"

Baring an imposing set of fine, sharp teeth, Derek tugged the mare toward the end of the row. Trailing along behind him, Doyle peered into each stall in turn, his full lips curving into a smile at sight of a cream colored Shetland pony. "Who's this, then?"

"Taffy." Simon hung the brush from a peg on one of the support poles. "Watch your hands; she nips."

"Don't they all?" Doyle cast a wondering eye at the still silent Derek, who was backing the mare into the next stall. Giving the pony's forelock an affectionate tug, he asked, "What does this little beggar do?"

"She provides the comedy in the liberty act. And sometimes she works with me and Pat in the stunt routine--when I'm feeling adventurous, that is." Simon draped a pale grey windcheater over his shoulders. "She can be more trouble than the other five altogether."

Waggling his fingers at the pony, Doyle crossed the aisle to look into the opposite stall. "Yeah. I've--" He stopped abruptly, suddenly nose to nose with a tall, black Friesian that had swung its head up to take a look at him. "Beautiful," he exclaimed reverently, and touched the velvety muzzle with a tentative forefinger. An inquiring whicker from the neighboring stall heralded the appearance of an Andalusian of somewhat slighter stature. Technically a "grey," to the eye the mare was as purely white as the Friesian was sootily black.

"Piper and Tuppence." Bodie materialized at Doyle's side, his footfalls impressively noiseless on the rustling straw floor.

"Where ever did you get horses like these?" Dispensing his attentions as impartially as possible, Doyle was seized by an unreasoning urge to vault over the stall-gate onto the back of the densely muscled black. Then his eye travelled to the intelligent patience of the grey, and he was drawn all over again to the Andalusian.

"Tuppence is getting on in years," Simon explained. "Piper was damaged during an event."

"No!" Doyle breathed. "Damaged how? He looks marvellous."

"Shredded some muscles in a bad jump. Don't worry about him, Ray. What he lacks in endurance, he more than makes up for in flair and sheer stubbornness. Wait'll you see his capriole."

"You're joking, surely!" Holding the Friesian's head between both hands, Doyle leaned to one side and peered down the length of the animal's body, noting smooth definition from the hindquarters to the crest and, up close, all through the forehand.

"Not a bit. He's only good for one go a performance--and sometimes he doesn't manage it at all--but he always gives it a bloody good try."

"The muscle damage wasn't in the hind legs, I take it?"

"No, 'course not. In truth, we're not even sure of the particulars. Derek got wind of him through a mate of his who keeps an eye on the horsy circuit. This one's been gelded, so they were considering putting him down--couldn't even put him out for stud, y'see, after they'd ruined him for eventing."

"Poor beggar. How long has he been with the circus?"

Simon cocked his head in Derek's direction. After a brief pause, Derek raised his hand, four fingers prominently displayed. "Longer than that!" Simon disclaimed. "I thought--no, wait, you're right. Was only a few months before I signed on, wasn't it?"

At Derek's nod of affirmation, Doyle gave Simon a blatantly inquisitive look.

Smiling reminiscently to himself, Simon said sotto voce, "Thought he was the strong, quiet type was Derek, y'know? Swept me off my feet." He winked at Derek, who glowered tolerantly at him. "Was nearly two weeks before I found out he just doesn't speak."

"Two weeks?" Doyle repressed a grin, infected by Simon's sweet feyness.

"You know how it is," Simon replied with blithe assumption. "We communicated on a very different level at first."

"Hasn't changed much," Bodie remarked.

"You're just jealous, Bodie," Simon sniped back. "Although--" He cast a sweeping eye over Doyle, missing nothing. "Perhaps your luck has changed for the better."

"Wasn't asking for agony aunt opinions," Bodie reminded him. "Only lunch."

"Nothing in this world comes free, Bodie my love," Simon said scornfully. "All right, all right--" Hands spread wide in mock defense as Derek began to stride threateningly toward him, Simon complained poutingly, "I'm surrounded by bully boys." His mouth curved into a coquettish smile. "And, I love it!"

As the horse reared up and danced to one side with jolting sharpness, Doyle found himself tumbling through the air. Tucking and rolling to use the speed of his descent to his advantage, he almost succeeded in transforming a rather clumsy fall into an impressive, controlled stunt. At the last instant, he caught a heel on the edge of the colorfully painted curb and was sent sprawling.

Inhaling sawdust and dried grass, he took a moment to regain his disposition. The first two falls could have been his fault; after all, interpreting Derek's hand signals and arcane gestures was not a simple task. This last dismounting, however, had resulted from Derek's instruction to scratch Tuppence just behind her surcingle--purportedly to quieten her. While under normal circumstances, Doyle would have hesitated to win a horse's confidence in such a way--horses, not unlike people, could be notoriously ticklish--Derek's calm nods of assurance in response to Doyle's skepticism had gulled him into obeying.

Now Doyle had no doubt that he had been set up: Derek was deliberately causing him to miscue the Andalusian. Even a superbly skilled rider would have difficulty coping with a horse trained to another's command. Doyle, with his exceptional, but far from superior equestrian mastery, could not hope to win the animal's respect so long as such nonsense was allowed to continue.

"Doyle?" Bodie's voice, bored and a little amused, came to him from the opposite side of the ring.

With a powerful shove, Doyle gained his feet, and wordlessly began to brush off the most recent accumulation of clinging detritus from his sweat-soaked clothing.

It had gone past two, he guessed; they had been hard at it for over two hours. Following a filling, but uninspired meal in the tack room, all had adjourned to the ring to assess Doyle's horsemanship. By now he was growing very tired, more so of the ceaseless testing and tormenting, than of any actual physical labor.

Turning his mind away from a growing sense of disillusionment, which in his role of new-boy was only to be expected, and the clamor of aching muscles and bones, he walked steadily back to the snorting grey, and, making soft, coaxing noises, lulled her into accepting his touch once more. After rubbing her muzzle with carefully measured strokes, he took up her snaffle rein and led her back across the well-trodden floor to Derek, who stood buttressed by a tenting pole, one leg crossed over the other.

"Thanks, Derek." Doyle's fingers massaged the skin beneath the horse's jaw. "You're a great teacher, y'know?"

Having learned over lunch that Derek was mute as the result of a blow to the larynx suffered some fifteen years before, Doyle didn't wait for a response to his sarcasm--verbal or signed. Retaining all the dignity he could muster in his presently sodden, battered condition, he dropped the reins at Derek's feet, then walked purposefully to the horse accessway. From there he took a side exit into the light of the grey, still-cool day.

Replacing the grit clogging his lungs with sweet, fresh air, Doyle did not look back as he struck out on the rough path that joined the circus grounds to the caravan park. Derek's expressionless face stayed with him the whole way; like as not, Doyle would be out of a job before the end of this day. At the moment, however, the thought was immensely cheering-- even if Cowley's displeasure would not be.

"You back again?" The small bundle curled up on the seat of his motorcycle resolved itself into a familiar canine profile. Ridiculously pleased, Doyle swept the animal into his hands and bore her up the front steps to the door; there he set her down. Dealing with the lock efficiently and speedily, Doyle ushered the dog in alongside him and headed for the kettle.

"I think it's time we took tea, Basil my girl," Doyle said bolsteringly. "And then, a good scrub. What d'you say?"

Over the sound of water filling the metal container, Bodie's voice came clearly: "D'you want me to send someone in to scrub your back?"

Doyle paused, eyes fixed on the water pouring out of the cold water tap. "Does that mean, the prospect of doing it yourself doesn't appeal?"

"Not at all--although I'm not accustomed to pampering quitters."

"Quitter?" The word was spoken mildly; Doyle refused to rise to the taunt. "Sorry, mate, but my bum's had enough bashing for the day. Very delicate, it is."

"Okay, so Derek was playing you about a bit. But his first concern is for his horses. He wanted to be sure you can be trusted with them."

"That's a crazy way to test me, then," Doyle said with suppressed anger. He stabbed the flex into the base of the kettle, then spun round. "I could've torn up Tuppence's mouth if I'd tried to bring her about, even with a snaffle bit."

"She's stronger than she looks--and better trained," Bodie assured him.

Bracing his elbows upon the sideboard, Doyle bent his head to one side, regarding Bodie intently. "So you're not going to recommend I be dismissed?"

With arms folded across his chest, Bodie returned Doyle's scrutiny unblinkingly. "No reason to--Derek's satisfied."

"He said so, did he?"

"Not quite."

That raised a grin. "But then he wouldn't."

Bodie left his place by the door and came toward Doyle.

Suddenly wary, Doyle straightened up.

Reaching past him, Bodie retrieved two mugs out of the cupboard beside Doyle's head. "You're lucky Roger overlooked a few things during his tantrum."

Breathing again, Doyle muttered, "And tea. Although I'll have to make a run to the shops if I'm not to be begging off you lot forever. Out of milk," he elucidated. "And everything else."

"Simon wouldn't mind," Bodie informed him off-handedly. "Although watch your step there--Derek can be very jealous."

"Does Simon give him reason to be?"

"He's a flirt by nature." Bodie reached for the scratched and faded tin on the sideboard and took out two tea-bags. "But I've never known him to be actively unfaithful, no."

"And you'd know, would you?"

Still standing very close, Bodie moved the chipped teapot to the center of the counter and took off the lid. "I would," he agreed simply. He shoved the pot toward Doyle.

Doyle picked up the kettle and sloshed steaming water into the porcelain belly. "You came through unscathed."

"I told you, Simon likes to play, but Derek's too important to him. Simon's the one who made it clear that he enjoyed the scenery but he had no intention of taking out a mortgage."

Doyle waited as Bodie poured the warming water out of the pot before plopping the two bags into its belly and refilling it to the brim. "What a quaint way of putting it. So what happens now?" Raising his head, Doyle found Bodie watching him closely.

"We drink our tea," Bodie replied, his voice low and uncharacteristically husky.

A small fireball flared into existence in Doyle's abdomen. All at once, he wanted nothing more than to drag Bodie over to the bed and find out for himself what the other man might have to offer. From the smouldering intensity glimpsed in hypnotic blue eyes, it could be something quite impressive. Shocked by the urgency of his own lust, Doyle summoned a rather tremulous smile. "And then back to the ring, right?"

Seemingly seeing right into Doyle's heart, Bodie said solemnly, "That's right."

Finally, at six o'clock, they called an end to the day. Coming from CI5, Doyle was no stranger to the rigors of keeping fit; Bodie, however, was a taskmaster who could have put Brian Macklin to shame. Doyle never questioned his demands, as it was quite clear that Bodie was prepared to take the same punishment himself--and often did.

They had returned from their early afternoon tea to take up where Doyle had left off--although Derek now seemed content to work him to the precipice of exhaustion rather than pound him senseless by way of various, inventively mischievous falls. Spared Derek's miscues, Tuppence had responded to Doyle as though she had been raised and trained by him. Derek, Doyle knew, was to be credited for that, just as he was to be held responsible for his earlier interference. Once he had been given an idea of how the haute école routine was currently structured, Doyle had been able to take the old, but still brilliantly capable mare through her paces. Bodie had taken a turn on Piper, and the five of them--humans and beasts--had collaborated on the "mirror" routine that Sergei had envisioned earlier in the day.

Released at last, Doyle would have offered his services in rubbing the mare down, but Bodie had reminded him that they must still work on their aerial routine. Since the afternoon had advanced into early evening by then, Doyle had not been keen on attempting the bar--but that was not what Bodie had had in mind.

For the next hour and a half, they had worked out on mats. Tirelessly, Bodie had kept the counts, shouted changes, and barked encouragement mingled with scandalous insults, all the while never missing a beat himself. Awed, Doyle had been compelled to match Bodie's example.

Come the end, he was exhausted. Every muscle in his body felt like quivering mush, and he pictured the soft tissues in his bones as bloodied gel. Yet, high as a kite, he felt that he had proved something to the exacting Bodie--as well as to himself.

On his way back now to the caravan, Bodie came up alongside him. "Forgot to tell you: Sergei wants us round for dinner. Are you game?"

Stifling a groan before it could impugn his hard-as-nails image, Doyle managed briskly, "Can hardly refuse, can I?"

"No, not really. Half past seven, Sergei said. See you there."

"Thanks, Bodie," Doyle groused under his breath. By then Bodie could not have heard him, however, having bounded across the gravelled lot to his own caravan, his fluid step unslowed by the afternoon's exertions.

Basil sat patiently waiting on the doorstep of the pale green caravan.

"You're a fool," Doyle told the animal, impartially parcelling out his disgruntlement. "Should've latched onto someone better equipped. I don't even own a bone."

The remainder of the evening passed in a blur. Doyle remembered dinner as wonderfully warm and filling, but details were lost almost immediately. Sergei's wife Rose was a blowsy, heavy-featured woman with, Doyle soon learned, a very great heart. She saw to it that he was well fed, had far too much to drink, and that he never lacked for attention. But the last selection he had in spades. As attentive as his wife, Sergei settled his gaze on Doyle early on, and for the entirety of Doyle's visit it never wavered. In a haze of repleteness, he wondered vaguely that Sergei should be so overt in his interest, which only intensified as the wine flowed. Bodie kept his own counsel for the most part, although he seemed quite adept at redirecting the conversational flow on the occasions when it either became too pointed, or began to meander aimlessly.

At midnight, Bodie and Doyle stepped out into the night, Doyle carrying the paperwork that constituted his contract with Circus Sergei in one warm, almost limp hand. Fog layered the darkness, creating a false sense of intimacy. Breathing in frigid, moist air, Doyle savored the scents coming off the moors: the sweet suggestion of heather, the rich thickness of fertile loam.

Bodie kept pace beside him, a silent figure that commanded Doyle's senses even more than his surroundings. It amused him to think that he had known this man less than a day--yet he had never known another to suit him better. From the way Bodie divined Doyle's every, fleeting mood--and responded accordingly and beforehand--Bodie was the opposite and equal Doyle had always dreamed of, but had pragmatically rejected as an impossible fantasy. To have met him under these circumstances was, in Doyle's opinion, unfair in the extreme. For, once Doyle was known for who and what he was, Bodie would very likely despise him.

Accompanying Doyle to his door, Bodie waved a hand at the small bag of leavings Doyle held in his other hand. "Breakfast," he scoffed lightly. "It's really for that bloody mutt, isn't it?"

"Shh. Didn't have time to get out to the shops, now did I. 'Sides, there's more than enough here for two."

Bodie shook his head, eyes glimmering in the muted glow cast by the light over the steps. "Tomorrow morning, seven sharp."

"Right." Doyle watched as Bodie walked back to his own caravan, enjoying the smooth economy of his movements, the spread of his shoulders, the tapering of hips, the powerful legs--

The thought had lurked at the back of Doyle's mind that Bodie might invite himself in. He had not considered beyond the possibility, however, and perhaps, given his own somewhat muddled condition, it was just as well Bodie had not. Bodie, as a partner, Doyle could handle without difficulty--so far, anyway; as a bedmate, Doyle had much to learn.

He unlocked the door and went inside, turning a little so Basil could bolt past him out of the caravan and into the darkness--presumably to take care of personal business. She was back in less than two minutes, head lifted inquiringly toward the plastic-wrapped left-overs in Doyle's hand.

"You're quite right," he murmured, closing the door against the rest of the world. "This is for you."



Dressing before dawn the following morning, Doyle occupied his pain- distracted mind by trying to recall when, just recently, he had felt quite so thoroughly bruised and pummelled. Not an inch of his body seemed to have gone undamaged--he longed, quite pitiably, for the attentions of the CI5 masseur. Yet, for all his myriad complaints, he could not include lack of sleep amongst them. After crawling into bed at half past midnight, he had gone out like a light, and had remained semi- comatose until his alarm had bleated at him at half past five. Only now did it occur to him just how long it had been since he had enjoyed such deep, dreamless sleep, undisturbed by nightmares and unhappy memories.

Was that what Cowley's intention had been all along: an idyll in the country far away from the strain of CI5? Keep an eye out, he had said. But was Circus Sergei really involved with the IRA--or had Cowley made that up?

Doyle laughed aloud, the sound richly cynical. Perhaps he had already taken too much fresh, moorland air. Basil tipped her head to one side, left ear pointed, the other properly folded over, raising another throaty chortle from Doyle. Cowley most certainly had a reason for sending him here--even if the by-product of this assignment amounted to a little rest and recuperation for Doyle. Shaking his head at such a ludicrous slip, Doyle slurped down the remains of his tea, then sat on the edge of the kitchen chair to tie his trainers.

A few minutes later, he poked his head out into twilit greyness, waiting until Basil had bounded down the steps in front of him before closing the door and locking it. Moaning under his breath, he followed at a more sedate pace, cataloguing every twinge and spasm reported by his punished body. The dog reappeared from the heather verging the caravan site just as Doyle reached the path. Eyes bright and attentive, she looked for a signal from Doyle as to which way they would go.

Turning his face into the mist, Doyle conceded, "Okay, so you're not smart. Neither am I. Must be why we get along so well."

In fact, he puzzled over the dog's attachment to him. His kindnesses had been few and unexceptional. She was a well behaved animal, had provided Doyle with no unseemly surprises in the morning, and so far had been relatively undemanding. Assuming she would play his shadow until the novelty wore off, Doyle decided to do nothing to encourage her fealty-- while allowing to himself that he found her company pleasantly diverting.

The ground was wet with recent rainfall; it squelched under Doyle's once-white trainers. Striding purposefully toward the circus compound, Doyle shivered beneath his fleecy running togs. His breath took form before him, voluminous, misty clouds that served as constant reminders of the low temperature and prodigious level of humidity.

Arriving at the trodden-down entry road to the main tent, Doyle broke into a lope, letting disinclined thighs and calves adjust to the increase in speed before pushing them into a full-out run. Rubber soles crunched on the gravel drive as he slowly built up his pace.

Basil remained at his heels, her sinewy legs working double-time just to keep up. At the main road, Doyle began a slow run. Before long, he had forgotten the niggling discomforts--the cold, assorted pains, and the dregs of sleep banished in favor of soaring freedom. There was something special in being out here alone, welcoming the coming day. Inhabiting this paling world were few other early risers: unidentified birds whose shrill tunes were muted by the heavy fog, sheep clumped in neighboring fields, baaing vexedly, and a stabbing breeze that lifted Doyle's hair and made his eyes prickle.

A hedgehog shrank into the underbrush as he pounded by, distracting Basil who immediately went to investigate. Doyle left her to it, guessing she would quickly retreat from the creature's unwelcoming exterior--in the event she contrived to get that close.

At the foot of the hill, he slowed abruptly, having picked up the rhythmic thud of approaching footfalls. Out of the gloom, Bodie appeared, eyeing Doyle with unconcealed respect. Clearly he had been out for some time already, damp hair clinging to his skull, a dark vee of sweat angling down from the collar of his track suit toward his waist.

"You surprise me, Doyle," he said by way of greeting, only the deepened timbre of his voice betraying his exertions. "Expected you'd sleep till I knocked you up."

Doyle raised his brows with mock dismay. "And let all this frigid air go to waste?"

"You could spare a thought for your little friend there." Bodie pointed down at the dog, who was using the brief respite to sit and catch her breath, her long, narrow tongue lolling out over her bottom teeth.

"Her own fault. Anyway, I thought she'd abandoned me for a hedgehog." Jogging in place, Doyle looked the other man over without thinking about what he was doing. Bodie was a welcome sight, a kindred spirit willing to defy the bleakness of this insalubrious morning. Their meeting out here fostered a camaraderie that Doyle had unknowingly missed.

Suddenly aware that he was being accorded the same intimate inspection, Doyle grinned crookedly. "Don't let me keep you."

"Nor me you." Bodie wiped his beaded forehead with the back of a hand. "Stop by my caravan when you've finished. There'll be tea and toast ready."

"Hold you to that," Doyle promised, salivary glands kicking into production at the mere mention of food.

Bodie nodded once and was away, his stride long and smooth, and to all appearances, unhindered by the sharp slope.

Unaccountably pleased, Doyle continued in the opposite direction. Somehow, the morning had taken on a brightness that had nothing to do with the drab advent of dawn.

"So what's on for today?" Doyle asked, sucking a dripping fingertip into his mouth; Bodie was far too generous with the butter.

"Did I neglect to give you a serviette?" Despite the pointed statement, Bodie did not seem unduly disturbed by Doyle's informal method of wiping his hands.

"Should've warned me you melted a quarter pound of butter onto each doorstep." Unrepentantly, Doyle curled his tongue around his thumb, swabbing at it like a lollipop, then drew it free of his lips with a noisy pop.

"You'll work it off. Did you go over the paperwork Sergei gave you last night?"

"Who's had time? Nah, I'll do that this morning--we do get elevenses, don't we?"

Amusement surfaced in Bodie's indigo eyes. "Ever hear of a circus that didn't?"

"Thank God for England," Doyle murmured fervently. He raised a mug of steaming coffee to his mouth.

"Sergei wants me to introduce you to everyone."

"Thought we were supposed to do that yesterday."

"Before Derek got hold of you, yes."

Doyle sipped his coffee. "Tell me about Sergei. Better still, tell me why Rose puts up with him."

Emptying the coffee-pot into his mug, Bodie gave a sketchy shrug. "Why does anyone ever put up with anyone?"

"True. Still, was I wrong, or was Sergei becoming just the weest bit obvious last night?"

"Rose has been married to him for fifteen years. She's aware of her husband's--penchant."

"Has she spoken to you about him?"

"Once or twice." Studying Doyle's face, Bodie commented, "You handled him very well, y'know. Never seen it done better."

"Wasn't just me." Dark, sifting grains of coffee shadowed the bottom of Doyle's cup. "If you lot hadn't been there, he might have become a bother."

"No 'might' about it," Bodie said sardonically. "Our Sergei appears to be badly smitten by you."

"The drink makes him worse?"

"Noticeably. Unfortunately for Rose, she loves the old reprobate. Otherwise she'd have binned him years ago--and Circus Sergei would long since have become a thing of the past."

"Why so?"

Bodie rocked his mug to keep the sediment from settling. "She's the brains and the power behind the throne. And the reason people continue to work here. If they had to depend on Sergei, they'd be out on the street in no time."

"I thought he ran the show."

Standing up, Bodie walked across to the window and looked out at the field separating the caravan site from the circus compound. "He does his bit--has good circus instincts, does Sergei. But Rose is the accountant, the payroll clerk, the organizer, and overall watchdog. She sees to it that we get paid on a regular basis, that our needs are seen to. She's the mother everyone never had." Bodie finished his tea, then said, "She cares about us in the truest sense of the word."

"Unlucky for her that she's married to Sergei."

"Hm. Are you ready? It's already gone seven."


A swirl of faces later, Doyle was presented last of all to Lily, Simon's partner in costume creation and repair. A small, plump woman, with eyes the color of blue-grey dove's wings, she stood a full head shorter than Doyle.

"And about time, Bodie!" Her low, throaty voice, rising above the hubbub of the big tent, was a treat for the ears. "Just saving the best for last," Bodie facilely corrected her.

Delivering a jab to the ribs that impacted with a thud, Lily turned from Bodie, making Doyle the center of her incandescent smile. "You were magnificent on the bar yesterday," she said dramatically. "Positively magical!"

"Thank you." Doyle was somewhat surprised to feel a surge of genuine warmth filling his chest. Had it been so long since he had been complimented for something other than authorized mayhem? "Bodie says you take care of the costumes--along with Simon."

Lily's smile disappeared, and she eyed Doyle critically. "With Simon!" she sniffed. "He'd like the world to think he does everything except sew on the buttons."

For the first time, Doyle realized that the broad streaks of silver in the woman's hair were not a performer's conceit, but the hallmark of fifty or more years. "And in fact?"

"He sews on the buttons, too." Humor wreathed her face like a garland of bright flowers. "Simon's very good at what he does, actually. He designs some of the costumes and even sews a few. I keep track of all the rest."

"A big job," Doyle noted respectfully.

"Very. Even for a circus this size."

"It's our go, Lily," Bodie interrupted. He gestured at the clowns and web spinners who were clearing the ring. Basil chased after a dog wearing a ruffled collar. Immediately, one of the clowns lurched after the pair of them, shouting invective in which Basil's name figured largely.

"Better look after your dog," Bodie said grimly. "Old Falstaff's wanted to wring her neck for donkey's years."

"She's not my dog," Doyle replied perfunctorily. "'S taken to following me about, that's all," he explained to Lily, who was following this by- play with interest.

"Wondered why she'd come in here." She shook her head bemusedly. "The smell of Pat is usually enough to keep her well away."

"She's a victim of love," Bodie said drolly, shucking threadbare jeans and sweatshirt to reveal woollen tights underneath.

Following Bodie's example, Doyle unbuttoned the clasp at his waist and began to tug at the zip. "Nah, just knows a soft touch when she sees one."

"You did feed her your leftovers, didn't you?" Bodie exclaimed.

With great dignity, Doyle pulled his bulky sweater up over his head, baring himself to the frigid caress of morning. "Ask the dog."

Bodie snorted. "Soft touch isn't in it, mate."

"Leave him alone, Bodie," Lily said entreatingly. "He's beautiful."

Doyle flushed. The woman had spoken with heartfelt fervor, her eyes even now roaming over him from the crown of his head to the heels of his unshod feet.

Laughing, Bodie nudged Doyle toward the nearest web. "Don't worry, sunshine. The novelty of your stunning physique will wear off soon enough. Mine did."

"Who said?" Lily demanded lecherously, as the two men ascended the dangling ropes.

As Doyle reached the platform, moving slowly and surely until his muscles had warmed up, he called across to Bodie, "Thought we were supposed to work out on the ground first?"

"We will." Bodie swung across to the cables supporting the platform. "First we check all the rigging and supporting guys. Then we'll go back down and do some stretches, a bit of--"

"Calisthenics," Doyle finished for him, pronouncing each syllable distinctly for added emphasis.

"Just so. Come up here and check this over with me. You are familiar with this sort of set-up, aren't you?"

Bristling under the implied aspersion, Doyle swung across to Bodie's side, where he carefully balanced between two thick cables, glancing unconcernedly down at the floor of the ring sixty feet below. Two of the full-time roustabouts were deftly erecting the net, their movements precise but unfaltering--delay on their part could result in death for either or both of the men overhead.

"Of course I am," Doyle said evenly. "Aren't you pushing your luck by coming up here before the net's been tied off?"

"Do it all the time." Clearly this oversight was of no significance to Bodie. "Sergei can't say much when there are so many acts needing rehearsal time. Pay attention."

They spent ten minutes inspecting the complex network of rigging. Doyle evinced a considerable degree of expertise, even spying a loose knot that Bodie had apparently overlooked. "Hell of a spot to miss, Bodie," he said sharply. Registering the obviousness of the knot's location, Doyle exclaimed, "Wait a minute. You didn't miss it, did you? That's an idiot thing to do, mate. What if I hadn't caught it? That's the catch trap, y'know?"

"You wouldn't've missed it the next time round, would you, Doyle?"

Tempted to push the other man off his tenuous support, Doyle bit back a surge of anger with considerable effort. "You're a fool. That might've killed both of us."

"Not so long as you know what you're doing. And you do. C'mon then; let's go down and get to work."

His belly churning, Doyle lingered for a moment as Bodie took hold of a rope and lowered himself to the ring. He understood all too well what Bodie was up to: Until Doyle had proven himself to the other man's satisfaction, he would be confronted with one test after another. And even knowing that he would have done precisely the same provided little in the way of comfort.

A small mat had been spread out for them. After the first round of sit- ups, push-ups, and overall stretches, Doyle complained, "You had to've been in the Army."

"Yeah?" There was a glint in Bodie's eyes.

"Sadism of this magnitude couldn't come to you naturally--it's unnatural."

A mirage of amusement shimmered across Bodie's face. "Was, actually. For a few years."

"And you liked it so well you decided to carry on the tradition in the real world. Big of you."

"It has its merits."

"Like weeding out those who don't come up to your standard?" Groaning under his breath, Doyle aped Bodie's strenuous forward lunges.

"Someone less fit might have a reason to complain. You're moaning just for the sound of your own voice," Bodie decided.

"Don't tell me that we start out the routine with a few rounds of aerobics come Wednesday next? Be a real thrill for the audience, that would."

Ignoring the sarcastic tone, Bodie placed his hands high on his hips and began rapidly scissoring his legs back and forth. Rolling his eyes, Doyle followed suit, irritated by a stream of sweat that spilled off his collarbone onto the slope of his chest, and began a ticklish slide down the valley formed by his sternum.

"Okay," Doyle conceded, his voice only affected by the jarring impact of heels on the sawdust surface; his breathing was well under control. "What'd you do in the Army? Drilled the new lads, right?"

"How ever did you guess?"

"Then again, maybe you were with a cavalry regiment--that would account for the horsy skills."

"The Flying Hussars," Bodie said lightly, not missing a beat. He fell into a squatting posture, the sight of which made Doyle's thighs twitch in alarm.

"Heard of them," Doyle said in the same droll tone. "The envy of Olympic riders worldwide."

Bodie broke into a grin. "You don't give up, do you?"

Repeating the exercise the demonstrated number of times, Doyle grinned back.

Taking in the stain of sweat on the front of Doyle's leotard, Bodie said encouragingly, "At least you're warm now, aren't you?"

"Oh, very, thanks. And you?"

"As toast. Up the ladder, son; our time's almost up."

Half an hour later, Doyle was ready for a shower and a nap. It was Bodie who reminded him that elevenses had been promised, and his contract needed seeing to. Moving with a suppleness that contradicted the bellowing ache of numerous muscles and joints, Doyle wiped off with the same towel used by Bodie, then climbed into jeans and sweater. "What about this afternoon?" he asked, looking up at Bodie from under heavy lashes.

Bodie stared back a moment before answering. "After you settle with Sergei, hunt up Simon. He wants to get your measurements for the costumes. Meet me back here about three for the dressage routine."

"Right. When we've finished that, will there be time to go into town?"

"Plenty of it. How're you holding up? You've been pushing all morning."

"Me--" Doyle caught himself up short. "I'm doing just fine, thank you." As he pushed his sleeves up past his forearms, he asked, "What will you do in the ring for tomorrow's opening?"

"Hang about a bit after we go through the dressage number; should give you an idea."

"I'll do that," Doyle said. "Catch you later, mate."

Stepping into the center aisle, Doyle felt the weight and warmth of Bodie's eyes on his back. It did not elude him that Bodie had dodged all of his questions regarding Bodie's background--no matter how good- naturedly they had been circumvented. Either Bodie himself was hiding something, or he was a consummate dissembler. Based on what Cowley had told him, and his own few, unsullied ideals, Doyle hoped it was only the latter.

His interview with Sergei went without hitch. Nursing a manifestly gargantuan hangover, the owner of Circus Sergei was polite and removed throughout. They discussed Doyle's wages, his duties within the troupe, and the length of his contract. Sergei made it clear that he would contact all whom Doyle had named as character references. Since they were, every one, in the employ of CI5, Doyle knew he had nothing to be concerned about.

Moments before Sergei concluded their negotiations, Doyle's grumbling stomach summoned Rose out of the kitchen with a plate full of sandwiches, cheese, and fresh fruit, the latter two items having been sliced into fork-manageable sections. Doyle ate hungrily and with great pleasure; until he had an opportunity to collect some provisions, he would be forced to rely upon the goodwill of others--not a happy option if past experience was anything to go by.

Basil met him at the foot of the steps of Sergei's place, her thin white tail wagging hopefully. Sent on his way with the remains of his sandwich, Doyle led the animal to his own caravan and there fed her while waiting for the kettle to come to a boil.

As he filled the pot, he let his mind wander, reviewing the day just past, and the one already half over. He and Bodie had performed well again this morning, although Bodie had dictated only the most basic of acrobatics: simple crossovers, single pirouettes, knee-hanging, heel- hanging. Frustrated as he was by the snail's pace Bodie had decreed, nothing could have lessened the thrill of leaving the bar and being caught by Bodie's square-cut, immensely strong hands. Surely held, Doyle had revelled in those too-rare instants of contact, distinguished by the fluid glide of their joined bodies, the stretch and pull of finely honed muscles working in total harmony, and the certainty that Bodie would hold him until that precise moment--following which he would find himself back at the origin of his arc, and there released to his own bar, which, carried by its own momentum, would be awaiting him like some faithful, if unlikely, steed.

"How about some water, pup?" he suggested abstractedly, responding to Basil's fretful scratching at the floor near his feet. While she lapped thirstily, Doyle shook his head to clear away the morning's emotional remnants, somewhat dismayed and a little surprised at being so easily absorbed into what had been for many years a lifestyle totally alien to him--a lifestyle he had, in fact, shunned.

Basil pawed at Doyle's leg as he left the caravan, nearly catching the toe of his trainer square in her chin. Stumbling to avoid injuring the dog, Doyle did a quick two-step to regain his balance, then swooped forward to pluck her up. He deposited her onto his shoulder and promptly forgot her existence as he started back across the field to the circus compound.

Just as he reached the edge of the clearing, he reminded himself that he was due a visit with Simon. Turning left behind the equipment caravan, he ambled round the generator and past the costume tent.

The day had turned rather fair, thin clouds streaking a faded blue sky. Diluted sunshine yielded no warmth, but Doyle welcomed its appearance anyway. Heartened by the fresh air and the promise of warmer days to come, Doyle strolled round to the front of the stables and let himself in.

He found Simon at the small table in the tack room, sipping tea from a cup while Derek polished a bridle brilliantly decorated with glittering stones.

"Oh, there you are." Simon took out another mug from the shelf under the table and poured hot golden-brown fluid into it. "My goodness, you have made a conquest, haven't you?" He handed the cup to Doyle.

When Doyle gave him a blank look, Derek pointed at his own shoulder, indicating Basil, precariously but happily perched on Doyle's.

"This baggage, you mean? She's adopted me, Bodie says."

"More than that, she's facing old demons for you, I'd say. She hasn't poked her head in here for ages."

"That's right," Doyle realized. "She wouldn't come in yesterday."

Simon pulled a turned-over box nearer the table for Doyle to sit upon. "Saw you this morning on the trap for a few minutes. What ever are you doing here--in a dive like this, I mean?"

Warming his hands around the mug, Doyle did not look up. "It's been a long time for me. Thought I should start out slow."

"Must be quite a come-down: Donny Devereaux's Circus, ten years ago-- right?"

Doyle raised the hot drink to his lips. "Sure about that?"

"Absolutely. You're not as old as you look." Simon rubbed at his own chin as if pulling at a beard. "That's the worst of it; it makes you look ancient. Surely you've considered cutting it off?"

"No." Doyle concentrated on containing his disquiet. "I've grown fond of it."

"Well, it's certainly grown fond of you, there's so much of it. Won't you at least let me take the gray out?"

"A hair at a time?" Bodie asked cheerfully from the opening. "What are you badgering the poor bloke about, Simon?"

"Oh, Bodie, just look at his hair! It ages him ten years at least."

Holding out a hand, Bodie mimed impatience until Simon produced a cup filled with tea and a splash of milk. "Adds to his allure, surely?"

Tilting his head to one side, Simon frowningly scrutinized Doyle's face. "No," he declared. "It just makes him look old."

"You're a bitch, Simon," Bodie stated with conviction.

"It's true, Bodie." He stood up and came round behind Doyle. Before Doyle could guess his purpose, Simon had placed both hands over his beard, thumbs lying across his upper lip. "See! Ten years younger in an instant."

Bodie did not speak for a moment. "The beard gives him a distinguished look. It is a nice beard, you must admit."

"Flyers are not meant to look distinguished," Simon informed him frostily. "They are meant to be dashing, exciting, fantastical--not distinguished."

Derek signed something terse; Simon poutingly removed his hands. "Oh, all right. But I still think--" Another twist of Derek's fingers and Simon closed his mouth abruptly.

"Did you get everything settled with Sergei?" Bodie pretended the exchange between the other two men had not occurred.

Hiding a smile in his mug, Doyle mumbled, "Hmm."

"Don't suppose this lot has had a chance to work on you yet?"

"Hardly," Simon said peevishly. At a sharp glance from Derek, he went on in a more conciliatory tone, "Was talking about his early days. It's been a while since your Doyle was on the bars."

"Oh, yes?"

"Donny Devereaux's lot, touring the West Country about ten years ago. Was terrible, what happened."

Casting Doyle a curious glance, Bodie took a long swallow of tea. "Something I should know about?"

Doyle said quietly, "Lost my partner in a fall."

"Oh--but it wasn't his fault, Bodie!" Simon interjected. "The other lad, the one who fell, was working the fixed trap at the beginning of the show. One of the cables gave way."

"You were there?"

Doyle's eyes shot up, but Bodie was addressing Simon.

"Yes, I was there," Simon said hollowly. "It was dreadful." He sighed. "I shouldn't have brought it up, Ray. I am sorry."

"As you said, it was ten years ago."

"But you left the cir-- Ow!" A fierce glare was turned Derek's way; it was, however, Simon who shrank before the blistering expression on his lover's face. Even more contritely, he said, "Derek thinks I should take your measurements now."

"Ready when you are," Doyle said lightly.

Tucking the tape-measure up against Doyle's groin, Simon bent low to reach the arch of his foot with the other end of the tape, steadfastly keeping his touch professionally impersonal. A number was jotted onto a small pad of paper. "Right, now turn round." He measured Doyle's shoulders and the distance from the nape of his neck to the upper swell of his buttocks. "That's it, Ray. Lily and I'll get to work on these right away. You did get to meet Lily, didn't you?"

"Yes, this morning. She said you do the buttons."

"She's lying, silly old cow. I draw up the patterns and cut out the material. Sometimes I even stitch them--your flying costume, for example. The equestrian outfits, she completes. And on occasion we just divide the load between us."

"How long does it usually take?"

"When we have the time it goes very quickly."

"And when you don't?"

Simon broke into a disarming grin. "We always find the time. One thing about Sergei: He likes his artistes to project the proper image--his male performers, anyway."

"Derek is probably growing impatient," Bodie stated, reminding everyone that the animal trainer had gone on a few minutes ahead to prepare the horses in the ring. Bodie had hung about to watch Doyle undergo Simon's meticulous attentions.

"Oh, I can't wait," Doyle murmured sardonically. "My bum hasn't recovered from yesterday's session."

"You should have said!" Simon exclaimed. "I have just the--"

"Careful, Simon." Bodie clucked his tongue. "Derek won't love you if you make him jealous."

"Bodie, you're a monster. Here, Ray. It's liniment. And don't listen to him. He's the jealous one. Can't even keep any of his groupies-- Oh," Simon reconsidered, "except that tall, dark, and very good-looking one."

"Shut up, Simon," Bodie said warningly.

"You thought I didn't see him the last time he sneaked out of your caravan. Well, I did. 'S why I wasn't surprised when you didn't make a rumpus over Roger leaving." The way Simon spoke, he clearly thought little of the ex-flyer.

"Thanks, mate." Doyle took the plastic container from Simon's hand and unscrewed the cap. Wrinkling his nose, he gasped. "Yes, this smells familiar."

"Maybe you can get Bodie to rub it in for you?" Simon suggested sweetly.

"I'm sure Bodie has better things to do."

Ogling Doyle's derrière unashamedly, Simon shook his head. "If he can pass that up, he's a disgrace to his sex."

"My God, Simon," Bodie snorted. "If Derek doesn't give you a bash, I shall!"

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"Oh, masterful, isn't he!"

"C'mon, Doyle."

As Doyle fell into stride beside him, Bodie said, loudly enough for Simon's benefit, "We'll tell Derek that Simon offered to rub that on your bottom, shall we?"

Doyle chortled wickedly. "And then I'll show him my bruises--and swear they weren't there yesterday."

"Don't you dare!" Simon hissed after them, holding the tent flap stiffly open. "Or I'll boil your dog for tonight's stew."

"What d'you think, Basil?" Doyle asked. The dog trotted blissfully at his heels. "Bet you'd enjoy a warm bath, eh?"


"That's our Simon," Bodie observed. "Always has to have the last word."

Entering the big top from the horse corridor, Doyle noticed that the filtered light took on an ethereal, misty glow. In the ring, two horses, the Andalusian and the Friesian, waited, presently unencumbered by the raiment that would adorn them during their public performances. To Doyle's eye, they needed none to enhance their appearance. Beautiful in their own coats--the black's lustrously deep and silken, the grey's as sleek and smooth as swan feathers--they seemed creatures of another time and sensibility: elegant in their perfect breeding, arrogant in their superior schooling. Four ears angled forward in the direction of the two men approaching. Intelligent, bright eyes studied them in the aloof way of all horses.

"Oh, you are a beauty," Doyle greeted the grey.

The mare pushed her muzzle up against his chest, demanding something more substantial than pretty words. Obliging, Doyle fed her a small piece of carrot, filched from Derek's stores, all the while stroking her throat and the underside of her muzzle.

The outside of the ring was aflutter with activity: The clowns were tussling and thumping each other with enormous, harmless bats; the dogs Doyle had seen the first day were wriggling their way through their paces; and the juggler was practicing his skill. Watching the dogs, Doyle thought of Basil. His eyes scoured the ring, the benches, the heavy red curtain that opened onto the horse aisle--she was not to be seen.

Accustomed to the animal's sudden disappearances by now, Doyle thought nothing more of it. Derek signalled from the opposite side of the ring that he wanted them to begin, and thereafter took total command of Doyle's attention for the better part of the afternoon.

It was, in fact, a little after three before the small group was satisfied with the day's efforts. Tuppence, though asserting her personality on more than one occasion, had come to accept Doyle's control within the first hour. She was a clever, responsive creature, grown the slightest bit lazy in her declining years. Doyle, greatly admiring, could forgive her much, however, for he had never sat a horse so collected. Freed of Derek's undermining influence of the previous day, they seemed almost to meld into one body, rider and horse sharing a single thought.

Afterward, still exultant with their success, Doyle dismounted and, holding the reins slackly, walked her toward her caretaker. "She's incredible, Derek!"

For an instant there was no reaction from the bluff-featured man. His eyes, light brown with tiny golden flecks, surveyed Doyle as though probing into the most secret places of his brain. Then he smiled, slowly and approvingly.

"You already have the job, Doyle," Bodie said caustically. He stood beside the huge Friesian, running the palm of his hand up and down the solid withers.

Deciding not to let Bodie's cynicism irritate him, Doyle said cheerfully, "Quite right. I take it all back, Derek. She's a dismal wretch, the worst in the world. When can I ride her again?"

A soft, guttural laugh rattled in Derek's throat. He flicked two fingers familiarly in Bodie's direction, then collected both sets of reins and led the horses up the main aisle. The sound of their hooves was muffled in the much-used earthen floor.

"And you, mate," Bodie called after him. A few feet away, just outside the ring, the pre-performance water keg squatted on an overturned tub. Bodie helped himself to a long, long drink from the tin mug left there for that purpose, before splashing a goodly portion of it onto his face.

"Are you off onto the rigging now?" Doyle inquired politely.

Wiping his hands on his trousers legs, Bodie grunted his confirmation.

Wondering what he had done to alienate the other man, Doyle made no further attempt at conversation. He wanted to see how Bodie performed on the fixed traps, however, and as he had been invited earlier, he chose a likely stretch of bench and made himself reasonably comfortable.

Unselfconsciously, Bodie stripped off water-marked dark trousers and his woollen polo-neck shirt. Exposed to view were worn leotards which closely hugged the compactly built body beneath.

Quietly appreciative, Doyle let his eyes roam, scarcely aware that a few short days ago he had been forbidden this particular freedom. Not that he had never viewed another man's physique with an eye to beauty; after all, it seemed everyone did, male or female. But he had learned long ago to conceal his interest, for it was the way one looked that gave a person away--not the looking itself.

As Bodie strapped his wrists, lending them the strength needed to support his weight, Doyle studied the solid design of him: the powerfully developed neck; sculpted shoulders, upper arms, and forearms; blunt-fingered hands; broad, smoothly defined chest very lightly dusted with dark hair, tapering into comparatively narrow hips; flat abdomen; and corded thighs that bunched as he shifted weight--both front and back athletically proportioned--and calves that curved like hewn stone into surprisingly small feet. A fillip of heat curled inside Doyle's belly, a purely animalistic response to an extremely attractive male. The leotard was actually a blessing in his opinion, safeguarding the other man's nudity while emphasizing the uncommonly fine form beneath.

Bodie went up via the web--apparently his preferred mode of ascent. The instant his feet left the ground, the waiting workmen erected the safety net. Briefly distracted, Doyle watched only long enough to ensure that they had been thorough in their undertaking, noting to himself that Bodie must trust them unstintingly not to oversee their actions personally.

By then Bodie was on the trap. He made use of the small resin bag tied to one of the supports, white puffs of powder disappearing into the air in front of him. With his balance evenly distributed, Bodie then rolled backward until he hung suspended from his knees. In the next second he threw his arms down behind his head to initiate a backwards swing, using momentum and aggressively taut abdominals to increase the forward motion.

The rest of the ring receded from view; jugglers, dancing dogs, and clowns all ceased to exist for Doyle. His entire being was concentrated on the man overhead. When Bodie reached out for the second trap, his body unrolling from a smart somersault, Doyle's shoulders felt the strain of connection; when Bodie thrust himself up and over the bar, caught by widely parted ankles, Doyle's own lower legs curved and tensed preparatory to the rough press of the bar that broke his empathic fall; and when Bodie, chest gleaming with sweat, face hard with purpose, sprang into the air, propelled by a giant swing, and defied gravity unmoving for several seconds before slicing smoothly downward to the opposite trap, Doyle's heart came to a standstill. He had never seen that particular maneuver so dramatically--nor so perfectly--executed.

It was the uninvited clasp of an arm round his shoulders that brought Doyle back to his surroundings. He coiled to strike, but recognized Sergei just in time to forestall the launch of a white-knuckled fist.

"I startled you." Sergei patted him, sliding his palm up along the slow slope of Doyle's neck before removing his hand. "You were watching him like a child--surely Bodie's skill cannot hold such fascination for you when you are so very good yourself?"

Silently reminding himself of his present situation, Doyle merely said, "Bodie's--different."

"Different like you?" Sergei wondered. "Like--us?"

Doyle picked his words with care, showing nothing of his irritation. "Just unique. Look at him: He's built to be a catcher. But the way he moves--in a horse you'd call it 'collection'--he's always in control, always ready."

"Yes," Sergei commented with an unctuous grin, "And like a horse, his loins are said to be very robust."

A wintry smile iced the corners of Doyle's mouth. "Who could ask for more?"

"Perhaps some of us appreciate subtlety--and grace. Bodie displays none of that." Sergei observed Doyle's reaction to this statement out of the corner of his eye.

"Bodie suits me," Doyle said evenly, well aware that it was far too soon to be showing any part of his hand, but quite incapable of withdrawing the words once they were said. More than that, he had no desire to.

"But the question is, do you suit Bo--?"

Sergei's question died unanswered at the precipitous arrival into the net of the subject of their conversation. Bodie bounced once, then got his legs under him. He came off the ropes at their feet.

It was only an impression, but for a second Doyle could have sworn that Bodie was boiling with anger. Scrutinizing Bodie's expression, however, he found nothing to support his imaginings, Bodie as affably unforthcoming as ever.

"Sergei. Surely you're not trying to incite the peasant to rebel?"

At this ambiguous remark, Sergei gave Bodie a wary look.

"Doyle," Bodie explained pleasantly, a flick of the finger indicating the man at Sergei's side. There was a definite edge to his voice. "I'm sure he'd like to go up on the trap with me tomorrow, but I've already told him, no."

Despite the accusation against Doyle, Bodie's unmistakable aggression was directed entirely at Sergei. Puzzled, Doyle began to doubt that he was interpreting Bodie's signals correctly.

Sergei, apparently, was not. "Not at all, Bodie. We were talking about you."

Bodie strode a few yards away and picked up his towel. Over his shoulder, he said, "Oh, well, that's all right then." With an arrogant lift of the head, he finally looked straight at Doyle. "You wanted to go into town? I'll be ready in five minutes."

Suddenly Doyle understood: Bodie was protecting him from Sergei. If this act of gallantry had not been so singularly uncalled for, Doyle might have laughed. Instead, he glanced back at Sergei with new eyes, only to find the older man sizing up his newly perceived competition darkly.

Head lowered to hide the first, ungovernable spasms of laughter, Doyle said in a faintly strangled voice, "Great." Ruthlessly, he quelled his twitching mouth at the same time that he abandoned the urge to bash both their heads together. Turning toward Sergei, he managed composedly, "If there's anything I can pick up for you or Rose--?"

Sergei replied with an abrupt flap of the hand, his burning gaze still fixed on Bodie. "Thanks, no."

"Right. Meet you at your caravan, eh, mate?" Doyle caught Bodie's eye for just an instant, but there was no mistaking a malicious twinkle glittering off the surface of unfathomed cobalt. Knowing he would make a fool of himself--and Sergei--if he remained a minute longer, Doyle simply pushed off from the bench and strode away.

Cowley would never be allowed to hear the end of this.

The Mini bucketed down the narrow road, throwing up gravel and great wheeling clouds of dust in its wake. Making no effort to speak in the confines of the noisy vehicle, Doyle sat with one hand curled steadyingly round the dog standing on his leg, the other hanging onto the overhead strap to keep them from being unnecessarily pitched about.

Even before Doyle had finished changing into a sweat-free shirt, the presumptuous toot of the Mini had summoned him forth into the late afternoon gloom. A soft rain was falling, and for that reason if no other, Doyle was grateful to Bodie for the offer of a ride into town. Basil, who had been dozing on the seat of Doyle's motorbike upon his return to the caravan, had leapt into the front seat as though this were not a rare occurrence. When Bodie had not protested, Doyle had removed her onto his lap and closed the door after them.

Bodie kept his own counsel, having greeted Doyle's appearance with no more than an impatient scowl. His driving skills proved to be excellent, if a little showy. Never really comfortable as a passenger, Doyle had nonetheless quickly determined that Bodie was not likely to cause them to career into a ditch somewhere. Mind wandering, he closed his eyes and let his head rest against his upper arm.

The wind blew in frigidly wet through the window that had been wound down for Basil. The dog delightedly took in the passing countryside, which was soon superseded by the outskirts of town, whuffling the air in great snorts, her ears standing straight up, eyes half shut.

Half an hour later they came to a stop in front of a large Sainsbury's.

"I'll be back in about an hour," Bodie said.

"Right." The rain was falling quite heavily. Shrugging deeper into his jacket, Doyle opened the door. At the same instant he thought of barring the dog, she had sprung over his arm down onto the pavement. Landing with a splash, she anchored herself on all four feet and shook violently, sending water spraying in all directions.

"Basil, stay!" To Doyle's relief the dog obeyed at once. "D'you have a bit of cord?"

Grudging amusement eased the hard set of Bodie's face. "Yeah. Hold on."

"Ta, mate." While Bodie rooted in the boot of the car, Doyle waited patiently, keeping a diligent eye on the dog.


He caught a coil of sturdy cord one-handed.

Bodie slammed the lid down and returned to the driver's side of the car. "You and that bloody dog," he groused. "Be ready, right?"

"Promise. Thanks, Bodie."

As the pale green Mini drove away, Doyle gestured to the dog to follow him to the sheltered area near the main doors. A little doubtful, but unresisting, Basil sat neatly while Doyle collared her and tied the other end of her improvised lead to a bit of railing. "Won't be long, Bas."

Roaming from one aisle to the next, Doyle picked his purchases with care. This assignment would not accord him a monthly income to match his CI5 wages; therefore, he must play the role of impoverished circus performer from the beginning. All the same, with the few pound notes he had brought with him, and the small advance given him by Sergei, he had more than enough money to tide him over for a week. From the fresh meats counter he acquired bones for Basil--on the off-chance his little admirer would continue to stay with him.

Well under the time limit established by Bodie, Doyle passed through the main doors to the front pavement. He immediately glanced over at the railing where he had left Basil tethered. There, a small crowd had gathered, young people mixed with old. Before the first exclaiming voice could reach his ears, Doyle suffered a quiver of alarm; in the next instant it was gone.

"Oh, she's a charmer!"

"Look at that! Isn't she the clever one?"

"Oh, mummy, she can dance!"

Maneuvering himself behind a young boy, Doyle glimpsed the wiry terrier suspended mid-somersault. Mouth open, tongue hanging out, spotted chest heaving with noisy pants, she looked quite happy to be the center of attention.

"I'll give her a piece of my choco--"

"Not that," a woman's voice interrupted. "Chocolate isn't good for dogs, you know."

"But she should have something," a small girl piped up. "She's worked ever so hard."

"Here," Doyle said, and opened the newly bought box of dog treats. "Give her one of these."

"Oh, yes, thank you!" Round brown eyes gazed gratefully up at Doyle. Basil yipped once in greeting, but she readily accepted the tidbit when it was offered. Everyone watched with varying degrees of satisfaction as Basil bolted her reward.

"I've never seen a dog so well trained," one of the women marvelled.

Dropping his voice conspiratorially, Doyle murmured, "Circus Sergei. And she's not even one of the performers." Several pairs of eyes turned upon him with new respect. "Not good enough, y'see."

"Not good enough!" Dark braids tossed in disagreement as the girl raised her head defiantly. "She's wonderful!"

Doyle placed a finger to his lips, and lowered his voice. "Of course she is. But come and see the others, eh? They're very good, too."

"D'you work there?" This lad was ten at the most, his hair the color of nearly ripe strawberries.

"I do."

"With the dogs?" another girl prompted.

"No," he said with a smile. "We're just friends."

"I'll bet you're a trapeze flyer," the boy hazarded. "Or--maybe one of the clowns?"

"Thank you!" Doyle countered with mock hauteur. "Right the first time, actually; though I won't be performing till next week."

"Isn't it frightening being up in the air so high?" Enormous brown eyes commanded Doyle's honest reaction.

"It can be. If you're not careful."

"The performances begin tomorrow, don't they?" The woman stood almost as tall as Doyle. She smiled pleasantly at him.

"That's right. Just on seven. And there'll be two performances Friday through Sunday."


A familiar horn sounded from the driveway in front of the store. Doyle shot a look over his shoulder--it was Bodie, an enigmatic expression lighting his eyes as he took in the tableau through the front windscreen.

"Must go," Doyle said. He reached over and slipped the lead free of the railing. Basil sprang up to his lap. With a helping hand under her bottom, he boosted her onto his shoulder. A ripple of oohs and aahs lapped at his ears as he straightened up, carry bags dangling now from both hands. One of the girls giggled delightedly as he hurried into the drive lane. The car door swung open in front of him and he clambered in. As Bodie slowly accelerated away, Doyle stuck his head out of the window and shouted, "Don't forget: tomorrow evening at seven o'clock!"

"Drumming up a bit of business, Doyle?" Bodie inquired a moment later, having allowed him a chance to arrange himself and his burdens to his satisfaction.

"Not me--Basil." In response to a skeptically arched brow, Doyle went on, "'S true. She was doing her part to capture the public's interest. A bit of the old soft shoe, y'know?"

"Idiot dog." Bodie guided the car onto the road turning east. "Did you get everything? Do we need to stop anywhere else?"

"No, I'm set, thanks. How'd you get on, then?"


"You want dinner when we get back? If you've nothing else planned, that is."

Bodie cast him a thoughtful glance. "Yeah, why not."


Slumped bonelessly in the dining nook booth, Doyle was content, warm, and satiated. Opposite him, Bodie finished mopping off his plate with a large slab of buttered bread. His quiet, unassuming company was a major contributor to Doyle's state of mind. They had spoken little since Bodie had come round late in the evening, their conversation desultory, topics ranging over the morning's exercise work-out, the dressage routine, Tuppence and Piper and their relative merits, and myriad other innocuous topics.

On the floor Basil lay sleeping, legs and muzzle twitching occasionally as fitful dreams stirred quiescent muscles. She had eaten greedily upon their arrival home, then had begged a few scraps while Doyle prepared the meal. Once Bodie had shown up, she had subsided into a limp curl on the rug, nose tucked under her hind leg.

Overhead, the thin metal roof rattled with rain. Doyle found the sound almost as soothing as it was annoying. He longed for clear skies and the heat of the sun. It seemed as though the rain had been falling forever-- certainly since Chandra--

"You ready for tea?" he asked abruptly.

Bodie eyed him curiously. "Sure."

"So what happens tomorrow? What with the performances beginning, we won't have all day to use the ring anymore."

"Won't need it," Bodie said. He picked up his wiped-clean plate and carried it to the sink. Waiting while Doyle filled the kettle, Bodie remarked, "I spoke with Tegler today."

"Checking up on me?"

Bodie rinsed off his plate as Doyle plugged in the kettle. "Yes."


"He told me about Keith Leland."

Doyle pushed the rocker switch to the ON position and turned round. "Regular nosy parker, aren't you?"

"Sergei thought you might be on the run."

"On the run?"

"Don't often get people with your ability looking for a position with a circus like this."

"Doesn't think too highly of himself, does he? But you're right; I can see what he means: 'S an excellent place to hide, this."

"Told you before, Sergei's not stupid."

"And he isn't even Sergei. His name's Alfred Weatherby, according to Tegler. But it's like that in the circus; you expect a bit of deception here and there. What's the big deal, Bodie?"

"It is like that in the circus. But I told you before, our Alf doesn't want the police snooping round. In fact, he avoids that at all costs."

Folding his arms across his chest, Doyle stuck his chin out. "'S not a problem because of me."

"No. Tegler would back you up on that."

Doyle's brow furrowed. "He said that?" When Bodie gave an idle nod, Doyle persisted, "Then, I don't understand. Why'd you even bother to mention it? Since Tegler told you I'm okay, you didn't have to tell me a thing. Or d'you think he was lying?"

"I haven't decided. He hadn't seen you for a few years--and about the time you come sniffing to him for a job, there's an opening with Circus Sergei. Bit of a coincidence, don't you think?"

"None at all, really." The water began to steam; Doyle splashed a little into the teapot and set the kettle down. "I've been watching the circuses round the country. There aren't many small ones anymore, and I'd rather not take on one of the larger groups just now." He reached up and spun the diamond stud in his earlobe between thumb and finger. "When the Flying Falconis managed to have a second accident, it just seemed logical to see if they'd be looking for another replacement."

"'Another replacement?'" Bodie echoed. He helped himself to a chocolate biscuit from the small plate Doyle had prepared earlier in the evening.

"You beat me out on the last occasion--of course, you wouldn't know that."

"Really? Thought Tegler said you'd been working the streets--"

"Working the streets!" Since this was not something Cowley had sketched out in Doyle's prepared profile, he was frankly taken aback.

Bodie laughed. "Easy, son. Tegler likes to spin a good tale. Admitted you'd been doing a laborer gig off and on to earn your crust." He snagged a second biscuit.

"Why don't you just finish off the whole packet?" Doyle asked tartly. The kettle clicked off; he emptied the teapot and refilled it with tea bags and freshly boiling water.

"No, thanks, these'll do."

Doyle wrapped a tea-towel round the pot; he lacked the amenity of a proper cozy. "So was Sergei satisfied with that--what Tegler said?"

"Seemed to be. But then he was hoping for a good report, y'know," Bodie said dryly. "Likes you, doesn't he."

"Hm. I had noticed. Don't worry, I won't encourage him."

"Hardly my place to worry," Bodie said rather distantly. "That's your business."

It was on the tip of Doyle's tongue to remind Bodie of his intercession earlier in the day; deciding that might well be impolitic, he changed his mind. "Just so."

"Although you'd be an idiot to let him--"

Doyle raised his brows questioningly.

"You know." Bodie popped the second biscuit into his mouth and returned to the dining table, deftly stepping over a somnolent Basil on the way. "Unless you're the kind who sleeps his way up the ladder."

A rude laugh bubbled up from the depths of Doyle's chest. "We haven't known each other long, Bodie, but do I really seem that sort?"

"Nah." Bodie slid sideways into the narrow booth, letting his feet hang out over the edge. "But Tegler couldn't tell me all that much about you--"

"Why should he?" Doyle demanded. "What are you so worried about, anyway-- if you don't have something to hide? Is there something I should know about Circus Sergei that nobody's bothered to mention? Or maybe something about you?"

Unfazed by Doyle's pugnacity, Bodie simply shrugged. "No. Just do your job, Doyle. Do your job, and everything will be fine."

After Bodie left, Doyle took the time to clean up his tiny kitchenette, his mind working overtime as he washed and dried soiled dishes, cutlery, and pans. It had been Cowley's opinion that Bodie was unaware of Sergei's involvement with the IRA; Doyle had to wonder now if that opinion was unfounded. If, in fact, Bodie did not know about Sergei's outside activities, he nevertheless knew--or suspected--something.

It was almost midnight when Doyle took Basil out for her evening's constitutional. The rain had stopped at last, leaving a high, loamy scent flourishing in the air. Doyle wandered a little way into the field, putting needed distance between him and both the caravan site and the circus compound. Although the area was not well lit to begin with, the farther he got away from the built-up grounds, the separation of shadow and light became much harsher, shimmering starshine and crescent moonlight giving forth a cold, ghostly brilliance.

"Tomorrow sunshine, Basil," he said hopefully. She reared up on her hind legs and placed muddy feet against his knee. "Come along, you witless bugger," he said tiredly.



The promise made by the cloudless night carried through the hours before sunrise. Rising early, Doyle washed his face, had a cup of coffee, donned his fleecy running clothes, then went out into the pre-dawn darkness. It was very quiet, a susurrant breeze softly licking at the tall grass and touching Doyle's cheeks with a frigidity that belied its gentleness. Grateful for the beard that afforded his face remarkable protection, he turned into the direction of the fitful wind, glancing back only once at Basil, who seemed uncowed by the temperature or the lack of light.

It was impossible to think clearly at first, every nerve ending in his body clamoring either in response to the cold or the imposition of movement. Once he had loosened up a bit and his blood had begun to flow more warmly in his veins, the cobwebs began to lift and he could concentrate a little easier.

Inhaling deeply of fresh, dew-rich air, he loped toward the circus compound, taking in the already familiar configuration of tents and equipment, bereft now of color and decoration, great, looming shadows against a sky that had lost its moon. There stood the wooden structure that housed the generators; the costume tent; the sideshow kiosks and tents; and round the front, the main tent, its scalloped valances swinging to and fro in the early morning breeze.

Padding lightly, Doyle swung round toward the road leading into the valley, Basil staying at his heels without difficulty. As he started down the first drop, he glanced back at the other side of the main tent, and beyond it, to the animal enclosure. A jolt of interest went through him: The back end of a heavy lorry jutted out, just visible at the end of the stables.

Without hesitation, Doyle circled inward, his pace necessarily slowed by the tall grass and scrub plants that occupied the field. In his wake, Basil was forced to leap like a dolphin in a vain attempt to keep up.

When he had come within a few feet of the lorry, Doyle began a more stealthy approach, while steadfastly evincing an air of curiosity; after all this vehicle had not been here the evening before. Why should it arrive in the dead of night, when all were fast asleep?

The back end was closed up, none of the lamps lit. Skirting round to the front, Doyle trailed a hand across the grille: it still radiated a faint heat, which, in this chill air, meant it must have been brought in fairly recently. Creeping round to the side nearest the stables, he paused when a low whicker reached his ears. Basil stumbled into him. She regained her feet and slightly affronted, sat back and waited for his next move.

Cautiously, Doyle started back to the rear of the vehicle, an ear cocked for sounds of movement from within the animal enclosure. The ground was muddy here, though straw had been spread to keep vehicles moving in and out from getting mired. Doyle's trainers squelched through the patches that had been missed; behind him, Basil fastidiously tugged her mucky paws up and down in unwilling parody of the in-place trot of the dressage horses.

The back-gate was latched, but not locked. Taking a grip of the forged steel bumper, Doyle vaulted silently onto its narrow width and sinuously straightened up. He took hold of the latch in fingers made thinner by the cold, and carefully worked it open. It gave with an unforgivable, grinding creak that brought Doyle's heart into his throat. Just as he stepped to one side to peer into the depths within, he heard a whistle, tuneful but low, essaying the "Marseillaise."

At once Doyle leapt off the edge of the platform, barely missing Basil, who had kept vigil below. The muffled tread of footsteps accompanied the spirited, if hushed, rendition of the national anthem of France, and rapidly neared the tent flap which opened onto the vehicle park.

Aware that he would be seen before he could reach the other end of the stables, Doyle hunkered down and raised the bottom of the canvas where it hung loosest between two stakes. Allowed no time to reconsider, he slid under the wing of fabric--and remembered only at the last possible instant to scoop Basil in beside him.

The dog gave a tiny yelp, but Doyle had already silenced her with a hand round her muzzle. In the pitch black confines in which they found themselves, Doyle at first held himself very still, keeping the dog pressed to his chest. She squirmed unhappily, as flexible as an eel. He should have realized that the stables were the last place she would want to be.

"Steady on, Bas," he hissed right into her ear, where only she could hear him. Surprisingly, the dog obeyed, but she began to tremble, long violent shudders that left no part of her body in peace. "Shh. 'S all right."

From the depths of the darkness came a querying sound--not the whuffle of a horse, nor the whine of a dog. Stupefied, Doyle realized what he should have recognized at once, had he not been awash with adrenalin: he had not blundered into one of the horse's stalls--the scent alone should have told him that. Musky and commanding, the pungent odor brought the hair up on the back of his neck and stilled the air in his lungs.

Panic surged inside him--but only for an instant. Reason reasserted itself as he remembered that no more than a thin sheet of canvas separated him from the rest of the world outside. This sort of animal must certainly be caged, no matter how well trained, docile, or decrepit. Gingerly, he moved forward to assure himself that this was indeed the case, and in the darkness that his eyes had begun to make some adjustment to, he caught the faint glimmer of metal bars, extending from floor to fabric ceiling, and disappearing into the gloom on either side.

The low rumble came again, sounding once more to Doyle like a patient inquiry. As the great head moved, jaws opening in a massive yawn, Doyle could just make out the yellowed canines, the pink slab of tongue, and the long, wiry whiskers. When the animal blinked, Doyle felt yellow eyes burn into him, placidly undisturbed by his presence, but questioning it, for this was out of the ordinary.

Fascinated despite himself, Doyle went nearer the metal bars, staring hard to make out the full length of the beast, which was considerable, the regal shape of head and enormous paws, the pale pink trapezoid of its nose pad. Vaguely he could distinguish the long, curving stripes that proclaimed the big cat's breed.

Doyle wished quite irrationally for light so that he might see the magnificent creature better. It had been so long--

His wish was granted.

Overhead a single, unshielded bulb flared into brilliance, blinding Doyle and rooting him to the spot. He had not forgotten where he was, nor that he was about covert business; nevertheless he had believed himself undetected. His discoverer had moved with such perfect stealth, not a whisper of sound had betrayed his arrival.

Chaotic thoughts dervished in his mind--but only for an instant. The lack of verbal challenge proclaimed the other person's identity as plainly as a broadcast over the Tannoy.

Remaining where he stood, Doyle asked, "Why do you hide him? He's beautiful."

Only then did he look round, face carefully molded into sheepish resignation.

Derek hung back in the shadows, near the opening of the tiger's private quarters. His features told Doyle nothing, although the glint of his eyes was hard and unyielding. In one leather-gloved hand, he held a long, curving, metal hook.

"I apologize," Doyle said. "I know I have no business here, but I smelled this chap yesterday when I visited the stables, and again this morning when I spotted the truck and came over to have a snoop."

He allowed the word to linger in the air between them, his forthrightness intended as redress for this unpardonable behavior.

Gripping the dangerous-looking hook between both hands, Derek came a step nearer. The sawdust and tanbark floor bore his weight without a rustle.

"Why didn't someone tell me the circus has a tiger?" Doyle asked. His attention was so totally focussed on Derek, he startled visibly when a voice came to him from the dimly lit entrance Derek had just vacated.

"Because the circus doesn't." Simon leaned heavily against the front support pole, delicately hiding a wide yawn beneath a curving hand. "Sanjay is one of Derek's mercy cases."

Despite himself, Doyle swivelled round to study the huge cat, which was languidly swabbing the pads of its left paw with its tongue. "There's not something wrong with him?" He canted his head to one side. "Sanjay is a him?"

"Yes," Simon murmured sleepily. His short, fine hair lay mostly flat against his head, obviously subject to recent, hasty finger combing. A busy Chinese-patterned, red satin dressing-gown fell to just below his ankles; the slippers on his feet were made of utilitarian black corduroy. Fiddling with one of the frog closures that bound the slick fabric across his breast, Simon explained, "He's got a bad case of old age. Sanjay may not look it, but he's on his last legs. Derek didn't think he'd make it through the winter."

Sanjay applied a last lick to his leg and rolled over, onto his side, gazing yellowly up at Doyle through slitted eyes.


Turning back with reluctance, Doyle murmured, "Hm?"

"Derek wants to know why you were sniffing about."

Soothingly petting Basil, who had remained remarkably quiet throughout, Doyle said guilelessly, "The lorry wasn't there yesterday. Just curious what was being delivered that required such a big transport."

Whatever Derek was thinking at that moment was kept well hidden behind an impassive facade. Derek, Doyle decided, would be hell to beat in a poker game. The fingers of Derek's left hand moved sharply--a silent communication for Simon, who responded with a faint wince.

"You may want to do something about your curiosity in future," he said pityingly to Doyle. "Derek says since you're so interested, you get to help him unload it."

Doyle's mouth fell open. He shut it. Then he broke into a grin. "Fair's fair. Be happy to. Anyway, looks like this old feller is settling in for a nap; he'd probably prefer a bit of privacy."

Slapping the arm of the hook against his palm, Derek gave an unpleasant grunt and strode out of the tent.

Sighing, Doyle said to Simon, "Sorry."

A knowing smile warming his eyes, Simon said, "You're not. But next time, ask, will you? Derry is terribly protective of his brood."

"Oh, I shall. I promise."

"So this is where you've got to."

A high-pitched yap answered this greeting; Doyle, breathing hard and caught in the middle of wrestling a bale of hay into the stables, didn't bother to add any commentary of his own.

"How ever did you talk him into this?" Bodie insisted as he slowly walked round the end of the lorry platform, arms folded across his chest, his question directed toward Derek, who had kept the role of overseer at the back of the vehicle.

A low, gravelly sound erupted from Derek's mouth--having heard much of this limited vocalization over the past hour, Doyle recognized the curt Anglo-Saxon phrase with ease. He dropped the bale on the floor and rolled his shoulders achingly. Rubbing at the small of his back, he returned to the lorry for the next load.

Bodie tsked, and shook his head. "Such abominable manners. You should be in charge of the livestock, my man."

Repressing a grin, Doyle stabbed Derek's metal hook into the last bale of hay waiting perched on the edge of the platform, and drove it home until he had a good anchor. Balancing himself, he slowly dragged the unwieldy bundle to within easier reach. "What a novel idea," Doyle chimed in. Using heavy-duty gloves borrowed from Derek's seemingly endless supply, he wrenched the bale off the platform and stumbled with it into the tent.

"You have everything well in hand," Bodie observed, following Doyle inside. "Pity, as I was about to suggest that you might like some help."

Simon, just visible where he sat at the small table in the tackroom, giggled. "There's tea, lads, if you're interested."

"Oh, Christ, yes," Doyle panted. He straightened up, drawing a face as his lower back gave another twinge.

"Your Ray made the mistake of recceing Derek's feed delivery lorry. Got himself press-ganged into service, didn't he."

"Do tell. And here I thought you were out on a bloody long run."

After a second's hesitation, Doyle owned, "Was worth it: I got to meet Sanjay."

"Sanjay? What's Derek's puss got to do with you poking your nose where it doesn't belong?"

"Got a whiff of him, Ray says." Simon spoke before Doyle could answer. "Wanted to know why we hadn't mentioned the old bugger to him before."

"I do hope Derek saw clear to explain that to your satisfaction?" Bodie said, with manifest insincerity.

"Sort of." Simon held out a large mug filled with steaming, creamy brown liquid. He waited until Doyle, bemusedly silent, accepted it. "You know Derek."

"It's a wonder he's not hanging from a tack hook," Bodie commented sunnily, and took a mug for himself.

"Leave off, Bodie." Simon poured milk and tea into a shallow bowl. "He's paid for his sins. Derek's worked him like a navvy, and Ray hasn't complained once. Here, Basil. Would you like some?"

All bright eyes and wagging tail, the dog presented herself at once, following the progress of the bowl downward until it came to rest on the trampled grass and sawdust at her feet. Lapping enthusiastically, she paid no attention when Derek entered the tackroom, only the squeak of his wellingtons betraying his arrival.

"Here, love, time you had a little sit-down," Simon instructed. He picked up a fourth mug and began to pour.

Stripping off his gloves, Derek walked past the other two men as though they were nonexistent, leaned over Simon, and gently kissed him. As he drew away, he curved a finger round Simon's cheek.

"Hm," Simon murmured dreamily, "I love it when you've been mucking about with all that nasty, smelly farm stuff."

"Think that's our cue to exit." Bodie gave Doyle an exaggerated wink. "You had breakfast yet?" He tipped back his mug, draining it in one long swallow.

"You must be joking. And I'm starved. You wouldn't be offering, would you?"

"Don't be silly. It's your turn. Come along; let's leave the lovebirds to themselves."

Following his pre-dawn exertions, Doyle half-hoped Bodie would abbreviate their work-out. His hopes were dashed within the first forty- five minutes. Whereas before they had done basic calisthenics, Bodie now introduced exercises that paired them together, working with and off each other. Before very long, Doyle could see the benefit of this, while marvelling anew at the uncanny rapport he shared with this man. That first session on the trapeze had only hinted at the level of communication between them. Virtually any move Bodie might make, Doyle could anticipate; any untoward action, he could counter. Bodie was swift on his feet, and very strong. Doyle was fast and limber, and his strength nearly matched Bodie's despite their disparate physiques and sizes.

Beyond that, Doyle could sense the germination of an intense, mutual attraction. Were it allowed to take root, Doyle recognized he might be in for an emotional rollercoaster. He was expected to bed this man, after all. But while he had always performed to satisfaction for CI5, never had he slept with a target who appealed to him on more than the most basic level required to accomplish the task. Might he become too involved? Might Bodie--who was merely a means to an end--become too important to him?

As he swarmed up the rope ladder to the trapeze, such questions posed no threat. The old exhilaration, so long missed Doyle had almost forgotten it had ever existed, was back, fizzing in his veins, intoxicating as no drug or spirit could ever be.

It was not his imagination, either, that Bodie seemed to share something of that feeling. Together, they soared, swinging high above the net- safeguarded ring, effortlessly in sync. Today, Bodie urged him to display his aerial prowess where yesterday he had denied it. Happily, Doyle complied. Pirouetted returns to the bar were followed by gymnastic displays of strength and agility as he hoisted himself over the bar, tumbled with furious speed through a double somersault, then dove into Bodie's waiting hands. Bodie's shouted instructions formed a catalogue of every maneuver Doyle had ever learned.

At the end of an hour they were exhausted. One after the other they dropped into the net, then took themselves light-footed to the strange solidity of the floor.

An unexpected noise caught Doyle's attention. Looking round askance, he was rather rattled to discover that the other acts who had been working on the outer edges had stopped their own practice sessions to applaud them.

Bodie slapped him jarringly on the back, simultaneously shoving a dry towel into his hands. "Not bad, is he? Imagine what he'll look like come Wednesday next."

"Wednesday next!" Sergei, who had been supervising the pacing of one of the clown acts, dismissed his group with a wave of the arm. Moving swiftly for one so cumbersomely built, he stepped smartly over the curb and joined them in front of the net. "He's perfect already, Bodie, and you know it! Why keep him back? People want to see flyers on the flying trapeze--not stuntmen forty feet above the ground!"

"Because we haven't established a routine yet, Sergei," Bodie replied patiently. His forbearance was a facade, however, for in the next second he snapped, "Bloody hell, man, the bloke's only been here two days. So we're good together--that's practice. Besides," he added petulantly, "I've an idea, and it's going to take some time to work out."

"What sort of idea?" Sergei demanded.

Doyle looked at his partner with equal interest.

"A play, like." Bodie's lips were pursed defiantly, chin out-thrust.

"A play?"

With weird certainty, Doyle clarified, "He means, a panto."


"Not exactly," Bodie said heavily. "But d'you remember the first time you saw Doyle fly? Remember when he hit the net and bounced back up? Like a bloody great bird, he looked, only lacking the feathers. Be a shame not to capitalize on that."

Sucking a tooth, Sergei subjected both men to a flinty stare. "You're not having me on, Bodie?"

"Don't worry, Alf. It'll be something simple, but oh-so-spectacular. We'll have the audience riveted to their seats, I promise you."

"Spectacular, eh? Don't call me 'Alf,' you bastard. Hm." His eyes ran over Doyle from sweat-drenched hair to bare feet. "What about his costume? Simon and Lily are already working on it, aren't they?"

"That won't make any difference," Bodie assured him. "He's not really going to wear wings, for God's sake. It'll be a tragedy: The hero plummeting to the ground--Icarus, maybe. Or just a benighted sod struck down by magic, who gains heaven as his reward. I haven't had a chance to think it through yet."

Sergei pushed his face nearer to Bodie's. "And you think you can have something like that ready by Wednesday next?"

"Guaranteed," Doyle said with quiet certainty.

A smile oozed across Sergei's lips, reminding Doyle of nothing so much as a shark spying a school of fish. "You'd better get him dried off," he said to Bodie. "Or your act will be off the slate before you've even started."

"Haven't you anything better to do, Alf?" Bodie asked rudely, taking the towel from Doyle's hands and beginning to apply it with undue fervor to Doyle's hair.

An exasperated epithet was hurled Bodie's way, but Sergei did not stay to argue the point, and stalked away.

"Give me that!" Doyle jerked the terry cloth off his head. Rubbing himself down, he glanced sidelong at Bodie, who had bent over to fetch his own towel. "Where did all that come from, then?"

"From watching you," Bodie said. "You haven't an idea how incredible you look up there, have you?"

"Reckon I haven't. Not the way you go on about it, anyway."

"You'd've made a great dancer, Doyle. All legs and muscle, and bloody graceful, to boot."

"Missed my calling?"

"Not by much. We'll make you a dancer on the trapeze, that's all."

"What about you?"

"Nah. I'm a catcher; never be anything more."

"I don't believe that," Doyle stated firmly. "You've got the body to fly as well."

"And have done. I prefer catching."

"Where'd you learn? I've kept my eye on the circuit for years, and I never noticed your name."

"Some other time." Bodie tossed his towel onto an overturned tub. "I've got to get back up there. Show starts tonight; this is my last practice session."

"Right. D'you want some tea?"

"Yes, please. How about some of those chocolate thingies you picked up at the store yesterday, too?"

"One chocolate thingie coming up."

"Make it two."

"Get on with it, why don't you?" Doyle's irritation was for show; Bodie could charm the sun out of the sky, if he wanted to.

Leaving the path through the field, Doyle high-stepped over the curb, then started across the gravel topping toward his own caravan. As he rounded the unit belonging to Zoe and Aidan--two of the clowns who had been working before Sergei's keen eye--he came upon Rose Weatherby and several small children, one of whom Doyle thought he recognized as Basil's former companion. His guess proved correct when the girl gave a little wave, her face splitting into a grin at sight of Basil perched on Doyle's shoulder.

"Hallo, Rose."


"What are you up to with this lot?" He crouched down so Basil could leap off his shoulder. The small terrier chose to remain at his feet, however, rather than join the children who were beckoning to her with soft whistles and whispered Here, Basils.

"An excursion," she replied in her whisky contralto. "Their parents are all very busy, and they're feeling neglected."

"So where are you off to?"

"Into town for ice creams. Can you imagine--in March?"

Doyle tipped his head back and surveyed the clear, sun-filled sky with mild surprise. "You won't get a better day for it."

"Sergei--" The woman dropped her gaze, thick, feathering lashes sweeping onto her cheeks.

"Yes?" Doyle asked gently.

"He thinks you're--very good." Her head came back up. "He says you're the best he's ever seen."

"He is, Rose," the little girl exclaimed. "Mum let me watch yesterday. He's fantastic."

"Another admirer." Rose essayed a brittle smile. "You have several, y'know?"

"Have I? You wouldn't've thought that if you'd seen me this morning. Derek'll have me mucking out the stables next." He had decided to be completely open about the incident in the tiger's cage; what better way to quash rumours before they could start? "Well, I'm off: Bodie wants a cuppa and something to tide him over till lunch."

"You're getting along well, the pair of you?"

"Very well." If Doyle applied unnecessary emphasis, he thought he might be forgiven, given the circumstances.

In fact, Rose's face had already lost some of its hauntedness. "That's wonderful." At a tug on her hand, she turned a genuine smile on the small girl who continued to adore Doyle with her eyes. "We must go, too. Tonight's the night, y'know."

"It'll be fine."


Returned to the main tent after brewing a pot of tea and collecting a few items, Doyle took a seat near the ring that gave him a view of the fixed trap overhead, and not far away, of Hannah and her trained dogs. Bodie was going through the last paces of his act, redoing a pirouette, followed by an up-and-over, which appeared not to be flowing as smoothly as he would have liked.

Rubbing at his neck, Doyle let his head roll forward, trying to ease an incipient crick. Hannah and her troupers came into view, little furry bodies hurtling hither and yon with incredible purpose and training. Intending to allow himself only a moment of distraction, Doyle soon found himself immersed in their various antics, as well as the trainer's subtle command of her group. Her signals were attenuated almost to the point of invisibility. A slight movement of a finger held low and close to her body sent the dogs into a frenzy of activity--a twitch of the thumb, and they subsided instantly. Impressed, Doyle noted the gestures she used and the results they gained.

A solid thud on the ring floor a few feet away drew his attention back to Bodie, who now stood before him. Doyle unscrewed the cap of the thermos flask he had brought back from his caravan, and poured out tea premixed with milk and sugar.

"Very nice," Bodie said gratefully, and gulped down the contents of the plastic cup. He held it out for a refill, and while Doyle obliged, fetched his towel from the overturned tub.

"You're pushing," Doyle suggested mildly.

"Not much." Leaving his hair in tufts, Bodie continued to swab himself from face to ankles. "The worst of it is the trapeze. I have to work straight through, because we can only have the net up in the mornings. Working the horses is a doddle."

"And tonight you begin performances."

Bodie sat down on the bench next to Doyle. "Where's my chocolate thingie?"


"Great. Hm." Taking a huge bite, Bodie chewed perfunctorily for only a few seconds before washing the mouthful down with another cup of tea. As Doyle obediently refilled it once more, Bodie said, "You know what the first house is like: You've enough adrenalin to fuel Concorde."

"And the next day you have to be scraped off the floor."

"I'll manage. Where's-- Thanks." The second sweet disappeared into Bodie's mouth. "You been to see Simon lately?"

Straining to understand what Bodie had said, Doyle laughed tolerantly. "I think you asked if I'd been to see Simon? If so, the answer is, no. Why?"

Bodie raised the cup to his lips and savored a long, soothing sip. "Needs to check the fit of your costume."

"He didn't mention that earlier."

Grinning wickedly, Bodie remarked, "Derek must've diverted his attention. He said something about it yesterday; forgot to tell you."

"All right. I'll take myself off, then." He planted the empty thermos flask and crumpled paper bag next to Bodie's thigh. "You get to clean up this lot. See you back here after lunch."

The flask started to tip over; Bodie and Doyle grabbed for it at the same instant. For a second, their fingers overlapped, and neither man moved. Then Doyle unhurriedly pulled his hand away. "Bye."

With Bodie's parting echoing in his ears, Doyle left the ring and strode up the center aisle. Sunshine greeted him at the main entry. Turning his face toward its brilliance, Doyle aimed himself in the direction of the stables.

He could still feel the heat of Bodie's touch.

"Simon? Derek? Anybody home?"

The tackroom was empty, the stalls filled with horses who regarded him with some suspicion. Doyle went down the row to visit with Tuppence and Piper. In their rehearsals, he had come to admire both animals equally. Intelligent and well-tempered, they performed Derek's dressage routine with the ease and grace of the Spanish Riding School's star performers. Although many of Derek's haute école movements were lifted from that ancient discipline, a circus twist had been added--the bit of flash and dazzle expected of the ring.

"Ray, is that you?"

"In the stable," Doyle called back. He thought Simon's disembodied voice had originated from Sanjay's tent on the other side of the tackroom, but until the voice was accompanied by Simon himself, he was not certain.

"Oh, it is you. Thank heaven. Derek needs some help with Sanjay. Bodie or Sergei usually--"

"Of course. What's wrong?"

Simon waved him into the connecting tent. "He doesn't want his medicine; he's been very fretful this afternoon."

"Because I--?"

"Who knows?"

In the tiger's tent, one of the overhead flaps had been peeled back to allow in the sun. Sanjay stood somewhat shakily in the center, his striped coat capturing the light. Beside him Derek held an unneedled syringe, filled with clear, colorless fluid.

"Derry, Ray's here. He said he'll help."

Derek's hard gaze raked over Doyle. He jerked his head once, indicating that Doyle should join them.

"Slowly, Ray," Simon warned, unlatching the door to the tiger's cage.

Yellow eyes seized on Doyle's slight form as he stepped into the animal's domain. Derek had obviously been at work in here; the smell that had drawn Doyle earlier was much diminished. He wondered as he made his cautious approach what the tiger thought of him, for the creature's eyes had yet to leave him. So far, they had not dilated, which could be a sign of warning, but neither did they move away, steadily gauging him as to possible threat or benefit.

While still a few feet away, Doyle came to a stop, arms hanging loosely at his sides, feet braced apart in a stance that implied both strength and determination. The cat's head tilted back a little, and suddenly its maw opened, displaying a full set of teeth in dauntingly good, if yellowed, repair.

At that, Doyle came closer and stretched forth a hand, fingers tucked under, for Sanjay to inspect. The long, white whiskers twitched. Doyle brushed his knuckles under the great cat's chin, then raised his hand again. Bored, Sanjay gave a low rumble that reverberated in Doyle's own chest, and sat back on his haunches.

"What d'you want me to do?" Doyle asked Derek.

The animal keeper, who had watched Doyle as closely, if not closer, than the tiger, indicated a spot on the other side of the beast's shoulders. Doyle stepped there with caution, not wanting to startle Sanjay if at all possible. The cat seemed undisturbed by Doyle's presence, however, and merely smacked his lips together, as though his teeth were causing him pain.

Derek mimed how he wanted Doyle to encircle the animal's neck, with a precaution that he not choke him. Doyle murmured his understanding and moved into position. The heat exuded by the cat warmed him as he pressed nearer, the distinctively patterned fur coarse where it met his skin. Hardly aware that he was doing so, Doyle began to speak softly, his voice low and huskily calming. The cat's ears briefly flattened before settling into a reassuringly relaxed position. Encouraged, Doyle fixed his grip and gave Derek a nod.

The medicine was administered without interruption. Derek emptied the fluid into a pocket formed at the corner of the cat's mouth. There was a loud gulp and Sanjay mewled his displeasure.

With a pleased nod, Derek gestured his dismissal. Gently and very slowly, Doyle began to remove his hold. With a speed that belied the animal's age and decrepitude, Sanjay whipped his jaw to one side; in the next instant, Doyle's left forearm was caught between the tiger's teeth.

"Ray!" Simon hissed, his fright and horror communicated across a distance of three meters.

Derek shot his lover a fulminating glare, but otherwise held himself rigidly still.

"'S all right," Doyle murmured, using his free hand to lightly stroke the cat's throat. "But I'll need that later today, y'know." He continued to speak nonsense, but his voice was unfaltering and normal-toned. Only he knew, as the others could not, that the cat, while gripping him tightly, had not begun to bear down. Nevertheless, it was not a comfortable feeling.

"Come on, you silly lad," Doyle said quietly. "Give us back our arm." For the first time he pulled against the cat's hold; the cat's jaws bit down harder.

"That's enough, me old mate. I'd like to be friends with you, y'know, and I wouldn't want us to get off to a rocky start." With that he jerked hard against the animal's mouth, well aware that only a show of force would gain him freedom at this point--but genuinely loath to hurt the bloody-minded cat--or himself, for that matter.

As if coming to a decision of his own, Sanjay parted his jaws at the same instant, making it appear as though he had spat Doyle's arm out. "You're a right bastard, old son," Doyle said lightly. He remained next to the tiger, knowing that if he was to deal with the creature again, they must reach an understanding now. His arm hung at his side, tingling a little as full sensation returned. With the other, he stroked and scratched Sanjay's head, and when the cat seemed to invite it, he gave the left ear a little special attention.

Slowly the massive animal sank to the ground, glancing up inquiringly when Doyle did not immediately follow. "Ready for another kip, eh, sunshine?" Doyle muttered, crouching down beside him. For only a moment he lingered, running long fingers through the animal's thick fur.

The yellow eyes blinked lazily shut. Doyle let his hand glide over the animal's back one last time, and rose to his feet.

"You stupid bastard."

Bodie filled the cage entry, his face chalk white, eyes black as midnight.

"Not to worry," Doyle said imperturbably as he started for the cage door, with Derek behind him. "He didn't hurt me. I'll be able to fly and ride without any pro--"

But Bodie had already pivoted on heel and was marching away, his back rigid, hands balled into fists at his sides.

Having swiftly cleared his path, Simon glanced after Bodie, who had disappeared into the connecting corridor, then back at Doyle. "I don't think he was worried about that."

"How long was he standing there?"

"You mean, how much did he see?" Simon corrected him. "All of it. He showed up just about the time Sanjay decided to make a meal of you." The cage door clanged shut.

"He told me to come see you about my costume. 'S his own fault, really."

Simon laughed. "You're amazing, y'know. I'd've been shrieking the place down."

"Nah. A nice, graceful swoon would be more your style."

"Don't you believe it, petal. Wouldn't work with an old brute like that."

"Perhaps not--" Doyle froze as Derek came up from behind him and took hold of his left arm. "It's all right, mate. I told you--"

"Forget it, Ray," Simon said, looking on proudly as Derek carefully peeled back Doyle's sleeve to expose the fine-haired forearm underneath. "After that little performance, he's not going to let you out of here unless you're one hundred percent."

With Derek probing and palpating, Doyle raised his head questioningly toward Simon. "Why? I've said I'm okay."

"Because Bodie'll have his hide if you've been hurt. Pay attention, Ray."

Derek bestowed a withering stare on his lover, and began to gingerly rotate Doyle's arm.

"Right," Simon said contritely. "Think I'll just see to lunch. You are staying, of course?"

"So long as it doesn't consist of any of that stuff we unloaded this morning, sure. Ow."

Derek gave him a grin in lieu of an apology--revealing a slight gap between his two front teeth. He let Doyle's wrist go, but not before tugging the sleeve back into place, and then delivered a jolting thud to his undamaged upper arm.

Taking that as a sign of approval, Doyle followed the bold-featured man into the corridor. "Thanks, Derek," he said, far more politely than was strictly necessary.

Today, he filed in his mental report to Cowley, the tiger tried to eat my arm. Luckily, he changed his mind. My cool-headed handling of this event seems to have increased my credibility with his trainer. I do hope, however, that he doesn't own a cache of man-eating snakes.

Behind him, Sanjay gave a somnolent growl.

The Friesian came out of its bow of obeisance with precision, carrying its rider as though he weighed no more than a slip of paper. Responding to an unseen signal, he then clip-clopped out of the ring, toward the horse entry. On the Andalusian, Doyle already waited beyond the partially drawn, blood-red curtain, watching the two finish the act they had just walked through--at Derek's instruction--as though it were the actual performance.

Lunch had been a pleasant affair. With Simon speaking for himself and Derek both, the two men had regaled Doyle with jokes and anecdotes far more hair-raising than his encounter with Sanjay. Derek seemed to have finally lowered his guard, although Doyle sensed he would likely never drop it altogether.

He understood distrust; it was as much a part of the circus as its counterpart, trust. And he also understood that only time--if he were allowed it--would prove to Derek that he was not a threat to either of them. Whatever turned up during his stay here, Doyle hoped that none of the troupe would be affected--except for Sergei, whom he had disliked at first sight, and whom he knew to be deserving of a good rollicking--even before addressing his more serious crimes against the State.

Piper cleared the curtain, which was then allowed to drop, save for one corner through which the ring remained visible. This signalled the completion of their act. The horse blew loudly, and swung his head toward Tuppence, who brushed her muzzle against his jowl.

"Almost perfect," Doyle remarked. He did not expect a reply, as Bodie had been determinedly distant since the episode in Sanjay's tent.

"As close as it gets." Bodie's voice was flat and cold.

Derek semaphored to them from the ring, summoning them back.

Dismounting a few feet away, Doyle gently scratched behind the horse's ears while Derek communicated something to Bodie. From the frown growing in Bodie's eyes, Doyle guessed he was being told something he did not particularly want to hear. Surprisingly, the irritation vanished, and Bodie gave a nod of agreement.

"What are you two plotting, then?" Doyle asked, walking the horse nearer the other men.

"Derek reckons you're ready for the public."

"What, tonight?"

"Only on horseback, mind," Bodie said crushingly. "Simon and Lily should have your gear ready before the performance."

"And if they don't?"

"Derek'll slay 'em." Swinging one leg over the horse's back, Bodie stepped down. He loosened his hold on the reins, freeing the horse from its collection. At once the Friesian's long black neck stretched out, then curved back in. He nipped lightly at the Andalusian's near knee; she butted his flank, then pushed her nose up under Doyle's hand, demanding attention.

"How's the arm?" Bodie asked.

"Okay. Derek checked it out."

Dark blue eyes swung round to Derek's face. "Derek?"

In the midst of gathering the reins, he met Bodie's interrogative expression unconcernedly, answering him with a ready nod.

"I want to see it," Bodie demanded.

"Fuck off," Doyle countered, without rancor.

"I'm still the one calling the shots here, mate," Bodie informed him icily.

Wordlessly, Doyle unbuttoned the cuff of the shirt he had changed into following lunch, and rolled the sleeve up to his elbow. Then he thrust the arm out under Bodie's nose, and moved it this way and that so no angle would be missed. "Perhaps you'd rather I didn't ride tonight? After all, it is bruised and a little red here and there."

"You're lucky you've got a fucking arm," Bodie said with sudden venom. To Doyle's astonishment, Bodie then wheeled on Derek, who, apparently expecting this, had continued to wait a few feet away. "And you, you jealous bastard, that's a sodding stupid way to see just how crazy this bloke is. If he'd been injured--"

Derek raised his free hand commandingly. When Bodie ground to a halt, Derek looked straight at Doyle and mouthed the words, "I'm sorry."

"'S all right," Doyle said, more amused than embarrassed. He conjured a rueful laugh. "Bodie may not believe this, but I did know what you were about."

A tiny smile etched its way across Derek's mouth. He tilted his head and beamed at Bodie, as if to say, "I told you so."

"Why do I fucking bother?" Bodie muttered.

"Maybe it's genetic?" Doyle ventured. Then, before Bodie could thump him, he offered, "How about some tea, mate?" Prepared for rejection, Doyle unconcernedly withstood the virulent glare that would have scorched a lesser mortal.

Exhaling raggedly, Bodie grumbled, "Why not? This place will be bedlam before too much longer."

In the event, Bodie fell asleep on Doyle's bed, too short and badly sprung though it was. On the frayed rug that covered the linoleum floor, Basil was also prone, warm in a bit of old, freshly washed horse blanket that Doyle had charmed out of Derek on her behalf. Doyle himself sat at the kitchen table where he laid waste to the cooling contents of the teapot, trying not to stare at the man lying vulnerable only a few feet away.

Bodie was a conundrum. As yesterday, when he had held Sergei at bay, and today, when he had fretted over Doyle's injury, he had exhibited almost as much anger as concern--rather as though he had come to have some serious regard for Doyle. There was no question in Doyle's mind but that Bodie's interest was genuine; why it should have formed so quickly and so intensely, however, he couldn't quite comprehend. And maybe that was because Doyle had rarely let his own guard down so swiftly.

With a muffled yip, Basil began to chase dream hedgehogs, the tips of her paws fluttering, muzzle jerking, eyelids rippling over darting eyes. Concerned that she might disturb Bodie, Doyle reached out, hunkering down to rouse her. At his touch, she woke instantly and began to wag her tail, sending out a long, pink tongue to lick his hand.

"Abandoned pups and tigers: quite a combination," Bodie drawled.

With his head propped up on his forearm, dark stubble peppering his jaw, and eyes as lustrous and entrancing as sapphires, Bodie was irresistible.

Yet Doyle retained a modicum of sanity, regaining his feet and forcing himself to approach the other man slowly. Though he ached to kiss that sleep-soft mouth, he lifted a finger and traced the curving, pouting outline instead. When Bodie didn't flinch away, Doyle brought his head nearer, but unhurriedly so Bodie would have plenty of time to refuse.

He didn't.

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The kiss was gentle, searching, and utterly chaste. Doyle's heart leapt into his throat--this was something he had yearned for, for so many years; the reality of it now was almost more than he could assimilate.

Bodie's hand came up, blunt fingers sinking into Doyle's hair. He lifted himself onto his elbow to get nearer, while bringing Doyle closer to him.

The sudden restraint cut through Doyle's euphoria--he pressed a hand against Bodie's chest and broke free. Breathing shallowly, he stared, stunned, into Bodie's face.

"I shouldn't've done that," he said hoarsely.

"Why not?" Bodie's gaze seemed to penetrate into the heart of him.

"Too soon. I--" He opted for honesty. "I haven't had a lot of experience with men."

Fearing derision, Doyle was grateful when Bodie merely digested this in silence. "Okay," he said sanguinely. "There's no hurry, mate. What time is it, anyway?"

"Nearly four. The gates open at five, don't they?"

"Yep. Better check on Simon and see how your outfit is coming." Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, Bodie just missed Basil, who had observed their activities with intense curiosity. "Look out, Basil."

She leaped up and landed on the bed beside him, then began to home in on his cotton-knit shirt. Before she could get her nails snagged in the material, however, Doyle snapped his finger as he had seen Hannah do; the dog sat down and went instantly still.

"Well done, Basil!" She leaned into his finger, which Doyle put to work scratching behind her ear as reward.

"That's impressive," Bodie remarked. "What else can she do?"

"I'm not sure. Let's try this." For the next few minutes, Doyle attempted every finger and hand command he had witnessed during Hannah's session with her dogs. He was as surprised as Bodie when the dog immediately obeyed each and every one.

"Hannah said she couldn't hold her attention long enough for all that. How long have you been working with her? When have you been working with her?"

"Haven't," Doyle confessed. He explained about watching Hannah earlier in the day. "Maybe it finally clicked, that's all."

"And maybe she finally got the right trainer--nothing against Hannah, mind."

"Oh, I know. Hannah's bloody marvellous."

Basil threw herself onto her back and squirmed with anticipation. Grinning down at her, Doyle felt the weight of Bodie's eyes on him.

"She's not the only one," Bodie said lightly, and bent forward to plant a quick kiss on Doyle's mouth. Pulling carefully at Doyle's beard, he murmured, "Lucky you keep that so well trimmed; could be a problem otherwise."

With those words Bodie reminded Doyle why he was here--and it pricked at him, like a sharp knife. "Oh."

"That's all right, son," Bodie said bolsteringly, misinterpreting Doyle's reaction. "It looks good on you."

Sighing out loud, Doyle said, "Gosh, thanks, Bodie."

That night Circus Sergei came alive. With the excellent weather, and the enticement of first night, the public came out in droves. Being fitted for his costume with last-minute adjustments, Doyle listened from the dressing tent to the rumble of car engines as the field in front of the circus became a temporary car park. Giggling children's voices rose above the drone of those less impressed by the magic that was circus. Doyle clung to that innocent sound, recalling a time when it had sprung from his own lips.

Doyle missed the first acts, captive to Lily's desire for perfection. He could almost hear Riley's opening remarks broadcast over the Tannoy and supplied in his mind the image of the older man riding out alone into the ring atop the dun gelding Flash, bathed by the light of a single spotlight mounted on one of the four main tentpoles.

As Lily diligently stitched, Doyle went through various stages of undress. Both of them kept an ear out for each routine to finish. A barrage of fast-hand acts--juggling, plate spinning--coupled with tumbling and low-wire balancing routines were followed by a frantic clown and dog skit that produced roaring laughter clearly audible across the compound.

Doyle managed to escape just as the clowns were pelting each other out of the ring. From the curtains of the horse entry, he saw Simon, riding sidesaddle, dressed as a lovely young woman in crinoline and ringlets, timidly come into the spotlight. With the ringmaster providing running narrative, Simon and Pat, his voltige horse, performed the story of sweet young Bess, who, to meet her lover, had dared ride bareback into the woods. The trees, with long, treacherous branches (provided by young web-hangers costumed in leafy, brown suits), plucked at her clothing and hair until, bit by bit, she was forced to jump on and off the steadily cantering horse--no matter that the horse never paused a step--all the while losing various bits of clothing and detachable ringlets, until Simon was made to be seen a he and not a she. The audience applauded and shouted its pleasure at having been duped. Simon and Pat enjoyed an extended ovation before racing off the sawdust floor together.

The next act took the ring with no break intervening. While the fire- eater appalled and amazed her onlookers, accompanied by thunderous musical support from the band, Bodie and Derek came into the corridor leading Tuppence and Piper. Keyed up in a way he had not been in years, Doyle mounted the patient Tuppence, while Bodie took his place on Piper.

"Simon and Lily came through I see." Bodie lazily surveyed Doyle's brown coat with dark velvet cuffs and collar; white shirt foaming at throat and wrist with ruffled lace; tightly fitted breeches; high-topped boots; and Regency style hat sporting a short, but thickly feathered plume. Bodie's outfit was identical; in Doyle's opinion, it suited him better, emphasizing Bodie's wide shoulders and neatly tapered hips and flat abdomen.

"Would've been nice to have a run-through in this gear," Doyle complained, saying the first thing that came to mind, for he was having some difficulty concealing the lascivious nature of his thoughts.

"Not needed," Bodie said with supreme confidence. "All you do is keep your seat and let the horse do all the work."

"And try not to breathe too deeply or I'll split a seam."

Bodie gave him a calculating look. "Maybe we'll switch you out with Simon; get you down to your knickers that way."

"There are easier ways," Doyle murmured.

Just then the audience broke into loud clapping; the ringmaster announced their act. Listening for the first brassy notes from the band, Doyle forced himself to concentrate.

Bodie entered first, sitting proudly upright, the arrogant cavalier, as Piper high-stepped into the ring. A hush fell over the audience as Piper bore him to each of the four compass points of the ring, at each of which the magnificent black Friesian extended his near, or left, foreleg, and curled his off, or right, under his body in a perfect bow. A beat behind, Doyle followed, at opposite points, until their horses pirouetted and came to face one another. An instant's surprise, as though spying oneself unexpectedly in a looking glass, and then the tentative movements to gauge the other's aptitude, employing simple challenges at first, increasing in difficulty. A raised foreleg; a brief, in-place trot; a few steps of full-travers--first one way, then the other; a pause--then Bodie guided the gelding round, to face out into the audience, and Doyle, copying each action precisely on Tuppence, did the same.

Now the movements became more strenuous, the demanding "airs above the ground." The Friesian, with its powerfully built hocks and cannon taking its full weight, raised his forehand into the air; through brute strength and years of training, he maintained the position known as the levade for several seconds as Doyle, still a beat behind, adroitly urged the Andalusian into the same posture.

The heart-racing anticipation of first night flowed from the audience to the riders and from them to their mounts. Yet the men in the ring remained as still as statues, the instructions given to their horses silent and unseen. All the while Tuppence and Piper executed each more incredible movement of the haute école with astonishing fluidity and confidence.

The band, having started out with a bawling flourish, now quietened as the audience fell more and more under the horses' spell, the Strauss waltz just loud enough to be heard above the steady thud of hooves striking sawdust and soft, trampled ground. In fact, the musicians played to match the movements of the performers, a notable achievement all circus bands were highly skilled at but few onlookers were ever aware of.

Piper came out of the courbette--an extension of the levade in which he kept head, upper body, and forelegs off the ground and jumped three, four, five times--just as Tuppence undertook to do the same. The audience gave a single, awed sigh--which instantly turned into a gasp as Bodie urged his mount into the croupade.

The animal seemed to fly into the air, all four feet curled under his body. He hung there, several feet above the ground, for long seconds before deigning to return to the unrarefied earth. Spontaneous cheering and thunderous clapping erupted from the audience, which carried on as Tuppence, invoking images of Pegasus without wings, rose into the air with equal verve and comportment.

But more was yet to come. Cantering slowly in place, Piper gathered himself and defied gravity once more, Bodie sitting with total aplomb, as though it were an everyday occurrence to ride a flying horse. Into the air the great black surged, higher and impossibly higher, until at the instant his forehand had reached its zenith, he kicked out with both back legs--the justifiably famous capriole.

Back on the ground once more, not a hair out of place, he pirouetted round to face his mimic, resuming the dignified, stationary trot--the piaffe.

Incapable of matching the Friesian's feat, old Tuppence was forced to concede defeat. She came back round to face Piper, then dropped her muzzle and began to back out of the ring, her well-shaped head bowing smoothly up and down.

The soft, happy lilt of the waltz gave way to a more somber melody. Tentatively, Piper stepped forward, lifting his own head and whuffling with some distress, his lack of understanding at losing his mirror companion pathetically evident.

But Tuppence continued backing toward the red curtain, where at last she stopped. Her muzzle went up, soft brown eyes seeming to beckon the black. She rose on her haunches and performed a final twirl, then paused briefly with her tail swishing. Through the curtain she went, her meaning clear: Join me.

The music stopped. A hush, in sharp contrast to the manic enthusiasm of only minutes before, informed the interior of the big tent. Piper's hooves ceased their elegant motion; for the length of a yearning sigh, he stood unmoving. Then his ears pricked up--Tuppence's throaty whicker came through the curtain--and he began to move forward, knees peaking impressively with each arched step of the centuries-old passage.

The curtain closed behind Bodie and the black Friesian--and the house held back none of its heartfelt response, a wave of warm emotion underlying their applause.

Keeping clear of the liberty horses as they cantered into the ring, Doyle peered through the side of the curtain with Tuppence at his back. He said drolly, "I think they bought it."

"Romantic nits," Bodie agreed. "If they liked that, wait'll they see what we're going to do with you on the trap; they'll eat it up."

Doyle let go of the curtain and gave Bodie a faintly jaundiced once- over. "More romance? On the trapeze? You and me?"

"Not romance as in sex, you moron," Bodie chided. "Romance as in heroes and dying well and ludicrous dreams."

"All that on the trapeze? You and me and whose army, then?"

Bodie dismounted from the Friesian and led it down the corridor toward the stables. "Just you and me, old son--and that 'old' wasn't a reference to the beard, mind."

"'Course not." Doyle allowed himself a final peek at the goings-on on the other side of the curtain.

In the ring the liberty horse routine was already in full swing, galloping hoofbeats reverberating off the heavily trodden sod as the 'Motley Crew'--as Simon referred to them--commenced their act. Riley himself was putting the ponies through their paces, he resplendent in silk top hat and black tails, the ponies wearing only check reins, harness, and bridle--all gaudily decorated--and huge, bobbing plumes secured at the crest of both the bridle and belly band.

Regretfully, Doyle abandoned his vantage view once more and turned to follow Bodie. Beside him, Tuppence came without demur.

At the opening to the stables, Derek greeted the Friesian with low, clucking sounds and gentle hands. Simon bent over the kettle in the tackroom, pouring boiling water into the teapot. His lavishly feminine make-up had suffered from his exertions and the powerful spotlights. "Want some?" he asked as Bodie and Doyle passed by, heading for the side exit that opened onto the dressing tent.

"No, thanks," Doyle said.

Hearing longing in his voice, Bodie said over his shoulder, "Stay here, if you like. Just remember to join me for the parade."

"'S not that." Waving a hand vaguely in the direction of his backside, he explained, "Felt a seam pop when I got off Tuppence. Thought I'd see if Lily could do a quick stitch-up."

Bodie laughed wickedly. "You were right, weren't you?"

"Careful, Bodie, or you'll be laughing out the other end yourself. Those breeches look as though they were painted on you."

"Complaining?" Bodie wondered innocently.

"Not at all, mate," Doyle replied fervently.

A look almost of startlement flicked over Bodie's usually composed features. Quickly gone, Doyle thought perhaps he had imagined it.

"By the way," Doyle said off-handedly, "Sergei was right."

"About what?" Bodie asked.

"He said you were more impressive on horseback than the trapeze. I didn't believe him."

"Equally as good, surely?" Bodie sniffed exaggeratedly.

Doyle wrinkled his nose at him. "Close."

"It's the costume. All this lace and leather." Bodie stepped through the flap leading to the outside; he held it open until Doyle could take it from him.

"Maybe," Doyle conceded.

The night was brisk and studded with stars; they winked above them like tiny jewels, radiant and precious. Doyle filled his lungs to capacity; after the closeness of the big tent, he savored the crisp air. Surprisingly, he had forgotten how much he disliked the sense of confinement in the tent once it was teeming with people. As they walked along, he mused on how much worse it could be on the trapeze, especially when the weather warmed up. The heat collected in the upper rigging-- considerably more concentrated there than in the stands--and could stifle a person, even in early summer.

Through the propped-open flap of the dressing tent, Lily could be seen to be drowsing in her chair, hands folded neatly in her lap, legs crossed at the ankles. She looked up sleepily at the first scrape of a heel on the threshold. Bodie gave her a nod of greeting as he went behind the screen and began to shed his Regency outfit.

"They were noisy tonight, Ray," Lily drawled, her eyes approving.

"First night excitement."

"Don't give me that. You and Bodie must have been good."

"As Bodie said, we only sit there; the horses do all the work. 'S a good thing, too. Lily, I need a favor."

"What's that, son?"

"My trousers have come undone. Think you could put in a few stitches for the closing parade?"

"Certainly. Soon as Bodie's finished with the--oh, there you are."

Bodie strode out in sequinned leotard, strapping a full-cut, spangled cape round his shoulders. "'S all yours, sunshine."

This the first time he had seen his partner in costume, Doyle found himself staring: Bodie was the epitome of the self-assured male, all well-formed muscles, proud bearing, and devastating good looks. "I'll let you know," he murmured.

A dark brow arched inquiringly at him. "Let me know what?"

"If you're as impressive on the trap. In that get-up...." He let the sentence complete itself unspoken.

Bodie gave his head a toss. "Told you so."

"Supercilious sod."

"Nice alliteration. See you in a bit."


As Bodie strode out of the dressing tent, Doyle was hard-pressed not to follow, just so he could keep looking. Remembering belatedly that he had an audience, Doyle glanced round at Lily, who gave him a Cheshire grin.

"Gawd," Doyle snorted, and took himself behind the screen to peel off his trousers. "D'you have something else I can put on?" he called, draping the material over the thin wooden frame. "Bit chilly over here."

"There's a whole rack of things, Ray." Lily twitched the trousers off the screen. "Go on, help yourself. I won't look. Promise." She returned to the chair with Doyle's breeches, and opened her sewing kit.

"Hm." Taking her at her word--with no real choice not to--Doyle padded quietly out from behind the screened-off area and began to troll along the rack of clothing. He found a pair of corsair-cut trousers and raised a foot to pull them on. One leg in, he glanced across at Lily--and met her unabashed stare head-on.


"So I lied," she said merrily. "Lovely legs, Ray. You wouldn't need me to do up your shirt as well?"

With all the insouciance at his command, Doyle struck a pose, then red- cheeked and chortling, finished dressing. "I'll be back, all right?"

"That's fine, love. You've a few minutes yet till Bodie goes on."

Outside, Doyle grinned up at the heavens, listening to the raucous, rolling laughter that announced the teacher-horse and pupils-shetland pony, poodles, and clown act. This would be followed by a clown low-wire balancing routine--Doyle had about fifteen minutes to roam before Bodie appeared.

Realizing that Derek must be in the ring overseeing the horses, Doyle decided to pay a brief visit to Sanjay. His arm still ached from the pressure of the great cat's jaws; accordingly, the animal had not got far from his thoughts.

Doyle went in through the stables. Simon was nowhere in evidence, but the pot was still warm, and held enough tea for one cup. Helping himself to milk as well, Doyle took a deep drink from the mug before carrying it with him across the corridor to the other animal enclosure. Slipping through the canvas flap on noiseless feet, he allowed his eyes to adjust to the darkness before proceeding. A muffled rumble greeted him.

"How are you doing, Sanjay?" he whispered.

Dark yellow lights gleamed in the dark, flickered as heavy lids blinked once, twice, and were extinguished altogether as the cat fell back into a doze. He seemed to be breathing well, if with a soft rattle that could not be quite normal.

His eyes picking out more detail through the shadowy dimness, Doyle saw a huge paw fold over its mate, the rise and fall of the cat's chest, the twitch of tail tip.

Both Sanjay and Doyle flinched at the sound of an engine starting not far distant. Sanjay settled back down with a somewhat disgruntled snarl. Dragging one paw over his head, he swiped at a pad with his tongue, then closed his eyes once more.

"Oh, love, you can't do this." That was Rose, her voice carried faintly on the breeze.

"Leave off, I said. It's nothing to do with you." Alf.

"Isn't it? I know you're doing some--"

"Nothing concerning you. I've told you that."

"Oh, please. This is crazy. If you're caught--!" A slight pause. "Alf, you're hurting!"

"Then quit your bleating, woman. You know I can't do anything else. Not now."

"You can." Rose's voice was tight with tears. "If you loved--" A sound-- a slap? She broke off, whether through coercion or choice, Doyle could not tell. Fists clenched, he decided that Alf Weatherby had a lot to answer for.

Heavy footsteps approached the tiger's enclosure, became very loud as they strode by, then faded into the distance. Barely allowing them time to pass, Doyle slipped out of the tent into the corridor that gave access to the field.

The woman stood, a solitary figure in the starshine and moonlight, arms clasped convulsively across her chest, head bowed. Her shoulders were racked with the force of silent sobs.

Sparing a single glance back toward the other end of the enclosure, Doyle stepped out and walked slowly toward her. "Rose."

"Oh!" She looked up fearfully. "Ray?"

"Yeah. You all right?"

Gathering herself at once, she said with ragged dignity, "Of course. Where were you hiding?"

"Not hiding anywhere," he countered. "Checking on Sanjay. He's not been doing well, y'know."

"Oh. Yes. Yes, I know." She rubbed her eyes, embarrassed. "You heard us."

"Did he hit you?"

"No! Well, yes--but it's nothing. I'm fine, Ray."

"I don't think so," he disagreed.

Her head came up uneasily. "What?"

"He's doing something he shouldn't, and you're scared."

Rose gave him a shaky smile. "You'd have been better off not hearing any of that."

"Who would I tell?" Doyle reached out and placed a finger under the woman's trembling chin. "I've never worked a circus where someone didn't have something to hide."

Her eyes studied his face intently. "No?"

"'Course not. Look, come back to my caravan, and have a cuppa?"

"You already have one." She gestured toward his hand. Doyle had forgotten the cup filched from the tackroom.

"See," he said with mordant good humor. "I stole this from Simon. Who am I to speak, eh?"

Catching her lower lip between her teeth, Rose regarded Doyle with agonized indecision. "All right," she breathed, her voice snatched away by the breeze so quickly Doyle almost didn't hear her.

"Right. Come on, then."

Once seated at Doyle's table, Rose seemed to have second thoughts. "I shouldn't be here," she murmured fretfully, as Doyle prepared her cup.

"Why not?" he insisted. "We aren't doing anything we ought not to." He placed the mug on the table in front of her.

Curling unsteady hands round the chipped ceramic, Rose took a sip of very hot tea before saying with mild reproach, "You want to know what we were arguing about."

"No. I want you to drink that down." Doyle sat opposite her, cradling his own mug between cold fingers. "And then you can do what you like."

Rose sighed. When she looked up again her eyes were huge and watery. "Oh, I am sorry, Ray. You're being kind to me, and I--" She stopped as Doyle covered one of her hands with his.

"Just drink up, okay?" Taking his hand back before its presence could become obtrusive, Doyle tended to his own mug. "Sometimes it's nice just to have someone around when you're worried. No matter how awful something is."

A swallow seemed to choke in Rose's throat. "It is awful. Oh, I don't know--" Gazing inward, she seemed suddenly on the brink of tears again. "Ray, will you drive me into town?"

"Into-- Now?"

"Right now. If I wait until the public are gone, he'll come looking for me. Please."

Not having anticipated this, Doyle stalled for a second to consider the ramifications. "I only have a bike, Rose. You'd be uncomf--"

"Just let me get a few things. I won't be long, I promise." This time her hand came down on Doyle's, the clamminess of her palm communicating her state of mind more clearly than any number of words.


"Please, Ray. I shan't be a nuisance. The bike will do, really it will."

Doyle ran through possible alternatives quickly: He could refuse her and gain nothing--except perhaps Sergei's grudging thanks; he could aid her, and possibly learn more about the argument with her husband--and almost certainly bring down Sergei's wrath upon him; or he could play Good Samaritan, learn nothing, and find himself packed and on the road back to London at first light--with Cowley's far more intimidating ire awaiting him. With no clear option to choose from, Doyle followed his instincts, though not without reservations. "All right. If you're sure?"

Eyes glittering, Rose said soberly, "There's nothing else I can do."

"Go on, then, get the things you need. Unless you want me to come over while you--"

"No, that won't be necessary. Alf won't come home for a long time yet. Not on first night."

Doyle went to the door and held it open. As Rose slipped past him, she stretched up and kissed him very lightly on the cheek. Without another word she hurried down the steps into the darkness, her feet carrying her swiftly toward her own caravan.

The scratch of nails on gravel bespoke Basil's arrival.

"And where have you been?" Doyle asked irritably.

Wagging her tail from her ribcage to the tip of her tail, Basil trotted past him into the trailer, zeroing in on her water bowl. Slurping loudly, she drank her fill before coming back to sit at Doyle's feet.

"Don't suppose you'd be keen on coming along?"

The dog's ears rocked forward, her head at an angle.

"'Course you would. And I'll need someone to watch me back when I've done."

Aware that he was acting outside the strict bounds of his assignment, Doyle nevertheless reckoned that aiding Rose in a midnight flit was preferable to searching out her miserable oaf of a husband and thumping some sense into him. Although--given his new role of knight errant--he might yet allow himself that pleasure.

After exchanging the Regency coat for his heavy bomber jacket, Doyle switched off the lights and went out to the motorcycle, Basil at his heels. He climbed on, worked the choke, and fired the engine. It started with minimal coaxing, the staccato complaint of the engine recalling the tiger's bass growl. Closely watched by the dog, Doyle patted the fuel tank. She leapt up with tremendous energy, and landed safe in his arms. He tucked her inside the front of the jacket and zipped it up round her, leaving only her head free, with space enough for her to pull it in out of the wind, when she wished to.

Rocking the bike off its stand, he drove very slowly to Rose and Sergei's caravan. The more he thought about this, the bigger a mistake it seemed. It occurred to him to withdraw his help completely--yet, in so doing, he would shatter whatever confidence he had built in Rose regarding his genuine concern. More than that, and far more prosaically, if he hoped to ferret any real information out of her, he would have to carry this through.

Her arrival put an end to his deliberations. She had changed out of her skirt and blouse into woollen trousers and a sweater. In her hands she carried two bags, one a hold-all, the other an overnight case--neither of which was unworkably bulky.

"Are you certain this is what you want to do?" Doyle asked, compelled by conscience to do so.

She only offered a bleak smile and a quick nod of the head. "Can we go at once?" Moving carefully, she swung her leg over the passenger seat and sat down.

"Can you manage those?" Doyle indicated her luggage.

Her answer was to place the thinner of the two bags between them.

"You'll have to hold on to me, too, y'know."

"I'm set," Rose said in a soft, quavering voice. "Oh, please, Ray, just let's go."

Asking no more questions, Doyle primed the engine; the bike pulled forward. As they drove out of the caravan site, Doyle felt a twinge of regret that he would not see Bodie perform on the fixed trap this night-- nor possibly ever again. With Rose holding on to him from behind, and Basil facing nose-first into the wind in front, he suspected that he might be scuppering everything he had worked so hard to accomplish these last three days.

Somehow, like Rose, he had no other choice.

It was well past eleven before he returned to the circus compound that night. The field was empty of cars, the huge lights in the big tent had been switched off; the hustle and bustle of only a few hours ago might never have been visited upon this mist-muffled stillness.

The final quarter mile to the caravan site was accomplished on foot, Doyle pushing the bike alongside. Basil stood shiveringly at its head, paws firmly braced on the handlebars, her back feet not so steadily sliding from side to side atop the petrol tank. She had made it known, however, that she preferred this to sharing Doyle's jacket. He half suspected she believed herself to be driving the bike and Doyle merely slogging along beside.

The venture had proved singularly unproductive--for him anyway. Rose had remained incommunicative throughout, and once in town, had directed him via single syllables to a place where she could stay with friends. Then she had thanked him and fled, leaving Doyle alone and uncomfortably aware that in a good light, he must look an interesting spectacle in corsair trousers and a flowing white shirt that spilled onto the fur collar of his leather bomber jacket.

Since that niggling concern had been the least of his worries, he had disheartenedly driven the bike out of the neighborhood--after first memorizing the address of Rose's sanctuary--and started back toward the outskirts of town where the circus compound currently lay. What should have been a straightforward trip had been delayed by a pile-up involving emergency vehicles at one of the major junctions. After spending an exasperating half hour trying to find an alternate route out of town, he had only succeeded in getting himself well and truly lost. Another twenty minutes later, he had managed to turn back onto the main road. By then, the tailback had lengthened and Doyle had lost all advantage.

Resigned to his fate, he had been compelled to wait until the traffic finally broke loose a half mile later. From there it had been a comparatively quick shot, but still he had arrived too late to offer a credible excuse for his absence--other than the truth, which he suspected would yet result in unhappy recriminations.

With the bike mounted on its stand and Basil turned loose into the field, Doyle went across to Bodie's caravan, thinking it perhaps best that he at least explain his whereabouts to him--and hoping his wrath would not be too great. Through the curtained windows a dim light still palely shone. After rapping on the door and receiving no immediate reply, he knocked again--and stepped sharply back when it swung out and almost smacked into his face.


It was not Bodie. In his place stood a tall, dark-haired man, wearing a towelling robe that was far too short for him. "Bodie's in the shower, mate."

Doyle took in the other man's appearance: tousled hair, darkly furred, bare legs and forearms, sleepy grey-green eyes--all of which proclaimed him a visitor for the night. The moment stretched and held before Doyle could find his voice. "Right. I'll...see him in the morning."

"'Night, then," the other man said affably.

But Doyle hardly heard him. He stepped awkwardly off the wooden platform, the sudden rush of blood pounding in his ears obscuring anything else the man may have said. Doyle reached his own door just as Basil emerged from the field. Numb, he stood back while she bounded up the steps. With a last glance at Bodie's caravan, he entered behind her, and quietly shut out the night.



Sprawled across his bed, Doyle woke with the new-born sun in his face and a smiling Basil on his chest. He raised a single finger in front of her nose, then pointed it unmistakably toward the floor. Taking the blatant "hint" with head down and tail flagging, she plopped onto the frayed rug, and slinked away to the kitchen. There, beneath the dining table, she came to lie, hurt brown eyes heavy on Doyle's face.

"Shit." Folding an arm over his head, Doyle contemplated crawling under the table with her. Instead he dragged himself out of bed, put the kettle on to boil, and went into the bathroom to wash up.

Clad in running suit, day-old socks, and green-stained trainers a few minutes later, he shared a cup of tea with Basil, before performing a few obligatory stretching exercises. Then he shoved open the door to officially greet the morning.

Their run of good weather seemed to be holding. The wispy fog of the previous night had crept away before the dawn, leaving a hazy, but discernibly bluing sky overhead. To the east, shreds of yellow, sienna, and ochre hung low above the horizon, gilded by the weak but gaining presence of the early sun.

Unimpressed, Doyle took a moment to consider his surroundings--including the caravan where Bodie resided and which now stood dark and silent. No one else was about, although faint sounds carried from the other end of the compound on the fretful breeze. Derek, probably.

Doyle pulled the door closed behind him, but did not bother to lock it. He had noticed that none of the others seemed to concern themselves with the possibility of theft. It was like that in circuses.

The hair lifted off his forehead as he took off at a slow trot. Basil, her spirits immeasurably improved, kept stride beside him, bright eyes searching out the slightest flicker of movement. Before long, Doyle increased his speed, concentrating hard on the uneven ground, having no desire to twist an ankle or pull a tendon. As the sun inched higher in the sky, and the sweat prickled on his chest and down his back, Doyle ran harder and harder. Soon he lost Basil when she took off after something in the tall grass. Up and down the hills he ran, pushing himself as he had not done in months.

Gauging his distance by time, after half an hour he started back, surprised then to see just how far he had gone. The circus compound lay at least three miles away, visible to him only because he had been steadily climbing out of the valley for the past several minutes.

Letting his mind idle, Doyle worked himself even harder on the return stretch. No one turned up to disturb him--least of all Bodie. Upon that thought, Doyle's tenuous peace of mind came unravelled. He shot forward, ruthlessly ignoring the protest of muscles and lungs already overtaxed, his footfalls pounding angrily and unfalteringly on the gravel road.

Insistent yapping finally broke through his preoccupation. Running full- out, Basil still lagged four or five yards behind. Doyle banked back his speed until the dog had caught up. "Lazy git, aren't you?" he said unkindly.

Basil's eyes gleamed bright with unquestioning allegiance.

"Christ," Doyle whispered. He bent over and lifted the animal up, offering her his shoulder. Panting heavily in his ear, she accepted as though this were owed, and remained perched there as Doyle walked the last half mile to the compound, through the tents to the caravan site, and at last, up to his own place.

Back inside he opened a tin of dog food and put half of it into a small container which he placed at her feet, freshened her water bowl, and filled a large glass for himself as well. His head was clearer now; it was time he rang Cowley.

By eight that morning, Doyle felt he had already put in a respectable day. After driving all the way into town to use a phone box, he had rung Headquarters only to be informed by the controller's secretary that Cowley was out for the morning. At Doyle's request, she had connected him with a recorder so that he could leave a detailed verbal report--not that there was really much to tell.

Once he had chronicled the very few bits of information regarding Alf Weatherby and the operation of Circus Sergei that Doyle had unearthed since his arrival, he had gone on to describe the circumstances surrounding Rose's departure the previous night, not neglecting the snatches of conversation he had overheard between her and her husband, Alf--nor Doyle's own blundering involvement.

Then he had passed on the address where he had taken Rose. Before ringing off, Doyle had considered conveying his observations regarding the circus troupe--not leaving out equipment handlers, trainers, and "groupies." In the end he had chosen to keep them to himself. As yet, after all, all he had were impressions, and in some cases, only gut instinct--nothing Cowley would want to be bothered with at this stage.

Back at his caravan with fresh rolls and a meaty bone for Basil, wheedled out of a couple of early opening shops, Doyle had then settled down to eat, feeling as though he had shaken off a small, but unwanted burden from his shoulders.

Afterward, having no desire to be seen a nuisance--or worse yet, a gooseberry--Doyle had given Bodie's caravan a wide berth, electing to deliver some of his rolls to Derek and Simon, along with the cup borrowed the previous night, as a kind of restitution. As he had suspected, both men had been up, if only one of them bright-eyed and bushy tailed. His offer of assistance had been taken under consideration by Derek for all of two seconds before being accepted. Leaving Simon half-drowsing over his cup of coffee--too groggy to inquire into Doyle's absence of the night before--they had gone off to see to the animals.

Derek's manner had not markedly changed, although he had taken care not to let Doyle stumble into a compromising position when they had gone into the tiger's cage to clean it. Sanjay, done with his breakfast, had watched them thoughtfully while according himself a thorough toilette. The raspy sound of the great tongue stroking a curled forepaw had struck Doyle as rather soothing--if nothing else, so long as he could hear it, he need not worry about being leapt upon from behind. Once the cage had been mucked out, fresh sawdust brought in, and the large water dish rinsed out and refilled, Sanjay himself had been seen to--the time had come for his morning's dose of medication.

Communicating by way of broad gestures and infrequent use of guttural language, Derek had brought Doyle to understand that he was not expected to put himself at risk if he did not choose to do so. Recognizing that he had overcome one of Derek's barriers, Doyle had been flattered to aid him in any way he could.

Following a few uneasy moments during which Sanjay had become restless and uncooperative, they had contrived to get the medication into his mouth and down his gullet--without either of them coming to grief. Then Derek had given Doyle the honor of feeding Sanjay a small treat, even though the cat had only picked over his breakfast a short time before. This the animal had taken with aplomb and perfect manners. Thrilled, Doyle had melted into a grin--which had grown even wider when Sanjay had given his fingers an appreciative lick.

After that the grooming of several horses could only pall in comparison, but as a diversion proved very effective. It was there, engrossed in the swabbing off of Tuppence's dock, that Bodie put in an appearance. Alerted by the prickling sense of being watched, Doyle glanced round, expecting Simon or Derek, but came face to face with Bodie instead.

"Enjoying yourself?" Bodie asked, amused.

"Why not?" The stiffness of his own voice annoyed Doyle; there was, after all, no reason for it. Not so far as Bodie was concerned, anyway.

"Forget our work-out?"

Still holding Tuppence's tail up as much for control as for ease of access, Doyle twisted his wrist to see the face of his watch. "Oh. Sorry. Must've lost track of the time."

"'S all right. What happened to you last night?"

Having explained the evening's events to Simon and Derek over a cup of tea after cleaning out the tiger's cage and before starting on the stables, Doyle had got his story refined to the barest details.

"Bloody hell," Bodie groaned, once Doyle had recited the condensed version. "That's just great, that is, mate. Sergei is going to have a coronary, you realize that, don't you?"

Doyle shrugged. "He hit her, Bodie. What would you have done?"

"You sure of that? Did you see it happen? No, I didn't think so. For God's sake, Doyle, you can't imagine this is the first time those two have had a go at each other?"

Biting his tongue against something unnecessarily scathing, Doyle sneered, "Such a hero."

"Don't give me that. I told you--remember, I told you--Rose keeps this place on an even keel. Without her--"

"That's a bit selfish, isn't it, mate?" Tuppence shifted her hindlegs nervously at Doyle's raised voice. "Look, let me finish here, eh? It'll only take another couple of minutes."

"Right." The pleasant set of Bodie's face--post coital contentment?--had given way to dark irritation. "See you in the tent. And make it snappy. Jesus."

His own hard-earned equilibrium effectively eradicated, Doyle rebelliously took his time with the mare. When her coat was smooth and gleaming, he set every hair in place by wiping her down with a damp sponge. Then, mindful of her back feet, he let himself out of the stable.

Derek waved him on when Doyle explained that he was running late. After a quick rinse in a bucket of the stables' water stores, Doyle hurried into the corridor joining the stables to the big tent, through the great red curtain, and into the main tent itself.

At the side of the ring where they usually set up, Bodie was already on the ground, bent forward in a torturous stretch. The net was in place in the center. At various points outside the inner curb, Hannah was working with her dogs; a couple of the children, supervised by their parents, were spinning from the webs; and Aidan, Zoe, and Falstaff were discussing the timing of their clown act.

Doyle had almost forgotten how well the performance had gone last night, but he could see it now in the faces of the performers themselves. Confidence had been given a boost and now ideas for minor adjustments and refinement were a joy to consider.

Ignored as he joined Bodie on the sawdust floor, Doyle fell into the pattern they had already established, although after the morning's activities, he considered a work-out superfluous. Since such a suggestion was scarcely likely to meet with approval, he did not bother to make it.

"Given any more thought to what we might do with you on the trap?" Bodie asked suddenly.

"No." Doyle did not think it necessary to point out that his remaining time with Circus Sergei could probably be measured in hours.

"I have. After we get warmed up, I'll show you what I have in mind."


As before, they went quickly from calisthenics to paired exercises, emphasizing those which incorporated smoothness of movement and concordance of thought. When both men were breathing deeply, their bodies supple and thoroughly responsive, they ended the work-out and headed for the upper rigging.

"Let's just go through a few basics first," Bodie called as soon as he had reached the catcher's trap. "Fly out and back, but think of yourself as--I don't know--a colt, say."

"A what?"

"You heard me." Unblinking blue eyes challenged him to snigger. "Young, vigorous, full of spunk."

"Spunk." Doyle fought back a grin. "Right."

Feeling exceedingly foolish, he nevertheless tried to put himself into the proper frame of mind of a colt: young, vigorous, full of spunk. Whereas under normal circumstances Doyle strove for a dignified fluidity, now he tried to invest his actions with extra energy--the sort radiated by children of every species.

As his hands met Bodie's, were caught and held, Doyle asked, "Like that?"

"Far as I could see, yes," Bodie said approvingly. "Now go back the same way."

"A colt," Doyle gasped. "With spunk."

A smile lightened Bodie's face. "That's it, sunshine."

Ridiculously warmed by the mild utterance, Doyle found it literally child's play to comply.

Back on the platform, he struck a pose for Bodie's benefit. "Now what?"

Sitting at an angle across his bar, Bodie instructed, "You've been injured. Deep inside. A mortal wound."

A frown creased Doyle's brow. "And I can still fly?"

"You're a warrior, Ray. You couldn't give up if you wanted to."

The picture took form in Doyle's mind. "Easy for you to say." But he swung away from the platform, visualizing pain, feeling it eat away inside him. It made him turn inward, extinguishing the fire of youth that had characterized his movements only a moment before. Taken in Bodie's grasp, he seemed to hang lifelessly--an illusion, for doing so would result in an unrealistic hardship for Bodie.

"That's it," Bodie breathed. "Keep it up going back."

Doyle did as directed, making himself look convincingly hunched, his body dragging from his own arms, hands only just grasping, then holding the bar.

"And now you're reborn," Bodie told him when Doyle stood waiting on his own platform once more. "A superhuman creature, no longer of this earth, stronger than a mere mortal, more noble, beautiful. Transformed."

This time Doyle did not question him, for the picture painted by Bodie's words came to him full-blown: A mythological hero. Like Viking warriors--childhood favorites--taken into Valhalla, there to await Ragnorak, the great battle at the end of time.

Standing on the platform, arm stretched out to hold the trapeze, Doyle's very posture changed; he seemed to grow taller, even larger, head held high and proudly, his face cast with determination.

"Yes." Bodie's gaze was piercingly intense. "Just like that." He pushed out to begin his swing.

Doyle stepped off the platform, a creature of the ancients, a warrior made indestructible by his gods. The hair lifted from his brow as he swept forward, leaving his face open and somehow inhumanly luminous. When he left the trapeze, it was as though he had been freed from the cloying bonds of earth so that he might enter his natural habitat--the nothingness of the ether. His hands came into Bodie's with a power that impressed them both; his entire being projected vastness of spirit. Transformed, Bodie had said--and that was what Doyle had become. Released, Doyle turned to his own trapeze; the bar took his weight as though it were insignificant. With the contained grace of a falcon, he alighted on the platform, came round and faced his partner.

Bodie, balanced on his bar, one hand wrapped around a cable for balance, regarded him with a measure of awe. "Exactly ri--"


The spell was shattered. Below them, standing in the center aisle, was Sergei. Even from here his anger could be felt, rising upward like waves of heat from a furnace.

Doyle shot Bodie a rueful look and reached for the ladder, taking the ropes because doing so afforded him a few seconds to brace himself for what was likely to be an ugly confrontation. The facade of boldness deserted him as he scrambled downward, so that as he put his foot onto the sawdust floor, he felt more the gawky youth Bodie had described than even his normal, contained self.

"Sergei," he said evenly.

The big man closed the few feet separating them, his face blustery with the tumult of his emotion, eyes hot and brimming with reproach.

Doyle stood his ground, arms loose, hands open and relaxed. "She asked me to take her into town," he said flatly, anticipating Sergei's accusation. "That's all."

"That's all!" The mottled complexion became an alarming shade of kiln- baked brick. "You put Rose up to it. She'd never have gone if you hadn't encouraged her to run off."

"I didn't encourage her to do anything. She was upset; I wanted to help."

"You should've minded your own business, you little fu--"

"Doyle's right." Bodie's voice, bitingly sharp and laden with threat, came from behind Doyle, cutting Sergei off mid-syllable.

"Stay out of this, Bodie," Sergei snarled, recovering quickly. "This is no concern of yours."

"Oh, but it is." Stepping forward assertively, Bodie aligned himself beside Doyle. "You've been giving Rose grief for years; she should've walked out on you ages ago."

White teeth flashed menacingly. "I'm telling you, this is between Doyle and me."

"He's right, Bodie. Leave it, eh?"

At this soft statement, Sergei narrowed his small, dark eyes, favoring Bodie and Doyle with equal animosity. "Where did you take my wife?"

"Into town," Doyle replied.

"Where exactly?"

"Sorry, Sergei. I can't tell you."

Bodie stood a little straighter at the expression that contorted Sergei's face. Unmoved, Doyle waited, half expecting Sergei to strike out.

"You could if you wanted to."


Composing himself, Sergei took a deep breath. "Did she say anything? About coming back?"

"No. In fact, she hardly said anything at all," Doyle said truthfully. "I asked her why you'd fought, and she wouldn't tell me. She said she had to leave and asked me to drive her into town. For all I know she only stayed there last night. She could be on her way to anywhere by now."

The tension began to drain out of the angry man, like air leaking from a slow puncture. "That's all she said?"

"That's right." Regarding Sergei without sympathy, Doyle remarked, "You shouldn't've hit her."

"I didn't-- I--" Sergei stuttered to a halt. "I didn't hit her very hard." His face darkened again. "And it's none of your fucking business, d'you understand? I should sack you for this."

"Give it up, Alf," Bodie advised, a tinge of boredom coloring his voice. "You need him and you know it. Rose'll be back. Just give her a few days, eh?"

"Fuck off, Bodie," Alf said viciously. He stabbed a finger toward Doyle's face. "But he's right, I can't afford to get rid of you. Don't you imagine there's any other reason I don't."

"And the reason Rose left?"

Sergei stared at him as though he had been slapped. In a low, harsh whisper, he hissed, "Watch yourself, sonny."

Aware of what he had done, Doyle dropped his head, shuffling his feet repentantly. "Look, Sergei, I shouldn't've said that, okay? I just have this thing about thumping women. I don't like it. Whatever you were arguing about, that's your affair--you're absolutely right. Just don't go hitting her while I'm around, okay? Makes me forget myself."

The other man subjected him to a long, unfriendly scrutiny. "I'll try to remember that," Sergei said with elaborate sarcasm. Without another word, he strode from the ring, up the center aisle, and out of the main tent.

"Whew," Hannah said dramatically, after Sergei had shouldered his way through the heavy curtain at the back of the stands.

A wave of twittering laughter followed, soon replaced by animated conversation, none of it so loud as to carry intelligibly to either man's ears.

"You're a hero, my boy," Bodie proclaimed grandly. This statement was met with a small round of applause.

Chagrined, Doyle twisted away. "He's a bully."

"But he does pay the bills--and your wages. Lot of other blokes would've been more careful."

"Yeah. Like you?" When Bodie only smiled at the gibe, Doyle muttered, "Look, we're wasting time."

Bodie clapped a hand upon Doyle's shoulder. "True. But I think we could do with a cuppa just now. My place or yours?"

The question stung. Doyle suggested tightly, "Yours."

"Mine it is," Bodie said without hesitation. "Come on, then."

The small table was strewn with slips of paper, each heavily covered with sketches and roughly pencilled notes, and here and there, the odd tea and butter stain.

"Make a meal off these, did you?" Doyle wondered aloud. In fact, he was hiding his surprise. Bodie had obviously spent a considerable amount of thought and time on his ideas for their new aerial act--an act which highlighted Doyle almost exclusively. In doing so, Bodie had reduced his own role to little more than facilitator--yet he seemed not the least concerned about removing himself from the public eye.

"Some clumsy oaf got his hands on 'em. So--what d'you think?"

An incoherent sound comprising both admiration and bemusement spilled from Doyle's mouth. "Fantastic, if we can pull it off. But you're not being very fair to the team, are you?"

"What d'you mean?"

"Don't play thick, mate. You've put the focus almost entirely on me. What about you?"

"It's flattering that you've noticed--but only an idiot would neglect your talents, Doyle. And there aren't many flyers capable of this sort of thing. Saw something like it done once, a long time ago." Bodie glanced down at his hands, at the oft-sharpened pencil held between them. "It was magical. Really something."

"Where was that?" The question was framed in an off-hand, almost indifferent manner.

"South Africa. Boswell-Wilkie Circus. Spent two winters there."


Dark blue eyes flicked condescendingly over Doyle's face. "Southern hemisphere, sunshine. Our winters are their--"

"Summers. Yes, I seem to recall hearing tell of that curious phenomenon. Expect it must be a bit weird getting used to, that."

"Didn't hang about long enough to get used to much of anything, actually."

"Long enough to learn how to catch better than anyone I've ever flown with."

"That's just us, Doyle," Bodie said succinctly, something of the mocking look spilling into his voice.

"Not just us," Doyle argued good-naturedly. "You're bloody good, Bodie. And you make me look better than I am."

Bodie raised his mug and drank down the cold remains of his tea. "Tell me what you think of the idea, then--not just 'it's good.' I know we can carry it off. Give me some constructive comments."

"Okay." Doyle slumped back in his chair, hands folded across his waist, ankles overlapping. "There's the opening bit: The courageous young hero appears. That sequence's got to be filled with action, lots of stunts, spins, tumbles. That shouldn't be a problem; basically everything we've done to date.

"The death scene follows; slows things down very fast. If it's done wrong, we'll lose the audience through boredom--or we'll make them laugh, which would be far worse."

"Remember, we'll have Riley doing the narrative," Bodie interposed. "Imagine him speaking, that rich, chocolate brown voice of his. He'll give you time to languish on the ropes until the web can be dropped into reach. That'll be easy enough for one of the lads to take on--Des or Jeremy, they're both conscientious."

"They'll have to be. One misplaced rope and we're all going to look bloody stupid."

"The lighting'll help," Bodie pointed out. "When you've plummeted into the net, the fallen hero, there'll only be one spotter on you, the pale blue."

"Still," Doyle drew the word out. "You going to write the script?"

"Good Lord, no. We'll get Lily to do it. Would've had Rose do, but--"

"Yes, I know. I don't need another reminder, okay?"

Gazing broodingly down into his empty cup, Bodie did not at first respond to Doyle's self-castigation. "I didn't know he was thumping her," he stated at last. "Probably would've killed the bastard, if I had."

"Which wouldn't've done Rose any good," Doyle said; he spoke matter-of- factly to cover his surprise at Bodie's unexpected vehemence. "She loves the prick, in case you hadn't noticed."

"Not that he deserves it." Bodie's voice was low and cold. He looked sharply across at Doyle. "Steer clear of him, Ray. You've opened a Pandora's Box by leaving our Alf on his own. Told you before, you're just his type."

"Well, he isn't mine. And I can look after meself, thanks."

Bodie smiled, but not very pleasantly. "One of your charms, sunshine."

The remainder of the morning passed quickly. Doyle settled in to watch the various acts continue their preparations while Bodie worked out overhead on the fixed bar. Hannah's dog routine drew him once more. Keeping an eye on Bodie, he sidled over to have a clearer view of Hannah's hand signals and her use of body language to command her four- footed charges.

Having missed the bulk of the show the night before, some of the tricks were new to him. She was working with Aidan, Zoe, and Falstaff along with the animals now. Aidan and Zoe were slight and quick-footed; Falstaff was heavy-set and boomingly loud-mouthed. None of the dogs were intimidated by the huge man, however, performing leaps and tumbles around and on top of him. They executed their tricks with more agility than human acrobats--and with a great deal less fear.

Enchanted by the boisterous animals, Doyle was slow to react when a furry head came up under the palm of his hand where it hung between his knees. "Basil!" He patted his leg, and she scurried up beside him. "Didn't think you liked it in here, old girl." She licked his face in greeting. "Oh, that's right--no horses yet. Well, sit yourself down and keep your eyes on this lot. They really know what they're doing."

"What they were doing" at the moment looked, to the untutored eye, a lot like uncontrolled mayhem. Zoe, playing the role of robber, had just tied up Falstaff and Aidan and was attempting to make off with the loot. Unfortunately for her, one of the larger dogs, a standard-size poodle, had bowled her over and now she was being held in place, amid much squirming and flailing of arms, with the help of two terriers who, in fact, were providing more noise than useful assistance. Another terrier, distinctively marked with large black spots, and Aidan, were attempting to untie Falstaff with their teeth. It was the terrier who proved successful.

The skit came to a triumphant denouement with Zoe reduced to quivering terror, the dogs forming a pyramid on her back, and Falstaff chasing after Aidan, who had managed to bite the other clown, both of them trailed after by the heroic terrier, yapping deafeningly.

Unaware that he was grinning, Doyle tipped his head back to check on Bodie's progress only to find that he was even then hand-over-handing his way down the web.

"Hallo, Basil! How ever did you get her in here?" Hannah, a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, came over to sit beside Doyle and the dog. Her large frame was handsomely set off by a long, grey skirt and a brightly flowered, overlarge blouse. At Doyle's querying glance, she said, without removing the cigarette, "Don't worry, love. Of course I know the rules. Never light up in here, do I? Just feels good between my lips-- and I can smell the tobacco. Hm."

Doyle laughed. "Was just wondering. They're incredibly good, your dogs. That business with untying Falstaff's hands--what'd you do just then? I must've missed the signal."

"As you were meant to." She looked hard into Doyle's face, raising a brow imperiously at him. When he only stared blankly back, she broke into a smile. "You just saw it. Watch again." Once more she slowly raised her brow--then nodded approvingly when enlightenment flared in Doyle's eyes.

"Ah! Does it matter which one?"

"Yes. The left. Falstaff's got a huge left eyebrow, so it works perfectly. Some people can't do it at all."

Waggling his brows industriously, but with little success, Doyle muttered, "You had to say that."

Laughing, Hannah pulled Basil into her lap. "You're looking good," she remarked to the dog and commenced an impromptu examination.

"That's because she's latched onto Mr. Softheart here," Bodie informed her caustically. "What are you doing?" This, as he spied Doyle's facial contortions.

"Trying to raise my left brow."

Bodie's left brow flew up in consternation. "Like this?"

"Exactly." Doyle growled peevishly, "Show-off."

"Frown, Ray," Hannah commanded, setting Basil on the ground at her feet.

He obeyed her at once, ignoring Bodie's snigger.

"Now bring up your left brow. There! That's not so difficult, is it?"

"What's all this in aid of?" Bodie demanded.

"Never you mind," Doyle said darkly.

"Don't expect it to work with Basil," Hannah warned him. "Bloody resistant, she is." She rose from the bench.

"Not with him."

Hannah looked at Bodie sharply.

"'S true," he went on. "After watching you yesterday, Doyle ran her through a whole slew of tricks."


"Yeah. Try it yourself, Hannah."

"Oh, I shall. Basil!"

The dog went to her at once, but it was quickly evident that she had no desire to perform for the woman. After much encouragement and exhortation, she dropped her belly into the sawdust and crept forward imploringly.

"Hm," Hannah drawled. "Your turn, Ray."

"I don't--"

"Oh, come on. I'm not going to get my feelings hurt, y'know. Sometimes animals develop a rapport with someone else, that's all. Give it a go."

Feeling uncomfortably conspicuous--more so, somehow, than when he was suspended from the trapeze or mounted on Tuppence's back--Doyle climbed to his feet and came to stand in front of Basil. The dog's tail stirred faintly, and her ears inched upward.

"Okay, Basil, do me proud." Awkwardly forming one of the hand signals he had observed Hannah execute, Doyle gestured to the dog, harboring little hope that she would comply.

To his gratification, she stood up at once. One trick followed another until Doyle had exhausted his limited repertoire.

"Well, I'll be double-damned!" Hannah exclaimed under her breath.

Squatting down beside the dog and cuffing her affectionately, Doyle looked up smiling. "She did it."

"She certainly did. That's amazing."

"What d'you mean? You just said--"

"Didn't mean a word of it," Hannah averred. Then she laughed, cackling like a hearty old crone. "Take that stunned look off your face, Ray. I'm only half-serious. It isn't exactly commonplace her doing all that, what with you being a stranger and all."

"Lerv at first sight," Bodie pronounced stirringly. He slung his towel over his shoulder. "He's got a way with furry things, Ray has; Sanjay likes him, too."

Hannah's eyes widened. "Sanjay?"

"Well--I guess it's liking when the bloody great brute decides not to eat your arm," Doyle put in.

"He bit you?"

"Nah. Just had a taste of me."

"Probably reckoned there wasn't enough of you to satisfy him," Bodie said unkindly. "Whoops--there she goes!" All three watched the blur that was Basil speed down the aisle and out of the tent. The slow clip-clop of horse's hooves from behind the red curtain provided the explanation for her lightning departure.

"That'll be Simon and Pat, and they don't need us hanging around. You want something to eat, Ray? I'm famished."

"God, yes," Hannah concurred. "Good Lord, is it as late as that? Come along, you lot. It's time mother had her ciggie--or three or four. See you lads later."

As Doyle and Bodie started out of the tent, Hannah clapped her hands to gather her flock. They tumbled over one another in their haste to reach her, each vying with all the rest for her special attentions.

Lunch in Doyle's kitchen was necessarily brief. Doyle kept Bodie talking about the prior evening's performance in between huge bites of a cheese and pickle sandwich--demanding every detail he had missed during his headlong run into town. For a man of so few words, Bodie seemed content to natter on--so long as none of Doyle's questions veered into the realm of the personal.

That never happened, Doyle having decided earlier that morning that he would not be the one to bring up the subject of Bodie's late-night visitor. Honoring that promise to himself was not easily accomplished, however. Being in such close proximity to the other man was a trial Doyle had not anticipated--he was coming to like Bodie entirely too much. And as he collected soiled paper serviettes while Bodie sleepily rocked the wooden chair off its front legs to lean precariously against the wall, Doyle was hard pressed not to slam the chair back down on the floor and demand who the other man was and how Bodie could have slept with him after kissing Doyle only hours before.

Only sanity and a refined abhorrence of looking unutterably stupid stopped him. Instead, Doyle took advantage of those few, still moments, by going about his tasks and studying the other man, unobserved.

The thought of someone else hungrily exploring that arrogant mouth filled Doyle with a fury out of all proportion to his present reality. He knew he had no claims on Bodie; Christ, he had only known the man four days--if he included today. But Bodie had kissed him, and in the doing, had awakened something that Doyle knew would never be completely quietened again.

That he could live with. What scraped at him was the possibility that only Bodie would be able to tame the newly roused beast. The notion was ludicrous. Doyle was a grown man who had slept with more women than he could possibly ever name. Presumably, there waited to be forgotten a myriad of unnamed men as well.

But he liked Bodie.

Putting the few soiled dishes on the sideboard, Doyle turned round and stared at the other man. Damn you, Bodie. Heart pounding hard and fast in his chest, Doyle gathered his resolve and, cautiously stepping over a groggily wakening Basil, went up to Bodie, placed both hands on the wall beside Bodie's dark head, and bent forward. Bodie's mouth yielded to his at once, a fact that suggested the other man had been dozing rather than deeply asleep. In fact, after a few seconds, Bodie let his head drift a little to one side to improve the angle of contact.

Doyle, however, was somewhat hazardously placed. Maintaining his balance with increasing difficulty, he waited until Bodie was actively encouraging his attentions before pulling back. Drowsy, smouldering blue eyes followed his departure, the soft mouth parted and silently inviting Doyle's return.

"Time to go," Doyle announced pleasantly. "We have to see Lily, remember?"

"I can think of better things to do." Bodie's voice was deep and vibrant, goading the hunger that lay coiled and waiting in Doyle's insides.

"But not just now." Especially after you spent the night with someone else. "C'mon, mate, shift yourself."

Pretending Bodie's kiss had left him unaffected, Doyle collected the corsair trousers he had borrowed from the dressing tent the night before, and strode, followed by a yawning Basil, to the door.

The front legs of the chair impacted lightly with the floor. "Right," Bodie said equably.

Doyle cast a sharp look at him.

Meeting that wide-eyed gaze with a slow, promise-filled smile, Bodie said, "That's okay, sunshine. I can wait."

The fitful start and stop of a sewing machine reached their ears before the two men stepped through the pinned-back entry flap of the dressing tent. Lily glanced up, peering at her visitors over the tops of dark- rimmed glasses. "So, there's the miscreant," she said by way of greeting.

"'Lo, Lily," Doyle said. "Sorry I didn't get these back to you last night."

"Don't apologize, Ray. Simon told me all about what happened with Rose and Sergei last night. You may not know it, but you're the local hero."

"Is he?" Bodie asked.

"The only better news would've been that she'd put the sadistic pig in his grave."


"'Strewth, Bodie! You know the way he's treated her, always yelling, getting a leg over on anyone who'll lie still long enough--male or female, and God knows about the horses--not to mention fiddling her books. Hell's too good for that man, I'm telling you."

"And anyone else who'll listen probably," Bodie added, trying very hard to contain his laughter.

"Yes, you go ahead and laugh. Took the new lad here to set him to rights."

"Lily--" Doyle tried to stem the harangue.

"'E's the only one with enough backbone to help out poor Rose. If it hadn't been for--"

"Okay, Lily," Bodie broke in, his eyes dancing with mischief. "I believe you. In fact, you'll be happy to hear that this virile young bullock had me in a most compromising position not five minutes ago."

Lily stared at him, stunned into silence at last.

Doyle rolled his eyes and stuck his hands into his back pockets, turning around one hundred and eighty degrees on the heels of his trainers.

"And about bloody time," decreed Lily.

"Oh, my God." Doyle could feel the blood rush into his face.

"Don't hold it against him that he didn't complete the act," Bodie added, his voice falling an octave on the last three words. "But it wears a bloke out being all chivalrous, y'know."

"Bodie, you bastard, shut up," Doyle snarled.

Lily laughed, a delightful mixture of lewd-sounding throatiness and little girl high-pitched giggles. "You are a bastard," she informed Bodie.

"And if I ever manage to forget it, there are loads of people to remind me." He propped himself on the edge of her work-table. "I need you to write something out for me."

She clasped her hands in front of her. "A love letter?"

"That's personal." Glancing surreptitiously back at Doyle, he cupped his hand to his mouth and whispered loudly, "I'll let you know if the going gets sticky."

Harlequin Airs Plate 6 thumbnail

"Oh, Christ," Doyle moaned to himself. He came to rest against one of the four main poles, prepared for a long wait.

"But until then," Bodie went on, "what I need is a script for our aerial act."

"A script? You've come up with a new act, then?"

"Uh huh. Now listen closely, and tell me if you think you can do it."

"Why'd you do that?" Doyle asked.

"Do what?"

They were on their way out of the dressing tent. It was the middle of the afternoon, and the circus was gearing up for the evening's performance.

"Tell her that you and I'd been--erm--"

"Indulging in homosexual contact?" Bodie prodded delicately.

Doyle winced. "That's one way of putting it, I suppose."

"Well, I could've said we were snogging in your kitchen, but that might have offended her; very fastidious person, is Lily."

"Would've been nearer the truth," Doyle reminded him. "This way she probably thinks--"

"You were fucking me through the mattress. But, then--I like the way Lily thinks sometimes."

Seized by a spasm of pure lust, Doyle took a deep breath before looking at the man beside him. "Is that what you want? Me to fuck you?"

Bodie's forehead wrinkled with the effort of his thoughts. "I think," he replied slowly, "the idea holds definite appeal."

"With me? Specifically me, I mean?"

"Of course you. You don't think I'd be fantasizing about Lily, d'you?"

What about the bloke in your caravan last night?

Doyle closed his mouth tightly, half afraid the words had already slithered out. "'S nice to have a willing body close to hand, isn't it?" he said evenly.

"Second thoughts?"

The timbre of Bodie's voice had deepened noticeably, causing Doyle to raise his head and look searchingly at the man beside him.

"Early days yet," Doyle explained, his expression faintly troubled.

"Too right. But, Ray--"

"That's okay. Hell, Bodie, we hardly know each other. It's just--well, one of these days I'm going to want to go to bed with you. And when I do, I'd like to think I was the only one. Personal hang-up, y'see. Very boring." Doyle closed his mouth, more than a little appalled at what he had just admitted--mainly because that had come from him, Ray Doyle, private citizen, not Raymond Doyle, undercover CI5 agent, who was expected to fuck anyone in the service of his country.

Bodie heard him out, his face lacking all expression. "May happen sooner than you like, y'know."

"Maybe." Doyle pressed his fist against Bodie's shoulder, very lightly, very matey. "I'm off to the stables; want to see how Sanjay's getting on. Later, eh?"


Quashing the urge to look over his shoulder, Doyle walked briskly round the back of the animal enclosure to the entry to the stables. As he stepped inside, he couldn't restrain himself any longer and shot a quick glance in the direction of the dressing tent.

But Bodie was gone.

Tricked up and ready for the ring, Doyle once more went into the animal enclosure. He had not seen Bodie since the afternoon, and although the other man's presence had been missed, Doyle had made good use of his solitary time.

Once his "smalls" laundry, dutifully scrubbed in the sink, had been hung out on the communal clothes-lines to dry, Doyle had tidied his tiny kitchen, taken a cup of tea with Basil, then had turned in for a much needed nap.

The morning, made awkward by the fallout from the night before, seemed a million years gone by the time Doyle had awakened, refreshed, just in time for a meal and another leisurely cup of tea. After that he had seen to his ablutions, praising the present for all the modern caravan conveniences that had been lacking in his early experience of gypsy living. Cleaned, coifed, and bedecked in full Regency gear, Doyle had urged Basil out, noted the curtain-drawn quietude of Bodie's unit, and had pulled the door closed behind him.

As expected, Basil left him as soon as Doyle got close to his intended destination. Musing over her whereabouts when he was otherwise engaged, Doyle laughed at the possible activities the clever little dog might get up to. That, for no obvious reason, brought to mind Bodie's comments to Lily--and subsequent remarks he had made regarding certain, very tantalizing, sexual activities Doyle had yet to sample--with Bodie, the taste of whose mouth Doyle could remember as though he were savoring it even now.

Feeling a certain constriction in trousers that had been restitched once already, Doyle turned his mind to other imperatives, inconspicuously adjusting himself with a thumb as he came round to the tackroom.

"Anybody home?"

"In here," Simon called.

The slight young man was seated before a folding mirror that was propped up on the table, expertly applying make-up.

"Beautiful," Doyle said.

Holding the mascara wand away from his face, Simon accorded Doyle a lingering once-over as well. "And you, petal."

"Thanks. I probably forgot to mention what I thought of your performance last night."

"You certainly did," Simon said archly. Then he leaned forward, face cupped lightly between red-tipped fingers, and smiled engagingly. "So tell me now."

"Fantastic. Wouldn't've thought such a routine could be pulled off wearing all those bloody skirts."

Pleased, Simon gracefully sank back in his chair, plunging the eye-brush into the depths of the tube. "I have very strong legs. Comes of all that stretching my knees up around my ears, y'know." He licked his lips and raised an eloquent brow.

"Hm. Lucky for you Derek is so cooperative."

"Cooperative!" Simon's eyes widened with mock outrage. "He's a bloody taskmaster."

Having heard boot heels thudding down the aisle between the stalls, Doyle stepped deftly to one side as Derek entered. The other man laid a hand on his shoulder in greeting, then continued past him. Looming over the small table, he bent forward and kissed an instantly sputtering Simon. "Oh, Derry, you bastard," he erupted after being released. "Now I'll have to start all over!"

Unimpressed, Derek took three steps to the teapot temporarily residing on the shelf at the back of the room, ruffling Simon's short hair lovingly as he went.

Simon's mewl of protest was rewarded by a caress upon the nape of his neck. "Hm." Simon curved his head forward. "Now, that's nice."

One-handedly pouring tea into his mug, Derek raised the pot in silent invitation to Doyle, who looked on with a twinge of envy.

"No, thanks," Doyle said. "Just thought I'd hide out here for a bit."

"Where's Bodie?" Simon's eyelids shuttered downward as Derek continued his massage.

"Still in his caravan, I expect. I think he may have been up a bit late last night."

"Oh." Simon grimaced. "His groupie, I suppose."

"Tall fellow, dark hair, grey-green eyes?"

Simon confirmed Doyle's fears with a terse nod. "That's the one."

"Come round often, does he?"

"Ouch!" Simon twisted in his chair, fixing his lover with an angry glare. "I am not gossiping. Doyle is Bodie's partner. He's a right to know about him." Sitting in front of the mirror once more, Simon went on, "And knowing Bodie, it'll be years before he'll ever tell you anything." Applying the mascara brush with a tremorless hand, Simon said, "Used to see that bloke all the time when we were in Manchester. According to Bodie, the chap was posted near there."


"Army," Simon explained. "Think he was demobbed not long after. Not certain, though." Canting his head becomingly while surveying his image, Simon thought for a second. "Must've been a month ago since he was here last. Never stays for more than a day or two."

Derek sat on a stool behind him, resting his head against the canvas wall, one leg hooked around a support bar on Simon's chair.

Always near, Doyle thought.

Not unaware of Derek's presence, Simon reached back and gave his lover's dirt-encrusted knee a caress. "He's a nice enough bloke, I suppose. And I don't think there's anything serious between them."

"It's his business, anyway," Doyle said flatly, his brusque tone effectively putting an end to their conversation.

That night Circus Sergei was inundated with patrons. Word had spread throughout the town following Wednesday's performance that here was an entertainment worth paying to see. By early evening the sideshow features were overflowing with jostling, exuberant people, children running wild, and teen-agers whose bored-looking façades occasionally crumbled to reveal unfeigned amusement.

Fortunately, the crowd was of a mind to be pleased. From the band's opening notes, heralding the arrival of Riley atop a marvellously rigged-out Flash, they blared their approval. Watching everything for the first time along with them, Doyle shared the audience's high spirits, breaking into spontaneous applause when the jugglers pulled off a particularly impressive trick, cheering the clowns in their manic routine, and hooting with glee at Simon's amazing striptease.

In the midst of the fire-eater's set, Bodie came up behind him and touched a fingertip to Doyle's shoulder.

"Oh, hello," Doyle said, overflowing with joie de vivre. He took in Bodie's appearance. "Very nice."

"Not so bad yourself. Is it going well?"

"Great. Where have you been? Thought you'd show up before now."

"Resting up. Had a late night."


At that moment, Derek appeared with Tuppence and Piper. Burying a sudden sharp anger deep inside himself, Doyle mounted while Derek held the horse's bridle. Eyes straight ahead, he was nevertheless aware when Bodie was in place beside him.

Enthusiasm reverberated inside the Big Tent. Then a hush fell as the crowd awaited the next act. Very softly, the band began to play.

They had not got far into the routine before Doyle realized that the horses were tuned into the crowd every bit as intensely as any of the human performers. Their ears followed every tiny sound, swivelling independently from side to side, each one tracking its own bit of interesting information. The boisterous ambience did not affect their performance, however; they went through each carefully choreographed movement with superb dignity and grace, as heedless of the men atop them as they were of their captivated audience.

As Doyle backed out of the ring, Tuppence bowing her sorrow for all to see, the crowd sighed its sympathy as one. Removed from view by the great red curtain, he heard a breathless pause as Piper contemplated whether to follow or to stay--his decision made for him when Tuppence whickered to him to follow.

Stunned applause filled the air; loud snuffles expressed the emotions of many. Standing at the curtain, Derek and Tuppence behind him, Doyle nodded to Bodie as he appeared. "I think they liked it."

Bodie grinned boyishly. "I think we could go out and sing rugger tunes and that lot'd like it."

He handed Piper off to Derek, who had already collected Tuppence's reins. "Thanks, mate." Bodie glanced across at Doyle. "You hanging about?"

"Yeah. D'you need anything?"

Bodie shook his head. "Nah. Just a kid at heart, aren't you, catching a peek at the circus?"

"Missed it all last night, didn't I?"

Groaning under his breath, Bodie said, "Don't I know!"

"Sorry." Doyle met and held Bodie's eyes. "Knock their eyes out, sunshine. I'm looking forward to seeing you up there."

Bodie raised a hand and touched Doyle's mouth. "It'll be better when we're both up there, eh?"

"Off with you, mate," Doyle breathed.

Bringing his hand up to his own mouth, Bodie kissed the finger that had brushed Doyle's lips. He winked.

Watching him stride away, Doyle realized that, after eradicating his good mood with only a handful of words, Bodie had restored it with no more than a fingertip.

"Bastard," he whispered.

As in a happy dream, the remaining acts performed flawlessly to enthusiastic shouts and applause. The liberty horse routine--horses running unreined while executing precise commands on cue--followed immediately upon Bodie and Doyle's act. Overseen by Derek from behind the curtain at least part of the way through, it was directed by Riley, aided by his long, wicked-looking ring whip and the shorter guide whip, neither of which were ever used to hurt the animals, but only to direct their movements according to the routine.

The horses were astoundingly well-trained and behaved. With the band matching their cadence, the animals formed a line and reared and pawed-- rather like a line-up of musical dancers. Upon command, they then pivoted to the left, all at the same time, and circled the ring, odd numbered horses nimbly switching places with their even counterparts. Taffy, the shetland pony, galloped up from behind and proceeded to weave in and out and under the horses, much to the audience's amazed delight.

Before long it was Taffy, with her mischievous antics, who had won the hearts of the crowd. Her pranks never failed to raise a laugh, the public willingly fooled into believing that she acted all on her own, whereas the other horses were more regimentally minded.

At the close of the act, the horses formed a pyramid using Flash as its base. Once all were in place, Taffy dashed round them, kicking and pretending to bite. As the audience howled, she collected herself and swung out in front of Flash. There she skidded to a stop, bent her near leg under, and with the off stretched out, very prettily performed an extended bow.

Riley signalled them to break up. The horses circled the ring, then one at a time filed out through the red curtain. Taffy energetically brought up the rear, pausing briefly at the curtain to look round before disappearing, raising a cheer from the crowd.

Even with the insider's unblinkered knowledge of what fired the engines of circus magic, Doyle was not immune to its particular brand of enchantment. The next two acts proved that incontrovertibly, as he was drawn into them as readily as any school child under the age of ten.

First was a clown balancing act, performed by Aidan, staged unprecariously but with hurtling energy upon a low wire. His crazed escapades were no less magnificently skilled for the seemingly lunatic way he went about them.

With the audience's mood nicely revitalized, the next act was unlikely to fail, especially as this one featured Flash as the "teacher" and Taffy, along with several of Hannah's dogs and Zoe in clownsuit and make-up, as his "pupils." The animals, prompted by Riley from the shadows, put on a marvellous display, never missing a cue, their timing impeccable.

At last Bodie majestically appeared, stripping off his voluminous cape and abandoning it with splendid arrogance to a fawning assistant, the sequinned flyer's costume glittering hypnotically in the bright lights. He went up the web hand over hand, the sheer power and animal suppleness of the man holding the audience spellbound long before he reached the fixed trapeze. There he paused just long enough to resin his hands, before flipping backward into his routine.

Gasps of startlement, wonder, and sheer enchantment came out of the stands as Bodie moved fluidly from one stunt to another. Doyle, looking on intently through a thin crevice between the red curtain and the canvas sidewall, narrowed his eyes when Bodie came out of a flip with a hint of a jolt. While nothing to disturb the audience, to the trained eye it bespoke possible damage. Nevertheless Bodie completed the set without curtailing any of his prepared routine, and the audience happily paid clamorous homage to his skills and impressive ability.

Doyle was waiting for him on the other side of the curtain in the dressing tent corridor. Head down, face set, moisture shining off chest and arms, Bodie did not see him until Doyle thrust the towel kept waiting there into Bodie's hands.

"Went okay?" Bodie asked, eyes brightening at sight of him.

"Went great," Doyle corrected him. "Are you okay?"

Bodie gave a little laugh. "Trust you. Yeah, I think so. Hot shower, bit of a rub down should put it to rights." He regarded Doyle hopefully. "You wouldn't consider giving me a massage?"

"Who, me?" Doyle asked coolly. "What about your groupie?"

"My group-- It was you came round last night, wasn't it? Why didn't you say something?"

Uncertain how to take Bodie's forthrightness, Doyle ignored the latter question. "Yeah, it was me."

"Thought it must've been. Murph's not my groupie, you idiot. Wish Simon would quit calling him that. He's an old friend from the Army."

Feeling ridiculously stupid, but also immeasurably pleased, Doyle said jokily, "The Flying Hussars?"

"The-- Oh, yeah. SAS, actually."

"SAS?" Doyle favored the other man with a wicked grin. "Thought they were fairly strict about who they let in?"

"You casting aspersions, boy?" Bodie asked imperially. "They are careful, y'know. I just made a point of never abseiling into Parliament to announce the fact that 'I'm that way inclined.' Can get on amazingly well that way."

"I'll bear that in mind. Come on, Bodie." Doyle tugged the ends of the towel down around Bodie's broad neck. "Get out of that costume before you catch your death."

As they started down the corridor to the dressing tent, Doyle said off- handedly, "So this bloke was visiting, was he?"

"Yep. Whenever he's running free, Murph looks me up. You should've told him who you were--or did the robe and those long hairy legs of his give you the wrong impression?"

Glancing down at his feet, away to the side, then back across at Bodie, Doyle merely shrugged.

"Like that, eh?" Bodie's voice warmed with understanding; he waved Doyle through the opening which gave access to the dressing tent.

"Expect so."

"That's why you've been so bloody stroppy today?"

"Wasn't being stroppy," Doyle defended himself hotly.

"You were, too."




Both men flinched at the high-pitched reprimand issued from Lily's Cupid's bow lips. "You had better be getting changed, Master Bodie, if you intend to ride in the parade."

"Yes, ma'am," Bodie drawled, his too-broad American accent earning him grimaces all round.

It was well after eleven before the last car drove away. The entire troupe had revelled in the rousing farewell given by their generous second audience of the season.

Since Bodie did not appear to be in any distress, Doyle had made no effort to encourage him to leave the tent following the parade. Punch- drunk with success, and sparking with surplus energy, everyone was slow to return home that night. But at last Doyle escorted his partner to his caravan, having noticed that Bodie was beginning to favor his left shoulder just a little.

"You want something to eat?" Doyle asked, as Bodie fumbled open his door.

"You cooking?" Bodie flung an arm wide in invitation for Doyle to enter.

"Why not? Wouldn't want to damage that arm of yours any more, now would we?"

"Depends on what 'we're' doing with it."

"Hold that thought," Doyle said wryly. "Get yourself in the shower, why don't you, and I'll nip round to my place to collect a few bits and pieces."

Wide-eyed, Bodie said, "Into that sort of thing, are you?"

"You should be so lucky, mate. Go on, off with you. I should be here when you get out."

"See that you are." Bodie leaned forward and pressed his mouth very lightly to Doyle's. "Bye."

Lips tingling, Doyle went out the door and tripped down the steps, looking forward to removing his too-confining costume. As he neared his own caravan, a sudden movement from the seat of the motorcycle brought him up sharply--but it was only Basil, curled up tightly and shivering in the cold night air.

"Bas, you mindless little bugger, what're you doing out here?" He strode over to her at once. "We'll just have to rig up some way for you to get in and out, won't we--now you've decided to move in permanent-like."

The dog unfolded and stretched from one end of her small, lean body to the other. Then she stepped up into Doyle's waiting arms, swabbing her tongue across his neck as soon as he was within reach.

"Silly prawn," Doyle mumbled, feeling unconscionably guilty that she should choose to suffer while waiting for him, rather than seek shelter elsewhere.

Shifting her onto his shoulder, Doyle turned back to the caravan door. With the advent of late evening, the temperature had fallen to notable effect. Doyle took a moment to pour some dry dog food into Basil's dish and placed it on the floor.

From there he went into the tiny bathroom and retrieved the bottle of liniment given him by Simon from one of the small shelves that ran down the wall between the toilet and the narrow shower. Checking in the mirror-panelled cupboard over the sink for anything else left behind by Roger that could be of use, Doyle's eyes were caught by the crumpled, half-empty tube of lubricant that lay on the lowest ledge. His hand came up, then fell back, still empty, to his side.

Clutching the soft-plastic container of liniment, Doyle strode into the bedroom and quickly removed the Regency outfit. He chose a pair of worn, skintight jeans, and a large flannel shirt. With the laces of his trainers neatly tied, he started for the door--only to hesitate at the bed.

Basil watched with curiosity as Doyle mounded the top edge of the bedcovers in front of the pillow, forming a small nest. Looking straight at her, he pointed a finger down at it. The dog leaped up in a single bound, tail wagging enthusiastically. Cupping her head in one palm, Doyle bent forward and rubbed his nose against her short, smooth muzzle.

"'Night, Bas. Don't wait up for me, eh?"

The glow from a few, dimly shining doorlamps pricked the night, making his passage over the gravelled surface easier than finding his way in full dark. Approaching Bodie's caravan, Doyle could hear water running at the back; the other man was still in the shower, washing away the sweat and strain of the day.

Inside, Doyle made himself at home in the cramped kitchen. After digging about in the refrigerator and Bodie's cupboards, he came up with the makings of a cheese sauce mixed with rice, chunks of left-over chicken, and an assortment of cooked vegetables, including peas, carrots, and something that may have been diced turnips--but as Doyle had no intention of sharing Bodie's repast, and harboring a distrust of turnips that had been established in early childhood, he did not bother to verify what it was.

The sauce was thickening and Doyle was shoving slices of bread into the oven to grill when Bodie stepped out of the bathroom, a plain terry- cotton robe wrapped round him. Working a towel over his hair, Bodie sniffed exaggeratedly and pretended to follow his nose into the kitchen.

Looking on approvingly, he said, "Smells great; what've you got there, then?"

"As you see," Doyle replied unhelpfully. "D'you like turnips?"

"Can't stand 'em. Why?"

"Never mind." Waving vaguely at the small dining table, Doyle suggested, "Sit yourself down. This'll be ready in a tick."

"Oh, goody," Bodie exclaimed as he spied the bottle of liniment. "Afters."

"Only if you eat all your supper," Doyle countered automatically. He busied himself stirring the glutinous mixture in the pan. Slowly adding grated cheese, he asked, "How's the shoulder?"

"Won't be a problem." Ignoring Doyle's invitation to sit down, Bodie went to the sink and filled the kettle.

"Tea's already brewing," Doyle informed him smugly.

The kettle came down on the sideboard with a thunk. Stepping up close behind Doyle, Bodie hooked his chin on the other man's bony shoulder and peered over the side into the pan. "You're good at that, aren't you?"

"Have to take care of meself, don't I? Look out, you're impeding progress here."

Bodie turned his head and slowly pushed his mouth up against Doyle's ear. "Maybe I've found something else I'd rather eat."

Eyes closing, Doyle leaned back into Bodie's warmth. Two arms came round his waist; a hand slid upward past the last closed button on his shirt and disappeared under the material.

"Nice," Bodie murmured, "warm, and furry." The other hand rode down the line of Doyle's left hip toward his thigh.

Floating on velvet sensation, Doyle hummed softly under his breath.

"You said you haven't had too much experience with men," Bodie reminded him a little tentatively. "How much is that exactly?"

The irresistible, liquid warmth generated by Bodie's touch gelled in Doyle's abdomen.

In response to Doyle's involuntary tensing, Bodie murmured, "'S all right, sunshine; just asking."

"I've--done a lot of looking." Doyle made a face at the break in his voice, grateful that his back was still turned toward Bodie.

"So, you've never had it off with anyone?"

"No men," Doyle muttered.

"Meaning, you've had women?"


"Being bi's nothing to be embarrassed about, y'know," Bodie misinterpreted Doyle's silent chagrin, communicated to him through body language alone, for Doyle had said nothing. Then he clarified: "So long as you're careful, of course. Can't go flaunting it about."

"I know that."


Doyle covered the hand exploring his chest with one of his own. "But I was too shit-scared to admit that I only ever wanted men."

"Oh." Bodie considered this for a moment. "What's made you change your mind just lately?"

Suddenly hating the lies that had shaped his life--continued to shape his life, Doyle wanted to say, "Cowley said I could." Instead, he whispered bitterly, "I don't know, Bodie. The first lad I ever fell for--" Doyle shut his mouth with an audible snap; the inappropriate words had spilled from his lips before he could call them back. "Only I didn't fall, he did."

"Keith Leland."

"Congratulations on an excellent memory. Yeah, Keith."

Bodie clasped his arms round Doyle's waist, and brushed his cheek against Doyle's neck. "That may explain more than you realize."

"Oh, yes?"

Warm breath coursed ticklishly over Doyle's collarbone. "I'm not a trick cyclist, mate--well, of course, I could be, but not the kind that messes your head about--but just think on it: You were in the circus when you lost him. Now you're back in the circus--"

"You're not a substitute, Bodie."

"Should hope not." There was nothing contrived about Bodie's affronted attitude. "But we've a freedom here we don't get anywhere else." A quiet wistfulness filtered into Bodie's words. He opened his mouth, and took another breath--then faltered.

When Bodie failed to finish, Doyle glanced back at him. "Go on."

Letting him go, Bodie said, "Nothing." He turned Doyle round so that they stood facing one another. "Told you before I'm in no hurry. When you're ready, you just say so. Okay?"

Melting with sudden yearning, Doyle leaned closer and kissed the other man long and hard. "That's hardly fair to you."

"I'll manage," Bodie promised, his smile bordering on saintly.

"C'mere, you," Doyle growled.

Bodie went willingly as Doyle reeled him near again and covered his mouth with his own hungrily searching lips.

A moment later, Bodie remarked breathlessly, "You're good at that, y'know. Very good." Grinning wryly into Doyle's face, he added, "But I think supper may be burning."


The best portion of the meal was salvaged, although a fair amount remained on the bottom of the pan. Fetching plates from the cupboard, Bodie looked askance when Doyle told him he would need only the one.

"You're not eating, then?"

"Nope. Not hungry. Sit down and pull your robe off your shoulders, will you?"

Looking scandalized, Bodie remarked, "While I'm eating!"

"After serving with the famous SAS, you must've learned to do everything while you were eating."

"True." Seated in the chair at the end of the table, Bodie jabbed a fork into the steaming rice-sauce mix, and muttered rebelliously, "Not that I liked to, mind."

"Then why'd you let them second you?"

"Don't be an idiot, Doyle," Bodie stated thickly round a mouthful. "Not something you turn down. And it was good training."

"The best, I hear. Wouldn't've thought that sort of job would suit you, that's all." Standing behind him, Doyle picked up Bodie's towel and lightly rubbed it on his still damp hair.

"I've known worse. What're you doing up there?"

Doyle grinned. "Checking for bald spots." He danced aside, barely avoiding an elbow aimed lethally at his midriff. "Temper." After draping the towel over the door knob, Doyle again took up his place and began to pull the terry cotton robe farther down Bodie's shoulders, stopping just shy of making his arms unusable.

For the next few minutes, Doyle probed and prodded at the expertly developed musculature of Bodie's upper back and shoulders, while Bodie occupied himself with his plate.

"That's it," Bodie gasped, when Doyle settled on a particularly tight spot.

"Thought so."

It was no hardship touching Bodie's skin, which was smooth and finely pored, and, fresh from the shower, very warm to the touch. Doyle's fingers kneaded carefully as he worked the bunched muscles. He let his eyes roam over the back of Bodie's head and its healthy growth of thick, wavy, dark brown hair; the nape of the neck, which was long and curving; and the creamy white shoulders and back.

"This is interesting," Doyle said, speaking softly so as not to startle Bodie, who appeared to have fallen asleep.


"This." Doyle placed the tip of a finger on a long scar that extended from the top of Bodie's left shoulder blade almost to its base, stretching along the inward curve.

"Old news."

"Don't want to talk about it, y'mean?"

"Not particularly."

"Right. You nodding off down there?"


"Finish your dinner?"

"I think so. There's nothing left on my plate, anyway."

"And you've had your shower and used the loo. Time for bed, I think."

Bodie rolled his head back and looked up into Doyle's eyes. "At fucking last," he said with new energy.

Doyle waved his arm toward the narrow bed. "Hm--I can see passion smoking out of your ears. Over there, sunshine; on your belly."

"Be still my heart."

"Will you shut up?"

As Bodie complied, Doyle stood transfixed, watching the removal of the robe and the revealing of the fair form that lay hidden underneath. Unselfconsciously, Bodie drew back the bedclothes and stretched out on the mattress. With a sharp tug, he twitched the soft fabric up around his hips, leaving himself bare from shoulders to waist.

"I'm waiting," he sighed, when Doyle did not move to join him.

Walking like an automaton, Doyle took two steps, then remembered the liniment. Fetching it off the table, he slowly twisted off the cap, his gaze returning to Bodie's unprotected back.

As he came nearer again, his thoughts whirled in a chaotic cyclone of images, needs, and fears. Allowing himself no chance to dwell on any of them, Doyle sat down on the edge of the mattress at Bodie's waist and poured a sizable quantity of liniment directly onto Bodie's shoulder.

Lying on his stomach with a pillow hugged to his chest, Bodie's respiration briefly spiked before resuming its natural rhythm. "Thanks for the warning, mate."

"Cold, is it?" Doyle asked briskly, hoping to conceal the tremor in his voice by speaking abruptly, but knowing his hands would betray him the instant they came in contact with Bodie's back.


Doyle pressed both palms over the broad shoulders; Bodie arched his back, encouraging the pressure. "Oh, that's it," he said in a husky purr. "Magic hands, Doyle. Anyone ever tell you?"

"Every woman I ever touched," Doyle lied, concentrating on the feel of Bodie beneath his fingers.

Wriggling slowly, Bodie turned his head on the pillow, trying to get a glimpse of Doyle's face. "Have there been that many?" he wondered.


"That all?"

"What about you?" Doyle turned the tables, suddenly keen to take Bodie's attention off him. "How many men?"

"Men?" For a second, Bodie did not answer. "Oh--countless of 'em."

Doyle paused. "The way you said that, it sounds as though there've been women, as well."

"There have. You're not the only one who's played the part of the proper lad, my son."

"How many?" Doyle immediately prompted. The muscles under his hands were growing more relaxed by the minute.

"Thousands, of course."

"Of course."

Countless men and thousands of women, Doyle thought morosely. He fell silent after that, hoping Bodie would, too. In fact, Bodie dropped off soon after, so quickly and so deeply, that Doyle was surprised that he had been able to remain awake so long.

Ten minutes later, Doyle eased himself off Bodie's bed. Looking down at the strong form so defenselessly exposed, Doyle recognized the degree of trust that had been vested in him. Making not a sound, he pulled the covers up to the base of the dark-capped skull, his fingers allowed to feather through silky hair for only a few instants.

Then, switching the light off over the bed, he turned and went to the door. As he twisted the knob, Bodie's voice came to him, groggy and a little confused.


"G'night, Bodie," Doyle said. "See you in the morning, mate."

"Thought...you might want to stay?"

A faint smile lifted Doyle's lips; Bodie was more than half-asleep.

"Get some rest, Bodie. Don't think I'm up to competing tonight."


Doyle closed the door quietly and with finality behind him. Hunkering forward against the sharp breeze, he strode swiftly across the caravan site, his emotions ambivalent and incomprehensible.

Perhaps Bodie was right about the influence of circus life on him. Five days ago, Cowley had instructed him to woo Bodie's attentions, and by extension, his trust. No emotional attachment, only sex, the Old Man had said.

But for the first time in ten years, Doyle doubted his ability to do the job and retain his self-imposed barriers. Something about Bodie-- Or was it something about him--Doyle--being back in this old, familiar setting--

What in hell was happening to him?



High above the circus floor, Doyle crept spider-like across the web of rigging that supported the aerial equipment. Systematically he checked every tie-off and pivot point, hundreds of inches of cabling, and the integrity of even the least-used webs.

Rising before dawn, Doyle's first order of business had been to prop open the window over the kitchen sink for Basil's personal use. The sink itself was made passable by placing a cardboard box upside down inside it, which formed a platform for the dog to step across. The box had been scavenged amidst bird-song and rodent rustling under cover of pitch darkness from the edge of the caravan site where a communal skip had been set up. After that, he had wheeled the motor bike round the side of his caravan and parked it anew under the kitchen window.

The next priority had been to ensure Basil's understanding of the set- up. As usual, she had responded to Doyle's instructions with willingness and enthusiasm. Once he was content that she could get up onto the bike, bound from there to the sill of the kitchen window, then alight on the box in the sink without incurring disaster, he had called an end to their impromptu training session.

"Just don't turn the taps on, eh?" he had advised, ruffling her ears and giving her a treat. "Or I'll have to requisition another box."

After gulping down a forgettable breakfast, notable only for the speed with which he had consumed it, Doyle had chosen to leave off running. Instead, with Basil at his heels, he had gone to the Big Tent, which was already beginning to stir with activity, for this day--Friday--would see the first of the matinee performances.

Sergei's extra hands had already been hard at work. The circus floor inside the ring had been raked clean of the previous day's detritus, fresh sawdust and tanbark added, and the surface smoothed preparatory to the first performance. There were men on tall ladders inspecting the canvas for tiny rents, which could become huge tears if not speedily checked; and yet others, posted here and there, who were tidying the curtains and brightly colored valances.

Doyle had passed unchallenged and, though he knew better, apparently unremarked. Leaving Basil to her own devices, he had stripped off his sweatshirt and trainers, and folded them up neatly in a pile on one of the benches nearest the ring. From there, he had crossed the newly surfaced floor to the rope ladder. This he had climbed slowly to give his muscles a chance to warm up properly.

In the upper, wire-latticed region of the tent, he had hoped things might seem clearer. Nevertheless, as removed from this particular world as he could be and yet still be in its midst, he found it impossible to divorce himself from the growing intensity of emotions long buried--and even longer denied. This was only an assignment, no different from all the others. And yet--

Why Bodie?

Because he could fly like no flyer Doyle had ever seen before? Or because, when they flew together, it was better than the best magic Doyle had ever known? Or because, against all odds, they seemed able to communicate on an instinctive level that transcended verbal language? Or, more basically still, was it simply because Bodie was quite the most attractive man Doyle had ever known--and he had been ordered to seduce him?

In the middle of retightening a clamp which joined two cables, suspended at the highest point over the circus floor, Doyle closed his eyes and rode out a wash of yearning that raced through his system, leaving him flushed with sexual heat from head to toe.

He could not call it the embryonic flutterings of love, this heightened awareness that overcame him at the mere thought of sleeping with Bodie.

And yet--

He was an idiot. Chandra's death had shaken him more than he had realized, that's all. Three weeks had not been time enough to acknowledge the loss of a fine partner--even one he had kept at arm's length throughout their partnership.

It wasn't Bodie at all--not really. Although perhaps Bodie had been right when he had said, "We've a freedom here we don't get anywhere else." Freedom to be himself for the first time in ten years? Surely, that freedom had always been his.

Frowning faintly to himself, Doyle precariously scampered across the cables to the last batch of connections he had to examine. With heavy hair falling onto his forehead and crowding round his neck, he swiped at a sheen of sweat beading clammily on his brow. This feeling, this out- of-kilter longing for something unnamed, would not last; nothing ever did, as he knew well from first-hand experience. But in the interim--

As though summoned, he raised his head and looked out beyond the stands to the main entry. Through the unpopulated seats, he could see him, knew him even in shadow.


Smiling wryly to himself, Doyle watched the other man come into the ring, head tilted back, eyes directed upward at Doyle. Those eyes would be a deep, lustrous, cobalt blue, if not even darker, shaded to indigo. Heart hammering in his throat, Doyle sighed softly. Somehow it was immensely galling to have lost a battle without even knowing war had been declared.

And you've won, Bodie.

"Ray? You 'bout finished up there? Or d'you need me to come up?"

"Almost done," Doyle answered smoothly. "Just be a couple more minutes."

The first part of the morning was given over to an abbreviated work-out. Once the net was erected, just after eight, Bodie talked Doyle through his ideas for the new act. They restricted themselves to the most basic of acrobatics out of deference to Bodie's shoulder. Still, they were able to utilize the movements to gauge their timing and to get a notion of the overall flow of the set.

"D'you really think we can get all of this put together before next Wednesday?" Doyle called, hoisting himself out of the net as Bodie brought himself down by way of a single rope.

"Sure. Lily was going to talk with Riley after she'd had a chance to piece together the script. I've spoken with Sergei about using a couple of extra riggers for manning the webs; he didn't have a problem with that. Might have to talk to Donal about the--"

"Donal?" Doyle echoed sharply.

"McShane." Bodie gave him a curious look. "Electrician. You've seen him: stumpy little bloke who works the lights."

"Oh, right. Knew a Donal Ead once when I was with Donny Devereaux's circus--real git, he was."

Doyle picked up the towel from an overturned tub and gave himself a quick rub-down. Hannah waved at him from across the ring, her dogs sprawled in various poses of indolence at her feet. He grinned back at her and tossed the towel to Bodie.

"What about costumes?"

Sitting down heavily on the bench beside Doyle's clothing, Bodie buried his face in the towel before answering. "Still thinking on that. Can't be too complicated. Oh, yes--Simon said he needs to see you today about finishing your leotard. Seemed a bit peeved you hadn't stopped in this morning."

"Did he?" After tugging his fleecy trousers up around his waist, Doyle plopped down on the bench beside Bodie and began to pull on his shoes. "Can we use the lights, d'you think? Y'know, to make up for fancy costume changes?"

"Now there's an idea." Bodie smiled up at him from cotton folds. "We could use different colored gels for spectacular effects; I'd intended to use them for certain bits anyway. Good idea, mate."

Doyle concentrated on tying his shoe. "Thanks. So all we have to do is choreograph our routine, time it with Riley doing a voice-over and your man Donal playing with the lights, not to mention the lad who'll be working the web for the great ascension scene--did I leave anything out?"

"Cynic. Want some tea?" He raised a brow when Doyle appeared ready to object. "We'll go round to visit Simon and Derek. Give you a chance to look in on Sanjay."

Doyle laughed softly; had Bodie learned to read him so well in a few short days? "I could murder a cup of tea," Doyle admitted.

"Is that your dog under there?" Bodie wondered.

"Very likely. That you, Bas?" Doyle asked, peering under the benches. Two bright eyes gazed back at him. Yanking the sweatshirt down over his head, Doyle bent toward the dog.

Basil lunged forward, lifting her forepaws onto the bench.

"C'mon, then," Doyle said, clapping his hands. "Bet you could take a cup as well." Basil sprang into Doyle's arms and was ferried to his shoulder.

"Until you get near the horses or Sanjay," Bodie argued, "then she'll skedaddle off to parts unknown."

"Clever dog. Avoids a great deal of work that way."

As they started toward the main opening, Bodie asked quietly, "What happened to you this morning, Ray? Missed you on the run."

Doyle looked across at the far side of the Big Tent. "Wanted some time alone, I reckon."

"Everything okay?"

Green eyes turned Bodie's way. "Everything is fine, Bodie."

Doyle, attired in a pure white leotard, offset by glittering sequins which formed a star pattern on the torso, and small Catherine wheels on each hip, stepped out of the tackroom with a flourish.

"I expect that'll do," Bodie remarked.

"'Do!'" Simon exclaimed from behind Doyle. "He looks absolutely exquisite!"

Tipping his head a little to one side, Bodie gave Doyle a closer look. "Well, now you say so--I suppose there is something vaguely exquisite about him. Just there, on his right shoulder."

"You are positively wretched beyond words, Bodie," Simon complained.

"So sorry."

"You're not."

Derek raised his mug toward Doyle in silent appreciation. For him alone, Doyle performed a sleekly controlled pirouette.

"Oh, yes," Simon murmured. "See how the spangles catch the light; imagine that on the trapeze."

"Especially his right shoulder; it's exquisite, you know."


"Will I have a cape to go with it?" Doyle asked. "Like Conan over there?"

"Better," Simon promised with malicious satisfaction. "With the cape I give you, he'll look a poor cousin in comparison."

"Now, see here--"

Abandoning Bodie and Simon to their squabbling, Doyle returned to the tackroom and changed back into his work-out apparel. "Thanks, Si," he called out, folding the fragile material into neat bundles before joining the other men. "The costume's fantastic."

"You are welcome." Simon cast an arched brow speakingly in Bodie's direction.

Bodie blew him a kiss. "That's what I love about you, Simon: You never sulk like some people I know."

Shedding his outraged facade, Simon giggled. "You're still a bastard, Bodie," he said. "Even if Ray likes you."

"Of course he likes me; who doesn't?"

"The list is too long to--"

Deeming it time to put an end to their bantering, Derek took a single step forward and silenced his lover with a thorough kiss. When he let Simon go, he gestured to Doyle to accompany him to the tiger's cage.

Receiving a similarly questioning look, Bodie shook his head. "Nah, you two go along and play with the big moggie. I want to see how Lily's getting on with her writing." He gave Doyle a little wave and struck off down the canvas corridor to the side exit.

Doyle handed the leotard over to Simon. "Keep this for me, will you?"

"Of course. Be careful, eh? Sanjay's been a bit restless this morning."

Glancing sidelong at Derek, Doyle asked, "He's not doing well?"

Derek rocked his hand graphically from side to side.

"Just be careful," Simon repeated meaningfully.

In fact, after rousing very briefly at their arrival, Sanjay fell back into his slumber. Doyle and Derek worked quietly and efficiently to muck out the great cat's cage. They managed to freshen the sawdust on the floor and clean out the water bowl, all without disturbing him.

"He's getting weaker, isn't he?" Doyle muttered.

Derek nodded abruptly while collecting the cat's medication.

Supporting the great head with a gentle grip, Doyle sensed Sanjay's wakening. The yellow eyes shuttered open, and a wide, pink tongue curled out to swab the tip of the broad nose.

"It's all right, big fella." Doyle looked up at Derek, who was watching him. "He feels warmer than usual."

With a flicker of the eyes and brows, Derek indicated his agreement. While Doyle braced the cat's head, Derek worked the medication into the huge mouth. As soon as Doyle freed him, Sanjay worked his jaws and swallowed. He gave a paw a languid lick and rolled back onto his side, eyes closing heavily.

Doyle stayed a while longer, helping Derek with the horses. At noon, he refused Simon's offer of lunch and started back to his own caravan. The circus grounds were roiling with activity; but Doyle wanted to distance himself from the hubbub. As he ambled past Bodie's unit, he noted that Bodie himself was nowhere in evidence. Mildly disappointed, Doyle continued on to his own caravan. Standing on the steps in front of his door, he was in the midst of turning the knob when a warm, large hand came to rest on his backside.


"Not Bodie," Sergei said with a slow smile.

"Sergei." The politeness in Doyle's voice came from a long-established well of civility which he was forced to dip into from time to time. In his line of work, such a resource was a necessity.

Letting his gaze drift down Doyle's narrow frame, Sergei reluctantly withdrew his hand. "I saw you and Bodie this morning."


"Very nice." He inclined his head toward the door. "Don't suppose you could spare a cup of tea? Don't get taken care of so well these days, now Rose has gone."

Doyle hesitated. Then: "Sure." He pulled the door open and stepped through, leaving Sergei to follow.

It was cool inside the caravan, despite the sunny day. After tossing the leotard and tights onto the table, Doyle unobtrusively removed the box from the sink, and leaned forward to look out the window at the bike. As he had suspected, Basil was there. She raised her head sleepily; at sight of Doyle, she began to stir. With a subtle hand gesture, Doyle signalled her to stay. She did so, stretching out on the leather seat again quite happily.

"Have you heard from Rose?" Doyle asked, conscious of Sergei stepping up behind him as he filled the kettle.

"Not a peep. You?"

"No reason she would." Plugging in the flex, Doyle turned round, hands braced on the lip of the counter.

"No?" Sergei's redolent breath spoke of considerable whisky consumption. "She trusted you to help her."

"Rose was upset," Doyle said flatly.

Under Doyle's flinty stare, Sergei sidled a short distance away. "She would've got over it."

"I expect she will yet. Bodie said you've rowed before; 's not uncommon with married folk."

"No." Wandering purposelessly in the small space, Sergei spied the leotard on the table and picked it up. "Simon does an excellent job, doesn't he?" he murmured. "Such a pretty lad, too."

Doyle said nothing.

"Y'know, I saw you last night." Fingering the closely woven fabric, Sergei shot him a look from under his lashes. "Sneaking into Bodie's caravan."

"Wasn't sneaking," Doyle said on a mirthless laugh.

"It was late."

"The grounds didn't clear out until late. What are you getting at, Alf?"

Drawing himself up to his full, but not impressive height, Sergei said, "I prefer that you call me Sergei."

"Sergei, then."

Bunched in the circus owner's thick hands, the leotard was thrust at Doyle. "I think I ought to see you in this--make sure that it is what we want."

"It is. And I've already tried it on."

"I would like to see it, all the same."

Doyle's first thought was to refuse in no uncertain terms--but he realized he must think carefully before speaking. If he protested, Sergei might do something irrational--perhaps even fire him, despite earlier remarks to the contrary. Cowley would have his head on a pike for that. But if he conceded, Sergei might try his hand--and Doyle did not think an ugly scene would serve his best interests just now. In any case, he did not intend for the other man to touch him again--not without coming to harm, anyway.

"Why not?" he said equably. He swung out a hand and snatched the costume from Sergei's grasp; in the mood Sergei was in, he might try to play keep-away once Doyle had undressed.

With the leotard safely stowed on the counter behind him, Doyle removed his trainers then peeled the sweatshirt and underlying t-shirt off in one, unbroken movement. With the same air of indifference, he stripped off his trousers, revealing the narrow band of nylon that served as underpants. A prickling annoyance spread through him as Sergei wet his lips with unfeigned interest. It seemed an age before Doyle had drawn the clinging tights up around his hips, longer still before the close- fitting bodysuit afforded any degree of decorum.

"Hm," Sergei said noncommittally; his eyes spoke far more explicitly. "Turn round, please."

Knowing with complete certainty what the other man meant to do, Doyle nevertheless obeyed. When Sergei's hand closed on his right buttock with painful ardor, Doyle was completely unsurprised, and perversely, allowed the liberty for one full second before twisting round and seizing the broad wrist in a brutal grip.

"I take it that means, you approve?"

Through clenched teeth, Sergei growled, "What d'you think you're--?"

The door swung wide behind them; Bodie entered, his affable expression belying the tautness of his posture.

"Ray. Sergei. Showing him the new costume, are you, mate?"

Doyle flung Sergei's hand away. "Yeah. And he likes it a lot. Don't you, Sergei?"

Cradling his forearm close to his body, Sergei took a step backward and swung toward the door. With a hot glare, he ordered Bodie to get out of his way. When Bodie did not immediately comply, Sergei snapped, "Now, Bodie."

Smiling with mock affection, Bodie remarked, "He's a little stronger than Rose, isn't he?"

At that, Sergei barrelled past him, knocking Bodie half off balance as he bolted down the steps. Once Sergei had disappeared round the front of his own caravan, Bodie shut the door, and clucking his tongue admonishingly, commented, "There goes your rise, sunshine."

"Along with a third of my right cheek."

"He never! Turn round; let me look."

Doyle scowled at him. "Don't you start. Miserable swine."


"Very likely; Sergei, certainly." He would have said more, but a soft whine had caught his attention. Glancing out the window, he found Basil staring back up at him, her ears at attention, eyes worriedly alert. "C'mon, then, you."

The dog leapt up at once; Doyle caught her before she could plummet into the sink. "Don't worry," he said meanly as she licked at his face. "I think your meal-ticket is secure through the evening performance."

"More like six months." Bodie plucked a sheet of paper out of a pocket and unfolded it, casually leaning over the counter to see how Basil had managed such a remarkable leap. Hmming to himself, he added, "You've got a contract, remember?"

"Somehow, I don't think anything involving ethics will carry much weight with our Alf." Doyle set the dog on the floor and resumed the process of making tea.

Lifting up the flannel running trousers that had been discarded on the floor, Bodie said aghast, "You undressed in front of him?"

"Didn't have a lot of choice, did I? If I'd gone into the bedroom, with only a curtain to keep him out, he'd've been in there like a shot."

"Expect you're right."

As Doyle placed the lid on the teapot and wrapped the towel around it, Bodie stated, "You are okay?"

"Sure." Doyle made a face. "You don't work with a load of laborers and not get into a dust-up once in a while, y'know."

"Yeah, I reckon. Not your refined company, like us circus folk."

Giving way to a smile, Doyle agreed, "Nothing like. What d'you have there?"

"Hot from the typewriter: Our new routine. Too bad the 'a' doesn't work all that well--would make a lot more sense, I think."

"Hand it over. I want to see that."

Bodie dangled the single sheet in front of him. "Have you eaten yet?"

"No, was met at the door by Our Friend." Doyle grabbed the paper out of Bodie's hand. "Think maybe he was even waiting for me." Doyle's eyes began to scan the sheet; Bodie was quite right: The unreliable 'a' made for a difficult read.

"Told you before. You're just what he looks for in a man."

With a retort poised on his tongue, Doyle chose to exercise restraint when he saw Bodie squatted down in front of the open refrigerator, gathering assorted items to his chest. Doyle muttered, "I'm sure you're right."

"'Course I am. Thought you had some brinjal pickle in here."

"Behind the pickles." Aware that he had gone from borderline rage to domestic contentment in record time, Doyle shook his head at himself, and tried once more to focus on Lily's text.

As Bodie piled sandwich makings on the sideboard, Doyle gave a low whistle. "This is heavy stuff. D'you really think the audience will buy it?"

Bodie snorted. "You've seen how they react to that silly horse gag. This'll be spectacular."

"Hope you're right. More than that, I hope I'll be able to keep a straight face while Riley's reading it."

"Faint-heart. Riley could read the ingredients off a tin of beans and wow that lot."

"He is good. Incredible voice." He looked questioningly at Bodie. "What's his story, then?"


"Background, history, whatever you call it."

"Don't know a whole lot about him, actually. Keeps to himself. Only person I've ever known him to talk to much is Hannah; and she doesn't pass on anything hugely personal. I do remember her saying something about him being married and having a family in New Zealand--and he showed me some pictures once. Other than that, nothing."

Frowning down at the teapot as he removed the makeshift cozy, Doyle mused, "Wonder why he's here, then?"

"Why are any of us?"

The question was unanswerable. After placing mugs on the sideboard opposite where Bodie was working, Doyle reached into the refrigerator and took out the milk carton. He slopped some of it into both mugs, added sugar to Bodie's, then poured the tea.

"By the way, you didn't just happen to come round just now, did you?"


"You heard me." Doyle set the sugared tea at Bodie's elbow.

Bodie shrugged. "I'm not playing protector, if that's what you mean."

"Very good timing, all the same."

"Luck," Bodie said dismissively. "Better change out of that rig, y'know. Get anything on it, and Simon'll have your goolies."

"And then Derek would have his," Doyle said pragmatically. "How much longer are you going to be?"

"You can't hurry perfection, Doyle. Don't worry; I'm making enough for both of us."

"No offense, sunshine, but I've seen you eat." He laid a hand on Bodie's shoulder, seeking out the spot that had received his attentions the night before, and gently renewed his acquaintance with it.

Bodie grinned wolfishly. "So change quickly. Better still, just keep doing what you're doing. Maybe I'll fall asleep, and you can have it all."

"Sod." With a final caress, Doyle collected his clothing and went into the bedroom. Drawing the curtain that served as a partition between the two areas, Doyle let his thoughts stray to Riley, the long-faced ringmaster, whose family lived so many thousands of miles away. If Doyle ever found someone to share his life--although the prospect seemed fairly remote--he resolved that he would never leave him.

Not when there was so little time to be had--and even fewer 'him's.'

The first house of the day was rife with children. They squealed, they screamed, they shouted their amusement. There was something special in playing to them, something noticeably lacking when the audience was composed mainly of adults. Magic was a given with children, not something to be derided, as was characteristic of their elders. Somehow, too, their acceptance made the magic more real for adults, less foreign.

As before, Bodie and Doyle's equestrian routine came to a close amidst a telling silence. Waiting for the audience's response from behind the red curtain, Doyle broke into a pleased smile as cheers and applause filled the canvas structure.

Giving Doyle's arm a thump, Bodie bent his head toward the side exit. They handed the horses over to Derek, who gave them both a congratulatory nod. As he led the animals away, down the corridor back to the stables, Bodie and Doyle went through the opening into brilliant daylight.

Lily was waiting for them in the dressing tent. While Bodie made a beeline for the changing screen, she asked Doyle, "What d'you think of the script, then?"

"'S bloody good. Don't know if we can carry it off, though. Pretty sturm und drang-ish, y'know."

"Really?" She looked alarmed. "I can rewrite it, if you want."

"No. That isn't what I want," Doyle assured her. "It's me I'm worried about." He poked a thumb in Bodie's direction. "He's got this entire routine revolving around this character I'm supposed to play."

"Don't listen to him, Lily. Once we put those spotlights on him, he'll perk up."

Doyle gave a snort of laughter. "Sure of that, are you?" To Lily, he said, "I've never done anything like this before. Wasn't hired on as an actor."

"He's afraid they'll laugh the place down," Bodie said unperturbed. "And he doesn't think we have enough time to get everything coordinated before Wednesday. He's wrong, of course."

"You see what I'm up against," Doyle complained.

"Ah, c'mon, Ray," Bodie said with weary entreaty from the other side of the dressing screen. "You were all for it at first."

"So, my clay toes are showing, okay?"

"If you think rewriting it will help, I really wouldn't mind," Lily insisted.

Doyle gave one of her petal-soft cheeks a caress with the edge of a forefinger. "You couldn't've done better--the writing is terrific."

"Just ignore him, Lily." Bodie stepped out from behind the screen carrying his cape. "You wrote exactly what I want. I'm even going to see to it that you get a credit on the playbill."

Slumping back in her seat with a heavy sigh, Lily muttered, "Mr. Gerry Cottle himself. I don't know who's worse, you or him."

Blue eyes widening with disbelief, Bodie proclaimed, "Don't be silly; he is, of course." With unthinking arrogance he handed the cape to Doyle and turned round, regally showing him his back.

Casting a long-suffering look Lily's way, Doyle spread the glittering fabric wide and laid the collar with precision round Bodie's shoulders. "Anything else I can do for you, m'lord?"

"There certainly is, my boy." Bodie's voice dropped to a stage whisper. "But I'd rather not have an audience for that, what?"


A little later, while Bodie was finishing up on the fixed trapeze, Doyle took advantage of the circus' preoccupation to finally go through the second equipment caravan. Unsurprised to find nothing that could not be explained to the appropriate authorities, he nevertheless made a thorough search. His investigation was not entirely wasted, as he came up with a piece of plywood that measured the very dimensions needed to fit perfectly over his sink--and which would have a greater longevity and resilience than the cardboard box he was presently using for Basil's springboard.

Pleased with his finding, he came out of the door and almost stumbled over one of the equipment movers who was racing up the steps. "Whatcha doing in 'ere?" the man demanded.

"Taking this," Doyle replied bluntly. "I don't think you'll miss it."

"You lot don't have any business in here." Tall, with a brawny physique to match his height, the other man eyed Doyle with some distaste. "Well, go on, now you've done with your pilfering; take it."


A few feet away, Doyle heard the man mutter, "Bloody poof."

Doyle froze mid-step. Then very slowly, he turned.

The other man stared challengingly down at him; the words had been spoken with intention.

This, the first encounter with malice based on his sexuality, left Doyle a little uncertain how to react. His immediate response was to plunge a fist down the other man's throat. On reconsideration, however, he concluded that that might prove a bit permanent for his heckler, not to mention painful to his knuckles. His next was to rip into the man with words of one syllable--just to be certain he completely understood Doyle's displeasure. In the end--his internal debate lasting no more than ten seconds--he realized the futility of striking back on the basis of such minimal provocation.

So, he said with a feral smile, "Ooh, lover! Big, strong lad like you-- don't reckon you'd be willing to say that down here?"

The man's eyes lit with unholy joy. "Wouldn't I just!"

He bounded off the steps, gauging Doyle's dearth of inches and slight carriage with smug confidence. Coming to a stop less than a foot away, he said sneeringly, "I said, you're a bloody poof. Not going to deny it, are you?"

"Not at all," Doyle assured him, throwing the piece of plywood a few feet away. Then he brought his left fist up and smashed it into the man's well-muscled abdomen, following the first blow with a right jab to the square jaw. Taken by surprise, the man yet proved himself a fighter and lunged at Doyle to forestall his attack. While Doyle would have liked to accommodate him, he knew he dare not soil the equestrian costume, and danced easily out of the other man's range, causing him to stumble.

Bloodlust glinted in blue eyes as his attacker regained his balance, a warning to Doyle that he would have to end the fray soon, or face Simon's--and Lily's--wrath. He fell back a step and kicked out as the man bulled toward him once more, the toe of his boot catching the other beneath the chin, felling him instantly.

As soon as the other had crumpled to the ground, Doyle crouched down beside him to check that no permanent damage had been done. But the man was already stirring, disoriented eyes slowly taking in his surroundings and his own ignominious placement.

"'Ow'd you do that?" he groaned.

"Me mum taught me. Look, I'm sorry," Doyle muttered, genuinely ashamed to have let his temper get the better of him. Still, he was not quite ready to let the other off the hook. "But you really shouldn't've said that, y'know?"

"You said it was true."

"Doesn't mean it's polite, mate. Any more than me calling you a big fucker, eh? Even though that's probably true, too, isn't it?"

Gingerly probing at his jaw, the man said blankly, "Yeah, 'course it is."

"There you go, then." Giving his opponent a dark look, Doyle said, "You wouldn't want a hand up, would you?"

Eyeing Doyle with equal suspicion, the man said with reluctance, "Not if you intend to thump me again."

"Don't need to, do I?" Doyle said reasonably.


Doyle thrust out his hand. When the other man accepted it, he pulled him upright, then waited until he had got his feet under him. "You might want to see Derek about that lip. You're bleeding."

"Derek takes care of the horses."

"I know. But he might be willing to have a look at you, as well." Brushing off his hands, Doyle retrieved his piece of plywood. "Thanks for the bit of wood, mate."

Hannah stood outside the side exit where the dressing tent connected with the Big Tent. Inhaling deeply from a cigarette, she offered Doyle a crooked smile. "What was that all about?"

"He called me a poof."

"Oh. Bodie would've put the boot in for good measure, in that case."

"Then Bodie must be less forgiving than I am," Doyle said wryly. "How's the show going?"

"Wonderfully. But I couldn't stand it anymore and had to come out for a puff. Not that I'm needed for anything when they're in the ring; the others, Aidan and Falstaff and Zoe, put them through their paces just fine--or Riley, when it's his turn." She pointed toward the square of plywood with the glowing tip of her cigarette. "What're you going to do with that?"

"It's for Basil. So she can jump in and out of the kitchen window when I'm not around."

"It's quite amazing the way she's latched onto you, y'know." Hannah shook her head; dark hair swung down across her face. Pushing it back behind her ears, she asked, "Have you tried out the rope trick on her yet?"

"Rope tr--? Oh, you mean getting her to untie me? Nah, haven't had a chance, have I?"

"I will be very interested to hear how she does. May just have to bring you to a few practice sessions, so I can have my dog back."

Faintly stricken, Doyle said, "I'm not forcing her to stay, y'know. As you say, she--"

"Not to worry. It's true she wouldn't perform properly for me before. But it would be nice if we could convince her to work in the ring. Earn her keep."

"Maybe it's stage fright," Doyle proposed whimsically.

"Don't smile; it's not unheard of."

"Really? Oops--sounds like they're getting close to the parade."

Hannah cocked her head toward the Big Tent. "Yes, you're right. Off with you, then. And Ray--"

Poised half in the entry leading to the corridor, he paused. "Yeah?"

"That was a very impressive display of fighting back there."

Doyle summoned a weak grin. "Been around." He winked. "I'll let you know about Basil, okay?" With that he disappeared into the corridor, where he was almost run over by the young web spinners who were hurrying into position.

Bodie, dressed once more in his Regency costume, and mounted on Piper's back, gave Doyle a curious look as he passed the piece of wood to Derek for safekeeping before taking hold of Tuppence's reins. "Thought you were going to miss the finale again. What happened to your hand?"

For the first time, Doyle noticed that his knuckles were bleeding. "Must've scraped it on something. Hello, Tuppence, old girl. You ready for the parade?"

The horse whickered softly as Doyle lightly scratched behind her ears.

"I'm afraid to ask," Bodie said.

"Then, don't."


A two-hour respite followed the closing of the first performance. While Bodie skulked off on his own pursuits, Doyle opted to spend his time with Derek in the stables, preparing the horses for the next show. Restoring sweaty equine coats to their usual luster was a singularly mindless task. And after his set-to with the man outside the equipment caravan, Doyle needed some time alone with his thoughts. Derek welcomed the assistance, asked no questions, and left him to it.

Picking out bits of tanbark from Mickey's left forefoot, Doyle suffered a growing sense of uneasiness as he contemplated the ridiculous little fray. Not that he regretted what he had done; more, actually the way he had done it. Hannah had noticed his unusual skill in bringing the big man down--and it was not a skill to be broadcast, even for an acrobat.

Had it angered him so much to be labelled a homosexual that he had forgotten his cover? To some extent, certainly; after all, that was the name he had denied for more years than he cared to count. Conversely, he had embraced it as his own, now: Would he fight everyone who dared speak it? Or would he learn to ignore them, as he had learned to ignore far worse--and in many ways more appropriate--pejoratives?

While taking the man down a peg or two had been completely warranted as far as Doyle--or any gay--was concerned, that showy bit of self-defense had been uncalled for, employed for expedience rather than absolute need. He had not wanted to get his costume dirty--what sort of excuse would that be, if he had to defend his actions to Cowley?

Squirming inwardly, Doyle resolved to encourage the next would-be bully he encountered to push his face in the sand. Seven-stone weakling, that's me, he thought gloomily, and startled rather badly when a familiar voice announced, "So that's where you've got to!"

"Shh, 's all right, Mickey," Doyle murmured, as the horse flinched away. To Bodie, he hissed, "You trying to get me trod on in here?"

"I couldn't've picked a better nag, if I were."


"Mickey. He tried to take a chunk out of Taffy during the liberty routine. How's the hand?"



Giving Bodie an old-fashioned look, Doyle raised his fingers, splayed wide, for inspection.

"You'll live. Someone's jaw will look worse, you'll be pleased to know."

Returning to his task, Doyle muttered, "Hannah told you?"



Bodie grinned maliciously. "The bloke you roughed up."

"He started it."

This statement was met with a low rumble of laughter. "By calling you a poof?"

Grateful for the horse's wide flanks, which hid the wash of red warming his face, Doyle growled, "Yes."

"He calls everybody a poofter, Doyle--all the performers, that is. Doesn't mean anything by it."

Doyle slowly stuck his head round, eyes wide and incredulous. "You're not saying I overreacted?"

"Don't need to say it."

"Ta a bunch, mate. I expect this Tom of yours has gone crying to Sergei as well?"

"Nah--Tom wouldn't do that."

Lowering Mickey's hoof to the straw, Doyle said archly, "He told you, didn't he?"

"Only because I asked him whose door he'd run into. Gave him a hell of a lump, sunshine."

"Yeah, well, I apologized, didn't I?"

Almost repressing a smile at this ungracious statement, Bodie remarked, "Very sportsmanlike of you. And here's him painting you as the villain of the piece."


"Said he caught you nosing about the equipment caravan."

"Nobody told me it was out of bounds," Doyle countered belligerently. He dropped the hoof pick in the grooming kit, unclipped the leadshank from Mickey's halter to release his head, and eased himself alongside the still skittish horse to the front of the stall.

"He didn't know who you were; could've been anybody."

With a scornful chortle, Doyle said, "Oh, I see. And just how many thieves roaming around in full Regency get-up d'you know?"

"That's not the point. It was the roaming round the equipment caravan that made Tom nervous," Bodie stated practically.

"Look, if you don't want me going in there, just say. And while you're at it, make sure you give me a list of everywhere else I'm not to go!" Doyle pushed past his partner, pulling the stall gate to behind him.

"No restrictions, Ray," Bodie said mildly. "Why should there be?"

"You tell me. Derek, I'm off," he called out, knowing the other man was in one of the adjoining stalls. A hand rose above the partition separating Jake from Flip. Not bothering to see if Bodie followed, Doyle took the grooming kit into the tackroom, stored it in its place, and wheeled round to leave. Halfway through the door, he remembered the plywood square and went back to retrieve it from the table.

"You can tell Sergei to deduct this from my wages."

Bodie arched a quizzical brow at the innocuous-looking object. "Tom did say you took a piece of wood; he thought it was bloody suspicious."

"It is," Doyle said tightly. "I'm going to make a bomb out of it, and blow up the whole sodding circus." Scowling blackly, he made to swing past the other man, but was brought up by a vice-like hand on his upper arm.

"You're beautiful when you're narked," Bodie proclaimed softly, as though discovering a new universal axiom. Foresightedly pinning Doyle's arms to his sides, he stepped close and kissed Doyle full on the mouth.

Remaining very still, Doyle made it clear by his lack of response that he was only tolerating Bodie's advances, no more.

Slowly Bodie drew back, heavy lids revealing smoky blue eyes. "Gonna use that blinding footwork on me now?"

The breath caught in Doyle's throat--more from the look on Bodie's face than the provocative words. "Bastard," he breathed. Deftly driving a leg between Bodie's thighs, Doyle hooked an ankle round one of Bodie's knees and jerked it forward, forcing him to stumble. Before Bodie could recover, Doyle was on him, shoving the heavier and taller man hard against one of the tackroom support poles, eliciting an ominous creaking sound throughout the structure. Chucking the piece of plywood to the trampled grass floor, Doyle took Bodie's head between both of his hands, and brutally brought their mouths together.

Bodie's cooperation was instantaneous and whole-hearted. A moan formed in his throat, but Doyle's demanding kiss allowed it no outlet. For long minutes they stood there, struggling to get impossibly nearer.

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Trapped and feeling the discomfort of his position, Bodie finally wrenched his head free. "Jesus, Ray! Slow it down, will you?" He gasped aloud as Doyle gave his throat a sucking, biting kiss. "Ray." His voice cracked. "Ray, not here, for Christ's sake!"

Recalling himself to their whereabouts with something of a shock, Doyle released Bodie at once, but his eyes were abstracted, a soft, hazy shade of jade. "Sorry," he muttered. Taking a deep breath, he dropped his gaze to Bodie's mouth, glancing up sharply when the puckish lips formed a smile.

"Better be careful what I ask for, eh?"


"Not complaining, no. Impatient, more like."

Doyle bent forward and contritely nuzzled his mouth against Bodie's. "Expect we ought to be getting ready for the next house."

"Expect we ought."

"Oh, don't stop now!" Simon's voice carried plaintively across the small enclosure. "You two are more inspiring than the bluest video I've ever seen--even if you are about to bring the place down."

Peering round Doyle's shaggy head, Bodie asked dangerously, "How long have you been there?" He twisted a glance up at the pole behind him; as usual, Simon was exaggerating.

"Not nearly long enough by the look of things," Simon sighed. Dressed in flaring skirts and flowing blonde wig, his face expertly rouged and mascaraed, he looked every inch the fair damsel. Only his voice, a pleasantly modulated tenor, struck a discordant note--for a woman. "Do feel free to continue," he implored.

Doyle punctiliously withdrew from Bodie's arms. "Seem a bit inhibiting in here to you, mate?"

Agreeing with a prim nod, Bodie commented, "Show's over for the day, Si."

Picking up the cast-off square of wood, Doyle straightened to find Derek, his face split in a huge grin, lurking in the stall opposite the tackroom. "Not you, too!"

Derek winked, his knowing eyes plunging straight to Doyle's groin.

"Bloody hell," Doyle groaned. "Is there no respect in this place?"

From the stall at the end of the stable, Piper gave a noisy blow.

Bodie shook his head. "There's your answer, sunshine: straight from the horse's mouth."

By the end of the day, Doyle wondered if somehow he had got stuck on an emotional roller-coaster. After the morning's depression he had managed to re-establish a moderately normal state of mind, only to soar wildly in triumph after avenging his pride over Tom's petty insult. Bringing himself down to earth once more, his equable mood had then been shattered thanks to a bout of mindless lust in the stables with Bodie. Overcoming that diverting madness so that his performance in the ring would display some credibility, Doyle had then impossibly got sucked into their silly tale of wrenching, equestrian woe, and in the midst of acting it out had plummeted to gripping doubt as to what his next logical step concerning Bodie should be.

It plagued him to think that going to bed with Bodie had to be more than something he very much wanted to do--it was also an integral part of his job. After the passion, there would be questions: What can you tell me about Sergei? Have you ever known him to be involved in treasonous activities? Why did Rose run away? Not so bluntly worded, of course, but wheedled and coaxed out of the other man by whatever means of persuasion Doyle could bring to bear. And then he must report to Cowley, who would know where and how Doyle had elicited this privileged information--Cowley, who didn't give a tinker's cuss about anything so muddlesome as a man's emotions.

Sending him here had been a mistake on Cowley's part. The circus was as far removed from the mundane reality of life as the stars and the moon. And Doyle was falling deeper under its sway with every minute he remained. Or, in truth, had he ever actually been free of it, but rather simply managed to keep it at bay all this time?

Ten years ago, Doyle had thought the circus would be his future. That notion had been scattered to the winds along with Keith's ashes. Yet Doyle's first day under the Big Tent of Circus Sergei had reminded him of what he had abandoned all those years ago: The freedom, the camaraderie, the comfortable distance extended to everyone by everyone. In the circus, a man could be himself--or, in fact, anyone he wished.

Their lives were governed by a different set of rules. Here, Doyle's only objective was to please a public well-primed to be satisfied. Here, no one was likely to shoot him and leave him for dead in a puddle of souring milk and congealing blood--a scenario that, despite having been endured, visited him occasionally in unfriendly dreams. And here, for the first time in far too long, he could put that ever-vigilant, duty- bound homunculus that resided in his brain to rest, and be truly, all the way to the core of him, at ease.

After the parade, Doyle took Tuppence into the stables himself, absorbedly cloaked in unpleasant thoughts. Gallingly, it had not escaped him that his feelings would not be so turbulent were he required to seduce someone other than Bodie.

How to explain the rapport he had established with this man--and the uncommon affection and affinity that had formed so easily between them? Was such a rare bond to be callously dismissed for the sake of HMG's selfish interests?

As far as Cowley was concerned, no bond, however rare, could justify the contravention of his purpose. And just as certainly--if he knew the truth of the matter--Cowley would condemn Doyle for having put off the moment too long as it was. Never, ever, must Doyle forget why he was here. After all, he had experienced disillusion in trusting eyes before; could that unique shade of blue make his betrayal any less tolerable?

But, Doyle decided, it would not take place tonight--no matter what Cowley might say.

Bringing Piper alongside, Bodie laid a hand on Doyle's shoulder.

"You look like you could use a beer, Ray," Bodie said as he guided Tuppence into her stable. He pulled the rope-gate to.

"Ah-- No. Not tonight, thanks." Doyle shrugged, pretending not to see the flicker of dismay in Bodie's face. "Knackered, mate."

"Oh. Okay. Well, I'm away, then. See you tomorrow, eh?"

"Yeah. G'night, Bodie." As Bodie's footsteps thudded dully out into the corridor, a hint of movement caught Doyle's eye. Derek, hanging up one of the gaudily decorated saddles a few feet away, stood looking on, a vague frown heavy on his brow.

Doyle nodded at him--a parting salutation--and with a last pat on Tuppence's withers, strode out. A beer with Bodie would have led to bed with Bodie, and Doyle simply could not face that--and all it entailed-- just yet.

"You'd better hurry, if you're going to catch Bodie up," Simon announced, meeting Doyle in the corridor which led outside. "Although, maybe you'd be safer to wait a bit: He looked in a beastly mood."

"Thanks for the warning, Si. You were great tonight, y'know?"

"Was I?"

"You know you were." Doyle dredged up a cocky smile. "I think Derek's waiting for you."

Simon's smile beamed through his heavy make-up. "Ever since we interrupted you and Bodie--well, I've seen that gleam before."

"And it's good for keeping the legs limber," Doyle reminded him, suffering a pang under his heart as he wondered where Bodie would sleep this night. After all, Bodie had only said he would wait for Doyle to make up his mind--which Doyle had taken to mean Bodie would not force his attentions on him before he was ready. Undoubtedly, however, there were others who would count Bodie's amorous regard most welcome.

In the event, Doyle spent the remainder of the evening dining and drinking alone. At midnight, well in his cups and at the very nadir of the day's roller-coaster ride, he sought distraction by putting Basil through her paces. The dog responded willingly, her eyes swift to anticipate Doyle's every move. But she performed too well, racing through her limited repertoire before Doyle was quite ready to be done.

Intent on fending off the night, and despite the late hour and his abysmal state of mind, he remembered that he had yet to try out what Hannah had called the "rope trick." After using a curtain tie-back to loosely bind his wrists together--a feat not easily accomplished, even with the use of facile teeth--Doyle sat with arms extended in front of him and valiantly attempted to raise his left eyebrow--which at first seemed less than inclined to cooperate. Oddly, however, his somewhat impaired motor functions soon supplied a flexibility of movement usually lacking--although by then, Basil had already comprehended what he wanted of her.

She tore into his bonds with alacrity, worrying at the knots like a ferret at a rat. Doyle gave a soft grunt when she scraped his wrist--but only the first time her teeth connected. Far quicker than he would have expected, the dog had freed him--leaving both the curtain tie-back and Doyle's wrists bearing the evidence of her diligence.

"You are incredible, Bas--no matter what anyone else says," he informed her thickly.

The dog leapt onto Doyle's chest and affectionately lashed his face with a warm, smooth tongue. Protected from her exuberant attentions by the thick growth of beard, Doyle sank back onto the bed and let the heaviness of his eyelids carry them down, like a velvet curtain, bringing longed-for darkness. His last thought, as Basil curled up in the crook of his left armpit with her nose stretched out along his collarbone, was that he should take off his shirt and jeans. Go into the bathroom and wash up. Brush his teeth. Comb his hair. In his mind, he did all of these irritating but important bedtime chores--but only in his mind.

For by then he was asleep.



A scrape of sound scratched at the far boundaries of Doyle's consciousness. His slumbering mind translated it as a foot treading on gravel. Outside; several yards away.

Basil growled, the percolating rumble coming up from the depths of her chest. As she had not changed position throughout the night, her warning vibrated against Doyle's breastbone in the space under his chin, filling his ears with numbing alarm.

The door of the caravan swung open.

Sitting bolt upright, Doyle lunged for his gun, recalling belatedly and rather stupidly that it remained in London. Overbalanced by his sudden action, Basil tumbled to the floor with a squeak. At once she was on her feet and charging the intruder with yipping barks that cut shrill and high through the otherwise dark stillness.

"Only me, Basil."

The light came on in the kitchen. Blinded and trembling from an upsurge of adrenalin, Doyle yet recognized the voice. In place of relief came anger, a huge, flame-spurting ball of it, filling his chest and head, and erupting from his throat in a fierce snarl, "What the fuck--!"

"Up and at 'em, Ray." Impervious to Doyle's pop-eyed outrage, Bodie sat beside him on the edge of the mattress, one hand lowered to stroke Basil's head.

"It's the middle of the fucking ni--"

"Five in the morning, mate--and we've got a lot to do." Blue eyes, wide awake and penetrating, insolently took in Doyle's disheveled condition. "Nice pajamas." He bent over and removed the empty wine bottle from the floor, expressionlessly studying the label. "A shower first, I think. Reckon you can manage?"

"Bodie, I don't need your--"

"Like that, is it?" Bodie slapped the tapering Burgundy bottle down on the cupboard beside the bed, staring hard at Doyle. Catching a handful of thick hair at the back of Doyle's head, Bodie kissed him roughly, only once and without lingering. "I'll start the coffee."

Reeling from his too-abrupt awakening, Doyle blankly watched the other man stroll into the kitchen, Basil trotting at his side.

"Make it tea," he called hoarsely.

"Tea it is."

Staggering just a little, Doyle hoisted himself out of the bed, unpleasantly aware of his creased and rumpled clothing. He made his way to the bathroom, prying open the clasp at his waistband as he went. The buttons on his shirt were already undone, but it took him a moment to extricate his arms from seemingly tenacious folds. After that, the jeans almost defeated him, for his legs had somehow grown far too long for his uncoordinated hands to reach his feet.

"Here, hold on to me."

Doyle threw out an arm in immediate rejection, adding a menacing glower for effect.

Folding his forearms across his chest, Bodie planted himself in the narrow doorway to the lilliputian bathroom. "The kettle's on," he explained, when Doyle opened his mouth to snap. "Get on with it, Doyle!"

"Bit early, isn't it?" Doyle demanded caustically. He stripped off his underwear and stepped up to the shower-cum-bath stall, great goose- pimples layering the surface of his skin from head to toe as the frigid morning air laid icy fingers upon sleep-warmed flesh.

"A bit," Bodie agreed tranquilly. "But I've lined up some help for the morning work-out."

Letting the water run just long enough to feel its heat, Doyle slid through the gap between the stall and the shower curtain. Rubbing his hands over his chest to spread the moisture quickly, he turned his face full into the blast. Gasping for breath a few seconds later, he asked, "What sort of help?"

"Des has agreed to meet us in the ring at half past six. He'll man the web to pull you off the net."

Doyle stuck his head--hair flattened to his skull, huge globules of water dripping off nose and beard--around the edge of the curtain. "It's only gone five now."

"Which will give us plenty of time for a run and a good, stiff work- out."

"Gosh," Doyle declared sarcastically, "why didn't I think of that?"

"No imagination, that's your problem. There's the kettle. Hurry up, Doyle."

Curiously, the room seemed empty without Bodie's presence, however annoying and unwelcome at the moment. But as Doyle sluiced soapy water off his shoulders, back, and chest, he felt a warm glow begin to spread under his ribs. Jolted by Bodie's galvanic spirits, he was completely awake now, and quite suddenly, looking forward to the day with mingled apprehension and stomach-clutching anticipation. Tonight, if he did not lose his nerve, he would take Bodie to his bed--and worry about Cowley later.

In the kitchen, the subject of his ruminations waited with fresh tea and a slab of thickly buttered bread. "No wonder it's cold in here," he greeted Doyle. "You left the window open over the sink."

"Did I? No, leave it; can't hurt to have it open now. Bit musty." Having provided amusement enough for Bodie this morning, Doyle chose not to explain the reason for this apparent lapse. Instead, he pointed down at Basil, while stuffing a corner of bread into his mouth. "Have you fed her?"

"Of course. By the way, it's rude to talk with your mouth full. Expect you want me to let her out now?"

Doyle nodded, occupying himself with a slurp of scalding tea and another cheek-popping bite.

"C'mon, then, Bas, you old reprobate. Out with you."

The wind died down in the hushed moments between night and the tentative glow of dawn, offering the runners a little respite from the biting cold. Doyle had taken pains to dry his hair thoroughly, but wore his fleecy hood over the dampness that remained--even before Bodie could suggest it.

They jogged in companionable silence until a mile lay between them and the circus compound. Basil trailed erratically behind, easily seduced into examining the softest twitter or hint of movement at the sides of the road.

"How's the shoulder doing, then?" Doyle asked.

"You asked me that last night when we were waiting for the second set." Bodie gazed out over the rolling hills that undulated like a great, slumbering beast for miles in all directions.

"Did I?" Doyle pondered this reflectively for a while. He had been so engrossed in his own concerns yesterday, nothing of real importance had broken through. "So what did you tell me? I watched your performance; went without a hiccup as I recall."

A lazy grin stretched across Bodie's mouth. "It's fine, Ray. Like I told you, the massage did the trick."

Glancing sideways, Doyle murmured, "Maybe you can return the favor sometime."

"Be happy to. Just say when."


Bodie shot him a probing look. "Yeah. Sure. Love to."

Smiling with uncomplicated pleasure, Doyle turned his attention back toward the road. He could feel Bodie's stare upon him like a tangible weight; hot and intensely focussed, a burning-glass would have been less searing.

Entering the Big Tent an hour later, they used the next half hour to continue their calisthenics on a mat stretched across the sawdust floor. Every muscle was put to a grueling test, every tendon and joint loosened up until both men were as limber as hot wax. Lying flat on his back to catch his breath, Doyle bent his knees to his chest and stretched them out again.

Standing over him, Bodie threw his towel to the side and took hold of Doyle's calves. "Try this," he said, folding Doyle's legs back down until they formed a platform. Bare to the waist, Bodie bent forward and rested his chest on Doyle's knees, while lowering his hands to the mat on either side of Doyle's shoulders. Pushing off lightly, Bodie raised first one leg, then the other high into the air above his head, until he was vertically poised in a modified handstand. His chest remained propped against Doyle's legs, Doyle having altered their angle to accommodate Bodie's movement.

"Okay?" Bodie asked softly.


They stared into each other's faces, bodies unmoving save for the unhurried ebb and flow of respiration. Very slowly, Doyle began to part his legs, using well-developed thigh muscles to keep Bodie from falling through precipitately. Bodie carefully lowered his left leg until his knee met the padded mat between Doyle's legs. The other followed soon after, leaving Bodie crouched over Doyle's supine figure.

"Someone might see us," Doyle whispered.

"Yes." Lowering his hips and torso until their bodies made contact from groin to chest, Bodie brought his head down, lips parted--and kissed the tip of Doyle's nose. In the next instant, he was up on his feet, grasping Doyle's hands in both of his and hauling him unceremoniously upright.

"C'mon, you. Time to check the rigging."

Shifting from hormone-churning sexual promise to sweaty arbeit ber alles with uncomfortable swiftness, Doyle was slow to follow in Bodie's wake.

"Who put the net up?" he wondered inconsequentially, hoping to hide his pique at having surrendered so speedily to Bodie's charm. He chose, unlike Bodie who caught hold of a dangling web, the comparatively sedate rope ladder as his means of ascending to the upper cables.

"Had the lads do it last night before they called it quits," Bodie replied, swarming energetically upward. "Spent a bit of time with Des, showing him what I wanted. He'll do a good job by you, Ray. A reliable lad, is Des."

"Is he the big guy, taller than you, bald as a cue-ball?"

"No, that's Jeremy. Des is the other one."

"Oh, great." Doyle pictured Jeremy's constant companion without difficulty; short, stocky, and grey-haired, he did not inspire confidence. "You wouldn't be wanting to talk me out of this altogether, would you?"

"Des can do it. Trust me, Ray."

Squirming into position on a dense cable from which several thinner guys radiated, Doyle muttered loudly, "First thing I learned when I was but a wee lad, was never to trust anyone who says, 'Trust me.'"


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To Doyle's happy surprise, Des, low of stature and unprepossessing though he was, proved to have the strength of ten men--or at least two and half. They ran through the part of the routine in which the young hero, mortally wounded, plunges to the earth and must be returned to the domain of the gods. The earth, of course, would be imaginatively played by the net; Doyle's transport to the upper realms would be provided by the prosaic web, wielded by Des. Returned to his trapeze amidst a great stroboscopic display of lights, Doyle would then rouse, no longer the callow youth, but a hero rewarded by the gods for his deeds of valor and selflessness.

The lights and accompanying narrative would be added later; at the moment, the three men bent their minds to establishing the overall timing, which would be crucial to sustaining the delicate mood of tragedy and suspense they hoped to create.

After an hour of repeatedly tumbling into the net, Doyle was beginning to lose his resilience; the ropes, more treacherous than they appeared to the casual onlooker, could abrade the skin off a rhino, given enough time.

Flat on his back, Doyle saw the web dangle in front of his eyes once more. Taking a huge breath, he raised his hand to guide it onto his arm--

"That's enough, Ray. We're done for the morning." Bodie waited until Doyle slowly and tellingly uncurled off the edge of the net and came to stand on the sawdust floor, before diving off the trapeze where he had coordinated all the action, onto the ropes in Doyle's wake.

"Des, d'you want some tea?" Bodie asked, landing on the tips of his toes beside Doyle, who was brushing his fingers gingerly over a raw patch on his left elbow.

"Nah. Thanks, Bodie. Promised to help Jem pick up some supplies in town. Tomorrow, right?"

"Right. See you first thing."

Des waved and turned to go.

Before the man could strike off across the ring toward the main aisle, however, Doyle called out to him. "Thank you," he said simply. "You took excellent care of me."

The sudden glint in the older man's eyes revealed his surprise at Doyle's remark. "Cheers, lad."

Peering over Doyle's shoulder, Bodie commented, "Bit of a rope-burn there, eh?"

"A bit." Doyle stiffened when Bodie snaked a hand round his waist and caught hold of his wrist. Patiently tolerant, he waited while Bodie rolled it over, taking in the claw and teeth marks laid there by Basil.

"What's this, then?"

"Basil." Doyle pulled away as Aidan and Zoe appeared at the main entry. "Trying out a new trick with her."

"And you're going to tell me she succeeded beyond your wildest expectations, right?"

Drawing a face at Bodie's unsubtle sarcasm, he said tartly, "That's right." He wiped his forehead off with the back of a hand. Collecting the sweatshirt off the bench where it had been dumped, he thrust his arms into the sleeves. Careful not to snag the collar on the earring glittering in his left ear, Doyle dragged the shirt over his head.

"So, go on--out with it," Bodie said. "What's this new trick?"

"The same one you've seen Reggie do with Aidan and Falstaff."

Bodie's face went blank. "Aidan and Fal--?" He came to a halt, looking perplexed. "Wait--you don't mean the bit where he bites the ropes off their hands?"

"Believe it or not, yes."

Bodie's expression turned calculating. "How long did it take her?"

"Why d'you want to know?"

"Just tell me. How long?"

"What's going on in that twisty little brain of yours, Bodie?" Doyle asked suspiciously.

"C'mon, Ray!"

"A couple of minutes--no more." A laugh bubbled up from Doyle's chest. "You're never thinking of adding her to the act? Let's see: When the hero is injured, he doesn't die right away, but ends up bound and gagged and hanging by his heels from the trapeze. Intrepid Basil soars to the rescue. We'll have to talk to Lily about the costume--and rewriting the script! And then--"

"Shut up, Doyle," Bodie said. "You do natter on."

"So what'd you have in mind?"

"A bet."

It was Doyle's turn look askance. "As in money? Yeah, all right, that's obvious. But who with?"

"Hannah. She couldn't get Basil to do any of her gags right; we could set her up--"

"Set me up for what?"

Doyle grinned unrepentantly, only then disclosing that he had been aware of Hannah's approach for some time.

"You bastard!" Bodie gave Doyle a blow to the belly that would have been painful had it been delivered with only a little more force.

"Bodie was plotting." Doyle held out his wrists for Hannah's inspection. "Basil can do the rope trick."

Startled into a smile, Hannah shook her head at the lurid scratches and tiny tooth indentations marring Doyle's thinly haired forearms. "Fancy her doing that for you. Wouldn't think she'd remember how, it's been so long."

"You mean, she's done it before?" Doyle's voice gave away his disappointment.

"Yes, indeed. In fact, that's why Falstaff despises her; she tore a bloody great hole in his wrist the one time we tried her out. Could never get her to do it again--even with someone else." She studied Doyle's wounds measuringly, "Falstaff was always convinced she savaged him intentionally--that's why he detests her so."

"Ah. I seem to recall you saying something about that."

With the towel slung round his neck, Bodie stood lowering impartially at them. "You set me up, sunshine. And us being partners and all."

"Excuse me, gentlemen." Hannah stepped prudently past them. "It's time I fetched my charges."

"We'll come with you," Doyle offered. "Heading that way ourselves."

"Are we?" Bodie said doubtfully.

Doyle jabbed him in the ribs; Bodie's skin was cool and damp. "Put your shirt on, muscle-man, before you take chill. And, yes, I heard someone mention tea. Besides, I want to see how Sanjay's getting on."

"You and that bloody tiger. Maybe he died during the night."

Clucking his tongue reprovingly, Doyle remarked, "Sore loser."

They caught Simon and Derek at morning tea, and managed, without too much grovelling, to cadge toast and jam out of them. Simon had an air of almost cat-like repletion about him, which earned him pointed looks and sly asides until he demanded that Derek put an end to them. In reply, Derek gave his lover a long, deeply affectionate kiss and gestured at Doyle to join him in the cat enclosure.

As Doyle stood up to follow, Bodie immediately began to ask Simon's opinion regarding the sequencing of lights to be used in their new aerial routine. Marvelling at the way Bodie could insinuate himself into anyone's good graces, Doyle gave Bodie a gentle thump on the shoulder and made for the corridor. Once past the dividing curtains, he could smell Sanjay's cage well before it was within sight. Derek had already begun raking soiled straw and solid matter into a pile before Doyle entered the cage. Sanjay lay on his side, not only awake, but very alert, his long tail lashing up and down.

Keeping his back to the bars at all times, Derek handed Doyle the rake and set about shovelling the pile into the bucket kept handy for this purpose. Taking up where Derek had left off, Doyle gradually worked his way round the entire cage. Never did he let the tiger out of his sight for more than a second. Sanjay was hatching something; Doyle hoped that neither he nor Derek figured in his plot, whatever it was.

Coming to some conclusion, Sanjay relaxed and set about cleaning his whiskers and paws. Entranced, Doyle watched, following the progress of the wide, dexterous tongue as it scraped at the pads of the animal's right forefoot. Yellow eyes blinked shut as the great paw swept up and over the head, and dragged forward from behind the perfectly shaped ears. Then the tongue appeared again, licking the paw clean.

The soft chink of the cage door fitting inside its frame drew Doyle's attention for only a second; he knew it was Derek taking the bucket out for emptying. Otherwise it was very quiet in the tiger's enclosure, the grate of the rake's teeth rhythmically scoring the earthen floor, and the lazy lap-lap-lap of Sanjay's tongue the only other noises to be heard.

The tiger rolled onto its feet, an all-in-one motion that took the breath out of Doyle's lungs. After the briefest of hesitations, he carried on what he was doing, but his entire being was now concentrated on the cat and its next move.

In fact, its next move was to stretch long and languidly, splayed paws revealing the dark, hard tips of barely sheathed claws. A low staccato growl emanated from the animal's yawning mouth as it came completely upright, ears cocked forward, eyes fixed on Doyle.

"Hang in there a bit longer, mate," Doyle said assuringly. "We'll be out of your hair before you know it."

Sanjay's muzzle twitched, as though struck by a previously unencountered scent. Lifting his head, he pushed off from his corner of the cage and headed toward Doyle.

With the rake gripped tightly in his hands, Doyle braced himself for the animal's approach.

"What're you up to, eh?" Doyle whispered, as the cat came to stand directly in front of him. Close up, Sanjay was impossibly huge, his head almost as broad as Doyle's torso. The muzzle bobbed up again, the smooth nose pad wrinkling slightly as the cat absorbed Doyle's presence. His hindquarters dropped onto the freshly cleaned ground, and sitting now, he stared up at Doyle's face.

Uncertain what to do, Doyle acted on instinct. Sanjay seemed to desire a bit of personal attention. And whatever Sanjay wanted--short of an arm or a leg--Doyle thought it best to give him. So he extended his hand cautiously, on the lookout for the slightest hint of aggression. When none was forthcoming, he continued the movement toward the cat's head until his fingers came in contact with short, surprisingly soft fur. At that, Sanjay butted his head against Doyle's fingers, pleading a more stimulating touch. Breathing a little raggedly, Doyle was prompt to comply, searching behind the cat's ears, then down his neck to the especially sensitive spot beneath the chin.

Sanjay began to purr. The noise, loud and rather machine-like, almost scared the life out of Doyle. A second later, realizing what the cat was doing, he remembered to breathe again.

"Bloody hell, Sanjay," Doyle gulped. "Warn me next time, will you?"

The contented rumbling increased in intensity, until Doyle could actually feel the vibration of it through his hip. Commanded entirely by the cat's presence, Doyle hardly heard the ring of metal against metal as the cage door came open behind him.

Seemingly unconcerned, Derek entered bearing fresh straw. He cast Doyle a quick, questioning look, and waited until Doyle answered with a stalwart nod of the head. Satisfied, Derek proceeded to cover the cage floor, save for the small area where tiger and man stood, until the zesty odor of straw had largely obscured the tiger's musky signature.

After that, he came over to Doyle's side and interposed himself between Doyle and the cat, gently but firmly making the animal accept his touch instead. Sanjay made no complaint, although the yellow eyes opened speculatively when Doyle took a step away.

"You're a beautiful, great fellow, aren't you?" Doyle murmured. He was torn. He wanted to stay, honored that the cat found his company worth having, yet more than a little shaken by the tiger's obvious affection. A jerk of the head toward the cage door cinched his resolve; Derek wanted him to clear off, at least for now, and Derek most certainly knew best. Yet he hesitated, recalled to himself by the sight of Sanjay's medication on the overturned tub outside the door.

"Don't worry, Ray," Bodie said evenly from the shadows where the enclosure gave way to the corridor adjoining the stables. "I'll give him a hand with it this time."

"You're sure? I don't mind, really."

Bodie laughed under his breath as Doyle stepped out. He took hold of one thin wrist and lifted it into the air. "You're shaking, sunshine."

Glaring amiably, Doyle said, "Didn't expect that, did I? I know how to deal with 'em when they act like they're supposed to."

"You'll get used to it. Dogs and tigers--what is it with you, Doyle?"

"Natural charm," Doyle shot back wryly. "Look, I'm going to find somewhere I can faint without shattering my street credibility. You want anything from the shops?"

"You going into town?"

"Yeah, after a shower to keep from offending the townfolk. Hoped to put it off till Monday--the trip, not the shower, you berk--but I don't think the larder will hold up till then."

The taunt stolen from his lips, Bodie grinned superciliously. "Wasn't going to say anything. A couple of Flakes will do. You'll be back by noon?"

"Of course. It's only--" he consulted his watch "--half past eight now. I'll stop at the launderette first, then Sainsbury's. Sure that's all you want?"

"Ta, mate. You go on, then."

Doyle flexed his fingers, remembering the sensation of them buried in white and burnt orange fur up to his knuckles. Glancing at Bodie, he said with a fey smile, "Anything in particular you'd like for dinner tonight?"

Dark blue eyes flickered thoughtfully. "Surprise me."

"I'll do that."

With the cat's loud, breathy purr echoing in his ears, Doyle strode off into the corridor.

It was just after eleven when Doyle drove back into the caravan site. Zipped protectively in his jacket, tongue lolling out of her mouth in simple-minded happiness, Basil barked once to announce their arrival as the bike came to a stop. After freeing the dog, Doyle unstrapped the bulging rucksack from the saddle, along with two plastic carry bags stuffed full with assorted tins and packets.

His foray into town had been most productive. From the launderette, he had proceeded a few streets away to the grocery. There, following the completion of his purchases, he had stopped at a call-box long enough to ring Cowley. Once more he had been required to leave his report with the recorder. But with nothing to report--Bodie's sexual conquest, amongst other things--Doyle was grateful to make use of it.

It took him only a few minutes to sort out the carry bags, although he had to remove Basil from underfoot with the bribe of a chew toy he had picked up for her before he could get on with the job at hand. While the dog happily began to gnaw away, Doyle arranged the food items in cupboard and refrigerator, then conscientiously moved on to the sorting of freshly laundered clothing. While hanging shirts and trousers, and folding socks and underwear, he mused that he and Bodie had yet to discuss the particulars of the evening, although he expected Bodie meant to come to Doyle's place for dinner--and for whatever else might follow.

Snatching up the two Flake bars, Doyle called a quick good-bye to Basil and trotted down the front steps, letting the door slam to behind him. Whistling softly to himself, Doyle slowed abruptly at sight of a strange vehicle parked alongside Bodie's caravan. Pursing his lips again, Doyle hefted the crinkly packets in one hand and sauntered up to the door, where he rapped sharply, twice.

From inside, he heard, "'S all right, mate, I'm closer, I'll get--"

Having seen him only once, and then only briefly, Doyle almost didn't recognize the man who greeted him. But memory, not always kind, came back very quickly, and with it a degree of animosity.

"Roger, isn't it?" he said coolly.

"That's right. Fancy you re--"

"Ray!" Bodie imposed himself adroitly in front of the slighter man who had been his flying partner. "Come inside for a beer."

Glancing from the soft-lipped young man to Bodie, Doyle queried, "You sure?"

"'Course." Bodie's gaze told him more.

"Just for a few minutes. I left lunch on the counter." This was a lie, but Doyle offered it smoothly. As he passed Bodie, he waved the two Flake bars in his face.

"Great." Bodie scooped the candy into one big hand, and shut the door with the other. He pointed out the open space at the tiny kitchen table; Doyle scooted onto the bench, sitting opposite Roger.

"What brings you back?" Doyle asked pleasantly. "Not for anything you left behind, I hope--most of it was ruined, y'know."

Roger gave him a slow smile, peering up from under long, thin lashes. "Yeah. Sorry about that. Was a bit wrought up."

Doyle nodded understandingly. His lips parted for reply, but just then Bodie tapped the back of his hand with a chilled bottle. He glanced up at Bodie. "Ta."

"Roger came by to say hello," Bodie said gingerly, as though picking his way through a minefield. "Didn't you, mate?"

Studying his fingers, Roger nodded. "Yeah." His head came up, dark eyes settling on Doyle's face without expression. "Bodie says you're putting together a special routine."

"That's right." Doyle placed the narrow lip of glass against his mouth and tipped his chin back; strongly brewed, dark ale foamed down his throat.

"Expect you could use another rigger."

Turning the bottle round in his hands, Doyle said noncommittally, "That's Sergei's decision, not mine."

"You could put in a word for me."

"Leave it out, Roger," Bodie said sharply. His lips were pressed tightly together, eyes hard and uncompromising.

"Oh, yeah, Bodie? Thought you wanted me round here, mate." Roger's long, mobile mouth curled in a sneer. "But, that was then. Oh, I know what you're up to."

"Do you?"

"Of course I do," Roger assured him, his eyes assessing Bodie with impudence. "Get to know a bloke real well when you've been together like we were."

Something of Roger's abandoned-lover pose did not ring true, Doyle decided. Or perhaps it was Bodie and the way he was reacting to him. Bodie had heard Roger out, but with barely repressed anger--as though he could not simply dismiss the other man out of hand, however much he might like to.

Mulling this silently, Doyle chugged down the better part of his ale and set the bottle on the table with finality. He announced, "Got to go. Sorry I can't help you, Roger." He slid out of the booth and went to the door. To Bodie, he said, "See you in the ring, mate."


Hand on the knob, Doyle paused.

Bodie raised the two candy bars in a sort of salute. "Thanks again."

Smiling wryly, Doyle let himself out.

Doyle kept to himself for the remainder of the afternoon. The small caravan received a very thorough cleaning, including floors and windows, the latter of which soon shone clear and bright in the sunshine. There were more productive chores Doyle could have focussed on; but he wanted to know the very moment that Roger departed the circus grounds, and he would know that only by staying near. As the time lengthened, Doyle's insides began to tighten up, making him high-strung and a little resentful. Although he was the first to admit that he had no claims on Bodie, he could not deny that Roger's presence irritated him. Greatly.

The afternoon was gone by the time Roger finally drove away. By then forced to give up his vigil, Doyle happened to be on the footpath leading to the circus compound when he heard the toot-toot of a horn as the car he had seen parked outside Bodie's caravan spun away onto the main road. Attired in the Regency outfit, and accompanied by a boisterous Basil dancing at his side, Doyle watched the vehicle vanish into a dale on its way toward town.

He stopped and let his eyes swing across to Bodie's caravan. The thought surfaced that he ought to see how Bodie was getting on--showtime was less than half an hour away. But some instinct argued against doing so; not questioning it, Doyle carried on toward the sideshow attractions.

The first house of the day had begun to gather in force. Being that it was Saturday, and school and work could not interfere, Doyle expected that the circus would be accorded its largest crowd yet. Heedless of his striking appearance, Doyle made his way through the clumps of people, avoiding children sticky-fingered with toffee-apple and candyfloss. One gasped aloud as he went by, and began a frantic tugging at her adult companion's sleeve.

"Look, Mum! There's that dog. Remember? The one at Sainsbury's who did all those tricks."

"Oh, yes," the woman said, and smiled with recognition when Doyle stopped and beckoned Basil to his side. "And you're the young man who rescued her."

"Hallo," Doyle replied pleasantly. The girl, dark braids running like two train tracks down her back, worshipped him with her eyes. "Is this your first visit?"

"Yes. Vanessa hasn't been able to speak of anything else for days."

"Well, I certainly hope we won't disappoint you."

"You said you fly on the trapeze," the girl blurted out, her bewildered eyes scouring over Doyle's costume.

"Not till Wednesday next. In the meantime, you'll see me on a beautiful dappled grey horse."

"Haute école?" the child whispered reverently.

"That's right." Canting his head to one side, Doyle remarked, "D'you know much about it?"

Face glowing with excitement, Vanessa said, "I've always wanted to see the Lippizaners."

"Piper and Tuppence aren't quite in their league--although I think you'll agree Piper is quite amazing for an old fellow."

"The poster outside Sainsbury's says he does the capriole."

Reassessing the child's age from this show of knowledgeability, Doyle inclined his head in agreement. "If we're lucky. He's getting on a bit, though, and I've been told he can't always manage."

"Oh, no!"

"Don't worry. He'll give it his best. Basil." The dog's head came up at once. Doyle flicked two fingers and she reared up on her hind legs. He turned his hand and she sprang head over heels.

The girl clapped, and her mother gave a laugh. "Thank you," she said. "We'll be watching for you."

Doyle nodded again, gave a dark, shiny braid a gentle tug, then strode to the main entry of the Big Tent, Basil's wiry legs marking double-time to keep up.

It was much cooler out of the sun, under the canvas. Inside was a hive of activity, laborers directed by Riley scurrying in all directions across the sawdust floor of the ring to meet his last minute specifications. The ringmaster gave Doyle a wave as Doyle, Basil tagging behind, steered clear of all the bustle to reach the red curtain.

In the stables, he found Derek alone, applying the finishing touches to Tuppence's coat.

"Anything I can do?"

Derek gestured "no" with his head. He peered over the back of the horse, and grinning, pointed down at the trampled grass behind Doyle's feet.

There stood Basil, cowering and shivering, but bravely keeping her place as Doyle's lieutenant.

"Look at you," Doyle remarked affectionately, and squatted down to cradle her head in a caress. "Go on, Bas." He flicked a finger under her chin. "No point in your staying here."

As though unshackled, the dog took to her feet, mouth open in a wide grin, and bolted for the corridor, her curled-high tail the last of her to be seen as she tore round the corner.

Doyle smiled at the puff of dust that rose in her wake and climbed to his feet again. "Why d'you reckon she's latched onto me?" he wondered.

Urging the Andalusian into her stall, Derek looked meaningfully across at Doyle and placed a hand on his heart.

"I'm no different than the rest of you," Doyle argued.

Cocking his head toward the corridor, Derek touched a finger to his temple.

"Yeah, I expect she does." The corner of his mouth came up. "Bodie says she knows a soft touch when she sees one. But maybe that's what you meant?" He broke out in self-deprecating laughter as Derek gave his head a firm nod. "Thanks, mate. How's Big Whiskers getting on?"

Again the equivocal hand motion Derek had applied to Sanjay once before.

"Can I go see him?"

Having secured the horse, Derek beckoned Doyle to follow. They went through the side corridor that gave access to the tiger's enclosure. Sanjay lay in a shaft of mote-filled sunshine. His great, striped figure was poised like a statue, eyes half-closed, head upright but unmoving.

Doyle went up to the bars, eyes full of the cat. He was struck by a sudden portending sense of loss. "How's the old puss, then?" he murmured.

The regal head stirred at Doyle's voice, even though the animal had certainly already taken note of his arrival--probably even before Doyle had come through the opening--and slowly turned in his direction.

Fixed by that steady gaze, Doyle would have liked to know what thoughts loomed behind the yellow eyes. The cat blinked, golden lashes unhurriedly falling and rising.

"The last place I look, of course." Simon's voice, softly muted out of consideration for the cat, came to them from the opening.

Derek caught sight of his lover and strode across the distance separating them. Tweaking a bright yellow curl, he surveyed Simon's ring outfit with an eye to detail before giving his approval by way of a smile and nod.

"Thank you," Simon breathed, accepting Derek's butterfly-soft kiss. Automatically wiping lipstick from the other man's curving lips, he turned toward Doyle. "Derek wants to know if you can lend me a hand with the animals for the next couple of days."

"Of course," Doyle said.

"Bodie will help you with Sanjay's medicine. He doesn't entirely approve of me, I think--Sanjay, that is."

Derek rolled his eyes, then used the ball of his thumb upon Simon's jaw to smooth an errant line of make-up.

"Derek'll be gone till Monday. There's an auction--some horses he wants to have a look at. He's leaving tonight after the second show."

"I see," Doyle said. Sensing words unspoken, he invited quietly, "What else, Simon?"

Folding his arms tightly across his chest, Simon said baldly, "Bodie'll be gone tonight, too."

Derek's head came round sharply. Simon ignored him. "I overhead him with that dreadful oick, Roger. Bodie's going to join him in town--" At Derek's growl of warning, Simon said swiftly, "I think Ray should know! Roger's such a yobbo, Derry."

Given Derek's frowning leave to continue, Simon went on, "Bodie likes you. If you say something--"

"Like what?" Doyle asked, exasperated. "He's a grown man, Bodie is. He'll do as he likes."

"Roger's just trying to use him. If you let him weasel his way back in--"

"It's nothing to do with me." Doyle's glinting green eyes warned Simon to drop the subject.

"Oh, Ray!"

Doyle addressed Derek directly, "Put together a list of all you want me to do--so I won't forget? Thanks, mate." Swinging about, Doyle found the tiger studying him in turn, his gaze as impenetrable and unforthcoming as ever. "Take care, mate," he muttered, and swept past the two men without another word.

After a slow start, the crowd fell into the proper mood and thereafter rarely stopped cheering. Only the haute école routine, with its suggestion of drama, cooled their fervor--and even then their emotions were fully engaged and audible.

As everyone flooded out of the Big Tent, either to search for their car or to spend a few minutes more in the arcades located in the sideshow, Doyle slipped through the side exit from the stables and struck off toward his caravan. Halfway along the footpath, Basil caught him up, yapping once to get his attention.

"Hello, there!" Doyle bent down and gently rubbed at the animal's jaw. "Where have you been, then?"


A young man, tall and lanky-boned, waved to him from the edge of the circus compound. Recognizing the boy as one of the part-time ticket takers, Doyle hailed back, "Damien. What is it?"

"Woman wants to see you--if you will. Has a little girl with her; said you might remember."

Doyle bit his lower lip; dark braids and a woman's friendly smile took form in his mind. Striding back toward the compound, Doyle asked, "Where are they?"

"At the edge of the sideshow; the duck shoot."

"Thanks, mate."

The woman and her daughter stood where Damien had reported. Doyle worked his way through the milling bodies and managed to come up alongside them unnoticed.

"Hello, again," he said amiably. Basil stood on her hind legs and danced at his knee. He bent down and hoisted her onto his shoulder, steadying her with a hand as he stood upright.

Vanessa beamed with unalloyed pleasure. Her mother appeared equally impressed.

"Thank you for stopping by; I know you must be busy, what with the next program and all."

"That's all right. I have a few minutes."

Braids streaming down her back, Vanessa tilted her chin up to meet Doyle's eyes. "You were amazing. The horses were terrific! The black one--the capriole--! Oh, it was beautiful!"

"That's Piper. Told you he'd give it his best," Doyle said.

"Could you give him something for me?" the girl asked. "And the grey, too?" She held out her hand; lying in her palm, overlapping the sides, were two halves of a toffee-apple, the stick removed.

Looking down at the small hand, Doyle was reminded of his own early experience with the circus, and the magic that would never be so enchanting as one grew older. He pursed his lips, expression skeptical. "Well, I--"

"Not if it's a bother," Vanessa added quickly.

"It's not that," Doyle said thoughtfully. "It's just-- I don't think Piper or Tuppence would like it as much coming from me." He scratched at his beard. "I don't reckon you'd like to give it to them yourself?"

The girl's eyes grew large. "Could I?"

"Of course. If you want to, that is."

"Oh, yes! Mum?"

The woman studied Doyle uncertainly. "Won't we be a nuisance?"

"Not unless Derek says so--he's their trainer. But we can ask. What d'you say?"

"Oh, please!" the girl breathed.

Doyle waited until the woman nodded her agreement. "Come along, then."

After wending their way through the crowd, Doyle cleared their passage with the entry ushers--one of whom was Damien--and led them into the Big Tent. Basil stayed on Doyle's shoulder right up to the juncture with the stables. She swayed slightly, her footing precarious as she recognized her surroundings. Doyle lifted her down and carried her in his arms, hoping Lily wouldn't disembowel him when she found dog hairs on the costume.

Doyle raised a hand at the threshold of the stable entry to bring his small group to a stop. While the woman hung back with her daughter, he stepped inside, spying Derek in the center aisle, scraping sweat off the Friesian's broad back.

"Derek, I've brought a couple of admirers along." He set Basil's feet on the floor; she disappeared with all haste into the relative safety of the tackroom. "Would you mind if this young lady gave Tuppence and Piper a treat?"

Derek shifted his gaze from Doyle to the woman and her daughter. At sight of the solemn-faced girl, he raised a hand and flagged them inside.

The girl approached with caution, her eyes full of the seemingly enormous black horse. A tiny smile wreathed Derek's bluff features as he gestured her closer still. When a few feet away, he mimed to her the way she should hold her hand so her fingers would not be caught between the horse's long teeth.

Following his silent instruction without query, she stepped a foot nearer, and lifted her palm, displaying one half of the toffee-apple for Piper's inspection.

Piper sniffed and nudged at the offering only briefly before scooping it into his mouth.

The girl smiled broadly. "May I touch him?" she asked Derek softly.

He indicated the horse's withers, his neck, and the area behind his ears.

"Oh, yes," she whispered. "They don't care to be touched on the face." With worshipful caution, she stroked the broad neck, timidly running a hand up to the base of the horse's short ears, an action that brought her all the way up on her toes.

Piper blew without force, whickering and dropping his head as the girl found a spot especially needful of attention. Smelling the remaining chunk of apple folded in her other hand, he butted her with the tip of his nose, lips curled back from his teeth as he tried to get his mouth within range.

Derek drew the animal's head down at once, watching the child closely.

"I'm okay," she said with a giggle. "The rest is for--Tuppence, did you call her?"

"That's right," Doyle said. "She's the--"

"Oh, bloody hell, Derry. Did you see what happened to my--?" Erupting from the corridor, and almost running over Vanessa's mother, Simon came to a startled halt. "Oh. Hello." The crinolines had been traded for baggy, cotton trousers and a patterned shirt that was more than half unbuttoned. The make-up, however, remained.

"You're the voltige rider," Vanessa exclaimed in voice ringing with respect.

"Yes, I am," Simon admitted. He thrust out his hand. "Simon Hamilton. And you?"

"Vanessa Potter. This is my mum. You were incredible! How ever did you do all that wearing a dress?"

"Years of practice, love," Simon informed her irrepressibly. He smiled at her mother and took her waiting hand as well.

"Jean Potter. You were amazing, you know."

"Yes, I do actually," Simon said sweetly. He winked at the woman disarmingly. "But it's lovely being told."

"Vanessa has something for Tuppence now, don't you?" Doyle reminded her.

She looked up at Derek. "If it's all right?"

The trainer passed the Friesian's leadshank to Doyle. He jerked his head toward the last stall, and flicked a finger in summons for the girl to follow. She went at once, big-eyed and rosy-cheeked with wonder. Derek stepped into the stall, and waved the girl inside to greet the Andalusian, who had been looking on with interest.

"She's very keen on horses, isn't she?" Simon asked, amused.

"Since she was a baby. Always looking at horse books. We're on our own, and she keeps asking me to marry someone who owns horses," Jean Potter said with a rueful laugh. She glanced across at Doyle, who smiled back understandingly.

"Oh, mummy," the child called, "she's beautiful!" She giggled again as Tuppence nuzzled her dress-front, searching for something else to eat.

"They all are. Come along, now, Vanessa. We really must let everyone get on with their work," the woman called firmly.

Derek secured Tuppence's stall, then brought the child back down the center aisle to take up Piper's leadshank.

"You've been very kind," Jean Potter said, looking at each man in turn.

"Oh, yes, thank you." Vanessa grinned up at Doyle as he gave one of her braids a pull.

"I'll show you to the car park," Doyle said. "Thanks, lads." He winked at Derek and Simon.

As one, the small group turned toward the corridor entry--only to stall at sight of Bodie, who leaned against the supporting pole just inside. Regarding him as a stranger might, Doyle felt his insides contract at his partner's singular handsomeness, the brooding intensity in his rich blue eyes, the strength and power of strongly muscled legs encased in tight breeches contrasting sharply with ruffled shirt, tailored vest, and romantically cut jacket.

"This is Bodie," Doyle said evenly.

"Hello," Vanessa breathed. She appeared stunned, as though she had tumbled down a dark tunnel and now found herself in the brilliant presence of a godlike being. "You did the capriole."

A crooked smile flickered across Bodie's mouth. "I just held on," he said modestly.

"It was amazing," Jean Potter assured him. "It stunned everyone."

"Thank you."

Despite his polite demeanor, tension emanated from Bodie like static electricity ahead of a lightning bolt. "I've been looking for you," he told Doyle.

"Well, you've found me. But just now I've promised to show Jean and Vanessa back to their car."

"I'll come with you."

"Do as you like. Basil, what about you?" The dog shot out of the tackroom and into Doyle's arms. He set her on his shoulder, sweeping a hand forth for the mother and her daughter to precede them. Bodie eyed him darkly as Doyle strode past, but fell into step beside him without speaking.

Vanessa's blithe chatter swirled around them as they came out through the Big Tent, her words filling the air like a halo of gnats. It continued unbroken as they passed through the middle of the sideshow alley and out onto the field that served as the car park.

"Will you be flying next week?" she asked Doyle through the wound down window; her mother sat in the driver's seat, waiting for her daughter to strap herself into her belt.

"If everything goes according to plan. Wednesday next. Maybe you'll be able to come again?"

Jean Potter smiled across the seat at him. "We'd love to, but I'll have to see. Thanks again for everything."

With Vanessa waving wildly out of her window, the car pulled away and plowed through the soft ground toward the main road.

Having stood silent throughout the visitors leave-taking, Bodie now announced, "I need to talk to you." The arms folded over his chest tightened a little; his outthrust chin jutted higher.

"Do you?" Doyle brought his head round, long, wind-swept tendrils of hair whipping across his face. He regarded Bodie unencouragingly. "So-- ?"

"Ray! Bodie!"

Bodie grimly closed his eyes and set his jaw as Lily's piercing voice reached them from the top of the rise.

Welcoming the interruption, Doyle lifted a hand to curb the heavy-set woman's approach. "No, stay there," he shouted. "We're on our way."

Bodie's expression remained bleak as they strode back across the open field to the edge of the circus compound. "Forgot," he muttered. "We're to meet with Simon and Lily about the staging."

"Oh. You might've told me."

"Just as well I didn't," Bodie said sardonically. "Otherwise you'd have missed out on the pretty missus and her daughter."

"That is true," Doyle said sedately.

For over an hour they conferred in the dressing-tent, jotting down ideas and sketching out the changes necessitated by the new routine. Doyle's head began to ache from the quantity of detail required, involving not only their costumes, but the webbing as well.

It was the imminent second showing that curtailed their discussions.

"We'll have to meet again," Lily said matter-of-factly. "This evening, after the performance?"

Simon coughed softly and pretended to examine his hands. Doyle glanced sidelong at Bodie, polite inquiry pasted on his face. Bodie scowled as though trapped.

"I can't," Bodie said at last. "I have to leave just after."

"Tomorrow, then?" Lily said impatiently. "C'mon, lads. You have to put forth some effort, too."

"We'll be working out first thing." Bodie glared across at her. "Noon?"

"Make it tennish," Lily countered. "I'd like to get started on some of these changes, Bodie," she elaborated, patently expecting argument.

Bodie sighed. "Is that all right with you?" he asked Doyle. "Simon?"

"Why not," Doyle said genially, once Simon had inclined his head, eyes fixed on Doyle. "Right after we give Sanjay his medicine." He pushed back the overturned tub that had served as his chair. "Need to spruce up a bit. See you in the ring, Bodie." Waving to the others, he loped out of the tent and into the thick darkness of night that lay beyond. Breathing bedewed air deeply into his lungs, he shut off his mind; there was still the second performance to get through.

The delight of that audience was infectious--Doyle found it difficult to remain glum when he was a contributor to such vast pleasure. Afterward, he chose to remain with Simon and Derek for a while, helping with the horses. Toward eleven o'clock, he declined the offer of a meal, finished grooming Taffy, and made his good-byes for the night.

As he came nearer the caravan park, he saw Bodie's door swing open. Riley appeared, cast in shadow by the light pouring out of the caravan. "Don't worry, mate," Riley said in his deep, mellifluous voice, "it's a solid routine; won't take but a bit of work."

Doyle continued unnoticed to his own unit, surprised to see Bodie still on the grounds. Perhaps Simon had misunderstood? Perhaps Bodie would come round to his place after all?

A little shocked by the intensity of yearning this thought invoked, Doyle refused to contemplate it further. He would be leaving himself open to crashing disappointment if he continued to do so--especially if Bodie was, as Simon had implied, intending on spending the night with Roger. Slamming the door shut on that thought, Doyle stomped up the steps outside his door and walked inside.

Basil blinked wretchedly at him in the sudden flood of light. She lay on the foot of the bed in the nest Doyle had built for her.

"Just look at you," Doyle said with feigned reproach. "Lying about with not a care in the world." He filled the kettle and plugged it in. Thumb on the switch, he started when there came a rap from outside. Before he could even think about responding, however, the door swung open and Bodie strode inside.

"Come in, why don't you?" Doyle said dryly.

"Simon told you, didn't he?"

Leaning back against the sideboard, Doyle tipped his head to one side, regarding the other man without expression. "I didn't expect you round tonight, if that's what you mean."

"It isn't what he thinks."


Bodie had yet to release the doorknob. The corners of his mouth cut upward in a petulant grimace. "Roger's having some problems. I promised I'd try to help him out."

Since this statement required no comment on his part, Doyle said nothing.

Annoyed, Bodie said acidly, "It wasn't Simon's place to tell you."

"No." Doyle summoned a remote smile. "And you don't owe me any explanations." He turned his back on Bodie then, the brief, leaping hope that had accompanied Bodie's arrival subsiding heavily inside him.

"Yeah, I know that," Bodie said sharply. "But I thought-- Well, we kind of had something set for tonight."

Doyle stood a little taller. "So we did." He twisted round again. "And now we don't. You're wasting time, mate--your Roger'll be waiting."

"Damn you, Doyle, it isn't like that!"

"Like what?" Doyle asked softly.

Bodie dropped his eyes, mouth clamped tightly shut.

"Roger's your mate; you owe me nothing." A hint of steel came into Doyle's voice. "Good night, Bodie."


There was no mistaking the unwilling appeal in Bodie's face. Perplexed and angry, Doyle nevertheless wondered what it was Bodie could not--or would not--tell him. He hazarded, "You wouldn't be messing about with something illegal, Bodie?"

At that, Bodie let out a snort of almost-laughter. "Hardly." He tipped his head back and regarded Doyle measuringly. "Look, I-- Tonight, we were--" Growling with frustration, he finished almost challengingly, "Well, what about tomorrow night?"

Doyle allowed the words to dissolve into the silence before saying, "We'll talk about that tomorrow. That is, if you'll be back then?"

"Before the dawn," Bodie assured him. "Have to work out, y'know." He gave Doyle a raw smile. "Tomorrow, then. I'll remind you."

"You do that."

Bodie's eyes travelled down Doyle's face, coming to settle on his full mouth. A look of longing darkened Bodie's gaze--only to be replaced by one of unhappy purpose. He wheeled around and stepped out onto the platform. "Good night, then."

"Good night, Bodie."

The door closed behind him with a hushed creak; the kettle switched off, recalling Doyle to himself. Whatever Bodie was up to, Doyle wanted very much to believe him when he said it involved nothing outside the law. And, though Bodie had not been able to come right out and say so, Doyle accepted that he had no intention of bedding Roger this night.

What Roger's intentions were, however, Doyle could easily surmise.

Only a few minutes later, Doyle went outside, escorting Basil up the rise that edged the caravan site. He rested on a relatively dry patch of ground amidst misting shadows while the dog ventured into the scrub and heather.

From this vantage point Doyle could see the whole of the caravan park, the variously shaped and colored caravans packed close together, the light from windows and glass-fronted doors forming dimly radiant pools in the darkness. Bodie's Mini came to life while he sat there, the headlights stabbing into the night like twin daggers.

Cool despite his jacket, Doyle watched the lights of Bodie's car arc away then fade into the distance. He felt very alone in the blackness and the silence that ensued. Basil reappeared a few moments later, pawing at his chest for warmth. He raised the stretchy band at the bottom of the jacket and gave her entry. With the dog pressed close to his abdomen, he remained for some minutes longer, thinking of nothing.

In the confines of her womb-like shelter, Basil began to lick her legs as she was wont to do preparatory to a nap. Knowing he would end up a sodden mess if he allowed her to carry on, Doyle began to rise to his feet.

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Sergei's door came open, some distance away. Doyle hesitated, not wanting to be seen by the circus owner. In the next instant, two men appeared in the hazy outfall of light issuing from inside the caravan. One was clearly Sergei; the other--

Doyle's heart sprang into his throat as he identified the man who had almost killed him three years before: Donal O'Shea, known member of the Irish Provisional Army. Doyle had been working undercover, employing an alias, when O'Shea had come--quite rightly--to suspect him. Escaping with his life and his alias barely intact, Doyle knew himself to be permanently marked for liquidation by O'Shea and his cohorts. The anonymity of his name offered some protection, but it had been the sensible decision to remove Doyle from any situation that might allow them to come into contact again.

Until now.

Grinning fiercely to himself, Doyle knew no fear at sight of the other man, who even now was hurrying across the narrow space separating Sergei's unit from Aidan and Zoe's caravan to the Ford Escort awaiting him, with Sergei trotting behind. No, what he felt was relief and a kind of triumph: Bodie was not a party to Sergei's nefarious activities.

Not questioning his reaction to this new knowledge, Doyle remained on the rise until O'Shea had driven off and Sergei had come back, walking none too steadily, to his caravan. Only then did Doyle leave his post to carry Basil to their own unit, where Doyle drank cold tea, performed a sketchy wash-up, and finally fell into bed. With Basil curled up outside the covers in the crook formed by the bend of his knees, Doyle slept at once.

Adrift on a sea of senseless but compelling dreams, Doyle had no warning when his door burst open, Basil as soundly asleep as he. Tearing out of the bedclothes with no regard for the slumbering dog, nor his own safety, Doyle lurched to his feet and braced himself to meet any threat head-on.

"Ray!" That was Simon's voice, pitched high, laced with panic.

"Simon, what--" Taking one great stride, Doyle switched on the light in the kitchen, absorbing the young stunt rider's appearance--silk pajamas torn open and hanging off his lean frame, exposing scraped skin underneath; his face bruised, with a spray of blood at the corner of his mouth--just as the door was thrown back once more, and Sergei lumbered drunkenly inside.

"Ray," Simon whimpered, shrinking away from the looming circus owner.

Unthinking, Doyle reached out a hand, gripped Simon's arm, and shoved him into the bedroom behind him. "What're you doing here, Sergei?"

Sergei laughed, his breath carried on a rush of alcoholic fumes. "The little laddie must want to make it a three-way," he drawled, the words thick and barely intelligible.

"Derek's going to have your hide for this, you idiot," Doyle said sharply. In the bedroom, he could hear Simon trying to catch his breath.

"That boy's probably got his prick up someone else's arse right now." Sergei swayed slightly; to Doyle's eye the big man was not so drunk that he could be considered harmless. And much of the bulk that formed his stocky body was hewn muscle. Doyle studied him closely, mind racing. Sergei ended his indecision by lunging nearer. "Let Simon watch," he mumbled. "You and I'll show him--"

The hand that reached for Doyle's bare chest was stopped mid-motion. "It's time you went back to your own caravan, Alf," Doyle said with uncompromising insistence. "Now."

Wincing slightly as the pain of Doyle's grasp slowly penetrated his brain, Sergei said, "Don't play hard to get. I've seen how you look at Bodie. Let go--"

Propelled by Doyle's shove, Sergei stumbled back a pace. Having gauged Sergei's strength, Doyle planted his legs apart and waited for the other man to make up his befuddled mind. "C'mon, Alf. Let's not make this ugly, eh?"

"Won't be ugly," Sergei said, his face mottled with blood. "I'll just fuck you till you can't stand anymore." He started forward, arms spread wide to seize Doyle in a bear-hug.

In the narrow space, Doyle knew he must strike quickly or risk being pinned by the heavier man--presuming he did not want to kill him. At this instant, with Simon moaning pitiably behind him, Basil growling threateningly from the foot of the bed, and the beginnings of a headache hammering at the back of his head, the prospect held considerable appeal. But Doyle chose constraint. He twisted round on one foot and kicked out with the other. His toes connected with Sergei's stomach, driving deeply inward. Spinning back to face him, Doyle brought one forearm up under the other man's chin as he doubled over, then delivered a final, cudgelling blow to the back of his neck.

Through all this, Sergei whooped only once--more with surprise than pain. He was unconscious before collapsing, in a heap, to the floor.

"Oh!" Simon gasped.

Collecting his terry cotton robe with one hand, Doyle said briskly, "Did he hurt you?"

Shivering a little, Simon said, "I'll live." Pointing down at Sergei as though he were something loathsome, he asked, "Will he?"

"Unfortunately, yes," Doyle said grimly. He tied the belt at his waist. "I'd like your help carrying him back to his place, if you can."

Simon nodded. His face crumpled. "Thank you, Ray. I didn't know what--"

Doyle pulled the other man close for a quick hug. "It's all right, Si. Let's get him out of here, okay? Then we'll have a cuppa and you can tell me what happened."

Swallowing hard, Simon nodded again and let Doyle go.

Rubbing a thumb across Simon's cheek, Doyle said, "You're doing fine, sunshine. C'mon."

Between them, they manhandled Sergei's dead weight out of the caravan, down the steps and across the caravan site to Sergei's unit. The door was unlocked, so they hoisted him inside and dropped him on his bed-- despite Simon's suggestion that they leave him outside in the rain instead.

Doyle carefully checked the big man, who was already beginning to rouse. Before leaving, he even went so far as to provide a bowl beside his pillow for the heaves that would certainly follow.

Back in his own caravan, with Simon huddled at the kitchen table wrapped in a blanket, Doyle set about making a pot of tea. Basil lay on the rug in front of the sink, drowsing in between every movement Doyle made. Her head seemed to bob up and down endlessly, her eyes heavy with disturbed sleep, her expression baffled.

While the kettle heated, Doyle sat down opposite the other man. "You are all right?"

Simon's mouth screwed into a scowl. "He tried to rape me."

"How'd he get into your caravan?"

Sighing disgustedly, Simon whispered, "I let him in, of course. He is my boss, Ray!"

"What'd he say?"

"That he wanted to talk to me about our arrangements for your new routine."

Doyle's brows crawled up his forehead. "At--" He glanced at the time displayed on the clock-radio which stood on the shelf above the table. "Two in the morning?"

Shrugging, Simon said dispiritedly, "I was still awake. I always have a hard time sleeping when Derry's away. And I...I didn't know how to tell him to leave me alone without sounding--"

"Rude?" Doyle said with a gentle smile.

"It isn't funny, Ray!"

"No. But why didn't you just put him down, Si? You know, when he started in on you?"


Shaking his head exasperatedly, Doyle said sternly, "With legs as strong as yours--those legs, the ones you like to boast about--you could've disabled him at least long enough to get away."

Lifting his chin high, Simon retorted, "How d'you think I got here?"

Pleased to see a resurgence of the other man's usually unshakable spirit, Doyle spread his hands placatingly, "Yeah, okay. Look, why don't you clean up your mouth--you're bleeding, y'know--then we'll have that cuppa, and you can go back and get some--"

Wide-eyed, Simon said quickly, "I don't want to go back there."

"Derek'll be gone for two days, Simon. Oh, I see--you want to stay here, is that it?"

"Oh, could I?" Simon dabbed at his lip nervously. "I won't be a bother, I promise. It's just--"

"Sergei's a prick, and you're afraid he'll try his hand again."

"I-- Well-- Yes. I'm a miserable coward, Ray. I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize. It's a good thing he didn't hurt you, Simon. All that blood would've turned my stomach."

Simon flinched away, appalled at Doyle's choice of words.

Flicking a finger under Simon's perfectly formed nose, Doyle said, "Not yours, silly; Sergei's, after Derek'd got hold of him."

Shoulders bent under the warming folds of the blanket, Simon muttered, "He may yet. Derek despises him anyway."

"Then it's up to you whether Derek's told or not. Go on, get cleaned up. The kettle's boiling."

They lay side by side in the dark. For several minutes, Simon had unobtrusively squirmed, rolled about, and twisted into complex positions, lazily apparently attempting to make himself comfortable.

"D'you want to talk?" Doyle asked tiredly. His chivalric act was beginning to pall. With the usable space in the bed reduced to half-- allowing a two-inch buffer between them--and Basil lying like a long, skinny hot water bottle along his chest under the sheet, Doyle could foretell that a long night awaited him.

"No," Simon exhaled roughly. "Yes. I'm sorry, Ray."

"Come here, Simon," Doyle ordered. He looped an arm round the other man's back and drew him close. "Mind the dog." But Basil took the hint and padded to the foot of the bed, casting a wounded glare over her shoulder.

Simon gave up a sort of giggle. "I shouldn't. Derry would kill me if he found out."

"Found out what?" Doyle asked quietly. "There, isn't that better?"

"Too nice, actually," Simon murmured, his hand lying cold on Doyle's waist. "I like you, Ray, but I won't--"

"Nor will I. Never fool around with married folk, that's my motto." Doyle could feel Simon's mouth stretch into a smile across his shoulder.

"We are, y'know. Me and Derek. And it's so crazy!"

"Why?" Doyle murmured, his hand moving lightly back and forth, with hypnotic consistency, across Simon's shoulders.

"Because I wanted to be famous--even though I had a very privileged upbringing, mind. 'S how I learned to ride, in fact; although Derek had to teach me the stunt work, of course. He says I'm a natural, y'know?" Simon sighed. "Sorry, I'm digressing. When I was on the circuit, I played a load of cabarets and nightclubs, singing--badly--and telling funny stories. That's where I met Derek."

"In a cabaret?"

Simon's smile deepened. "In Swindon."

"Swindon," Doyle said, without inflection.

"Derek was in town looking for horses--"

"You did say Swindon?"

Laughing softly, Simon whispered, "He can be blindly optimistic sometimes."

"And he went to see your cabaret act? Doesn't seem like Derek, somehow."

"Ah-- No, he didn't."

Eyelids drooping downward, Doyle prodded sleepily, "Out with it."

"The sad truth is, I'd been sacked. Was standing in the queue waiting for the all-night bus, with all my things stuffed into a hold-all at my feet, when he came driving along, looking for a place to stay for the weekend. He offered me a lift. You know what Derry looks like: all honesty and homespun values. You can imagine my surprise when I found out he was gay."

"You're not telling me he propositioned you?"

"Of course not. Had a proper courting, didn't I? He didn't even try to kiss me till we'd been together for three days." Simon's voice dropped to a reminiscent whisper. "Didn't think anyone would ever want me that way--y'know, love, marriage, the works."

"But he did?"

"He insisted. It was all or nothing. He really loves me, Ray. Not that I deserve him--the things I've done in my life. But I'll never do anything again that might hurt him."

"And you're telling me all this so I won't try it on, is that it?" Friendly humor lilted in Doyle's voice.

"Not only that," Simon confessed. When Doyle's hand stopped moving, Simon explained, "You must know how sexy you are. And being here with you like this-- Even more than that, you rescued me from the clutches of that--"

Doyle let free a laugh. "Oh, God, please. I'm not ready to become St. Raymond. Stop worrying, Simon. Much as I might like to ravish you, I won't."

"Because of Bodie?" Simon wondered, his voice as hushed as the night.

Doyle hesitated. "Because I like to avoid pain at all costs, and Derek would slaughter me if I took advantage of you now." His mouth twisted into a wry smile. "And, yes--because of Bodie."

Simon hugged him tightly. "Oh, good. I know you care for him. I don't know why he insisted on going off with that bloody Roger tonight, but he won't stay. Not when he feels about you the way--"

Raising his head an inch, Doyle tried to peer into Simon's face. "Go on."

"Nothing. It's all guesswork on my part," Simon mumbled. "But I've never seen him look at anyone the way he looks at you."

"And how is that?"

"Can't describe it, really. But you've seen Bodie--hard to tell what he's thinking at the best of times. When he looks at you, though--it's as if you're the only person in the world."

"You're a romantic, Simon," Doyle informed him dismissingly.

"Not about Bodie," the other man countered emphatically. "He thinks a--"

A jaw-cracking yawn threatened to take off the top of Doyle's head; Simon elbowed him smartly in the ribs. "Are you listening to me?"

"Oof. 'Course I am."

"Liar. Oh, all right, I'll shut up."

"You're a mate, Simon," Doyle said warmly.

"And you're unbelievable." Simon pinched Doyle's bearded cheek in the dark. "Thanks, again, Ray."

"You're very welcome. And now just go to sleep, okay?" With Simon snuggled close along one side, and Basil curved behind his legs on the other, Doyle settled back. In the darkness, the night seemed very still and comforting. Suffused with the heat of the man sharing his bed, Doyle could only wonder how it would compare when Bodie lay next to him like this. He was looking forward to finding out.



The mist fell heavy on the moors throughout the early hours. Its muffling folds deadened every twitter and rustle. Dawn came, the sun's brightness and heat made diffuse and unimpressive.

When a familiar, muted tread bounded up the steps, Doyle was slow to register its significance. Only when the unlocked door was jerked open and Bodie's cheery voice cut through the silence, did he remember the night and all that had transpired.

"Ray, you up, sunshine? Ray--"

Blinking owlishly, Doyle stared up at the other man who stood frozen at the door to the bedroom, intensely aware of Simon's arm draped across his naked chest, and Simon's head tucked under his chin. Far too late Doyle realized precisely what sort of tableau he and Simon must make.

Blistering emotion brought a surge of color to Bodie's pale cheeks. "Don't get up on my account," he said caustically.

"Bodie--" Doyle croaked.

But Bodie was already tramping out of the caravan with noisy disregard, the door crashing shut behind him.

Slumping back onto the mattress, Doyle moaned bitterly, "Doesn't anybody around here know how to fucking knock?"

"Oh, dear," Simon said in a very small voice. "I've rather dropped you in it, haven't I?"

Extricating himself from Simon and the entangling folds of bedding with difficulty, Doyle finally swung his legs over the side of the bed. A small, warm-nosed muzzle poked out from under the sheet, followed by a compactly built body at the end of which a smooth-haired tail ceaselessly wagged.

"Basil, where's my gun?" Doyle said hopelessly.

"Gun?" Simon gasped.

Brought up sharp, Doyle said quickly, "The one I'm going to buy today so I can put myself out of my misery."

"Oh, well, in that case, Derek keeps a rifle. For the animals, y'know."

Doyle bared his teeth at his spike-haired companion. "You're a help, you are."

A hand flopped down on Doyle's thigh and patted it kindly. "I'll explain everything to Bodie."

"And you think he'll believe you?"

"Of course he will," Simon said drowsily. "In fact, it'll occur to him that he's made a right idiot of himself--oh, any second now."

"You're not serious?"

Simon rolled over and dropped his head back down on the pillow. "You're forgetting Derek. You're not the only one he would kill, y'know."

"There's hope for us yet, then."

"Speak for yourself. Hurry up; Bodie will be waiting for you."

Rising hopelessly to his feet, Doyle gathered his robe and started moving in the direction of the kitchen, wrapping the warming material round him as he went. "We were supposed to be up early, Si; there's the animals to do."

"I'll get going with them. After your work-out, you can help me finish up."

Doyle looked back at the other man, admiring his youthful resilience, which he himself was sadly lacking this morning. "You're very chipper today."

Stretching and yawning, Simon said, "I have reason to be--thanks to you." He sobered suddenly. "Although, when Sergei wakes up--"

"If my guess is right, he'll pretend nothing happened. In fact, he'd be stupid to do otherwise."

"Hope you're right."

"I am. 'Sides--it's Bodie I'm worried about."

"Don't be. I think he's falling in love with you."

I think he's falling in love with you. Could a person fall in love in only six days?

After six years with CI5, Doyle had come to doubt the existence of love altogether--so it was not surprising that he found it hard to credit not only that such an apocryphal emotion might occur, but that it might occur with such feverish haste. And, ultimately, love was not something Doyle wanted--neither for Bodie nor himself. While his own feelings were already suspect--he had admitted that to himself--the prospect of Bodie developing an attachment for him was, somehow, well nigh to unbearable.

For if Bodie loved him, Doyle might be foolish enough to love him back. And if he did that, he would leave himself open to the kind of devastation that had dogged his heels for ten years.

On the other hand, Doyle consoled himself, Simon was indeed a romantic for whom love was perennially in bloom; his observations, accordingly, must be considered suspect. Bolstered by that thought, Doyle left the footpath and hurriedly made his way to the Big Tent.

Inside the canvas, Doyle found Bodie overhead, performing the morning inspection of the upper rigging. Their eyes met and briefly held, before Bodie continued tightening down a brace which reinforced one of the fixed traps.

While, for them, it was a late start, the hour had only gone seven. "Are we working out?" Doyle called up. A blur near his feet informed him that Basil had scurried under the lowest bench where Bodie had piled his outer clothing.

"Any reason we shouldn't?" Bodie countered.

"None that I know of." Doyle heeled off his trainers and stripped off his fleecy trousers. He kept the sweatshirt on as an aid to warming up.

While Bodie completed his task, Doyle performed a few stretches, involving his entire body so as to limber up quickly. By the time Bodie had brought himself hand-over-hand down the web, Doyle had eliminated the residue of tension left over from his skirmish with Sergei and the long, cramped night spent with Simon.

His face set, Bodie joined Doyle on the mat. They launched into a series of merciless calisthenics, all directed by Bodie, who never faltered. Aware that Bodie must have had as little sleep as he--perhaps, even less--Doyle offered no complaint. The sweat was running freely between his shoulder blades and breasts within half an hour. Stealing a handful of seconds, Doyle peeled off the sweatshirt, and immediately resumed the set, determined to maintain Bodie's killing pace.

The tension between them was almost palpable; when Bodie decreed a bout of wrestling--something they had incorporated into their warm-ups only once before--Doyle knew a moment of relief: Either they expunged the enmity swirling dangerously about them now, or they would pay the consequences later.

Guessing the reason for the other man's bunched shoulder and thigh muscles correctly, Doyle braced himself for a frontal attack. It arrived an instant later, on the back of a charging bull. Doyle used Bodie's momentum against him, curling an arm round Bodie's shoulders, and flinging his legs into the air before Bodie could have him on the mat. To counter his defense, Bodie threw himself onto his side, and they went down together in a welter of arms and legs.

This time Doyle did not escape.

Blood flowed hot in his veins, angry confusion pounding in the too-tight cavity of his chest--yet Doyle refrained from employing the lethal skills that would have given him freedom, for to do so would cause Bodie serious, possibly permanent, damage. So he let Bodie pin him to the mat, then lay there, not struggling.

"What's the matter, Bodie?" Doyle gasped, harshly sucking air into his lungs. "Didn't Roger come across last night?"

The dark blue eyes might have been cut from stone, so coldly did they glitter. "I just wanted to prove something to myself," he said cryptically. He sprang up, then held out a hand to bring Doyle up alongside him.

Piqued, Doyle said, "Prove something--about Roger?"

"About you." Bodie went over to the bench and retrieved the towel. After wiping himself down, he tossed it across to Doyle.

"And what," Doyle asked with labored forbearance, "might that something be?"

Bodie tapped his own chin with the tip of a finger. "No bruise."

Doyle stared at him stupidly. "Sorry?"

"You didn't hurt me. You wouldn't hurt me, would you?"

Scrutinizing him suspiciously, Doyle said, "What are you talking about, Bodie?"

"Spoke with Sergei this morning." At Doyle's expression of interest, Bodie went on, "Not that he said anything, mind. But I think I can puzzle everything out for myself."

Flinging the towel back onto the bench, Doyle folded his arms across his chest and assumed a pose of idle indifference. "And what did this great brain of yours come up with?"

"What I should've known this morning: Simon wouldn't've gone to bed with you just because Derek was gone. But Simon was in bed with you when I came into your caravan this morning." Bodie's face softened slightly. "Sergei was sporting an almighty great lump on his chin this morning, too--very like Tom's, in fact. Coincidence? I thought not. Sergei has always wanted a taste of our Simon. Simon's protector was gone; Sergei tried his hand; Simon went to you for help; Sergei didn't know when to give up-- Rather obvious, really. You were playing the hero again, weren't you?"

Evading the question, Doyle queried, "And what has all that to do with this little test of yours?"

"Just curious, I expect. You haven't hesitated to show off your muscles when someone's annoyed you; wondered if that applied to me, as well." Changing the subject abruptly, Bodie asked, "Did Sergei hurt Simon?"

"Tried to rape him," Doyle replied simply.

"But he didn't get far, right?"

"Not far enough to suit him, no."

"Simon went running to you before Sergei could do any real damage, I take it?"


Shrugging slightly, Bodie said, "Thanks, mate. I try to look after him when Derek's not around."

"This has happened before?"

"No. Well-- Not on this scale, anyway. You see, you've thrown off the balance of power, Doyle: Rose is gone. Alf'd never have tried it when she was here."


"You couldn't know," Bodie said reassuringly. "Let's go, mate. Best get up top before we cool down."

The remainder of the morning proceeded without incident. The flyers performed an extended run-through of the new routine--complete with special use of the web, courtesy of Des' capable hands, and Riley timing them from the ground--after which Bodie and Doyle hurried off to the stables. Simon had the situation well in hand, however--save for the tiger, who was not faring well today and had yet to receive his tonic.

At first sight of him, lying in the pallid, misty light filtering through the canvas opening, Doyle knew Sanjay had taken a turn for the worse. The animal was apathetic to their attentions, and his meal, served earlier in the morning, had hardly been tasted.

"Ah, don't do this, old son," Doyle said quietly.

The tiger's head came up at his voice, tired eyes slitting open as Doyle came nearer.

"You're just missing Derek, aren't you? He'll be back tomorrow--and he won't be happy if you're looking like this, y'know." Doyle went down on one knee beside the tiger's head, and sought the special spot under his chin. "Maybe you're just bored, eh? Know I would be, stuck in this rotten little cage all day." A tentative purr stirred in the tiger's deep chest. "Oh, yeah, that's it," Doyle whispered. "Tell me where you'd like to be--Africa, is it?"

"India, more like," Bodie corrected him. "And a few places in Asia."

"India, then. You been there, Sanjay? Though maybe not. Might've been born right here, like all the rest of us."

"India," Simon said from the entryway. "That's what the bloke who was getting rid of him said, anyway."

The cat's eyes narrowed as Doyle found an itch wanting attention behind his left ear. "What's it like, India? D'you remember, Sanjay?"

"Hold his head, Ray," Bodie said, the syringe containing Sanjay's elixir hidden in his palm.

"Must be cool where you came from, furry as you are," Doyle suggested, as he moved into position. The cat's rumbling purr grew in volume. "Although jungles are supposed to be hot, aren't they?"

"Cold in the winter?" Simon proffered.

"Tigers live in warm climates, too," Bodie pointed out. He slid the tip of the needleless syringe into the corner of Sanjay's mouth and depressed the plunger.

Swallowing reflexively, Sanjay closed his eyes, head lifted slightly toward the mild sunshine.

"That's the lad; you're such a good lad." Yellow eyes blinked twice as Sanjay focussed briefly on Doyle. The wide, pink tongue rolled out and rasped across the back of Doyle's thin hand. With a heavy sigh, the tiger stretched out on his side, one paw, deceptively harmless, folded over the other.

"He's due a kip," Bodie said. "Takes it out of you, growing old."

Doyle looked up at him gratefully. "You're good with him."

Shaking his head and laughing under his breath, Bodie stated, "And you're besotted. Show you one ancient, moth-eaten old cat and you go all trembly. Had an aunt just like that."

"Go on! You never had any family--who'd've had you?"

Bodie glanced away, backing toward the cage door. "That's closer to the truth than you know."

"Is it?"

"Stop prying. Lily'll be waiting."

Lily was indeed waiting, as it was nearer eleven than ten before they arrived. Nevertheless she had a fresh pot of tea and a plate of biscuits waiting as well. Their discussions, approached with a new mind-set, went smoothly. The unresolved concerns of the previous day were neatly disposed of, to the approval of all involved. Simplicity was their clarion call, and that theme was applied to all aspects of the routine.

"This may just fly," Doyle remarked with some amazement. "No pun intended."

Simon groaned noisily.

"You had doubts?" Bodie growled.

"From the beginning," Lily said flatly. "And he didn't bother to hide them to spare our delicate sensibilities."

"Disbelieving bugger," Simon chimed in.

"Okay, okay, I'm sorry. Forgive my lack of faith."

"We'll consider it." Lily folded her sheaf of papers in half. Then she reached across the table and gave Doyle's cheek a rather painful twist. Doyle voiced his objections to this callous treatment loudly and at once. "I can do that to you," she explained, seemingly apropos of nothing. "Him, now--" Lily nodded toward Simon. "That'd probably split his lip open again."

Simon raised a hand self-consciously to his mouth.

"What happened?" Lily asked.

"Nothing," Simon murmured.

"It was Sergei, wasn't it? I heard him prowling about last night. He hurt you, didn't he?"

"No, not really."

Lily's mouth curved into a wide, brilliant smile. "Which is why he's going round with a face like thunder and a jaw with a dent in it, eh?"

Simon's eyes danced with malicious delight. "I must say, he earned it."

"So long as he got it. Hasn't anyone heard from Rose yet?"

There was a consensus of 'no's.' "A pity. I don't know what will happen if she doesn't come home soon." Lily frowned thoughtfully. "He's up to something, Sergei is. And with Rose gone, it probably isn't good." She drew the edge of her palm across Doyle's jaw. "You're a good lad, love. Just a little misguided, I'm afraid."

"I shall endeavor to remember that," Doyle assured her piously.

He received another pinch for his insolence.

Doyle could have told Lily that she was all too correct about Sergei, but that information was privileged. It worried him a little that she had caught on to the circus owner--not, of course, his precise activities, just the fact that he was involved in something shady. They were good people, these circus folk he had come to know over the past week, and he would not like to see any of them come to harm.

The demands of the day took him out of himself, however. With two performances, their new routine, and Derek's chores to contend with, he could not waste time brooding. In fact, despite a very real urgency to ring Cowley and inform him of O'Shea's visit, Doyle was unble to work in a flying trip to town.

Instead he spent the early part of the afternoon contemplating horse droppings as he mucked out stables, and later, with Bodie's vigilant assistance, tiger droppings, as he cleaned out Sanjay's cage. The tiger was a little perkier in the afternoon. His dish had been emptied and fresh food provided; the tiger seemed to find this more to his liking and gulped the meal down.

While Doyle shoveled soiled straw and solid matter into the bucket, the cat roused himself long enough to take a turn around his pen, stopping beside Doyle to strop himself against his legs. Since the huge beast came up to Doyle's waist, the first sweep almost had him over. Laughing with joy to see Sanjay up and about, Doyle petted the buttercup yellow head between the rounded ears and spoke nonsense to him. Behind him, Bodie stood poised to spring to Doyle's defense. Although tigers could be friendly animals, they were ever unpredictable.

Weak and lacking endurance, Sanjay made a final pass against Doyle's legs, then retired to his patch of sunlight, which had grown somewhat brighter throughout the day. Wanting to linger, but aware that he was needed elsewhere, Doyle followed Bodie out of the cage.

"He's not dead yet, Ray." Bodie thumped him lightly on the shoulder, his uncanny knowledge of Doyle's thoughts unexpectedly comforting. He added, "But when the old sod goes, we'll have him stuffed so you can keep him in your caravan; what d'you say?"

Pretending to give this remark serious consideration, Doyle waited until they were in the corridor outside the stables before pouncing. He found Bodie's ticklish spots rather quickly; while Bodie squirmed to get away, Doyle made full use of his advantage.

"Bastard," Doyle pronounced, as they tumbled amidst a riot of pin- wheeling arms and legs into the stables. The horses snorted and tossed their heads at their precipitous arrival. Composing themselves at once, Bodie and Doyle walked through the side exit with spurious dignity, neither aware of the wisps of straw adhering to their backs and dangling from their hair.

The day's performances were hectic with behind-the-scenes activity. The three men worked together and separately to prepare the horses and move them into place for their turn in the ring. In fact, the quietest moments of the night came for Doyle while he was astride the Andalusian, putting her through her paces.

For the first time since joining Circus Sergei, Doyle was well-pleased to see the completion of the second program. As the parade came to an end, and all had received accolades of applause, whistles and cheers, Doyle could think of nothing but brushing down and feeding Derek's herd of horses.

With the task broken up three ways, however, the trio were soon finished. Doyle looked in on Sanjay, who was breathing heavily, but without apparent difficulty. The tiger took note of his presence, then dropped immediately back into feline slumber.

A little subdued by their lengthy day--and the night preceding--all three adjourned to Doyle's caravan for a late-night meal. Lacking ingenuity and energy, Doyle put together toast and tea, while Bodie laid the table and Simon whipped up a packet of Angel Delight for afters.

"You know," Doyle said, "I've been meaning to ask what name we're going to perform under."

"The Flying Falconis, of course," Bodie said confidently.

"But that's Victor and Arturo, isn't it?"

Simon sniggered. Spreading marmalade on a slice of toast, he said, "That's only their performing name, Ray. And it doesn't even belong to them. Sergei made it up."


"Yes, of course. Their real names are Clive and Alex Bruce."

"Hmm." Chewing industriously, Doyle swallowed, then said, "So which of us is which?"


With a creamy laugh, Simon shot Doyle a sly look. "He means, which of you is Arturo and which Victor--right?"


"Well, let's see," Bodie said, unperturbed, "Arturo was the big, hunky, good-looking one--that'd have to be me, then, wouldn't it?"

"Conceited prick," Doyle commented without resentment. "How'd they come to be injured, anyway? I only ever heard that one or the other was out of commission--which, of course, created an opening for another flyer."

"Victor had a bad fall and ruined his arm just over a year ago now."

"What sort of fall?" Doyle persisted.

"Arturo dropped him," Bodie replied baldly. "Maybe you know more about it, Simon? That was before my time."

"There were stories," Simon said with a shrug. "You know how those things circulate."

"As in Arturo was rat-arsed and his timing was off?"

"Not so much that, Ray." Simon looked up from under his brows. The pose was unintentionally disarming. "More along the lines of, 'Was he tampered with?'"

Doyle pretended to recoil. "He? Surely, you mean 'it,' as in the cabling?"

"No. The day after the fall, Arturo claimed he'd been drugged. It didn't occur to him at the time--so he said--because he was really feeling okay; just his reflexes were skewed."

"Who could've done that?"

Simon spread his hands wide. "You know how we live. No one locks their doors--"

"Is that a gibe, Simon?" Bodie asked, with silky menace.

"I didn't say they don't knock! The opportunity was certainly there, if someone had a mind to do them damage."

"Did someone? I mean, was there bad feeling?"

Simon shook his head. "No. Very likable, the pair of them--for the most part."

"So what d'you think happened, Si?" Bodie asked.

A moment passed while Simon composed his thoughts. "While they weren't disliked, Victor could be a right ass when he wanted to, and Arturo wasn't much better. But whether there was foul play," Simon added a histrionic twist to the two words, "no one knows. There was no clear evidence, only Arturo's word for it--and he could have been trying to save face."

Shoving back his chair, Doyle rose and went to the refrigerator. "Did anyone think it odd when Arturo came to grief--what, a year?--later?" He drew out a can of lager and invitingly displayed it to his companions. Bodie promptly raised a hand; Simon gestured his refusal with cringing shoulders and horrified expression.

"Bodie was there when that happened; maybe he'd know. Can I have some tea, instead?"

"Of course." Doyle lobbed the can to Bodie, who caught it with ease. He lifted the kettle off the counter and lowered it under the tap.

"We just happened to be in the same pub," Bodie said a little defensively. "A row boiled up near the bar; by the time I even knew anything was going on, Arturo was being bounced off the walls. Made a mess of his shoulder, I understand."

"Why d'you ask, Ray?" Simon wondered, helping himself to a chocolate- coated biscuit. "You're not worried, are you?"

Doyle glanced over his shoulder as he plugged the flex into the base of the kettle. Despite an expression bordering on ennui, Bodie seemed to be following the conversation intently; Simon, on the other hand, appeared only mildly curious. "Like to watch my back. If someone was playing silly buggers with the rigging, I'd like to know."

"But you knew about the accidents--something about the accidents, anyway--before you hired on," Bodie commented.

"True. I didn't think much when Victor fell--Christ, it's part of the job, isn't it? But when Arturo had his shoulder done in, I kind of wondered."

"And toddled round to ask for a job, anyway?"

"Not much choice," Doyle replied with untrammelled good humor. "There aren't many slots for flyers these days, what with all the circuses dying left, right, and center."

"I don't believe that," Simon declared. "As good as you are, you could get on anywhere."

Swinging his toe across the small rug in front of the sink, Doyle replied realistically, "Only if you can get in the door to begin with. And--as I've told Bodie--I'm not keen on signing up with one of the big outfits."

"But why not? The pay would be ever so much better--and you wouldn't be expected to ride a horse, as well."

Doyle flashed Simon a chipped-tooth grin. "But I like the horses," he demurred. When Simon pulled a face at him, he said guilelessly, "I don't know; maybe there's less attraction in being only one of many."

"You'd be the star turn once you'd strutted your stuff," Simon argued implacably.

A large hand came out and ruffled Simon's hair. Bodie said, "Quit trying to emancipate him, eh? We need him."

"Hardly," Doyle said frankly. "Those crowds have been perfectly pleased with what they're getting right now--which doesn't include me on the trapeze."

"Yet. Once they do, we might be able to justify adding another nightly and matinee showing."

"And move home once in a while?" Doyle asked softly. At Bodie's querying look, he elaborated, "It does seem a bit strange that we never go anywhere, this being a travelling circus and all."

Frowning eloquently, Bodie said, "That's Sergei's doing."

Simon piped up, "He's done it before, y'know--made us stay in one place for far too long."

"Anyone have an idea why?" Doyle asked carefully.

Simon sighed. "We all know he gets up to something--but he's also always very careful to keep the rest of us out of it. Thank God!"

"Bodie?" Doyle poured boiling water into the rinsed-out teapot. "You're keeping very quiet."

Thoughtfully drinking from his can, Bodie swallowed and smacked his lips before saying, "Simon's right. There've been all sorts of rumors: That Sergei dabbles in assorted fiddles, runs illegal drugs--I've even heard that he sets up exchanges in the white slave trade."

"Sergei? Really?"

One corner of Bodie's mouth sliced upward, his eyes resting lazily on Doyle's disbelieving face. "All, believe it or not, to keep Circus Sergei afloat. There must be some truth to it," Bodie raised his hands and indicated their surroundings, "or none of this--or us--would be here. He has to get additional capital from somewhere."

"And d'you happen to know which particular offense our Sergei is guilty of?" Doyle asked lightly.

"No." Bodie slid out from under the table. "And I don't want to. It's a good circus, this is; without Sergei paying the rent, we'd all be back out on the street."

"Hm." Doyle carried the teapot to the table.

Stopping beside Simon, Bodie laid a hand on a thin shoulder. "You staying here tonight?"

"If Ray'll have me," Simon said wistfully.

"If he won't, I will. Thought I saw Sergei's unsmiling face lurking in the shadows when the house was emptying out. Which may mean nothing, of course; but it's better to be safe."

Looking gratefully up at him, Simon murmured, "Thanks, anyway, Bodie; but I brought my toothbrush and nightie round after the first show."

"So long as you're looked after." Raising a brow meaningfully at Doyle, Bodie said, "And our Ray seems well capable of doing that."

Doyle wrinkled his nose at him.

"Be prepared for an early start, mate. We're going to be at it the better part of the day, now the matinees are over for a while."

"I'll be ready."

"G'night, then."

"G'night, Bodie." Doyle trailed the other man to the door, and stood on the top step, ostensibly to let Basil out, but in reality to watch Bodie walk off into the night.

"Sorry," Simon said simply, when Doyle came back inside, a yawning terrier at his feet.


"I'm being inconvenient, aren't I?"

Doyle patted the top of Simon's head. "Yes. But it can't be helped. Bodie and I aren't complaining, so forget it, eh?"

Studying Doyle assessingly, Simon remarked, "It'll make it that much better, y'know."


"The waiting, I mean. Fireworks and noisy cannon--the lot."

Doyle took a deep breath. "I'll remember that. While you're finishing off that pot, I'll just commandeer the bathroom, shall I?"

"It is your caravan, Ray," Simon said innocently.

"You're a bloody nuisance, Simon," Doyle informed the other man good- naturedly. "Don't know why I put up with you."

"Because I'm gorgeous, and nubile, and--"

"And Derek would kill me if you came to grief."

Simon laughed contentedly. "There is that."

"There is, indeed."



Woken by the sound of his door opening, followed by a firm, familiar touch upon his shoulder, Doyle uncomplainingly escaped Simon's embrace and the dancing tattoo of four constantly moving feet on top of his chest. Nodding gratefully when Bodie whispered an offer of tea, Doyle took himself into the bathroom and washed up, the cold water doing much to bring him out of the lethargy of clinging slumber.

They were outside and running up the far slope a quarter of an hour later, the surrounding night still darkly grey and resisting the arrival of a chill dawn. Bodie explained what awaited them in the ring once they had completed their work-out, which would be somewhat abbreviated this morning to allow more time on the bars.

One by one, Bodie ticked off the various elements of their new routine-- all of which he intended to put to the test this morning. Doyle silently marvelled at the degree of effort required to organize so many different individuals in such a short period of time. While Bodie and Doyle were performing in the upper rigging, Riley would provide the sonorous narrative, backed by the band's rendering of a most varied musical selection; Des would be on the floor in the shadows, operating the web; and Donal McShane, the electrician, would supervise the frequent lighting changes. Doyle had, of course, seen far more entailed productions--but all had involved considerably more participants, as well. He feared that their shoestring operation would inevitably be exposed for what it was--and suffer accordingly in comparison to the grand circus acts.

But Bodie's contained enthusiasm was catching despite his customary reserve. Through the images created by Bodie's words, Doyle could envision the effect he wished to create, the enchantment they might weave for their audience, even the emotions their little story might evoke.

Inside the Big Tent, the magic became very mundane. The net went up while they worked out on the mat. The band members, bundled in sweaters, woollen trousers, and fingerless hand warmers slumped sleepily over their instruments. Seemingly unaffected by the cold or the hour of morning, Riley sat on one of the benches near the ring and scribbled on a pad of paper; Basil, with her nose buried under her tail, napped in Doyle's jacket near the ringmaster's feet. Des chatted with Tom and Donal, all three drinking steaming hot tea while they waited for the two flyers to finish their warm-ups.

A short while later, dawn cast orange and yellow streamers across the eastern sky, tingeing the worn canvas that tautly formed the Big Tent with a hazy glow. Wishing for the heat of the sun on his leotarded back, Doyle rode the web, hoisted by Des, up to the platform. Familiar with the short, stocky man's strength now, he was quick to entrust himself to the other man's care.

Balanced on the slat of wood, Doyle covered his hands with resin, idly looking down on the people below. Riley set his pad of paper and pen aside, then tucked the edge of Doyle's jacket round Basil as he stood up. While the tall, lanky man strode across the sawdust-coated floor to his usual place just inside the ring, Donal doused the lights focused on the upper rigging, so that nightfall seemed to descend once more.

"This'll be rough, lads," Riley said to no one in particular. Whisking the single, folded sheet of paper from a breast pocket, he glanced round at everyone, and up at the shrouded trapezes. "You lot ready up there?" Answered by Bodie's vibrant, "Get on with it, you showy old sod,'" Riley nodded lugubriously and cleared his throat commandingly before beginning to read.

The script, taken from Bodie's skeletal first draft, had been expanded and refined by Lily. While her authorship was credible, Riley's full- bodied, reverberating voice and the remarkable control with which he wielded it, lent the words a richness they lacked on their own. Smiling to himself, Doyle let the last of his doubts slip away; Bodie knew precisely what he was doing.

Cued by the script, Doyle gripped the bar, waiting for the instant that the spotlight snapped on. It surged out of the darkness, fixing him in its center, burning him with its brilliance. He lunged forward, young, vigorous, full of spunk, frolicking with youthful disdain of mortality, his every movement executed with carefree expertise. Bodie caught him and sent him back to his bar, Doyle's returning pirouette exuberantly graceful and apparently effortless. As Riley spoke, attempting to match his pace to Doyle's actions, the band joined in, lagging at first, but, guided by Riley's gestures, soon adding, rather than detracting, from the mood.

Doyle recognized the music, but could not name it: a sprightly Vienna waltz, burgeoning with charming, unfledged sparkle. He danced to it, employing the movements he and Bodie had choreographed so diligently over the past days. Back and forth he went, spinning, tumbling, folding over and under in seemingly impossible positions. Having established himself as the quintessential jejune scapegrace, Doyle paused briefly on the platform to catch his breath and to resin his palms. He then swung out over the floor of the ring, forming a bird's nest, reaching out for Bodie's waiting arms--

--and it was no longer Bodie, the kindly benefactor, meeting him, but a jealous deity, bent on his destruction. The spotlight cut from garish white to jarring red, making the mock battle appear far more fearsome than it was. Strident musical notes stabbed raucously into the air from below, and Riley's stunned voice imparted his alarm.

The contest ended suddenly and shockingly. Violently thrust away from his ruthless attacker, Doyle, now the youth fatally wounded, dropped like a stone. He landed on his back in the middle of the net, amidst drumrolling tension. The music swelled dramatically as he bounced back into the air, struggling to rise, torso straining upward, shoulders and head flung back--but gravity claimed him, and he crumpled to the net.

The lights blinked out.

Harlequin Airs Plate 10 thumbnail

Riley allowed a beat, a single pulse, before reporting the tragedy that had befallen the youthful hero. In the darkness, the end of the dangling web dropped onto Doyle's flank. Moving only his arm, he hooked his elbow through the loop and gave the rope a tiny tug. In seconds the web began to reel him upward, slowly, but without pause. Doyle, hanging limply, was washed by a pale blue glow. Higher he rose, taken into the area of the upper rigging--here, the realm of the gods--Riley's reverent tones calling upon the non-existent audience for its hushed support, while the band softly underlay all with a haunting musical motif.

The web brought Doyle alongside his trap; in character, he sluggishly reached out for it, and took hold. Clutching it to him with both arms, he swayed back and forth, his body describing a small arc. The solitary, filtered, blue light shifted to red once more. Several other lights came on at once, blinding white clashing with lurid orange and bloody red. As Riley's narration rose in volume and urgency, the lights strobed wildly, and the band's discordant fanfare approached cacophony. Doyle spasmed as if run through with an electric shock. This was the intercession of the gods--those who would give the youthful hero immortality in return for the use of his warrior's spirit.

Hardened now, and imbued with uncanny power, Doyle began to stir, creakily at first, then with increasing fluidity. Suspended in the center of shattering brilliance, and accompanied by somber, dramatic music and Riley's impassioned voice, Doyle lengthened his swing until he could hand himself over to the once more benign Bodie. They floated across the better part of the ring and back; then Doyle spun free and returned to his own trapeze. Pushing off strongly with his legs, he widened the measure of his arc, rapidly gaining speed and momentum. Breaking from the bar, he rolled into a double, backward somersault. Coming out of it with heart-stopping speed, he yet uncurled in time to connect with Bodie's waiting hands, which clasped his wrists in turn and held tight.

The lights went out once more. Doyle returned to his platform, striking a pose as the huge overhead lights came up, illuminating the entire ring. Chest heaving, he found Bodie, sitting casually on his bar, a brow arched inquiringly his way.

Out of the silence below came a soft ripple of applause which gradually increased in intensity. Glancing downward, Doyle was startled to discover that their audience had grown. Springing from one foot to the other with an elegant flourish, and beaming with achievement, Doyle looked across at Bodie once more. "And what do you think?"

"Needs work," replied Bodie succinctly.

He was right, of course. For all that the performance had gone from beginning to end without a major flaw, there had been choppy transitions from one musical piece to another, Riley's pacing had not always matched Doyle's actions, and the lights had failed to track Doyle at least twice. This first run-through had given everyone an idea of what they were dealing with, and from that baseline, they could fashion their improvements.

As Bodie had promised, he and Doyle spent the better part of the day working on the routine. When not in the air, they debated with their confederates on the ground, going over every aspect of the performance. At noon, Bodie finally called a halt, to Doyle's mingled relief and regret. He was exhausted, having subsisted on innumerable cups of tea and a couple of dried out scones provided by an unknown donor; yet, the adrenalin was still bubbling in his veins, and he was loath to quit with so much energy fizzing in his body.

Throwing a towel in Doyle's direction, Bodie reminded him, "Sanjay'll be wondering where you've got to, y'know. Time for his stuff."

"Oh, shit," Doyle winced. "I forgot."

Amused, Bodie began to climb into his sweatsuit. "I noticed. Feeling better about the routine, are you?"

Doyle flashed two fingers at him. "Know-all. Yeah, now I've seen it all of a piece--I think it may just work."

"I'm so pleased."

"Bugger off. You can't've been so certain it would work."

"Sure he can," Riley interposed, stepping onto the lowest bench beside them. He handed Doyle his sweatshirt. "Has an instinct for what works, does Bodie."

"Thank you." Bodie seemed a trifle nonplused by the ringmaster's praise.

"No need to be modest, son." Riley picked up his paper and pen. "You've got a talent for organization and execution. And Lord knows you had to've seen how much better Doyle would be over Roger. It all speaks of a military mind, I'd say."

"Got you pegged," Doyle attested.

"And the heart of a baroque romantic," Riley added devastatingly.

"Christ," Bodie muttered, as if wounded.

"But that's all right. It might not work with the outside world, but in the circus, it's essential." A sheet of paper slipped from the pad and fluttered to the ground.

Doyle bent over and picked it up. Handing it back, he said, "Here you go."

"Ta. 'S a letter to my family," Riley said unnecessarily. He tucked the sheet of paper into place with the others. Looking down his long nose at Doyle, he said archly, "I write to them every day."

Ignoring the unstated challenge, Doyle asked blandly, "How long since you've seen them?"

"Two years." At the expression of polite comprehension that flitted across Doyle's face, Riley went on, "I can't get a job there, y'see; I have a record."

"Murder, mayhem, sedition--?" Doyle began gamely.


Riley raised a hand to end Bodie's intervention. "No, it's all right, Bodie." He smiled at Doyle. "Murder, actually. I killed a man--some would say justifiably--after I found out that he'd raped my wife. She had his baby while I was in jail. As there were extenuating circumstances--legal jargon, y'know--the court eventually reviewed my case and I was released, supposedly with my name cleared. But no one will hire me there. Not at home."


Riley scooped Doyle's jacket up off the bench. "So I came to England-- being an expat and all--so that I could find a job. There aren't many people with my sort of credentials, y'know."

"Show him the pictures," Bodie suggested.

"It is only fair," Riley said with a touch of malice.

Grinning a little sheepishly, Doyle took his jacket, forbearing comment until Riley had peeled his wallet out of a back pocket. There were many pictures stored therein, all of which had been viewed and viewed again with loving eyes until the colors had faded from over-handling.

"She's very pretty," Doyle said truthfully, studying the dark-haired woman who smiled hopefully into the camera. On her lap sat a sturdy, well-fed child who reflected her coloring, rather than Riley's sandy hair and fair features. "Your son--?" He caught himself too late.

"Yes," Riley said, unhesitating. "My son, Neil."

"How old is he now?" Doyle peered closely at the picture.

"Almost eight." Riley returned the pictures to his pocket. "He longs to see the circus. Says he would like to be a ringmaster, like me. Melanie says she will come if I will only send her plane fare. But it could be another year."

The longing was stark in the other man's eyes--yet completely removed from his well-trained voice.

"Your Neil will be nine by then," Doyle remarked. "The perfect age to start him in the circus."

Clearly having expected pity, Riley accorded Doyle a closer look before responding. "Yes. That is what I think, too."

"So, what are you plotting?" Bodie asked once more.

While Bodie manned the shovel, Doyle shifted the bucket from spot to spot and scattered fresh straw. Sanjay lay in his customary spot, but as the morning was grey and drizzly, the canvas had been left in place, and the tiger was forced to bask in the unwarming light of a low-wattage bulb.

"Don't know what you're talking about," Doyle muttered. Sanjay had not improved during the night; Doyle silently weighed the benefits of calling in a veterinarian.

"Come on. I can see that crusading glint in your eyes--even from here, and through the stench of this abomination Derek calls shit."

Crouching down before Sanjay, Doyle twisted a quick glance over his shoulder. "You'll have to be more specific than that."

"Riley," Bodie said with heavy emphasis. "You're planning something, aren't you?"

"You mean, a way to get his family over before the Millennium?"

"I knew it! Hardly here a week and you're trying to undo the world's injustices."

"If you knew what I was thinking, why'd you ask?" Doyle peered into the tiger's half-closed eyes; they seemed clear, but on no account could they be described as bright.

"Always good to have clarification. So what d'you have in mind? A raffle--we could give Sergei away? Except nobody'd have him. Or a pool-- ? No, scratch that."

"Sounds as though you've already been thinking about it." A low, vibrant purr pleaded Doyle's continued attentions. Settling on his knees behind the tiger's forelegs, Doyle let his eyes wander over the lemony yellow coat broken all down his spine with jagged black stripes.

Bodie admitted, "Not only me."

"But there is a plan? Tell me: Maybe I can help."

"Actually, you're an important part of it."

Alerted to something indefinable in Bodie's tone, Doyle looked round at him once more. "Go on."

"Let's finish the cat first, eh?"

"Why?" Dark brows skimmed low over Doyle's narrowed eyes. With a final ruffling of fur, he bade the tiger good bye, and resumed his chores.

"You'll know 'why' when I tell you."

"Bad as that, is it?"

"Just wait till we've given this old bugger his medicine. Don't want you stirring him up, y'know.


But no amount of cajoling would get Bodie to confess his secret; Doyle would have to be patient until they had completed their tasks in the tiger's cage. Once the soiled straw had been removed and the water bowl refreshened, Doyle took his now-comfortable position behind the tiger's shoulders so that he could brace the huge, powerful head preparatory to dosing him.

But the semi-slumbering feline accepted Bodie's ministrations without protest, seemingly removing himself altogether from his surroundings. As the aged throat muscles worked, Doyle lightly fingered the thick fur. "Did he take it all?"

Holding the empty syringe up to the wan light, Bodie nodded. "The lot."

Mouth twisted bleakly, Doyle mumbled, "Although I don't see that it's doing him much good."

Tipping his head toward the door of the cage for Doyle to join him, Bodie said, "He is old, Ray. Sometimes it's kinder to let 'em go."

All expression vanished from Doyle's face. "Think I don't know that?" Giving the tiger a pensive caress, Doyle took to his feet, and began to follow Bodie out. "So tell me your idea for getting Riley's brood over here."

"Two people hardly constitute a brood. And it's not my idea, really."

"You're stall--"

"Oh, Ray! Bodie!' Simon swung into the tiger's tent from the connecting corridor. "We need your help."

"What's up?" Doyle secured the cage opening before regarding Simon closely.

"And who's this 'we'?" Bodie demanded.

"I've already got Tom and Des and Jeremy. But we need someone who knows horses."

"What for?" Doyle asked, his patience already strained. He glanced over his shoulder at the snoring tiger. Although the animal's breathing sounded rather harsh, Sanjay appeared to be sleeping peacefully; he had not been disturbed by Simon's arrival.

"Mickey's got cast in his stall."

Bodie's face contorted into a grotesque mask. "Oh, bugger."

"Great," Doyle concurred gloomily.

"When's Derek due back?" Bodie asked, aggrieved.

"Not for hours; you know that. We have to have Mickey up and ready for the night's house well before then, Bodie!"

Both hands raised defensively against Simon's piercing entreaty, Bodie said sharply, "Okay, okay!" He glanced sidelong at Doyle. "Ray?"

No more enthusiastic than Bodie, Doyle shrugged. "Can't just leave him like that, y'know."

"Don't I just." Looking well put upon, Bodie groused, "Better be at it before the silly nag starts to panic."

Panic, however, appeared to be the furthest thing from Mickey's mind. He lay on his back, wedged in the corner formed by floor and stable wall, all four legs sticking out at improbable angles, his long neck curved toward the front of the stall, eyes watchful but not in the least alarmed.

"Thank God it's not Flip," Simon said irrelevantly. "He raised a terrific ruckus the time he got stuck. Almost killed us when we tried to set him to rights."

"No telling how long Mickey's going to put up with this, though," Bodie pointed out grimly.

The bay's dark eyes swivelled toward Bodie with ineffable trust.

"Good Lord, will you look at him?" Doyle snorted. He slipped the latch and swung the gate open. The horse was completely harmless, so long as he did not begin to flail those sharp-edged hooves. "Tom, you're a strong lad," Doyle said, flagging the other man to his side. "Come over here with me."

"Keep the gate open, Si," Bodie ordered. "Mickey'll need a bit of room to stand up in once he gets his feet under him." Looking from Des to Jeremy, Bodie said, "Only need one of you. All five of us in here, we'll just get in each other's way."

Jeremy gave his smaller companion a shove. "Go on, mate. You helped Derek when I was down sick with flu."

"You weren't sick with flu, Jem; you just said that to get out of working." "What're you on about? I--"

While the two men argued back and forth, Doyle said to Tom, "Whatever you do, be careful of his feet, eh? He may be taking this awfully well, but he'll come up all at once. He could hurt you without meaning to."

Refraining from comment, Tom chose to glower at Doyle instead. Accepting this as his lot in the order of things, Doyle simply turned toward Bodie and raised his brows.

Acknowledging the look and interpreting its meaning with ease, Bodie said firmly, "That's enough! One of you, out!"

Bodie's tone of voice brooked no argument; Des stepped smartly through the stall gate. "Everybody else, stand as clear as you can, right? We'll pull him over together."

Four sets of hands came out and grasped the horse's ankles. With their combined strength, the sixty stone horse was smoothly brought onto his side. A hint of muscle bunching in the region of the left hamstring was all the warning Doyle required to shove himself violently against Tom's side, carrying both of them to the opposite end of the enclosure. Before they had even connected with the partition, Mickey's hind legs flashed out; they slammed up hard against the back of the stall, almost taking it over. Mickey lurched to his forefeet, head stretched right out to give him the balance needed to raise his hindquarters. Then he was shaking vigorously, straw flying into the air and cascading down onto his hapless rescuers.

"You okay?" Bodie snapped.

"I am," Doyle replied. "Tom?"

Ashen-faced, Tom clutched a hand to his chest. "Felt that hoof slice right past me. If you hadn't--"

"He's fine," Doyle said. He thumped Tom lightly on the shoulder. "How about tea, Simon? Think we could all use some."

"A pint would be better," Jeremy muttered.

"Sorry, Jem," Simon said wryly. "This house is dry. Tom, come in here and sit down; you're looking bloody awful. Are you sure you weren't hit? Can't always tell right away, y'know."

Bodie smothered a laugh and turned away before the others, except Doyle who was watching him, could notice.

Keeping his own face quite straight, Doyle sidled up alongside him, stepping out of the way of the other three men who were lumbering after Simon into the tackroom. The bay now stood with his nose eyelash-deep in feed, seemingly unfazed by his traumatic experience.

"You still trying to earn points with this lot?" Bodie murmured under his breath.


"Rescuing Tom like that. Mickey almost had you, too."

"He would've had Tom for certain, if I hadn't got him out of the way."

Bodie's eyes were unreadable. "I don't care about Tom."

Doyle reached out and slapped the horse's withers. "Neither does Mickey."

Finally freed from his temporary duties in mid-afternoon, Doyle announced his intention of driving into town to visit the shops. Bodie, who had spoken little, despite never being more than a stall away, immediately offered him a lift in his Mini. Having no plausible excuse for refusing--other than that he wanted to place a call to Cowley--Doyle felt compelled to accept.

With Basil on his lap, and shrouded in stonewall silence during the short ride, Doyle wondered, however, just why Bodie had bothered: Every conversational olive branch went stoutly ignored, until Doyle set his mouth in an even line and gave up altogether. He kept his eyes on the scenery after that, watching the less developed, outer edges of town swiftly alter to concrete and brick as they entered the town proper.

For all his remoteness, once in the grocery shop, Bodie became Doyle's shadow. It was impossible to ignore him, hovering a step back from Doyle's elbow. Nevertheless Doyle pretended to, concentrating on making his choices along one aisle and now another. Occasionally, Bodie would add something to the trolley, scrupulously keeping his items separate from Doyle's.

But Doyle knew it was only a matter of time before Bodie stated his mind, which Doyle suspected was simmering with repressed irritation. In the event, Bodie's unnatural restraint was snapped by an unlikely item: a packet of curry mix. As Bodie picked it off the shelf, Doyle remarked jokily, "Living dangerously there, mate."

"Me?" Bodie exclaimed in a furious hiss, rounding all too quickly on his companion, who instinctively fell back before that ice-cold demeanour.

"I can't hold a candle to you, Doyle."

Staring at the other man blankly, Doyle said, "You're angry."

"Bloody right I'm angry. You moron. D'you really think I fancy the idea of digging Mickey's foot out of your forehead?"

Doyle winced. "Keep your voice down, fool."

Bodie's eyes flashed unmistakable warning signals, his mouth pursed petulantly, his face strangely waxen.

Comprehension surging through him, Doyle's first reaction was to laugh. "This is ridiculous, d'you know that?" Almost belatedly sensing that Bodie was a hair's breadth away from clubbing him, Doyle sobered at once, and laid a precautionary hand on Bodie's right forearm and squeezed it mindfully. "You giving me gyp about that--Christ, I haven't heard you complain when we're up on the rigging!"

"That's different."


"I'm in control there."

"We're partners, Bodie." Doyle opened his mouth to say more, then decided that he did not have to. We're partners. How long since he had said that, and truly meant it? Bodie was staring down at his arm, where Doyle's hand still gripped it. "Partners," Doyle said on a note of enlightenment, the kind that heralded the unveiling of the mysteries of the universe.

"You're an idiot," Bodie marvelled aloud.

Unoffended by this appraisal, Doyle smiled widely. "Takes one to know one."

Reluctant amusement broke through the obsidian hardness of Bodie's eyes. "Yeah. I reckon it does." He raised his unencumbered wrist and consulted his watch. "You going to spend the rest of the day here? Lily wants to see me about my costume before the performance tonight."

"So why'd you offer to drive me into town? Or were you worried I might smash my bike into a bloody great lorry?" At Bodie's glacial stare, Doyle only broadened his toothy display. When this did not earn him a clout on the side of the head--although Bodie appeared to consider the prospect--Doyle safely released the tensed arm, and began to chivvy his companion toward the check-out with unsubtle nudges. All the while he mused to himself that he was very likely in more danger when baiting Bodie than at any other time--and wondered if Bodie himself were aware of that little conundrum.

Abandoned by Bodie the instant the engine of the Mini ceased idling-- because, according to Bodie, he feared retribution from Lily--Doyle retired to his own caravan. Faced with a couple of hours to while away, he occupied himself at first by storing his purchases. With Basil settled on the rug with a new chew toy, he then sipped a heartening, hot mug of tea while deliberating on what he might do with this brief respite. His intention of ringing Cowley had been totally confounded by Bodie's sullen presence; in that state of mind, Bodie would undoubtedly have hung round the very phone kiosk while Doyle had placed the call.

A little later, rinsing his hands in the bathroom sink, Doyle caught his reflection in the looking glass. Thoughtfully, he picked through his beard. Evans, his hairdresser, had warned him that he should be prepared to maintain the artificial aging process. While the hairdresser's handiwork still evinced authenticity, Doyle decided to take advantage of his few idle moments, just to ensure that he did not get caught slack at a later time--although Doyle had to remind himself that he was not expected to be here more than a couple of weeks. Still, it could not hurt to take precautions.

Making himself comfortable on the edge of the bath, Doyle commenced his repair work. Mystified, Basil lay in the doorway, alternately worrying her toy and overseeing Doyle's curious behavior. She was incapable of comprehending this new ritual in which Doyle painted a creamy mixture of specially prepared bleach and peroxide onto his beard--which had been carefully parted and held back with sticky tape for a natural overlap-- nor the waiting period that followed during which Doyle sat boredly rapping his knuckles on his knee, hummed to himself, and stared fixedly into space.

Basil would have understood even less her companion's jumbled thoughts, for Doyle's mind was back on Bodie.

Partners, Doyle ruminated. When a bloke knew what to expect from his partner, he didn't waste time trying to nursemaid him. Bodie was learning that, it appeared, slowly but surely. He patently trusted Doyle's skills on the trapeze and his ability to look after himself against a human assailant--Tom and Sergei, for example--but he had yet to learn all Doyle's special talents--his physical speed, split-second instincts, his fire-born wisdom. That would come. What fascinated Doyle was this unlikely aspect of his partner--for the urge to protect obviously did not rest easy with Bodie; in fact, Doyle could see how he fought it, even scorned it. But, for all his resistance, it was not something he could deny, however much he might like to, and at the slightest whiff of a fray, if he believed Doyle might have need of him, he cast aside all pretense and plunged right in, no matter the hazard.

Bodie, quite simply, cared more than he ought to.

Rousing from his wool-gathering twenty minutes later, Doyle rinsed off the concoction with a groan of relief, then minutely examined the results in the mirror. Although the sticky tape, when removed, had taken with it an unwilling strand or two, Doyle decided that Evans would have declared the operation a success.

With nearly two hours left to kill before he got kitted up, Doyle decided to take a turn about the circus compound. Undaunted by a misting, very cold rain, Basil trotted at his heels, and together they strolled down the muddy path to the sideshow.

The barkers were in their stalls, sprucing up their come-ons in anticipation of the night's spenders. Doyle was greeted often, and with real friendliness, the "new-boy" taint having sloughed off unnoticed sometime in the last week. This ready acceptance came as something of a surprise to him, for he remembered how clannish circus people could be-- not unlike CI5 operatives, who were legendarily slow to warm to a newcomer. Such treatment usually suited Ray Doyle, who had ever stood apart from his fellow agents. In this present reality, however, being made a member of the circus community was gratifying, for it meant he was playing his role well. Perhaps he was playing it too well.

As Doyle wandered along, responding with a wave and a smile to those who took note of him, he reflected that he had never adjusted so effortlessly to an undercover persona. For years he had believed that the resin and bright lights of his youth had been expunged from the deepest corners of his mind; yet, a week here, and he might never have moved on. In fact, there were times of late when he could not say with any certainty where Ray Doyle, CI5 pretender, left off, and Ray Doyle, circus habitué, took over.

Perhaps, he mused, this was simply all part of the changing process that had begun in London. There, doubts and festering discontent had grown to unignorable proportions. Here, he could pretend that Ray Doyle lived only to shine as Circus Sergei's newest aerial star--and to further his nascent relationship with his partner, William Bodie.

And what would William Bodie think when Doyle was recalled to London?

Maybe, Doyle would not go back.

By this time on the verge of the moors bordering the north end of the compound, Doyle threw his head back and laughed out loud. The blustery wind, its icy edge sharpening by the minute, tore the sound to tatters.

"Bodie's right: I am an idiot, Basil."

The dog sat shivering by his trainers, awaiting his pleasure.

"And so are you," he said, not ungently. "Let's have a quick run, and we'll go home. Dinner for you, tea for me; what d'you say?"

Tongue curled pinkly in the middle of a wide grin, Basil came up off the ground, to dance on her hind legs, forefeet raised high. Doyle took off into the heather at a run; Basil, like a bullet, shot after him.

An hour later, outfitted in his Regency finery, Doyle bounded out of the caravan, and almost ran over Sergei, who had just appeared from round the side of his own unit.

"Sorry!' Doyle automatically put out a hand to steady the other man.

Gaining his footing with dignity, Sergei subjected Doyle to close scrutiny. "You will be performing on the trapeze Wednesday?"

"Yes," Doyle replied. "As we've arranged."

"I watched you this morning, from the back of the Tent."

After allowing Sergei a moment in which to say more, Doyle finally prompted, "And, what did you think?"

"It is not circus, as I grew up with it," Sergei replied thoughtfully. "Then, we made the audience believe that merely being caught by another person forty feet above the floor of the ring was high magic. But these days, people demand more. I think that is what you will give them."

Strangely affected, for Sergei had spoken with obvious sincerity, Doyle gave the circus owner a thin smile. "Bodie thinks it'll work."

"Bodie's instincts are usually the best. Not always," Sergei amended with a flash of teeth. "But usually." He brought up both hands and tidied Doyle's frilly cravat. "This costume suits you."

"As much as the leotard?" Doyle murmured.

"Every bit." Sergei fell back a pace. "You are welcome to join me for a drink after the performance."

Doyle shook his head. "Thanks, but I don't think so. Been a long day, y'know. Be ready for bed by then."

Eyes dark and hungry roamed over Doyle's face. Sergei said softly, "I have a bed. And you are welcome to use it." He licked his mouth, then looked aside. "They'll be waiting for you in the stables. I'm sure Simon has worn Derek out by now, but he ought to be ready for you."

"Yes, I saw him return while I was taking a run on the moors," Doyle said. "Empty-handed, apparently."

"Apparently." Eyes falling on Doyle's face once more, Sergei said, "Don't forget my offer, will you? I keep a bottle of finest malt whisky; I'll look forward to sharing it with you." Touching Doyle's arm lightly, he started off again, his footfalls heavy on the soft ground.

A low sound, less than a growl and more than a grumbling whine rippled from Basil's throat.

Glancing down at the dog standing protectively in front of his feet, Doyle said, "Good idea, Bas: I'll hold him down, you disembowel him." He gave her a prod with the toe of his boot. Muttering sourly to himself, he said, "Malt whisky, indeed. Cowley'd get along with old Sergei just fine."

Monday's house was dismally sparse. There was something hugely disheartening about performing to so few onlookers, no matter how enthusiastic they might be--and this group, die-hard circus devotees, enjoyed themselves loudly and at length.

After the parade, Doyle led Tuppence to the stables, accompanied by Bodie, who was tiresomely continuing to keep his distance. It was on the tip of Doyle's tongue to invite him back to his caravan--that, after all, had been the plan two nights ago--but Bodie's lack of interest and Doyle's pride held the question deep in his throat.

Derek, looking weary and underslept, took the horses and led them back to the stalls. As Bodie walked away with a remote "G'night, all," Doyle decided to remain and lend a hand for a while. Gratitude lightening the grey cast of his bluff features, Derek clapped a hand on Doyle's shoulder and gathered up a grooming kit for him.

Five horses later, Doyle bid the other man good night, too, and, after a brief peek into Sanjay's cage, where he found the tiger sleeping soundly, started exhaustedly for home. The night was frigid, a raw breeze cutting right through the sweat to the bone. Half asleep on his feet, Doyle came up to the door of the caravan without a hint of something amiss--until he touched the knob, and the door swung noiselessly out on its hinges.

Brought wide-awake all at once, Doyle slid a hand through the narrow gap and flicked on the central light. Starkly illuminated, the kitchen-cum- dining area exhibited appalling vandalism. Biting off a curse, Doyle shoved the door wide and stalked inside.

"Shades of Roger," he groaned, boot heels scraping across shattered glass and pottery.

Batting material gushed out of huge rents in the padded booths like disemboweled entrails. The curtains hung in shreds, and various unpleasant, smelly substances had been smeared wantonly over the glass.

Temper rising as his eye caught sight of each new outrage, Doyle glanced down at Basil's water and food bowls, now in shattered pieces on the floor.

"Basil?" he whispered.

Since he had started leaving the window open for her, Basil had made a habit of letting herself in each night before the conclusion of the last performance, so she could nestle warmly on the bed to await Doyle's return. The bed, however, was a nightmare, sheets and duvet shredded and thrown about, the mattress wrenched off the frame and leaning drunkenly against the opposite wall in the middle of the narrow corridor that led to the bathroom.

There was no sign of Basil.


A hesitant whine caught his ear; Doyle raced to the kitchen window, heedless of the debris-mined floor. He peered out: The bike stood unmolested, but Basil was nowhere in sight. "Basil, where are you?"

The sound came again, and with it a sort of slithering, scraping sound. In the shadows at the base of the caravan's skirting, the black tip of a narrow muzzle appeared through a very small crevice formed by the joining of panels. "Basil, come on, girl!"

After a bout of frantic wriggling, the whole dog materialized. She gave herself a fierce shake, then raised her head, her nose twitching as she verified the identity of the man in the caravan. Then she leapt up onto the bike, and from there, through the window, right into Doyle's arms.

He held her close to his chest for a moment. "You know who did this, don't you?" he said in a low, harsh voice. "And so do I."

In the next instant, Doyle was out the door and striding across the short distance that separated his caravan from Sergei's. Standing with legs braced apart on the top step, he hammered at the door with a fist, and kept hammering at it until Sergei shouted furiously from inside, "Hang on, damn it! Give me a minute, will you? What the--"

The door swung open, Doyle sidestepping to avoid being struck.

"My caravan," he said coldly. "Someone's turned it into a tip."

Cinching the belt of his dressing gown at his waist, Sergei frowned soberly at him. "What are you shouting about, Doyle?"

"My fucking caravan," Doyle said with vicious enunciation. "It's been turned upside down."

Sergei leaned against the jamb. "Bad?" he asked.

"A little," Doyle intoned caustically.

Folding his arms across his bulky chest, Sergei murmured, "Roger again, probably."

"What's 'Roger again'?" Bodie's voice came from the darkness near the front of the caravan.

Glowering down at his shadowed form, Sergei said, "Doyle says his caravan has been done over. Maybe you'd know something about that?"

In the faint overflow of light spilling through Sergei's door, Bodie could just be seen to smile. "Oh, I might. But I don't think Roger had a hand in it--not this time."

"Who, then?" Sergei drew himself up to his full height.

"Hardly matters. The mutt okay, Doyle?"


Interrupting abruptly, Sergei said, "You'll need a place to stay for the night. You're welcome here, Doyle."

Pure rage burned through Doyle's veins. He only just managed to keep his hands round Basil--and away from Sergei's throat.

"That's all right, Alf," Bodie said in a maddening drawl. "He was planning on spending the night with me, anyway."

Sergei's eyes shot from Bodie to Doyle, who met the circus owner's searching gaze with barely concealed enmity.

"Better luck next time," said Doyle meaningfully. He clattered down the wooden steps and walked past Bodie without look or word.

"You know he did it," Bodie stated flatly, falling in step beside him.

"Of course I do. Was very insistent about my coming round for a drink tonight. Didn't occur to me he'd go this far, though, did it?"

"Ray, we're here. Ray! Where're you going?" Bodie demanded, when Doyle passed by Bodie's caravan without a hint of slowing.

Doyle spun round then, and said evenly, "I know where I'm not wanted-- but thanks for the offer. It gave Sergei the hump, anyway. But the stables'll do for me, thanks."

"Not wanted! What's that supposed to mean?"

A light went on next door in Hannah's kitchen. Lowering his voice, Doyle stated precisely, "You've made it clear all day, Bodie, that you'd be happier without my company. Let's leave it at that, okay?"

"Stupid bug-- Get in here, will you?" When Doyle ignored him, Bodie snarled, "Just for a bloody drink, okay?"

Hannah's voice wafted tiredly through her front window, "God, Ray, do what he asks, will you?"

Swallowing an acid retort, Doyle said through clenched teeth, "Sorry, Hannah."

Smoke from a cigarette billowed out through the curtains into the night. "If you think it will help you settle your differences, you can leave Basil with me for the night."

"Good night, Hannah," Doyle snapped. He shouldered his way up the steps past Bodie, boot heels coming into loud contact with the linoleum floor.

Bodie came up after him at once, slamming the door shut, then leaned back against it, as though he might have to fight Doyle to keep him inside.

This impression was not lost on Doyle, who stood in the middle of the kitchen floor, unthinkingly cradling Basil against his chest. He eyed the other man without liking.

Bodie spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "What'll you have? Whisky? Beer?"

For the first time, Doyle noticed that Bodie was dressed in his terry robe, haute école boots, and to all appearances, nothing else. Thawing the slightest bit, Doyle remarked, "Go back to bed, mate. I'll fold the booth out and sleep there."

"Christ, you can be thick," Bodie grated out. "D'you want something to drink, or don't you?"

Sighing heavily, Doyle glanced round, his eyes taking in Bodie's neatly appointed caravan, in such jarring contrast to his own. "Dunno."

"You are in a state." Bodie left the door and reached out for Basil. "Let me have the--' On a sudden high-pitched bark, the dog's head lunged out and sharp teeth snapped at Bodie's hand.

"Why, you little-- C'mere, you!"

Basil growled, every muscle in her body gathering to spring, until Doyle said, "'S all right, Bas. You know Bodie won't hurt you."

"She isn't worried about her," Bodie corrected him. "Give her to me, will you?"

Doyle did as Bodie asked; the dog went into his arms stiffly, but without further complaint.

"Time for you to be in bed," Bodie said darkly. He lifted up the duvet at the foot of the mattress, and placed the dog underneath. She poked her head out a second later, keeping a wary eye on Bodie.

"She was under the caravan," Doyle said. "Squeezed through a small crack when I called to her. She must've been underneath all the time."

"Lucky she had a way to get out." Bodie's expression was grim.

"Luckier for Sergei. If he'd hurt her--"

"He must've been drunk."

"I don't think so." Doyle raked a hand through his hair. "Look, can I just use your shower? Give me a spare blanket and I'll sleep out here, as I said. Don't want to be a nuisance."

Grudging amusement eased the hard cast of Bodie's face. "Go take that shower. I'll put the kettle on." When Doyle hesitated, Bodie said, "Go on."

Soon cocooned in the humid warmth of the tiny shower stall, Doyle took his time in his ablutions. The long day had had its toll; there was no point in belaboring the destruction of his caravan just now--but Doyle hated being put at a disadvantage, and there was a distinct feeling of his having been done over as well.

With a towel slung round his middle, and another over his shoulders to catch drips off the ends of his hair, Doyle quit the bathroom. Basil looked up at him from the folds of the bedding. He stroked her head and back reassuringly, then walked through to the kitchen. Just then the front door came open and Bodie appeared, various bits of clothing draped over one arm, Doyle's trainers dangling by their laces from his other hand.

Doyle paused in the drying of his hair, noting the cold-kissed bloom in the other man's cheeks and the sheen of dew on the smooth, dark cap of hair and long, thickly clustered eyelashes. "What's all that?"

"A few things you'll need in the morning. Bit of a ruin over there, isn't it?"

"Someone was very thorough."

Piling Doyle's articles on the seat of the single kitchen chair, Bodie waved him toward the sideboard. "Tea should be ready by now. You want something to eat?"

"Nah. Thanks." Feeling just a little exposed--not to mention, chilled-- by his state of undress, Doyle started toward his clothing with the intention of pulling something, anything, on. Spying his running gear, he reached out--only to have Bodie block his path.

"Get in bed, mate. You're turning blue." He placed both hands on Doyle's shoulders and wheeled him round until Doyle faced the bedroom. His touch was no more than comradely, but Doyle resisted.

"Which side d'you want?" Bodie asked, giving him a shove. Once Doyle had falteringly walked from the small kitchen into the other room, Bodie stepped across to the sideboard and poured two mugs full of tea. "I favor the wall, myself."

Doyle sat down on the edge of the mattress, watching Bodie's every move. Basil twisted her head round and gave Doyle's hand a lick. Reflexively scratching behind her ears, he announced baldly, "I used your toothbrush."

Bodie's only reaction was a slight lifting of dark, curving brows. Gripping the handles tightly, he carried the two mugs into the bedroom, lazy spirals of steam rising above the surface of creamy brown liquid. "So long as you didn't touch my lipstick, that's all right."

Conceding a small grin, Doyle took the proffered mug.

Bodie sat down beside him. "Let's get a few things straight--if you'll pardon the expression." He sipped delicately at his tea. "We're both tired--and tomorrow's going to be a bitch of a day. While I'd happily have you fuck me through the floorboards, we'll have none of that tonight, okay? Just you and me, two mates, sharing a rather narrow bed. What d'you say?"

Doyle merely nodded and buried his nose in his mug.

"I overreacted today," Bodie admitted. "Made me do a bit of thinking. About us. What I told Sergei wasn't entirely untrue--y'know, about you spending the night with me. The reason I was there when you lit into him, was because I was just coming round to see if you wanted to talk. Nothing else, just talk."

Heating his hands round the mug, Doyle looked sidelong at his partner. "About?"

Avoiding his penetrating gaze, Bodie gave an abbreviated shrug. "I like you, Ray. I want to have sex with you, too. I'm afraid I might do both at the same time."

"That's honest enough," Doyle commented, his blasé tone hiding the liquid warmth spreading throughout his insides.


Doyle dropped a hand on Bodie's thigh and gave it a hard squeeze. "Leave it out, mate. I'm full-grown; if you break my heart, I'll survive, y'know."

Snorting, Bodie stretched out an arm and set his mug on the narrow bed cupboard. Bending over, he wrenched off his boots, then stood up to remove the robe. "Maybe it's not your heart I'm thinking about." Without another word, he scooted, bare-bottomed, across the top of the bed, then burrowed under the duvet, bringing the upper edge to lie just below his chin.

Intrigued by that flash of pale skin, Doyle placed his mug alongside Bodie's, switched off the wall-lamp overhanging the bed, and twitched the towel from his hips.

"That's cheating, Doyle," Bodie grumbled.


"You know what I'm talking about."

"Easier to turn the light out first. 'Sides, nothing you haven't seen before," Doyle argued, lifting the side of the duvet and gliding underneath. Basil edged out of his way as his feet stretched to the bottom of the mattress, then curled up beside his ankle. A shift of the head skimmed long, wiry hairs ticklishly across the sole of one foot. "Keep those whiskers to yourself," he gasped.

"Didn't touch you," Bodie said, affronted.

"Not you." Doyle added whimsically, "Though you could, if you wanted to."

He felt the bed dip as Bodie rose up beside him. Heart suddenly galloping like a horse bolting free, Doyle held his breath.

"Could I?" Bodie breathed, and brought his mouth down onto Doyle's.

Doyle turned into the kiss, all weariness banished, hungry for this in a way he would never have imagined. But Bodie pressed a hand flat to Doyle's chest and pushed him back down.

"It's late, sunshine. And I wasn't joking about tomorrow; it'll be a killer."

Doyle gritted his back jaws together. "Right. G'night, then." He would not admit for the world that he did not give a damn about tomorrow--not now, when he wanted very much to hold and be held. On that thought, he said gravely, "Can I--?" But pride killed the words in his throat.

"What?" Bodie asked softly.

"I'm cold. Could we--?"

The bed tossed like a skiff caught in a storm. Bodie's powerful arms encircled Doyle's comparatively skinny frame and gathered it to his solid body.

Shocked by the sudden warmth and satiny smoothness of Bodie's skin, Doyle closed his eyes and pressed even nearer. "Wonderful," he murmured, ignoring the interest kindled in his groin, not unobservant of a kindred interest tangible in Bodie's.

"Better?" Bodie asked.

"Much. God, you're warm."

"So're you. Very. What's that poking into my leg?"

"Probably the same thing that's poking into mine."

Bodie laughed, his breath ruffling the hair lying heavy on Doyle's temple. "This is ridiculous. Maybe we should just--"

"No." Doyle's hand was draped round Bodie's neck; a thumb swept idly up and down the thickly buttressing musculature. "You're right. It'll be better when we're not tired--and when I can see you. Expect I'll enjoy that."

The hardness pressed against Doyle's hip slightly thickened and lengthened. "I think the lamp still works," Bodie muttered.

Doyle hugged him with violent exuberance. "Shh." Amazingly, he yawned. The urge communicated by no more than sound, Bodie produced a jaw- cracker himself only seconds later.

"See?" Doyle said sleepily.

A small flurry of movement at Doyle's feet signalled Basil's renewed settling in.

Bodie gave a muffled gasp. "That bloody dog of yours has a cold nose!"

Chuckling softly to himself, Doyle moved his head slightly on Bodie's shoulder, revelling in this undemanding closeness and warmth, his body weighted with pure exhaustion. His comment to Bodie, If you break my heart, I'll survive, had been all bluff; but this moment was one he would remember for a long time, no matter what happened. And even if it never happened again--for whatever reason--it would be more than some people ever had; people like--


The man lying next to him startled slightly. "Yeah?"

Harlequin Airs Plate 11 thumbnail

"Earlier, when we were talking about Riley--you remember--this scheme of yours to get his family over here: You never told me what it was."

Doyle felt the broad chest cease moving. Then Bodie was laughing, a low gurgle that slowly gained in intensity.

"Come on, what is it?" Doyle's hand slid down to one tidy buttock. Forefinger and thumb hovering perilously over the downy skin, he threatened, "So help me, Bodie, if you don't--"

"No! I'll tell you. Just-- Oh, shit."

Doyle's hand closed over Bodie's left buttock. He liked the way it filled his palm, smooth and round. Finding himself on the brink of total distraction, he growled, "Well?"

"You'll kill me."

"I'll kill you if you don't tell me."

"Believe me, I forgot all about it."

"I believe you."

"You don't. Never met anyone as suspicious as you, Doyle."

"Quit stalling!"

"Right." Bodie took a deep breath. "Told you it wasn't my idea, and it wasn't. But I overheard a couple of the lads talking a day or two after you hired on; seems Hannah and Lily had set up a lottery to get some money to bring Riley's family over. They've done that before, using match results, that sort of thing; but they've only ever brought in a few pounds, y'know."

"I'm listening," Doyle assured him, when several seconds went by without Bodie continuing.

"Yeah, well-- This time they decided to base the stakes on something a little more interesting--at least to their perverted little minds."

"Why am I getting this sick feeling in my stomach?"

Bodie pulled him even closer, tucking one of Doyle's thighs between both of his. "Because you're cleverer than you look. Stop that!' He twisted free of Doyle's teeth. "Cannibal."


"They sold days--counting from when you started--with the winning day being the one you and I-- Well, you know."

Having reached that conclusion as soon as Bodie mentioned the selling of days, and resigned to the ignominy of his fate, Doyle said simply, "I see. So who's the lucky winner? D'you know?"

"Derek. And before you ask, he and Simon are the only two who know that I know. Otherwise, they'd've called it off."

"Will Derek give his winnings to Riley?"

"Of course. He's as bad as Simon, y'know. And Riley will get the money Hannah and Lily raised from selling chances, as well. All told, it should come to over five hundred quid."

"Christ," Doyle said disgustedly. "Lily, I could see; but, Hannah?"

"Incurable romantics, the lot of 'em," Bodie agreed condescendingly.

"You, on the other hand, wouldn't've rigged all this--you and me together, I mean--in the name of romance, eh?"

"I might have--but I didn't. I swear it." Bodie's voice thrummed with sincerity. "Anyway, you like Riley. And, besides, sleeping with me is small price to pay to get that kind of money together."

"Especially since sleeping with you is all I'm doing to--" Doyle broke into another yawn, "night."

"Yes, but you're not going to mention that little fact any more than I will."

Mulling this over, Doyle realized he had finally warmed all the way through. "No." Dismissing the silly wager as no longer worthy of concern, Doyle concentrated instead on Bodie; having him in his bed could become quite habit-forming.

"Are you bothered?" Bodie asked tentatively.

"No." Doyle brushed his mouth against the pulse beating in Bodie's throat. Laying his head back down, he pressed, "But you really did forget?"

"Yes, I really did." A chuckle rumbled in the depths of Bodie's chest. "After all, if we'd waited another two days, the pot would've been mine! Had Simon buy me a chance, y'see. Since there were a few left over, Hannah didn't-- Ow! Stop that, Ray!"

"You'll pay for that, Bodie," Doyle promised him ominously, his breath hot upon Bodie's shoulder.

"One can only hope. Ouch!"



Dreary, rain-washed light filtered in through the curtains over the narrow bed. Lying on his side in the pre-dawn chill, Doyle stared sleepily at the man stretched out beside him. During the night, they had changed positions often, their two bodies meshing together like well- oiled gears. Some while ago, Bodie had placed his head on Doyle's shoulder, an arm slung heavily across his chest, a hard, contoured thigh hooked possessively over one of Doyle's.

In repose, Bodie was enchanting--even with thick, black stubble, sandpaper rough, dusting his jaw. Underneath the new growth of beard, his skin was as unmarred and pale as marble. Dark, curling lashes rested on the upper curve of his cheeks. His face, so often remote, if not outright forbidding, in sleep was as irresistible as a child's.

Doyle favored his mouth. The impish upper half and its longer, curving lower mate drew him like a siren's song, speaking of sweet pleasure at the very hint of a touch. He wanted to kiss Bodie, and to be kissed in turn. Smiling to himself, he recalled Bodie's statement of the night before: I might want to do both at the same time. Bodie was not alone.

Moving cautiously in order not to precipitate the sleeper's awakening, Doyle freed himself from Bodie's embrace and gently guided him onto his back. For a moment the other man's breathing became slightly more shallow, and his eyelashes shifted, as though they were about to open. After a moment, however, Bodie subsided back into dreams.

The duvet had slipped from Bodie's shoulders with his movements, and now lay draped across his chest just below the armpits. Pulling the fabric down even further, taking care not to tug, Doyle slowly revealed the impressive expanse of Bodie's chest from collarbone to the bottom of his ribcage. The superb definition of muscles over bone might have served as a model for a Greek statue. A sparse growth of hair grew at the crest of Bodie's breast, hardly enough to be noticeable; extending downward from his collar-bone were hard-packed pectorals and, planted to either side, small, dusky rose nipples.

Breathing a little faster, Doyle curled around so he could encircle the nearer nipple with his lips. Incapable of stopping himself, Doyle snaked out the tip of his tongue and outlined the rapidly hardening nub, encouraging the transformation until he could suck the tiny peak into his mouth.

A low moan informed him that Bodie was no longer asleep. A second later, a hand came to lie on the back of Doyle's head, fingertips gliding into thick, straight hair, pressing his mouth harder onto Bodie's chest. Doyle willingly increased the suction, one hand floating over Bodie's ribcage to cover the other nipple. Gently tweaking and pulling, he mimicked the action of teeth and tongue with his fingers.



Bodie's hand curved under his chin. "Look at me."

Letting go his prize with some reluctance, Doyle was not prompt to obey.


At last he looked up--and fell into twin pools of molten blue.

"Come here."

Doyle went, complying with Bodie's wordless direction to lie between his thighs. Cautiously lowering himself onto the sleek-planed body, Doyle cupped Bodie's face between his palms, and began to kiss him.

Two hands moved from Doyle's shoulders and flowed downward over spine and ribs and the small of his back, until slowed by the sharp rise of Doyle's buttocks. Deliberately they made the ascent, until Doyle was tightly gripped, thenceforth to be kneaded, caressed, and explored, almost roughly, until he thought he would go mad.

Taken to fever pitch with dizzying speed, Doyle pushed back against Bodie's fingers, then thrust downward into the yielding smoothness of Bodie's belly, where he met an impressive heat and hardness to match his own.

Rocking his hips, Bodie deepened their kiss, forearms pistoning as he controlled the force of Doyle's up-and-down movements. He stretched out his legs, shoving aside the clinging bedclothes so that he could brace Doyle's feet with his own, lending them both added leverage.

From the side of the bed came a muffled thump and a yip of surprise.

Jerking his mouth away from Bodie's, Doyle gasped raggedly, "Shit! Basil, are you--?"

Almost at once an implacable, electronic beep, beep, beep commenced, emanating from the clock on the bedside cupboard. Frozen in a state of high passion, Doyle swung his head back around and stared wildly down into Bodie's eyes.

Grimacing as if with pain, Bodie snapped, "Christ! Wouldn't you know it!" He moved his hands to Doyle's flanks and bodily lifted him. "Get off me, Ray! We'll be late, if we don't get started right now. We've got to be in the ring in half an hour!"


"In the ring and ready to fly. Oh, God!" With that, Bodie grabbed Doyle's head and held him unmoving while he kissed him with desperate passion. "Promise me we'll finish this tonight."

"Don't worry," Doyle said furiously, swinging himself off Bodie with cold efficiency. "You may not live long enough to need reminding."

Completely naked and still hotly erect, Doyle strode into the kitchen while Bodie dove into the bathroom. The clothing Bodie had collected for him the night before lay in a heap on the dining-room chair; Doyle snagged a pair of pants and his sweatsuit, both of which had apparently survived Sergei's vandalism undamaged, and pulled them on.

Sitting on the edge of one of the kitchen booth benches, he methodically put on one shoe after the other, then raised his head to glare with intense dislike at his partner, who at that moment emerged from the bathroom.

Stabbed by green ice, Bodie said helplessly, "D'you think I wanted to stop?"

"You did."

"There're people waiting for us, Ray. We owe it to them to be ready at the same time they are. If we don't warm up, we'll--"

"Oh, forget it, Bodie! C'mon, Basil." The dog had been looking on with injured perplexity for some moments. "Let's see if Simon's got something you can eat--and maybe a cuppa for me."

Shutting the door angrily behind him, Doyle marched across the caravan site to the path leading to the circus compound. The bitter, wet morning did nothing to alleviate his vile mood. And it did not help that in some, still rational part of his mind he knew that he was being grossly unfair to Bodie. After all, Bodie had been as caught up in the moment as he--almost--and every word he had said was true. Selfishly, however, Doyle wanted to believe that their love-making should have counted for more, should have taken precedence over a bloody early morning work-out. Anyway, how much longer could it possibly have taken them? Doyle had been right on the edge--was very near it, even now.

The fresh breeze cutting across the field rapidly cooled Doyle's ardor, however. In fact, the nearer he came to the stables, the more he felt a fool. A week ago, it would have been Doyle calling a stop to less important activities--because sex with anyone other than Bodie would have been just that: something unimportant, a part of his job, and no more.

When had that changed? It was as though, without his noticing, Doyle had come violently, excruciatingly alive after being numb for many, many years. And as might be expected, suddenly sensate nerve endings were adjusting to this unexpected reversal with searing discomfort.

In the tackroom, Doyle found Simon sitting at the small table, a cup of tea in hand, Derek behind him, massaging his shoulders.

"I won't stay," Doyle said by way of apology for intruding. "But can I beg a favor?"

"You're usually out running by now," Simon remarked languidly. He leaned back into Derek's ministrations. "And of course you can stay, if you like. What's the favor?"

"My caravan's been wrecked, and--"

"Yes, Hannah told us."

Doyle stared at him. "Hannah? It's not even dawn yet."

"Last night, when we got back from the stables. Derek and I stopped by your place this morning, after Derek finished feeding the beasties. It is a shambles."

"It bloody well is--and I can tell you who did it, too."

"We all know who did it, Ray," Simon agreed gloomily.

"The bastard. He isn't going to--" Doyle closed his mouth abruptly. Looking from Simon to Derek with a slow, searching gaze, Doyle said, "If you were over there--then, you know I stayed the night with Bodie."

Derek broke into a huge grin.

"You're a rich man now, aren't you," Doyle exclaimed with sudden, genuine humor. In the morning's lusty preoccupation, he had forgotten all about Bodie's revelation of the night before.

"Bodie told you?" Simon asked warily. At Doyle's placid nod, he prodded, "And you're really not angry?"

"I hear it's all in a good cause. Look, I've got to meet Bodie in the ring in about two seconds. Could you give Basil something to eat? I don't think anything in the kitchen was salvageable."

"I'll see to her."

"And can I have a thermos flask of tea for me and Bodie? We--overslept."

Repressing an approving smile, Simon shooed Derek away from his chair. Free to move, he rose and went to the kettle at once. "Consider it done. I'll just bring this round to the Big Tent, okay?"

"Yeah. Thanks, Simon. Derek, I'll try to get over later to see Sanjay, if that's all right?"

Derek's head bobbed in agreement. As Doyle turned toward the corridor, Derek grunted loudly, a hand raised to delay him.

Doyle stopped, jamming his fingers into his pockets, head bent to one side in inquiry.

One big hand came up to lie over Derek's heart. Then he pointed at Simon, who was looking on with a faintly sheepish expression.

"I had to tell him--y'know, about Sergei," Simon whispered contritely. "But I made him promise not to hurt him."

Having understood Derek's gesture without Simon's explanation, Doyle said, "Happy I could help. But if you do decide to give that prick a bash, you just let me know, Derek. After all, what're mates for?"


Doyle ignored him. Derek raised a thumb into the air, his smile wreathed with malevolence.

Doyle managed to work in a round of stretches before Bodie appeared. A few of the crew helping out with the routine had already arrived; even now the net was being tied off, and a couple of the band members were playing experimental notes on their instruments. Shamefacedly, Doyle acknowledged to himself that, had they selfishly carried on with the morning's diversion, they would never have made it here in time.

As Bodie strode up to the mat, coldly aloof, Doyle said quite simply, "I'm sorry."

Giving him a sharp look, Bodie dropped his towel onto the bench a few feet away. "So am I."

"I asked Simon to bring us a flask of tea. Should have it here in a bit."

"Good. Are you ready to start?"

Doyle said sheepishly, "I'd rather finish--but as 'start' is our only option, yes."

Hands on his hips, Bodie asked flatly, "Does that mean you're going to give us a chance to take up where we left off?"

"Try and keep me away."

Bodie's face slowly relaxed. "That's all right, then."

The morning's work-out was every bit as brutal as that of the previous day--Doyle would not have thought it possible. Once the two men were thoroughly warmed up and ready to ascend to their trapezes, the missing members of their crew had arrived.

The first run-through was a disaster. While the flyers performed reasonably well, nothing else was up to standard. Riley, unusually abstracted, missed several cues; Donal fired the lights out of sequence, and Des managed to bump Doyle into the trap when reeling him up out of the net.

Following an extended tea break, during which Riley offered everyone husky thanks for the money collected on his behalf, things greatly improved. The overall atmosphere turned to one of buoyant optimism, smoothing over minor flaws and timing glitches without slowing the pace of the production.

By the fourth run-through, it was agreed that a costume rehearsal was in order, as much to try out the intricacies of Bodie's new costume as to continue refining the routine. Other aspects of the production--painting the web black so that it would blend into the darkness, and realigning the lights so that they would rotate over a precise area--had already been taken care of.

Bodie declared that they would continue their rehearsals the next day, and their last effort would be a costume run-through. Based on that, they would spring the latest version of the Flying Falconis on the Wednesday night audience--providing there was one.

Voicing his concern over this, Doyle came in for some good-natured ragging concerning doom-sayers and albatrosses.

"The Monday following opening weekend is always dead," Bodie said philosophically. "In fact, things won't pick up again until Friday."

"Lord, how d'you manage to stay in business?" Doyle exclaimed appalled.

Bodie eyed him in reproachful silence. "It's a small circus, Ray."

"But we had such great houses the first few days. You'd think with word of mouth--"

"Circus is dying--you know that. The first audiences are the last of the faithful. This new routine should churn up some interest, but Circus Sergei will never have the kind of spectacle people associate with the old-time circuses--the sort of thing they can see on the box any time they like."

"Yeah," Doyle murmured, "I know. It's just--"


Doyle had been about to say, It's wrong. But that was Ray Doyle, bright-eyed aerialist, speaking--not Ray Doyle, the hardened cynic, who comprehended all too well the state of dreams in the world these days. "Nothing. If we're done here for the day, I'd best away to my caravan and start the repairs."

"Come over to my place first," Bodie suggested. "We'll have a big lunch to make up for the bread and butter Simon gave us."

"If it hadn't been for Simon, we wouldn't even have had that."

"True. But I'm a growing boy, and I need something substantial to carry me through the day."

Replete after a hearty meal of sandwiches, fruit, cheese, and a bolstering ale, Bodie and Doyle, the latter with Basil on his shoulder, struck off across the caravan site to Doyle's faded green unit at the far end of the park. The back of the hair on Doyle's neck began to rise as they drew nearer and he saw with certainty that the door stood wide open. Not only that, but a skip leaned drunkenly beside the steps.

"What the--?"

A man's backside appeared in the opening, and even at this angle and from this distance Doyle recognized its owner as Tom. As the big man felt his way down the stair, Doyle saw that he was carrying a large box, filled with debris and other bits and pieces that had constituted his household goods.

"Oi!" Doyle called, removing Basil from her perch and setting her on the ground. "What are you doing there?" He came up alongside Tom and peered into the depths of the box.

"Lending you a hand, son," Tom said bluffly.

He had no more than spoken before two other people emerged from the door of the caravan, hefting another large box between them. Unfamiliar with the two teen-aged boys, Doyle glanced across at his partner, eyes wide and perplexed.

"Tom's boys," Bodie said. "Adrian, Denis, this is Ray Doyle." The two young men could only nod and mumble a greeting, their hands otherwise occupied.

"Hello," Doyle said faintly.

Once the boys were clear of the doorway, Doyle sprang up the steps. From the threshold he looked round the inside of the caravan in utter bemusement. "Who organized all this?" he asked hoarsely, noticing that the floors, walls, and windows had been scrubbed clean, the ruined curtains taken down, the mattress restored to its proper place and made usable again with fresh bedclothes--even the rents in the upholstered booths had been concealed with strips of plastic tape.

"He did," Tom said, thudding up the steps. One big thumb stabbed in Bodie's direction. "Came round this morning first thing and asked if we could help out."

Remembering the morning, and his wretched temper, Doyle inhaled deeply. "I see." Gathering himself with an effort, Doyle said solemnly to Tom, "Thank you." Shooting a quick look of chagrin Bodie's way, he added, "And thank you."

"It won't be habitable for a bit yet, mind you," Simon proclaimed, poking his head out from behind the half-closed door of the bathroom. He walked into the bedroom, a smaller container of smashed articles propped on his hip. Squeezing himself up against the wall opposite the bed, he allowed one of the boys to pass in front of him, then managed to haul his ungainly burden into the kitchen. "Don't reckon you'd want to explain this?" he asked, and held up the remains of the bleach mix Doyle had used the previous day.

Struck speechless, Doyle could only stare at this evidence of his deception.

"Tampering with nature, eh?" Bodie said gleefully. "What's the matter, wasn't it grey enough on one side or the other?"

"Lacking the proper balance?" Simon threw in with mock sympathy.

Doyle stitched a flimsy almost-grin across his mouth. "Bastards," he muttered weakly.

Simon patted him on the face. "Don't worry, Ray," he assured him conspiratorially. "We won't tell."

"Speak for yourself." Bodie wrapped an arm around Doyle's shoulders. "It's always good to have a bit of blackmail in reserve."

"Stop it, Bodie! Or he'll be telling all your deepest, darkest secrets--bet he must know a few of them by now, too--the odd freckle, unusually placed birthmarks--that sort of thing."

"You're a cat, Simon." Oblivious to the smooth hiss that followed this remark, Bodie commented, "Looks like you lot are almost done."

"We are." Simon waved a graceful hand at the cupboards over the sink. "You have dishes, glasses, and eating utensils, Ray. A teapot--and a proper cozy, thanks to Lily." The hand pointed at the drawer under the oven. "And a few pots and pans. The basics only, I'm afraid."

"But as that's all he had to start with, it should do," Bodie said pragmatically.

"Yeah," Doyle whispered huskily.

"You'll want to take him into town to replace his perishables, then," Simon said knowingly to Bodie. "Food, soap, loo paper--all that. The clothing that wasn't destroyed is being laundered by Lily. She'll have it back before you settle in for the night." He smiled kindly at Doyle. "Don't look like that, Ray. Hasn't anyone ever been kind to you before?"

Doyle swallowed hard and kept his mouth firmly shut.

"C'mon, mate," Bodie said and turned Doyle back toward the door. "Didn't you say something about wanting to look in on that bloody tiger? You can do that while I'm being groped by Lily. I'd expect Simon would have a list of necessary items ready by then. Then we'll have a pleasant drive into town."

"An excellent idea," Simon concurred without hesitation. "Half an hour ought to see it done."

As they left the caravan site with Basil scampering round their feet, Doyle finally said, rather gruffly, "Why didn't you say anything?"

"Didn't have much chance to get a word in edgeways this morning, as I recall," Bodie said with only a hint of rebuke.

"I feel a right berk."

"And so you should. Mind you, I didn't have to twist anyone's arms. You've done a few good turns here yourself, y'know."

"No reason for you to put yourself out, though," Doyle said, conscience- stricken. "Especially after this morning."

"That's all right, mate." Bodie mock-punched Doyle on the upper arm. "I'm relying on you to set that to rights tonight."

"Count on it," Doyle promised.

Sanjay had finally improved--not a great deal, but Doyle could see the cat's renewed strength in the deceptively boneless but unbowed shoulders, the untrembling set of the head, even in the clear, lazily blinking yellow gaze. And to Doyle's delight, the cat made a point of welcoming him when he came inside the cage to say "hello." Sanjay butted Doyle's hand, then curved his head under Doyle's fingers, demanding that he caress the furry ears.

Shaking his head to himself as he observed this silent communication, Derek took up Doyle's shovel and completed the mucking out of the cage Doyle had begun.

After a few minutes of this, the cat yawned suddenly, displaying long, impressive canines and shorter, less fearsome teeth--which, despite their lack of size, were by no means to be ignored. All at once, he seemed very wide awake.

Derek set aside his shovel and rake to collect Sanjay's medication. Talking soothingly in the cat's ear, Doyle held him while Derek quickly emptied the mixture into the animal's mouth.

"Well done, mate," Doyle murmured. He stood up--and in one, unfaltering movement, Sanjay came up alongside him. "What're you up to, then, old son?" Doyle's voice dropped a register, as it always did when he was nervous. The cat's movement, disconcertingly agile in a creature so large, had taken him by surprise.

Standing only a foot away, Derek studied his charge with tilted head.

"What d'you think he wants, Derek?"

Coming to some conclusion, the trainer raised a hand and described a large circle.

Taking that to mean the inside of the cage, Doyle clarified, "You want me to walk him in here?"

At Derek's nod, Doyle gave a slight heave of the shoulders. "Fine with me. What about you, Sanjay, me old fruit?"

Tapping the animal on his sloping shoulders, Doyle led with one foot, but hung back until he saw that Sanjay was inclined to join him. Slowly, out of deference to the cat's lumbering stride, they made a complete circuit of the cage. Doyle was careful to restrict himself to the tiger's pace, so that he presented neither a challenge nor inadvertently triggered the cat's primal "prey-chase" instinct--even if the beast seemed too decrepit to respond. With his massive weight, he could have Doyle on the ground with half his face gone before either man could contemplate defense.

As they walked, it seemed to Doyle that the tiger's stride began to lengthen, and he was certain of it when he had to quicken his own pace to keep up. Two, then three times they went round the inside of the cage. Sanjay ended it by coming to a stop in front of Derek. Welcoming his trainer, he slowly rubbed up against him with playful familiarity.

A bitter-sweet smile smoothed the lines on Derek's weather-beaten face; he cuffed the tiger lightly, then dropped to one knee and hugged him.

Deciding this was too effusive a reaction, Sanjay backed away, shaking his head vigorously, and repeated the affectionate gesture with Doyle. For his part, Doyle simply struggled to stay on his feet, letting the old cat push back and forth against his legs while he kept a hand on the tiger's neck, fingers rubbing at the sensitive spot between his ears.

Sanjay yawned again, and just as this simple action had signalled the start of the cat's liveliness, it also denoted its ending. Expelling a rumbling sigh, the tiger slunk over to his customary place, despite the absence of sunlight, and became one, in the way that all cats do, with the floor.

Together, Doyle and Derek left the cage. Their departure went unnoted, for Sanjay was already asleep, his breathing loud, but steady. Gripping the other man's arm briefly, Doyle indicated his thanks, then started for the corridor, the region under his heart strangely constricted.

The remainder of the day flew by. Doyle, with Basil zipped into his jacket, met up with Bodie in a frigid, blowing rain. They clambered into the Mini and rode into town to replenish Doyle's supplies.

"Guess I'll have to take to locking my door," Doyle mused sulkily.

"Wouldn't stop him, if he really wants to get in, y'know," Bodie said. "That's why none of us bother."

"He's done this before?"

Hedging a little, Bodie said, "Can't say for certain--although it seemed likely at the time. Was one of those rare days when Rose was away all night. Alf stuck his nose in a bottle and when he finally poured himself out, he was ready for lerv. Went after Arturo that time. But a straighter bloke you never met, and our Alf came out of it a little battered. The next morning, Arturo discovered his car had been worked over--all the tires slashed to pieces and the paint-work scratched from stem to stern. Was his pride and joy, that car."

"But Arturo couldn't prove anything?" Doyle guessed dryly.

"That's right."

"Then, why-- Oh, look!" Doyle's eye had been caught by the distinctive colors of a Circus Sergei poster plastered against a low brick wall in front of some council flats. Realizing that this must be the latest edition, Doyle insisted that Bodie pull off to the side of the road so he could inspect it more closely.

"Get an eyeful of that, mate!" he cackled gleefully, equal parts of astonishment and elation ringing in his voice. "'The Flying Falconis will debut their spectacular new act on Wednesday!' I wouldn't've thought it of the old bugger."

"Wasn't Sergei," Bodie advised him.

"No? Who, then?"

"Lily, I expect. She takes care of the press releases and the advertising. They go a few rounds when the receipts for service come in, but Lily always wins."

"She's done us proud, Bodie. Hope we can live up to it."

"We will. That is, you will."

"Hold that thought."

Weighted down with carry bags, the two men returned to the caravan site late in the afternoon. Stepping into his unit, Doyle ordered Basil to stay just inside the door until he could wipe her muddy feet. She dropped her hindquarters at sight of his hand signal as though her bottom had acquired a load of lead.

After letting Bodie pass by him, Doyle closed the door and looked round. "This is incredible," he stated, at last. "New curtains, a rug for Basil; Christ, they even supplied bowls for her food and water!"

"Nothing if not thorough, is our Simon." Bodie set about emptying out the bags, ordering the assorted purchases on the sideboard. "Put the kettle on, will you? It's bloody cold in here."

"Bodie--how can I possibly pay them back?" Doyle asked raggedly. Coming up alongside his partner, he turned on the taps and began to fill the metal container.

"Told you, mate. They were paying you ba--"

A knock at the door interrupted him. As Bodie reached for the knob, he noticed the dog still seated on the entry mat. "How long you going to keep this poor mutt over here, Ray?"

"What? Oh, bloody hell, Basil, don't be so literal." He snapped his fingers just as Bodie opened the door, and reached for her with a damp tea towel.

"Well, hello, Emma." Bodie gestured the woman onto the top step. "Come in out of the rain. Ray, meet Emma, Tom's wife."

The woman, petite and pleasantly round-faced, held a large foil-covered pan in both arms. She made no move to enter. "I've just come round to give this to Mr. Doyle."

"Ray," Doyle said quickly. Giving Basil a last swipe, he rose up and came alongside Bodie. "Please come in."

"Oh, no, thank you. Tom told me what happened yesterday--in the stables, y'know? This isn't much; but he said your place had been done up. I thought you might like to have some food in, already prepared, like." She smiled self-deprecatingly. "Well, it's a nice, hot meal, anyway."

"You're wonderful, love." Doyle swiftly relieved the woman of the heavy container. "There's an awful lot here; surely you and Tom will join us?" The "us" sprang from his mouth spontaneously. One way or another, Doyle meant to spend the evening with his partner.

"No, no. Tom's taking me into town tonight--even if the weather is filthy."

"You're sure, Emma?" Doyle shrugged helplessly. "Then, thank you so very much. I really don't know what to say; you're very kind."

"You don't need to say anything, Mr.-- Ray. I know you and Tom didn't get off to the best of starts, but he's very grateful now, and so am I." She raised a hand in parting. "I must go! Good night."

She leapt off the wooden stair, and dashed off into the rain, her blue jeans-clad legs eating up the distance as she ran.

Looking after her, Doyle murmured, "This is mad."

Guiding Doyle back into the room, Bodie shut the door and gave a theatrical shudder. "No, cold is what this is." He peeled back an edge of the foil. "What's in here? My God! Next time Mickey gets cast in his stall, you let me do the heroics, eh? Beef stew with chunks of meat bigger even than your mouth, potatoes, carrots, onions; fresh-baked bread by the smell of it--Emma's well-known for her home cooking, y'know; and lemon tarts. I think I've died and gone to heaven."

"Lucky for you you're invited for dinner."

"There's enough here for a small army."

"Then we'll ask Derek and Simon round. Okay with you?"

Bodie bent his head to one side. "Yeah. That's very okay with me."

"What is it? Why are you looking at me like that?"

"You. You don't understand why these folks are willing to lend a hand, do you?"

"Not really," Doyle confessed. "It isn't--what I'm used to."

"You worked in the circus before. What's so different this time round?"

Doyle shook his head, incapable of answering, because he had no answers to give. "It just is. Different, I mean."

Reaching out, Bodie removed the large container from Doyle's hands and set it on the sideboard, a few inches of it left hanging precariously off the edge. Then he stepped forward and took Doyle into his arms. "I've never met anyone like you, you know that? One minute you're an arrogant swine; the next you could sell shares in humility."

Uncomfortable, Doyle tried to draw away.

"Don't," Bodie said. "I want to hold you. Just hold you, okay?"

Drowning in brilliant blue eyes, Doyle said shakily, "Okay. Hold me, then."

Standing in Bodie's arms, his bearded cheek pressed to Bodie's smooth one, Doyle was tempted for the first time in his many years with CI5 to confess exactly who and what he was to someone who could be told nothing. The urge was frightening in its intensity; for an instant, Doyle thought he might not be able to control it.

Like a shaft of light stabbing into the heart of darkness, it came to him. Here was the shelter he had sought all his life: Someone to love him while granting him his own strength; yet, someone he could also be strong for. "Bodie--"

"Hush, sunshine. Don't you like this?"

Doyle blinked hard against a sudden stinging sensation at the backs of his eyelids. "Maybe too much."

"If it's the right person," Bodie whispered, "it can't be too much." He kissed Doyle's forehead, then let him go. "C'mon, you, let's get this lot put away. We've a show to prepare for."

Tuesday's turn-out was even more disappointing than Monday's crowd. The circus troupe worked with its usual manic fervor, but there was something soul-destroying in playing to so few people; even the horses and dogs seemed to sense the difference.

After the parade, Doyle changed out of his Regency outfit and handed it over to Lily for a thorough cleaning. In dulcet tones, he asked for a preview of Bodie's new costume, but was summarily refused. Affecting disinterest, he bade Lily good night and adjourned to the stables to hurry the grooming of the horses.

The post-performance ritual was hastened by the added hands. Once the last horse had been returned to his stall, Doyle and Derek sent Bodie and Simon on ahead while they sidetracked for a last visit with Sanjay. The tiger slept deeply and undisturbed. Switching off the torch and restoring it to its hook, Derek held the flap open for Doyle to precede him. They raced across the field, their breath billowing in the frosty air. Doyle outpaced the more huskily built man by only a few seconds. Laughing, Doyle swung open the door to his caravan and bowed Derek inside.

Giving Doyle's ear a twist, Derek strode across the threshold.

In their few minutes head start, Simon and Bodie had fed the dog, laid the small table and started the meal warming. A bottle of red wine stood breathing in the center of the mismatched place settings--to Doyle, everything looked absolutely perfect.

His feeling of glowing contentment lasted far beyond the late dinner, the sweet, and the post-prandial coffees. Silly with it, Doyle offered to entertain his companions. Basil featured largely in his antics, eagerly somersaulting and dancing upon Doyle's shoulders and back, and even balancing on his head--very briefly, for neither of them were terribly sure-footed at that stage of the proceedings. The evening's amusement culminated with Doyle cajoling members of his audience to tie his hands securely behind his back so that Basil could free him.

The dog lit into the offending bonds with great fervor--yet she had learned how to leave the skin on Doyle's wrists relatively unscathed and untied him with a minimum of damage. Testing her ability, Derek bound Doyle's hands in a more complicated knot. This time, Basil took a little longer in her efforts; still the bond was undone with impressive speed. Unfortunately, Doyle's left wrist also came away sporting a bright red scratch--nothing, he swore, to worry about.

Bodie, however, argued otherwise. Citing his need for a capable partner, he declared the game at an end.

"Oh, Lord, Derek, it's gone midnight already!" Simon's mouth fell open in an elegant yawn. He dropped his head back against the animal trainer's shoulder.

Derek gazed down on him fondly, then jabbed the slighter man in the ribs.

"What? Oh! Right." Sitting up in a sinuous stretch, Simon blinked sleepily across the table at Bodie and Doyle. "I'm supposed to ask you: would you look in on the animals Thursday night?" He melted into a dreamy grin. "Derry's promised to take me into town, but he wants to know his children will be all right without him."

"Of course," Doyle said promptly. He was drunk on high spirits and anticipation. Cuddling Basil on his lap, he said, "I reckon I know the routine by now." Butting his shoulder against Bodie, he added, "We'll be happy to. Won't we, mate?"

"Our pleasure." Bodie raised his glass in an informal toast. "'Bout time you lads went off on your own for a bit."

Simon sighed expressively. "It will be lovely." Slumping back against his partner once more, he let his eyes fall shut. Without the garish stage make-up, he looked very young and innocent.

Drawing him into the circle of his arms, Derek blew a kiss onto the top of Simon's head. He pushed him upright.

"Hm," Simon mumbled. "Time to go."

Outside, the temperature had dropped drastically and an icy rain was falling. As the other two men hurried off into the gloom, and Basil scurried into the heather, Bodie muttered, "You'd never know there's supposed to be a warming trend in the offing."

"Who told you that?"

"Piper. He always favors his right foreleg when the weather gets better. Not so's you'd notice, mind."

"Should I believe you?" Doyle asked, shivering on the top step.

"'S up to you," Bodie said indifferently. "You'll see, though; it'll be bright and sunshiny tomorrow."

"Hope you're right. There you are!" This, to the dog as she bounded up the box stair. "Poor Bas; must be awful to have your bathroom outside on a night like this."

"Not that it's notably warmer in here," Bodie stated meaningfully.

"Faint-heart. Stop that shaking, you idiot animal! You'll have us drowned in a minute. Come here." He wrapped the tea towel round the shuddering terrier and rubbed her down while Bodie closed the door. "Go on, off with you."

As he stood up, he found himself the center of Bodie's attention, that inescapable blue gaze sparking a flame deep in his gut. He stretched forth a hand, and Bodie took it, as though he had done so a hundred times before. Needing no prelude, they walked into the bedroom.

A thousand thoughts raced through Doyle's mind as he stopped and looked into the face of the man at his side. Most important in that moment was not that, after a lifetime of waiting, he was about to have sex with a man; rather, it was that he was going to bed with this man--and not just for the all-too-transitory pleasure of orgasm, but to lie with him throughout the night, to enfold him in his arms and shield him--and be shielded in turn--from the cold.

Something of his musings must have communicated themselves to Bodie. A wry smile lifted the corners of his mouth, leaving his features unguardedly tender. He raised a hand to Doyle's face, and slowly traced the outline of the full lips with his thumb. "You are a romantic, aren't you?"

"Am I?" Doyle whispered.

"You're looking at my face, not my crotch. That's a romantic in my books. You want to kiss me?"

"Very much."

Doyle's artless response seemed to surprise Bodie. Something that might have been regret flickered across his face. "Ray--"

"Don't worry about it, mate," Doyle assured him gently. "I'm not going to ask you to make an honest man of me in the morning. Promise."

Whatever stood poised on Bodie's tongue remained unspoken. He nodded. Raising both hands to Doyle's bearded face, he stepped forward and placed his mouth lightly upon Doyle's waiting lips.

Doyle closed the gap between them, eyes rolling shut as their bodies came in contact. The flame guttering in his groin surged into a bonfire, tendrils of heat licking out headily in all directions.

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As one, they stripped off their inconvenient clothing; as one, they moved toward the bed; and as one, they stretched out on the mattress under the duvet. Tangled in each other's arms, they sought a perfect fit, rolling together until Doyle came to lie on his back, with Bodie bent over him.

"Bodie!" Doyle moaned sharply, spreading his legs to make way for the knee that pushed peremptorily at his thighs. Bodie lifted himself on top of him, bringing his silken length and heat up alongside Doyle's straining erection. "God!" Doyle arched up to meet it, hips canted forward as he struggled to intensify the dizzying feeling.

The friction was exquisite; that, coupled with Bodie's naked closeness and devouring kisses, stimulated Doyle almost more than he could bear. He bucked against his lover like a wild pony, incapable of holding still while every nerve ending in his body threatened to flare into sunbursts of pure sensation.

There was no question of their spinning the moment out; it was upon them almost as soon as they had begun. Doyle cried out and stiffened, clinging to Bodie's sweat-slick back as pulse after pulse of body-hot urgency spurted out onto both of their bellies. A fractioned-second later, it was Bodie who groaned, his face buried in the curve of Doyle's neck, his convulsive grip on Doyle's buttocks painful, but by no means unwanted. For seemingly long moments Bodie continued to move against him, the violence of his release leaving him slow to recover.

Dazedly, Doyle beheld the other man's vulnerability, withholding complaint as Bodie continued to lie on top of him while his breathing slowed and his heartbeat, still palpable under Doyle's softly rubbing palm, returned to normal. This was the instant at which Doyle should swoop in for the kill; the instant when he should put forth the questions that Bodie might otherwise deign not to answer.

Instead, Doyle clutched his new lover even closer to him, wanting more than anything to protect Bodie--from the world, from himself, from anyone and anything that might do him harm.

Apparently already more than part-way asleep, Bodie, as malleable as a child's teddy, merely gave a low murmur when Doyle rolled him onto his side and settled the dark head on Doyle's breast.



"You still awake?"


"Tell me something?"


Doyle hesitated. So many questions he ought to ask--

"What d'you want?" Bodie mumbled sleepily.

Gazing down at the peaceful face illuminated by the glow overflowing from the kitchen lamp, Doyle said, resigned, "Why'd you leave all the lights on, eh?"

"Did I?" Bodie skimmed his cheek against the hair on Doyle's chest. "Close your eyes, sunshine. 'S dark in there."

"Yeah, I expect it is." Doyle kissed the top of Bodie's head, slowly becoming aware of the stickiness drying on his abdomen, and the cool, damp spot on the sheet where their bodies met. Smiling mockingly to himself, he closed his eyes.

And Bodie was right: There, it was dark.



"I fell asleep on you."

Under skies of liquid pewter, the two men ran up the slow incline, footfalls crunching on gravel, their misting breath churning like miniature cyclones.

"Twice," Doyle said, purely in the interests of accuracy.

"Didn't think you were awake enough to notice when it happened again," Bodie admitted, abashed.

Doyle laughed softly. "Even after six bouts of mad, passionate sex I notice when something that heavy is lying on top of me."

"So why didn't you say something?" Bodie asked indignantly. He looked away toward the rolling field, shrouded in heavy fog, to his left.

"Did. But you were well away by then."

Bodie muttered, "Didn't mean to, y'know?"

"'S all right," Doyle said unconcernedly. "Seem to recall dropping off on you, as well, at some point."

"Yes, you did," Bodie said, vindicated. "In fact, I thought you'd died. Wouldn't move when I prodded you; hardly breathing, you were."

Doyle shot him a sardonic grin. "Is that why you woke me? And here I thought--"

Glowering intimidatingly at his partner, Bodie cut in sharply, "You know why I woke you. And don't make out as if you didn't enjoy it. 'Sides--I only woke you once."

Snorting his incredulity, Doyle countered, "Once! How about the time I rolled over, and you--"

"Your own fault. You ought to be more careful where you go sticking your bottom."

"Was trying to get warm," Doyle reminded him. "Especially after you'd pinched all the covers."

"Got you warm, didn't I?" Bodie asked reasonably.

"Well, I must admit--"

"Anyway, the way you were pitching about, if I'd had evil designs on your arse, there was no way I was going to--"

"Your aim was off, you mean. Or maybe you were just slow after--what was it at that point?--four times?"

"Five. But be honest, Doyle: You weren't exactly fighting me off, now were you? One word, y'know, and I'd've left you well alone."

"One word, eh?" Legs dragging just a little, Doyle reached the top of the rise. There he turned round and began to jog in place. "Better tell me what that one word is, then--just in case I ever need it."

Circling him with untapped energy, Bodie said, "Won't."

"'Won't?'" Doyle asked, bewildered.

"Won't ever need it. C'mon, mate, race you back."


But the other man was already pelting back down the stony path. Growling under his breath, Doyle took a deep breath and started after him.

"That'll have to do," Bodie said, dropping off the web and landing lightly on the tips of his toes.

Poised uncomfortably on the spreader ropes, legs curled under the edge to keep himself from rocking forward, Doyle admired his partner's nonchalance. "Still a few rough patches," he said mildly.

"And we haven't got time to smooth 'em down," Bodie countered. "That'll come."

"Eventually," Doyle agreed. "What about the new costume? Mainly the cowl? Was worried you wouldn't be able to see me."

Wiping one arm down with rough cotton, Bodie grinned sidelong at Doyle. "Don't need to see you, sunshine. I know where you are all the time."

Startled by the admission, Doyle smiled back.

"It's the reversible flap that needs some work. I'm going to see if Lily can alter it so it doesn't hang open. Spoil the effect, that would."

Doyle sprang down off the net, readily accepting the terry towel Bodie proffered him. "You do that. I'm off to look in on Sanjay."

"Bloody tiger. Watch yourself, eh?"

"Yeah, I shall. I heard what Derek said when he stopped in a bit ago; just Sanjay wanting his medicine, I expect."

"Or extra attention. You're spoiling him, Ray."

"And you're just jealous." Bodie's beatific expression caused Doyle to look at him twice. "What's that for?"

"'M not jealous--not after last night, anyway," Bodie replied nostalgically.

Doyle pretended to flinch. "We have company, y'know?"

"They can't hear me. 'Sides, they expect it of us."

Exhaling sharply, Doyle gave his head a shake. "Incorrigible, that's what you are."

"If you think last night was good," Bodie whispered, his words spoken for Doyle alone, "just wait till tonight."

Refusing to own up to the lick of heat that spurted inside him, Doyle said evenly, "Take a lot to top it."

Bodie's eyes darkened. "Bottom or top," he murmured, moistening his lips with the tip of his tongue, "would suit me just fine."

"Maniac," Doyle reproved, his voice dropping huskily. "Christ." He tossed the towel back to Bodie, who snagged it mid-air. "Sodding maniac."

A low cackle percolated up from the depths of Bodie's chest, and he winked once, slinging the strip of cotton round his neck. Then he struck off in the direction of the red curtain, his clothing tucked under one arm.

Lowering himself to the bench, Doyle took up his trousers and shook them open. As he angled his left leg into the material, a narrow, black- whiskered muzzle appeared from underneath the seat.

"Eavesdropping again, were you, Basil? That's all right; who're you going to tell?" He tweaked the animal's nose, then concentrated on guiding the other leg into the crumpled running suit.

Sanjay was indeed fretful, pacing the confines of his cage in a way Doyle had not seen before. Derek seemed unconcerned, however, and led Doyle inside to minister the day's potion. The cat gave them a baleful once-over before coming to a stop a few yards away, there to observe their approach through slitted eyes.

"Ah, don't be that way, old son," Doyle muttered coaxingly. He strode with unfaltering purpose toward the animal, knowing that he would not stand a chance should Sanjay choose to lash out at him. Paying almost as strict attention to his human companion as he did the huge cat, Doyle took root where he stood when Derek raised a warning hand.

Sanjay spat once, baring discolored, but still formidable fangs. Slowly, slowly his ears shifted forward, and he sat down. When Derek reached out and stroked his throat with a curled forefinger, he neither resisted nor quibbled.

Swallowing dryly, Doyle moved into position, and gently surrounded the cat's neck with an arm. Not for the first time, as he braced his elbow against the powerful shoulders, Doyle marvelled at the animal's indulgent nature.

But now the cat was tense, pushing into Doyle's loose hold. Responding reflexively to that slight challenge, Doyle tightened the angle of his elbow. This was sufficient to stall the tiger's forward motion. Making swift use of the minor distraction, Derek emptied the syringe into Sanjay's mouth, then rubbed the thick throat to encourage him to gulp the fluid down.

"There's a good lad." Doyle relaxed his arm, letting it slide naturally down the broad, lushly furred breast. His fingers curved into the cat's hair, gleaning the sensations of warmth, softness, and the pulse beneath the hide. "Beautiful, that's what you are, mate."

The intimidating rattle that signified that all was well in Sanjay's world welled up from the hidden place deep within the cat's body. Doyle could feel the arresting vibration through his fingertips.

"Beautiful," he said again.

Sanjay's mouth split open, widening into a great yawn. With no warning, he lay all the way down, bearing Doyle's hand with him. Butted lightly-- but, given the size of the cat's head, with imposing pressure--Doyle hunkered down onto his heels to continue his caresses.

A tsk from Derek brought Doyle's gaze up; enraptured with the cat's acceptance of him, he had quite forgotten the other man's presence. Derek looked on with a crooked smile, his head turning slowly from one side to the other with cynical disbelief.

"Sanjay," Doyle announced, "has impeccable taste."

Rolling his eyes, Derek groaned speakingly.

Dismissed from the cat's favor when Sanjay fell into an all-consuming slumber, Doyle walked out into bright sunshine. Squinting his eyes against the glare, he remembered Bodie's prediction of the night before-- which, according to Bodie, had been passed on to him by way of Piper-- that clear skies were in the offing.

An inquiring whimper brought Doyle's head round; outside the back entry to the animal enclosure, Basil sat patiently waiting, watching him to determine whether he would walk toward the caravan site or back around to the circus compound. Doyle, however, was no longer moving at all, for his attention had skipped beyond the dog to the large, mud-encrusted lorry parked on the other side of Derek's Rover.

Somehow, despite having seen Donal O'Shea only a few days before, and well aware that his appearance must presage imminent activity, Doyle was unprepared for the reality that greeted him. His first reaction was gut- deep denial: Not now, when things are finally coming together for me and Bodie. His second was a sense of inevitability: Cowley had foretold Doyle would not stay here beyond two weeks.

Smothering a sudden churning disappointment, Doyle poked his head back inside the canvas opening and called, "Derek, d'you want some help unloading the lorry?"

"Not his to unload," Simon called from the tackroom. "Something Sergei ordered." Nearly a minute passed before Simon went on, "But thanks for offering."

Doyle scarcely registered Simon's addendum, which had probably been prodded out of him by Derek. Something Sergei ordered. It would be child's play to speculate what that something might be.

Tonight, Doyle must inspect the lorry's contents; if his guess was right, his stay with Circus Sergei was about to come to an end.

For half an hour, Doyle searched the circus grounds for his partner. In the ring, he found Hannah putting her dogs through their paces; Falstaff, Aidan, and Zoe arguing the timing of their act with Riley; and the juggler and plate spinner practicing their skills under precariously dangling web spinners who were working out overhead. None had seen Bodie since morning; Riley, however, reminded Doyle that Bodie had been concerned about his costume and when last observed, had been headed in the direction of the dressing tent. Doyle thanked him and loped outside.

Lily was alone. At sight of Doyle, she drew a face that brought him up short. "Oh, Ray, I promise this will be ready by tonight."

"What will?" Doyle stared at the length of cloth that lay across Lily's ample lap and overflowed onto the floor. "Is that my cape?"

"It is. Or it will be. It's just I've been so--"

"Stop worrying," Doyle said with a laugh. "If mine's not ready, Bodie'll just have to do without his."

She shook her head wonderingly at him. "You don't seem the least bit nervous about tonight."

Made aware that everything had gone clean out of his mind--save the prospect of Donal O'Shea inconveniently interrupting his idyll--Doyle said ruefully, "Haven't had a chance to think much about it. Bodie had us running all morning long."

"I watched you for a few minutes. It's going to be tremendous."

"Hope you're right. Lily, I didn't come in here to nag you about my cape. Have you seen Bodie?"

"Not for an hour or more--since just before noon. I added another Velcro fastener to keep his costume from popping open, then he left."

"No idea where to?"


Doyle scratched his nose thoughtfully. "Need to find him. When d'you want me to stop back for the cape?"

"If I haven't finished it by six, it won't be ready," she apologized.

"Not to worry, love." Patting her hand lightly, Doyle favored the woman with a reassuring smile. "Believe me: That cape is the last thing on my mind."

It seemed that Bodie was nowhere to be found. Doyle searched the compound, Basil ever at his heels, but no one could report any more recent sightings than Lily's. Concluding with a brief visit to the stables, Doyle refused lunch with Derek and Simon for the second time that day, and strode outside into warm sunshine. As he neared the caravan site, he glanced across at Bodie's caravan. That had been his starting point in his quest half an hour ago. As then, the blue structure stood unaltered, betraying no sign of habitation, Bodie's battered Mini a silent sentinel alongside.

"He's been nicked by aliens, Bas," Doyle muttered irritably. His stomach rumbled its discontent--by his watch, the afternoon had gone nearly two-- and Doyle had not eaten since early morning.

Together, Doyle and the dog trundled up the steps to his door. A sound from within alerted him the instant he turned the knob.

"It's about damn time you showed up," Bodie declared querulously. He sat at the dining table, a plate of sandwiches piled high in front of him. At the opposite end another plate waited, covered with cling film.

Doyle sighed. "How long have you been here?"

Tipping his wrist to arch a brow at his watch, Bodie snapped, "Since half past twelve. Thought you'd be done in the stables nearly half an hour ago."

"Was." Pulling the door to behind him, Doyle went across to the sink and washed his hands. "I've been looking for you since then."

The vexation vanished from Bodie's features. "Oh." He broke off a piece of bread and passed it down to Basil. "Leave my fingers, you little git!"

"Don't feed her table scraps," Doyle admonished perfunctorily. Lowering himself into the booth facing Bodie, he added in priggish tones, "Bad habit." His laughing eyes met Bodie's.

Allowing a hint of apology to cross his face, Bodie reached out and touched Doyle's lower lip. "Sanjay okay?"

"Bit peevish. He's lost weight, y'know, even in the short time I've been here." He pursed his mouth to kiss Bodie's fingertip.

"Hard to believe you've been here only a little over a week," Bodie mused, more Doyle thought, to himself than to his audience. Bodie drew back his hand, and settled his fingers round the edges of his sandwich.

"Yeah," Doyle said. And how much longer would he remain?

"What is it, Ray?"

Eyes fixed on the meal in front of him, Doyle could not bring himself to look up. Forcing a chortle, he mumbled, "Wore me out, didn't you?"

"And what d'you think you did to me?" Bodie parried bluffly. "Was going to suggest a kip, actually."

Disbelieving, Doyle brought his head up sharply.

"Just a kip," Bodie assured him, conceding a tiny smile. "Tonight I want you to fly like you've never flown before."

"And after the show?"

"Was talking about after," Bodie said with a rakish grin. When Doyle sniggered, Bodie stretched out a finger and shoved Doyle's plate nearer to him. "Go on. Eat up, sunshine. Then we'll have a little lie-down."

Doyle woke in the early evening, as closely held in Bodie's arms as when he had first nodded off almost three hours earlier. As good as his word, Bodie had asked nothing more than the warmth and comfort of Doyle's presence. After sketchily tidying up the kitchen following their repast, they had lain down on the narrow bed. With Basil at their feet, and swathed in a single blanket, they had exchanged lazy kisses--initiated by Doyle--until both had become driftingly quiet, not completely asleep but no longer strictly awake. Shortly thereafter Doyle had dissolved into the sheltering recesses of his subconscious, as totally at peace as he ever allowed himself to be.

Now, he lay mutely observing his partner, wondering at the changeability of the man. One moment, Bodie could be imposingly gruff and distant, the next, gently and tenderly affectionate. None of Doyle's previous bed partners had ever captivated him so totally--not even now, when the bed was being used only for sleep.

As if becoming aware of Doyle's scrutiny, Bodie twitched, dark, saturnine brows dipping low over closed eyes. Before he could awaken, Doyle slid nearer and pressed his mouth against Bodie's lips, kissing him thoroughly but without passion.

"Hm, yeah." Bodie's drowsy blue eyes sought out his partner, coming to rest on Doyle's face. "What time is it?"

"Just after five. Ought to be getting up soon."

"Very soon." Stretching languidly, Bodie arched up against Doyle's slighter frame.

With a hand braced in the small of Bodie's back to keep their bodies from separating, Doyle rode out the sinuous movement, eyes shuttering as the pleasurable friction generated a flood of molten heat in his groin.

"You are a wanton thing, aren't you?" Bodie commented, his breath scudding across Doyle's throat.

"Not wanton," Doyle objected weakly; Bodie's mouth was on his collarbone, sharp, but cautious teeth claiming an area of tender flesh for their own. "Just...susceptible."

"To me?"

"Especially you," Doyle admitted, squirming slightly as Bodie turned his attentions to Doyle's left nipple. "Do we...really have time for this?"

Chuckling hoarsely, Bodie caught hold of Doyle's hand and unceremoniously shoved it under the waistband of his briefs, there to wrap it round his own silken hardness. "How long d'you think that'll take?"

"How long does it get?" Doyle asked brightly.

With a strangled growl, Bodie dragged him away from the edge of the bed and rolled on top of him. Frantically trying to accommodate his partner, Doyle tugged Bodie's pants down in between each of the other's driving thrusts, finally bringing the slip of material to lay across the tops of Bodie's thighs--all the while wriggling desperately to aid Bodie's rough efforts to do the same for him.

Regarding Bodie's length, Doyle soon found himself far too absorbed to tender an accurate measurement. The bulk and heat of Bodie's erection burned into his abdomen, and stroked demandingly alongside his own aching member, stripping away every consideration except the immediacy of that compelling touch.

And then Doyle was soaring, ecstasy glowing hot inside him for an endless instant before it erupted outward, racking him with the violence of uncontrollable spasms.

Bodie moaned, his searching kiss deepening briefly before he, too, tipped over the edge.

Arms clasped round Bodie with jealous strength, Doyle murmured, "Fantastic--that was fantastic. Love you, Bo--"

Hearing the words only as they were spilling out of his mouth, Doyle caught his breath and winced as if with pain. "Sorry."

Unhurriedly lifting his head from its place on their shared pillow, Bodie gazed down into Doyle's wary green eyes. "I'm not," he said flatly, and kissed Doyle again, this time with unmistakable tenderness and indolent repletion. "And now we have to get cleaned up." He pushed himself up and swung both legs off the side of the bed. "You can scrub my back, if you like."

"Won't both of us fit in that bloody tiny shower at the same time," Doyle advised him.

"That's all right." Grabbing hold of Doyle's wrists, Bodie impelled his partner into a sitting position beside him. "You can stand outside and reach round the curtain."

"That's generous of you; you going to do the same for me?"

"'Course. Do anything for you, Doyle. D'you hear me? Anything."

Spoken with unembroidered simplicity, Bodie's words held the ring of truth. Wide-eyed, Doyle looked hard into his partner's handsome face, unaware how much his own unguarded expression gave away.

Bodie bent forward and touched his lips to Doyle's forehead. "Don't gawp like that, son, or I'll own up to something really embarrassing."

"No," Doyle said abruptly. "Not yet. I--"

"Don't worry. I'll wait till we're both ready, okay?" Granting Doyle no time to answer, Bodie stood up and jerked him onto his feet. "You get started while I try to find where all my things have gone. And I could use a cuppa right now, so I'll just put the kettle on. You?"

"Yes, please," Doyle said gratefully, letting go of Bodie's hand with reluctance.

Giving Doyle a friendly leer, Bodie turned toward the kitchen; smiling lopsidedly after him, Doyle took himself off to the bathroom, a hand smearing their combined ejaculate across his abdomen before it could drip down onto his thighs. Stepping into the shower compartment, Doyle paused when he heard Bodie say, "What're you doing under the table, you silly mutton-head? Wait a minute--is that my shoe?! Basil!"

With a flick of the wrist, Doyle rotated the taps wide open, the sound of rushing water drowning out the yaps and shouted curses that ensued. As far as he was concerned, Bodie and Basil would have to thrash out that particular altercation without him to act as referee.

"Come with me, to a simpler time, when men of honor feared nought save disgrace, and the gods of the realm looked down with favor upon their champions. Behold, the youth!"

The great light flared on, exposing Doyle, who stood balanced proudly on the platform, one arm outstretched to stay his trapeze. Pushing off, he swooped out over the ring, his leotard starkly white in the brilliance of the massive klieg, spangles winking with every tiny movement. Out he swung, and back, gaining momentum and speed until, suspended over the center of the ring, he let go, cavorting like a creature born to the air. Too soon he was forced to concede to his earthbound origins and gave himself over to Bodie, who, in the guise of the gods' deputy, here served as the youth's protector. Playing his role with verve and unbridled enthusiasm, Doyle easily conveyed the impetuosity and resilience of the young and sound.

"Such strength and valor must always draw the attention of darker forces, and so it is now. They wait, and once they find our lad alone, seize their moment. See, the attack!"

His costume black from the waist up, an executioner's cowl concealing most of his face, Bodie challenged the young hero on his next crossover, testing his strength with brutal indifference. Barely escaping unscathed, Doyle swung back once more--and now Bodie delivered a fearful blow, sending Doyle spinning away, his awkward movements giving the impression of crippling pain. Undaunted, if badly wounded, the youth returned to the fray yet again, as all heroes must--only to be unremittingly vanquished. Clinging weakly to his trapeze, Doyle hung from one hand, his body sagging heavily. And then he pretended to lose his hold altogether, rousing a gasp from the audience as he plummeted down, luridly lit by the damning blood-red light, and still down, into the net, where he landed with winding force.

"Even at the moment of death, he will not surrender. No, even then, with his last ounce of strength and unbroken spirit, he struggles vainly upward--"

Using the impetus of his impact with the net, Doyle launched himself back into the air, chest high, arms thrust out behind him, creating the image Bodie had described so soon upon his arrival: Like a bloody great bird. The audience believed in it and was pulling for him; he could sense the tension as muscles not his own struggled to lift the injured warrior.

"--only to fail in the end."

The hush was complete as Doyle collapsed back down into the net--then lay there unstirring. Riley let the moment go just long enough for the stunned onlookers to believe that Doyle might truly be hurt; but not long enough for anyone to leap to his assistance.

"Will the gods abandon one of their chosen few?" The web, operated by Des under cover of darkness, tapped at Doyle's shoulder, right on the mark and with meticulous timing. Unobtrusively Doyle snaked his arm into the loop and gave the rope a solid pull. He ascended with accelerating speed, outlined by the blue light which suggested the coldness of death. At the instant the web brought him within reach of his trapeze, the lights overhead began to coruscate. Amidst this strobe effect, Doyle stiffened, as he imagined someone touched by the galvanic energy of the gods might do.

"Fresh blood floods his veins, new strength powers his muscles, and the certainty of purpose fills his heart and mind. Imbued with life reborn, he commits himself to the service of his gods." Riley's voice boomed with amazing conviction over the Tannoy, keeping pace with Doyle's effortless acrobatics.

Twaddle, Doyle thought, cynically amused, as he was taken into Bodie's hands following completion of a bird's nest pass-over.

Having dispensed with the black hood, and with the flap on his costume reversed and secured in place so that once more he, like Doyle, was clad all in white, Bodie sent his partner pirouetting back to his own trapeze. Both lengthened their swings in preparation for Doyle's double somersault.

"Left older and wiser, but now immortal, the warrior takes his place amongst his peers, no longer of this world, but of a far, far better one." The music rose to a crescendo just as Doyle broke from his trap. Spinning once, twice, then unfolding to give himself into Bodie's hands, Doyle's supple movements held the audience spellbound, not only by his display of unquestionable skill, but through the remarkable flamboyance with which he executed every action.

Alighting onto his platform in the glow of the white klieg, Doyle spun round, one arm raised dramatically, his stance all circus as he invited response from every corner.

The house, somewhat larger than the previous two nights, broke into applause and cheers. Doyle waved across at his partner, lest he be neglected in the accolades. Bodie, however, stood removed on his own platform, seemingly untouched by the audience's approval.

"Bastard," Doyle whispered to himself; for, in his eyes, Bodie was magnificent. All hard muscles and compact strength, it was Bodie, Doyle decided, who should play the role of the youth in their preposterous production.

Diving down into the net--and eliciting renewed gasps from the unprepared audience--Doyle turned over in his mind the possibility of their trading out roles. Despite appearances, he knew himself strong enough to serve as Bodie's catcher; it would depend on whether he could convince Bodie to give it a try.

And whether he had the time.

Joined by his partner on the floor, Doyle folded in half, the first of four bows made to each quadrant of the stands. A scantily dressed female assistant skipped up behind them and restored their capes to their shoulders. In perfect sync, they straightened, then strode imperially out of the ring, exiting through the red curtain.

"Convinced?" Bodie asked.

"Convinced." Grinning to himself, Doyle amended, "But only because Riley's doing the voice-over. Nobody'd believe that nonsense otherwise."

"Don't sell yourself short. If you weren't making their eyes pop out with all that stylish swanning about, no amount of 'rich chocolate brown tones' would matter a whit." Bodie stepped out of the corridor into the stables.

"Oh, there you are!" Simon exclaimed. "I've just put the tea on." He strode forward and kissed Bodie lightly on the mouth. "Marvellous!" Then he turned to Doyle and engulfed him in his arms. "Unbelievable! Did you hear that audience? They loved you!"

Released suddenly from Simon's grasp, Doyle staggered to catch his balance. "It went okay." He oofed as a large elbow dug into his ribs. Glaring at Bodie, he said, "Well, it did--but just okay, mind. Was nowhere near perfect. You almost dropped me when I came across in that first bird's nest."

"It was supposed to look like that."

"You sure you weren't having trouble with that bloody cowl?"

"None at all. Just adding a touch of verité to the routine, that's all."


Pouring milk into mugs, Simon said, "So it wasn't perfect; it was still very entertaining."

"Not per--!" Doyle broke off, pretending to be lost for words. "You mean, you didn't like it?"

Seeing the teasing glint in Doyle's eyes, Simon smiled with impunity. "You're just being ratty. But what you pulled off tonight was nothing less than a miracle, considering the short time you've had to put it together. The way you two get on, a body'd think you've known each other forever."

"Wasn't us; it was Riley," Bodie said lugubriously.

"Des," Doyle countered.

"Donal and his fabulous flashing lights."

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"No, no, it was Trevor." Doyle held up his hand, as though awaiting a drumroll.

In chorus, Bodie and Simon dutifully asked, "Who's Trevor?"

"The red-nosed bloke who plays the trumpet. You know."

Groaning noisily, Simon placed a mug in Doyle's hands. "I shall be sure to thank him at the end of tonight's performance."

At the culmination of the show, Bodie and Doyle rode in the parade wearing their flyer's costumes. As they passed round in front of the audience, Doyle's attention was caught by the sound of his name shouted in a thin, high voice. Glancing into the crowd about three rows back, he spied Vanessa Potter and her mother, Jean. Vanessa raised her hand, displaying another toffee apple split in two. Winking broadly, Doyle gave her a quick nod.

"And right under my nose," Bodie said mournfully, as they continued round.

It was the faintly brittle tone, rather than the ludicrous words that gave Doyle pause. "Only take a moment or two," he said firmly.

"Just don't forget I've got plans."

"So long as I'm included," Doyle replied gravely, "I shan't forget."

The house emptied out soon afterward, some people to troll through the sideshow attractions, others to return to their cars or the bus-stop half a mile down the road.

Doyle, protected from the cooling evening by his new, voluminous cape, found Vanessa and Jean Potter waiting outside the main entry. Flagging them back inside, he escorted his two admirers through the now strangely empty Big Tent into the corridor which gave access to the stables.

"You are very kind, Mr. Doyle," Jean Potter said, the heightened color in her cheeks bringing out the blue in her eyes.

"Not at all. Come on now. Vanessa's told me what she thought of the aerial routine; it's your turn. Go on; be honest."

"Magnificent," the woman stated without hesitation. "You make it look effortless, as though anyone could climb up there and just--fly."

"You didn't think it at all silly?" Doyle probed. He stopped inside the tackroom and waved mother and daughter in ahead of him.

"Oh, no. Not at all. It was--terribly romantic, actually."

In the center alleyway of the stables, Derek, who had been forewarned, straightened up from brushing down Tuppence's flank to flash the visitors a welcoming grin.

"There you are," Simon greeted them cheerfully. "You will take tea, won't you?"

"Oh, thank you. But please don't let us put you out," Jean Potter said graciously.

"No bother at all," Simon assured her. "So long as you don't mind mismatched cups. They are clean, though."

Vanessa had already forgotten everyone else, drawn toward the white Andalusian as though under an enchantment. Derek took his place at the horse's head, overseeing the child's safety as she presented half of the apple for Tuppence's inspection.

Simon performed the duties of the perfect host, while Doyle sought out his partner. He found him in the shadows near the back exit, leaning against one of the support poles. Legs crossed at the ankles, arms folded across his chest, Bodie expressionlessly returned Doyle's questioning look.

"Oh, yes, please!" Vanessa entreated, her high-pitched voice commanding the attention of everyone. In the next moment, she was lifted up by Derek onto the Andalusian's back. "Oh, Mummy!"

A whicker bespeaking neglect sounded from the back of the stalls. "That's Piper," Simon explained, handing Jean Potter a cup of tea. "He's just envious."

"Can I have a cuppa, Si?" Doyle asked.

"Of course you can. Expected you to help yourself, didn't I? Usually do, y'know." To Jean Potter, he said, "He's trying to impress you with this rash of good manners."

"Ta, mate," Doyle said, with a glowering smile. He took up a cup as soon as Simon finished pouring, then prodded, "And one for Bodie, eh?"

"Oh, sorry! Where's he got to?"

"Behind you." Burdened with both mugs, Doyle strode across the straw- covered floor to Bodie's side, his cape swirling round him with every step. "You're very quiet," he remarked.

"Nothing to say--except thank you." Watching the woman and her daughter over the rim of the mug, Bodie said, "You seem to be in your element."

"Do I?"

"Yeah. Mum and child and Mr. Doyle make three."

"Don't be an idiot," Doyle said pleasantly. "Look at Vanessa's eyes: They're glowing. It's easy to forget that there really is magic sometimes, that's all."

Bodie said nothing for a moment. A beaming Vanessa was hoisted off Tuppence's back. A little wobbly-legged, she followed Derek's lead to Piper's stall. "The magic of home and hearth," Bodie wondered aloud, "or of circus?"

Taking a sip of his tea, Doyle tried to puzzle out Bodie's mood. "Maybe both," he said at last. "Me dad died when I was young. We were pretty close; I missed him a lot. Then Mum married Evelyn Preston--he was managing Donny Devereaux's lot at the time. That's how I came to be a flyer."

"Until Keith Leland died."

"Until Keith Leland died, yes," Doyle agreed.

"And now?"

"What about now?"

"D'you want to be a flyer for the rest of your life?"

Doyle tore his eyes from Vanessa and Derek to look searchingly in Bodie's face. "I don't know. What're you really asking me, Bodie?"

The smooth-capped head nodded toward Jean Potter, currently engaged in conversation with Simon, and Vanessa Potter, who was feeding toffee apple into Piper's willing mouth under Derek's ever-vigilant supervision. "A lot of flyers find it hard to settle down. D'you want all that: children, family?"

"I'm gay, Bodie," Doyle reminded him with more than a hint of sarcasm.

"Bi. Some blokes do, gay or straight."

With certainty, Doyle said, "No. I can't abide children--well, I can in small doses, and so long as they aren't mine. But I wouldn't marry just to carry on the family name, if that's what you mean. Doyle's common enough; it would never be missed because of me."

"Otherwise you could go on as you are? I mean, you don't need someone to love?"

Green eyes flicked back toward Derek and the child. "Used to think so."

"'Used to?'"

Tipping his nose into his mug, Doyle muttered, "Yeah."

Magic still shone in Vanessa Potter's face as she and her mother drove away from the circus compound. Seeing them off alone, Doyle mulled over Bodie's questions, and the broodiness their arrival had triggered. Possessive was too strong a word to characterize Bodie's reaction, but it bordered on an emotion equally as strong, and one Doyle was leery of pronouncing.

As he skirted the compound, passing between the second equipment caravan and the power generators, Doyle took note of the oversize lorry still parked outside the animal enclosure. It mocked him by its very existence, a bothersome reminder that he was here under false pretenses; that he was here, in fact, to do a job.

As Doyle strolled by, glancing with outward disinterest at the bolts holding shut the two panels of the vehicle's back door, he contemplated on one level of his mind how easily--or how hard--it would be to break inside. Nothing so obvious as a padlock secured the bolts; he could, in fact, chance his hand now--

The sound of voices approaching from the second equipment caravan came to Doyle on the breeze. Glancing back, he saw the unmistakable, portly outline of Alf Weatherby; beside him strode a lean shadow Doyle would have bet a sizable amount of money was Donal O'Shea. Carrying on toward the path without altering his pace, Doyle gave up a quick sigh of thanks that the two men had come along when they had. Things might have got very sticky indeed, otherwise.

Yet their arrival had only postponed the inevitable. He must get into that vehicle, and soon. But what excuse could he offer to Bodie that would plausibly explain his absence? Or ought he to solicit Bodie's aid-- make him an accomplice?

The very notion was ludicrous, not to mention irresponsible. Why, Bodie would want to know, are we wasting our time snooping around inside an equipment vehicle?

There was an easy solution, of course: Send Bodie back to his own caravan tonight. Plead exhaustion, indifference, a change of heart. Any or all would suffice to get rid of him.

And what choice did Doyle really have? The likelihood of the lorry remaining on the site much longer was remote in the extreme. And the longer it stayed, the sooner it would become an object of curiosity. Neither Sergei, nor his associates in the Irish Republican Army could permit that.

Clutching his cape about him--and very grateful that Lily had contrived to finish it in time--Doyle left the path and stepped down onto the gravel of the caravan site. Even from here he could see that lights were shining in his unit; through the drawn curtains, he could make out Bodie's distinctive shadow--waiting for him.

"Mother and daughter get away okay?" Bodie asked. He was bent almost in half, painstakingly placing the casserole dish containing the remnants of Emma's beef stew squarely in the center of the oven.

"Yeah. How long till the nosh's ready?" Tucking the just-buttoned shirt into the waist of his jeans as he emerged from the bedroom, Doyle gave an exaggerated sniff.

"Long enough for me to try an experiment."

"What sort of experiment?" Doyle opened the refrigerator door and took out the milk.

Watching Doyle take a swig directly from the lip of the bottle, Bodie gave a reproving cluck. "Nasty." When it was offered to him, however, he took it without demur. Licking a wash of white from his own upper lip, Bodie said, "You and that wretched dog of yours."

"What about us?"

"I'll bet I know a knot she can't beat."

"Better than Derek's?" Doyle scoffed. He slid the bottle back onto the rack and closed the door.

"Of course."

"Okay." Planting a hand on his hip, Doyle glanced round the room. "Where's the strip of cloth we were using last night?"

Digging into the pocket of his corduroys, Bodie produced a length of lightweight rope.

"Been planning on this, have you?" Doyle chided. "And you were the one complaining about ruining my wrists!"

"Don't worry; I'll see to it that Basil doesn't scratch you."

"Big of you. Okay." He thrust out his forearms, crossed at the wrists, in front of him. "Tie 'em up."

"Nah, you've gotta turn round. I think Basil gets an unfair advantage when she can watch your face."

Smirking at his partner, Doyle said. "All right, tie 'em at the back, then. By the way, you haven't said what the stakes are."

"A tenner that she can't get it undone at all."

"You're on." Doyle did as instructed, his bare feet pale upon the patterned linoleum floor. With his arms lying comfortably upon the small of his back, he said, "Pay attention, Basil."

The dog lay on the rug in front of the sink, gnawing on her toy. At the sound of Doyle's voice, she raised her head, dark eyes fixed inquiringly on his face.

"Taking your time back there, aren't you? What're you doing?" Doyle demanded, pulling a face as Bodie cinched the rope tightly.

"Be patient. These are expert knots, eh?"

"Oh, right." Humming loudly and tunelessly simply to annoy his partner, Doyle occupied himself by making faces at the dog, who responded by tilting her head first one way and then the other in bafflement.

"There, that's got it."

Tugging sharply at his bonds, Doyle said drolly, "Certainly seems to." He sat down sideways in the chair. "C'mon, Basil."

The dog sprang up, no longer needing Doyle's facial cue to understand what was wanted of her. As she bent her head to the task, however, Bodie scooped her up and carried her to the door.

"Out you go, Bas."

Looking up astonished, Doyle began, "What're you--?" His voice trailed away as Bodie shut the door and, leaning back against the panel, began to unbutton his shirt.

"Bodie?" A frisson of alarm shot up Doyle's spine. Never had he seen Bodie's eyes so darkly intent. Despite himself, Doyle began to struggle against the rope.

The shirt landed with a soft thup in the corner of the booth. Bodie reached for his belt.

Instinctively stumbling to his feet, Doyle stared wide-eyed at his partner. "Bodie, what are you doing?"

His reply was a slight smile; Doyle did not find it reassuring. "Bodie, I--"

With a single step, the other man closed the distance between them. Holding Doyle's head between both hands, Bodie kissed him, intimately and with unmistakable urgency.

Gasping, Doyle tried to pull away. "Untie me, you fool."

Still unspeaking, Bodie bent forward, and before Doyle could guess his intention, hefted Doyle bodily onto his shoulder.

"Bodie, what the fuck are you up to?" Doyle said the words laughingly, but there was a shrillness to his voice that betrayed him.

He landed on his back on the bed, immediately rolling onto his side away from the edge to take the strain off his arms. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw the zip on the corduroys slide down, guided by one big, very steady hand. In no hurry, Bodie stepped out of his trousers, the front of his briefs bulging.


The underpants were dealt with next, with the same unrelenting efficiency. Doyle's eyes fell to Bodie's groin and remained there. In his present state of helplessness, he found Bodie completely nude and fully aroused, as intimidating as he was enthralling.

Doyle looked up slowly; the forbidding features almost frightened him. Driven to act, he rocked forward, determined to get to his feet. But Bodie anticipated him; seizing the front of Doyle's shirt, he slung Doyle back onto the bed. Before he could regain his balance, Bodie came down on top of him, stabbing a knee between Doyle's thighs.

Doyle's mouth was covered and hungrily taken, while a hand stripped open the buttons of his shirt one by one. He struggled violently, trying to throw Bodie off--but to no effect. With his lips on Doyle's throat, Bodie pushed aside the flaps of the shirt, his hands roaming arrogantly over Doyle's bare skin.

"Bodie, why are you--?"

Bodie smothered the nascent protest with another savage kiss, at the same time moving his deliberate assault to Doyle's belt and the clasp at the waist of his jeans. The zip came open with a loud rasp of metal teeth. Shuddering, Doyle felt Bodie's fingers push inside his thin pants. He was taken into one very warm hand, his own arousal impossible to deny.

Shocked into submission, Doyle did not at first resist as Bodie peeled the jeans and briefs off his hips and long legs. Then, feeling terribly exposed--and almost painfully stimulated--Doyle kicked his feet free and tried to lift himself up against the headboard. Bodie yanked him down and threw a leg over him, straddling his waist.

Breathing hard, Doyle was made to wait while Bodie moved upward over his torso, downy buttocks and testicles skimming across the hair on Doyle's chest. Long and heavy with blood, his erection preceded him, bobbing nearer Doyle's face with each passing second. Taking his weight on his knees, Bodie stopped at last. With a hand curled round the base of his own penis, he positioned it a scant inch away from Doyle's mouth.

Glaring up mutinously, Doyle found unreadable blue eyes staring back down at him. There was nothing in Bodie's face to reassure him, and yet--

Bodie's other hand slipped into Doyle's hair; he nudged the sensitive glans against Doyle's full lips, a request--not a demand--for entry.

And all at once, Doyle thought he understood what Bodie wanted of him. Four days ago, Bodie had suggested a bout of wrestling--a test, he had said, to see if Doyle would hurt him. Now, it appeared, he wanted to know if Doyle would let himself be overpowered while Bodie directed their sexual activities. A jealous response to Doyle's attentions to the Potters? Perhaps. Or, possibly Bodie was just examining the limits of their relationship--how far could he go before Doyle called a halt? In any case, there was no doubt in Doyle's mind that if he refused, Bodie would not force him--and that was all that was of importance to him.

Opening his mouth, Doyle played the tip of his tongue lightly across the velvet head. A bit-off sigh hissed into the air above him. Emboldened, Doyle parted his lips and sucked the smooth column inside. Unexpectedly, Bodie moved his hips, driving deeper into Doyle's mouth.

Anxious that Bodie might choke him, however unintentionally, Doyle jerked back against the restraining hand. Bodie released him at once, then delicately ran a finger over Doyle's face and jaw, rubbing his thumb across the corner of Doyle's tingling lips where mustache blended into beard.

Looking up at his partner's absorbed expression, Doyle smiled to himself and relaxed. In all things, it appeared, he trusted Bodie implicitly.

This time when Bodie offered his penis, Doyle took it without hesitation, no longer questioning why Bodie kept him bound. He was, after all, not terribly uncomfortable; more than that, he could not deny the eroticism of commingling helplessness and sex.

In fact, it was a wondrously pleasant sensation having another man's straining sex in his mouth. The toadstool tip, so impossibly silken soft; the hard, yet pliant length; the burgeoning veins rolling under the probe of his tongue; even the salt-bitter taste of pre-ejaculate-- all fascinated rather than repelled him.

And the unwilling moans, forced out of Bodie by Doyle's efforts, filled him with a sense of power; at this moment, his partner was completely dependent on him. As Bodie rotated his hips, keeping his thrusts short and unthreatening, Doyle learned how best to please, alternately sucking with his whole mouth and fondling with his tongue to keep his jaws from tiring--and to keep Bodie in his thrall.

When his partner suddenly drew away after only a few minutes of this, Doyle was abstractedly disappointed. Unknowing that his own features were flushed, his eyes hazy and heavy-lidded, and his mouth slightly swollen, Doyle did not understand the fierce look that crossed Bodie's face. But his frustration vanished when Bodie shifted off him, hunched over so he could kiss Doyle's mouth.

Wanting the use of his hands to hold his partner, Doyle pulled his head to one side to speak. "Bodie, let me-- Ahh!"

But Bodie had dropped further down Doyle's body, his mouth going around Doyle's neglected erection, taking it in and in until Doyle thought he must be swallowed whole.

An expression that might have been confused for agony tore across Doyle's features as new sensations splintered throughout his system. He had known pleasure in a woman's mouth before--many women, for that matter--but none had ever worked him with the sure knowledge that Bodie brought to bear. Doyle writhed and cocked his hips, trying to drive himself deeper into that warm haven, regardless of his partner's comfort.

With one hand on Doyle's belly, and the other carefully cupping his testicles, Bodie worked with him while restraining Doyle's undulating movements. He moved his mouth up and down the long, aching shaft, tonguing it with lush, merciless strokes, taking Doyle nearer and nearer the longed-for precipice.

Doyle was there, right at the edge, when a thud, a startlingly loud splash, and a surprised canine outburst snatched him back to his senses.


"Shit!" Bodie was off the bed and on the balls of his feet at the same instant that Basil dashed into the bedroom. Soaking wet, she skidded to a stop and proceeded to shake the rinse water from the kitchen sink off her smooth-haired coat.

"You idiot dog!" Bodie roared.

Trying to control his harsh breathing, Doyle took in the sight of his naked lover--still displaying all the symptoms of lustful preoccupation-- and his indignant and bristling dog, and began to laugh, high gasping howls that, given his present constraints, proved actually painful.

Slipping past Bodie, Basil leapt onto the bed, her rough, wet pads scraping across Doyle's chest. His laughter turning to muffled shrieks, Doyle tried to squirm away. Bodie grabbed the sodden animal before she could do serious damage and wrapped the edge of the sheet round her. Brusquely rubbing her down, he scowled menacingly across at Doyle.

"S-sorry," Doyle groaned, hiccupping. "Forgot about the window. My God, that smell--Bodie, the oven!"

"Bloody fucking hell," Bodie said viciously. Plopping the dog, still entangled in the sheet, onto the floor, he stalked into the kitchen and flung open the oven door. The scent of well-heated beef stew surged forth, rapidly reaching into the bedroom. Bodie grabbed a pot holder and the tea towel off the refrigerator door handle and, picking up the casserole dish between the two, ferried it out of the oven and onto the sideboard. Slamming the hand protectors down beside it, he stomped back into the bedroom.

Biting his bottom lip to keep his none too steady composure, Doyle shrugged innocently.

With a growl, Bodie stepped past the dog, who remained seated on the floor amidst the folds of the sheet, licking her legs. Climbing onto the bed, Bodie bent over and took hold of Doyle's hips, canting them forward so that his somewhat wilted erection took prominence. Then Bodie lowered his head and took up where he had left off.

The friction of Bodie's tongue coupled with inescapable, lavish suction brought Doyle rocketing back to the summit. Mewling out his partner's name, he succumbed to the shattering sensations within seconds, spine arched to bury himself in Bodie's mouth as pleasure shot through every nerve in his body.

A moment later, Bodie released him, his square-cut hands rubbing up and down Doyle's thighs, thumbs carefully brushing against Doyle's tender genitals.

Devastated, Doyle thought it would be ridiculously easy for him to make the mistake of falling asleep right now.

Kneeling above him, Bodie looked down on his companion with mute hunger. Viscous fluid beaded at the tip of his penis, which still curved searchingly upward.

"D'you want to fuck me?" Doyle asked hoarsely, knowing only that he must give Bodie something of equal value in return for the unparalleled lovemaking he had just experienced.

Bodie's lips parted, then closed abruptly.

"In the kitchen, there should be something," Doyle said matter-of- factly. "Butter, cooking oil, something."

Bodie's hands fell motionless on Doyle's thighs. "Only if you promise to do me later."

"After that?!" Doyle exclaimed softly.

"I'll wake you. Promise me."

"If that's what you want, sunshine, you won't get an argument out of me."

"That's what I want," Bodie said resolutely. He touched Doyle's face lightly. "Don't go away."

"No," Doyle whispered, insides fluttering at the expression in Bodie's luminous eyes. As Bodie went into the kitchen, Doyle glanced down at the dog, who lay sleepy-headed in her nest of bed linen. Recalled to his situation, he arched a brow in her direction, then shifted onto his side. Basil's teeth and dripping muzzle were there immediately, tugging adroitly at his bonds. Listening to the sounds of cupboard doors opening, the contents being heedlessly pawed, then hinges creaking shut again, Doyle silently urged her on.

"This'll do!" he heard Bodie mutter. Footsteps padded softly on the linoleum floor, and a second later Bodie appeared around the corner.

He took in Doyle's guilty, overwide gaze and Basil's determined assault on the cords lashed round Doyle's wrists.

"Let me finish that, mutt," Bodie said brusquely, setting the bottle of cooking oil on the floor as he sat down on the edge of the mattress.

At that moment, however, Basil won through, a fierce shake of the head effecting Doyle's freedom.

"You owe me a tenner," Doyle crowed triumphantly, flailing his wrists like a rag doll to restore sensation to his tingling limbs.

"Happily." Bodie took Doyle's hands in his palms and rubbed them briskly. "Better?" At Doyle's nod, he said plaintively, "Roll over, then, will you?"

Rising up on his knees, Doyle leaned nearer instead. He murmured, "Happily. But I want a kiss first."

It was a luxurious, unhurried kiss, and Doyle made the most of it. "That was incredible," he said, touching his lips to the curved-up tip of Bodie's nose. "Thank you."

With an inarticulate sound, Bodie brought Doyle up hard against his chest and held him there for a long moment. "Cheers, mate," he whispered.

Trailing a finger down Bodie's abdomen, Doyle slowly pulled away. Crouching low, he brushed his lips over a dusky nipple, then turned and lay himself face down on the mattress.

A warm hand came to lie over both of his buttocks. Fingers glided from one side to the other before dipping between, following the line of the cleft downward. Doyle raised a leg to aid Bodie's explorations, recoiling involuntarily as Bodie raked the pad of a finger over unexpectedly sensitive skin.

Something only slightly cooler than body temperature slid down the crevice between Doyle's buttocks. He caught his breath as Bodie began to smooth it in, the sensation not unpleasant but decidedly alien.

"Okay?" Bodie asked, his voice a gravelly whisper.

"So far."

But Doyle tensed as Bodie moved between his legs, then stretched his buttocks apart with forefinger and thumb.

"You're going to have to raise up a bit," Bodie instructed.

"Like this?" Doyle scooted his knees a short distance under his body, not particularly keen on the way cool air swirled around his exposed bottom.

"Better." Bodie crowded closer, fingers forcing Doyle open once more. Doyle felt something rub up against him, a snub pressure he knew without doubt must be Bodie's penis. Holding his breath a second time, Doyle bit his lip as Bodie began to push inside.

"Ray?" Bodie checked himself.

"Go on," Doyle hissed. "You're the expert here, aren't you?"

"I-- Oh, Christ!"

All at once Bodie was inside him, deep inside him, and the instinct to thrust must have been overwhelming, for he shoved in and out in three quick strokes.

Assailed by a pain quite unlike any he had ever known, Doyle tasted blood, his hands twisted crampingly in the mattress cover.

"Jesus, Doyle." Bodie's breath flowed hot across Doyle's shoulder blades. "Are you okay?"

"Hurts," Doyle said through clenched teeth.



Bodie gave a low moan. "Bloody hell, Ray, I can't-- I'm almost-- Oh, damn!"

To Doyle's amazement, Bodie began to withdraw. Knowing well the agony his partner must be suffering--to be so close, yet to exercise such extraordinary control--Doyle threw back a hand to stay him.

"Don't, you bastard! Just-- Can you lie still a minute? Let me get used to this?"

Trembling, Bodie clung to Doyle's slight frame. "Yeah, but--don't change your mind, eh? I don't think--"

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"You're not supposed to," Doyle said with a sharp laugh. He felt oddly secure with Bodie plastered all down his back and buried to the hilt inside him. "Tell me what it's like, Bodie?"

"No...words. Hot, tight, perfect--you're perfect." Bodie nuzzled his lips against the nape of Doyle's neck, then moved higher, snuffling behind one ear. "Is it better?" he asked. "Can I move now?"

Smiling shakily down into the mattress, Doyle steeled himself then said, "Yeah, go on, then."


Trying to escape Bodie's ticklish explorations, Doyle growled, "Get on with it, will you?"

"Love to," Bodie sighed. Slowly and with infinite care, he drew most of the way out of Doyle's compliant body before easing inch by inch back inside. Rhythm established, he gradually quickened the pace, muttering huskily, "Love to--love to--love to--"

All at once, the pain subsided. To Doyle's surprise, being coupled with Bodie was no longer something to be endured only for Bodie's sake, but an act of incredible eroticism. He ruminated if this was what women felt, this sense not of being taken, but of taking in. It was his body that held Bodie spellbound, his heat that surrounded him, his smooth softness that provided the channel for Bodie's completion. And there was something more. With each stroke inward, Bodie provoked a surge of purest carnality. It welled up inside Doyle, inducing him to actively encourage Bodie's thrusts, where before he had only tolerated them.

Flying on emotion and voluptuous sensuality, Doyle bit off a moan of dismay when Bodie clutched him suddenly tighter, belly pressed flat against Doyle's buttocks, and gave up his passion into Doyle's body. Somehow Doyle had imagined this would last forever, completely unaware that it had been his whole-hearted enthusiasm that had jolted Bodie to the point of culmination.

For the moment, however, there was yet a certain fascination in experiencing Bodie's orgasm from the inside, feeling the once imposing organ twitch and jerk until it stilled. Even more curious was the way it slowly dwindled until it no longer seemed to fill him.

Bodie guided them onto their sides, his arms surrounding Doyle's skinny chest, hands idly brushing over the soft pelt of hair, unabashedly cuddling Doyle to him.

Lying silent, Doyle thought back to only a couple of days ago--then, he had even doubted that they would ever make it to bed together and now, here he was, his virginity well and truly stripped away.

After all these years.

Bodie's grip slackened and the rate of his respiration noticeably slowed.


"Hm?" Blunt-tipped fingers were stirred to fresh explorations.

"You fall asleep on me--like this--and you're minced meat."

"I wouldn't dare."

Half-drowsing himself, Doyle murmured, "Dinner's waiting, y'know."


"You need something substantial, remember--growing boy that you are?"

"Uh huh."

"More than that--"

Only a few seconds passed before Bodie muttered lethargically, "Yeah?"

"You'll need it for later tonight--when I keep my promise."

Two viselike arms squeezed the breath out of Doyle's lungs. "Good idea. I'm looking forward to that."

"Lunatic," Doyle mumbled, bringing one of Bodie's hands up to his mouth and kissing it with profound affection. "You get to wash the sheets, mate."

Bodie murmured something unintelligible--curse or endearment, Doyle could not tell--and hugged him once more. "Love to," he said clearly.

"Just bet you do," Doyle grinned.



"Is he in pain?" Doyle asked. Sanjay lay on the cage floor beside him, licking his lips following the morning's dosing.

Derek curved a finger under the tiger's jaw and shook his head. Then he shrugged.

"You mean, you're not one hundred percent certain?"

At Derek's nod, Doyle sighed. "Simon says he's suffering from old age. D'you know what, precisely?"

With a hand at his ribcage, Derek opened and closed his fist, mimicking the action of the heart.

"A murmur? Yeah, it feels like a murmur." Rising to his feet, Doyle muttered, "So he just gets weaker and weaker."

The cat's head came up, swivelling in Doyle's direction. Staring down into those inscrutable eyes, Doyle knew a fierce longing to see into the animal's mind, to know his thoughts regarding the limited world in which he lived, to know his opinion of those who populated it.

Bending over to administer a final caress, Doyle waited until the yellow eyes had retreated beneath their veil of heavy lids before straightening again.

While Sanjay slept, Derek and Doyle finished mucking out the tiger's cage, leaving him with fresh water and food, his meal of the night before having gone completely ignored.

Departing through the back exit, Basil his familiar shadow, Doyle cast a glance past Derek's Rover to the equipment lorry. This, the first sight of it Doyle had had since morning--and then only as a blocky shadow against the pre-dawn sky--pleased him to note that the circus' banner, proclaiming that this vehicle belonged to Circus Sergei, had been attached to the sides. What better cover under which to ship armaments across the country's motorways?

He took one step toward it, then stilled as Sergei came round from the other side. With one hand, Doyle commanded the dog to sit. Luckily, the circus owner was lost in his thoughts, staring down at the ground as he walked back toward the animal enclosure; his distraction gave Doyle a chance to compose himself.


The man's head came up. Small, dark eyes focussed on Doyle as though he had materialized from the ether. "What're you doing here?"

"Just came out of the stables; helping Derek, y'know? Been wanting to ask: What'd you think of the new routine?"

"New--?" Sergei's face went blank. "Oh, yeah. The audience seemed to like it."

"And you?"

A tired smile pulled half-heartedly at the corners of the man's thin lips. "It's circus. Not, as I've said before, the old circus, not real flying--but it will do."

Accepting this as the compliment it was, Doyle nodded his head. "Thanks." He studied Sergei's wary face, sensing the other man's suspicion. He added a little belligerently, "Sanjay's not doing too well."

"No? That's sad. But it is Derek's problem."

Eyes narrowed, Doyle said, softly. "True. Lucky for you, eh?"

To Doyle's surprise, Sergei gave him a genuine smile. His features relaxed, revealing a worn-out, chronically unhappy, middle-aged man. "One mouth I don't have to feed. Although it would have been useful to have a real tiger in the show," he said parenthetically. "That's the sort of the thing Joe Public expect, y'know--razzle-dazzle rather than real skill. Barnum and Bailey; Bertram Mills--no loss there, now they've gone out of business; Gerry Cottle--that's what people want."

"All those shows have--or had--more flash than Circus Sergei, it's true; but you can't deny their performers were talented," Doyle argued smoothly. At times like this, he found Alf Weatherby an absolute conundrum.

"Of course not. But they're not honest, either--not like circus was originally."

Doyle squelched the beginnings of a grin. "Like the Roman arena?"

"Like Philip Astley!"

"From what I've heard, even he used a bit of the old razzle-dazzle."

"But he stressed the craft! Compare your equestrian performance to your larking about on the trapeze--which is more honest, Doyle?"

"I understand what you're saying, Sergei. Just guess I can see both sides, that's all."

As if realizing he had given away too much of himself, Sergei visibly withdrew. "If only--"


Sergei's eyes scoured Doyle's face. "Nothing. You and Bodie just continue as you are; the public love the new routine."

"Right." Understanding that their conversation had come to an end, Doyle said, "Well, I've a few things to get done before this afternoon." When Sergei only stared at him, Doyle waved five fingers in the air and struck off toward the path, signalling Basil to follow.

If only--

What had Sergei balked from saying? If only there were enough money? If only there were more circus-lovers? If only there had not been one mistake which now could never be forgotten?

It would serve no purpose sympathizing with Alf Weatherby. How ever he had got himself into this situation, he surely had no one but himself to blame.

More importantly to Doyle, twice now he had been frustrated in his attempt to breach the secrets of the lorry--but at least it was still here. Perhaps he would be able to get inside sometime before nightfall. There had, after all, been no opportunity last night, with Doyle held in Bodie's arms and simply incapable of sending him away.

In fact, Doyle had spent a good portion of the morning run and subsequent work-out racking his brain for an excuse to submit to Cowley should he fail in this assignment altogether--although, it had been Cowley's intention that Doyle do no more than keep an eye out for suspicious activity. You are not to act on your own. He wondered wryly if he could convince Cowley that he had only been following orders.

Yet it was difficult to exhibit the proper remorse: Last night had been a revelation. True to his word, Bodie had woken Doyle during the night to exact the fulfillment of Doyle's promise. Nothing loath to comply, Doyle had discovered for himself what had driven Bodie to such mindless raptures only a few hours before. Having learned first-hand how uncomfortable penetration without proper preparation could be, he had taken the time to try to relax Bodie properly. All the same--and even though Bodie had said nothing--Doyle had been fairly certain that he had been unable to eliminate Bodie's discomfort altogether, much to Doyle's regret.

Afterward, Doyle had held his companion close to his breast, shocked at the intensity of emotion he harbored for this man. Never had he felt so bound to another person--not even Keith. And surprisingly, acknowledgment of that fact had not disturbed him; for with Bodie, this fledgling devotion seemed incontrovertibly right.

Somehow--if he could persuade Bodie to come round to his way of thinking--Doyle would find a way to keep them together. How, he did not know. But it was something he meant to try.

And now he was due to meet Bodie for lunch in Bodie's caravan. With Basil trotting along at his side on the path which angled from the compound to the caravan site, Doyle shoved the problem of the lorry to the back of his mind. There were far more pleasant thoughts to entertain--chief among them, Bodie.

The evening's performance was an unqualified success. The crowd surpassed the previous night's house both in size and enthusiasm. It had been drawn into the aerial drama with very little encouragement. Doyle still credited Riley's euphonious voice and convincing manner for this achievement. He and Bodie alone, he insisted, with all the bright lights in the world, could not have pulled it off.

They argued good-naturedly as they rode in the parade, waving to the crowd from the backs of their mounts. Despite the hot lights and the warm bodies filling the Big Tent, their breath frosted slightly in the cold air--Bodie's warming trend had not lasted long.

"Got to do the nags now," Bodie complained once they had reached the private side of the red curtain.

"Derek and Tom are going to help," Doyle reminded him placidly.

"Hm." Dismounting, Bodie dropped onto the hard-packed earth, slipping Piper's reins over his ears. "Didn't see your lady-friend and her daughter tonight," he remarked.

"My lady-friend?" Landing on the ground beside his partner, Doyle clicked softly at Tuppence to follow.

"She likes you."


"What I asked you last night, y'know, about children--"

"My answer hasn't changed."

"You seemed fond of her."

"Vanessa--or her mum?"

"Both actually," Bodie said darkly. He edged past Aidan and Zoe and a handful of young web spinners, ushering Piper into the corridor which opened onto the stables.

"You seem fond of Lily. And Hannah. And Rose--quite protective of her, you were."

"And I wish she'd come back," Bodie admitted.

"Don't we all," Doyle agreed with an eloquent sigh. "Sergei's hovering like a bloody ghoul. Had a glimpse of him standing inside his caravan this evening on my way to meet you; just standing there, watching everyone, he was. Only I haven't figured out who the next victim's going to be."

"Ah, yes, Sergei." Bodie walked Piper into his stall.

"Maybe you know what's on his mind?" Doyle asked off-handedly.

"I'd rather not ever know what's on Sergei's mind," Bodie assured him.

"Hm. So why were you asking about Vanessa and her mum?" Waiting for Bodie to secure Piper's gate latch so he could get past him to Tuppence's stall, Doyle studied his partner curiously.

"Dunno," Bodie said after a moment's pause. "Sometimes, I don't think you really fit into all this."

"And you do?"

"More than you, maybe. Asked you yesterday if you ever think of doing anything else, other than circus. You didn't answer me."

"Didn't have a chance. But, yeah, I think about it. Why?"

"If I--"

"Oh, Bodie, Ray, you're already here! Thank God!" Simon gasped. "Derek was convinced you'd leave the horses and fly off--well, you are known to do that, aren't you?--but he positively won't leave until we've done all the grooming and he's had a last look-in on Sanjay."

"We're here, Simon," Bodie assured him. "With Tom's help--" this for the benefit of the big man, who had just stepped in from the corridor "-- we'll have you on your way in no time."

Harlequin Airs Plate 15 thumbnail

Outside the animal enclosure, the night had grown still and misty. Shivering despite jeans and bomber jacket, Doyle waited for his partner to join him. From the other side of the canvas panel, he could hear Simon cajoling Derek to stop worrying, that the horses were fine, that Sanjay was holding his own, that Doyle had promised to look in on him faithfully, and that they would be back early the following morning--so what could possibly go wrong?

"Those two should have an interesting night," Bodie commented dryly, materializing at Doyle's side. The flap fell closed behind him.

"Are they ready to leave?"

"Derek's uneasy--just a feeling, y'know?"

"But they're going?"

"Any minute--here they are," Bodie said, holding the canvas panel open until Derek and Simon had stepped through. "Told you before, Ray and I'll take care of everything. But if something happens to Ray, I'll do it; and, should something happen to me, Ray'll do it."

"Listen to him, Derry!"

Despite being dressed for an evening out, the animal trainer did not bear the stamp of a happy individual.

"You sure you want to take him to town looking like that, Simon?" Doyle asked, scanning Derek critically.

"What d'you mean?" Simon said archly. "He looks wonderful."

"That's what I mean," Doyle said smoothly. "Some young bloke may just take a fancy to him; try to steal him out from under your nose."

"Just let anyone try." There was honed steel in Simon's voice.

Derek flashed Doyle a wink and tugged his lover against his side. With a wave, he escorted his more gaudily clad companion into the old Rover. While Bodie and Doyle watched, Derek keyed the engine. The Rover went down the hill on the far side of the second equipment caravan, its twin beams cutting through the hazy darkness.

"Why don't you go on down and put the kettle on while Basil does her thing?" Doyle suggested, fabricating a yawn.

"She can't take that long." Bodie nudged the dog with the toe of his shoe. She gave him a reproachful look. "C'mon, we'll go down together."

Casting an overtly indifferent glance at the large vehicle a few yards away, Doyle suffered only a tiny twinge of conscience. "Yeah, okay."

As they strolled toward the edge of the circus compound, Bodie reached out and casually took Doyle's hand in his. Unspeaking, they ambled through the field to the caravan site. Stepping down onto the gravel surface, Doyle was first to notice the figure standing beside Bodie's caravan.

Withdrawing his hand, he murmured, "Someone's waiting for you, mate."

Bodie's head turned in the direction of Doyle's gesture. "Sergei," he said colorlessly.

"Was just about to come looking for you," Sergei stated; Doyle thought he discerned a note of disapproval in the circus owner's voice.


Never, not even in their earliest acquaintance, had Doyle heard Bodie sound quite so cold and distant. He wondered if something had been said earlier between the two men, when he had not been around to hear it.

"Message for you." Sergei stretched his arm out from the elbow, a piece of paper caught between two fingers. "From Roger."

Bodie reached out and plucked the paper from Sergei's hand. In the glow of light cast from inside the caravan through the open curtains, he unfolded the note.

"Fuck." Crumpling the piece of paper in his fist, Bodie said sharply, "I've read it, thanks, Sergei. You can get your beauty sleep now."

The circus owner had been drinking. It had taken a moment for the reek of alcohol to reach Doyle in the heavy air, but he recognized it now-- and the careful rigidity of the other man's posture. "The day will come, Bodie," he began warningly, "when you re--"

"Save it, Alf! Or maybe you'd rather--"

"Shut up!" Bringing himself up to his full height, Sergei took a deep, steadying breath. Then he slowly turned and walked carefully across the site toward his caravan.

"What, may I ask, was that all about?" Doyle asked interestedly.

"Alf and I owe each other a few, that's all." Bodie would not look at him.

"And what does Roger want?"

Expression bleak, Bodie said, "He needs to see me."



Pursing his lips, Doyle examined his partner's features, considering what Bodie might be leaving out. "Okay. Tomorrow, then, sunshine." Snapping his fingers to get Basil's attention, Doyle sauntered away. For all his apparent detachment, the night seemed to close in around him with every step. It was too much to hope that Bodie would catch him up, that he would say that Roger would just have to do without him tonight. At his door, Doyle reached for the handle.

Bodie had said nothing.

Basil bounded up the steps in front of him, and raced over to her dog dish, which had been empty since morning. She was followed more slowly by Doyle, who paused to shoulder the door shut.

Answering her silent plea without thought, he poured far too much food into her dish so that it overflowed. Cursing under his breath, Doyle picked up the spilled chunks and restored them to the tin. Then he turned to the sink and set about making tea.

The door opened behind him.

Doyle stood unmoving, holding the pot under the tap to rinse it out.


Bodie's arms slid round Doyle's waist, his cheek pressed familiarly against Doyle's beard.

"I have to go." His voice was harsh and low.

"Didn't ask you not to."


Doyle closed his eyes. This was why he had not allowed himself to care all those many years. His insides were in turmoil, his pulses pounding at his temples, and all he could think of was Bodie, the feel of him, the scent, the sound of his voice, and the taste of his kiss.

"Ray, he's got himself into more trouble. It's the last time I'll help him out, I swear it."

"Don't make promises you can't keep," Doyle said evenly.

"No." Raising his head, Bodie touched his lips to Doyle's misshapen cheekbone. "But after tonight--once I get back--I don't intend to leave you ever again. And that's a promise I will keep."

Shutting off the tap, Doyle placed the teapot on the sideboard and turned round in Bodie's arms. He kissed the other man angrily and without a trace of tenderness, but Bodie did not resist him; nor did he try to evade the thin hands that stroked with possessive arrogance up and down his flanks and back--then cradled his groin with right of ownership.

It was Doyle who broke away. "Go on, then. I'll be here when you get back."


A single finger came up to silence Bodie's mouth. "Go."

Swallowing hard, Bodie nodded once. Then he walked out, into the night, the door closing smartly behind him.

On the rise behind the caravan site, the air was thickening with moisture and cold. Doyle sat there amidst the darkness, as he had for more than half an hour. While Basil inspected the heather growing at the side of the field, Doyle stared at the Big Tent. Nearly twenty minutes ago, Bodie had driven away, the fits and starts of the Mini lingering in his ears long after the car had disappeared.

By unhappy coincidence, Doyle now had both the time and opportunity to inspect the equipment lorry parked outside the animal enclosure. Within minutes of Bodie's walking out of Doyle's caravan, Doyle had taken to the ridge, determined to choose his moment with care--there had already been far too many interruptions regarding this particular investigation.

A cold nose pushed up under Doyle's hand. "Is it time, Bas?" he whispered.

The dog's fervent tail-wagging caused the last third of the animal's body to sway from side to side. Her eyes gleamed up at him; a neat tongue darted out and swabbed the tips of Doyle's fingers.

"That must mean yes."

Still wearing the jeans and black sweatshirt he had thrown on to groom the horses, Doyle hunkered down into his bomber jacket, empty eyes sweeping the site from one end to the other. He was stalling; there was no one else about, and therefore, no reason for further delay. With the wind lifting the hair off his forehead, he hiked up to the top of the rise then headed out across the field to the path which connected the site to the circus compound.

At this time of night, there was no sound, save the occasional rustle of small animals in the brush and the endless wind. Tuned to much more threatening noises, Doyle did not falter in his approach of the lorry.

Harlequin Airs Plate 16 thumbnail

There it stood, black against the moonless sky, the nemesis whose arrival foretold the end of Doyle's involvement with Circus Sergei. Listening keenly, he crept round all sides of the hulking shape--even peering underneath--sparingly employing a small, red-filtered torch to illuminate his way.

It would be a marvellous joke, Doyle thought, if there were only circus equipment inside.

He sprang up onto the wide bumper. In the distance, he could hear the purr of a motor coming this way. Keeping half an ear concentrated on that sound, he took a minute to pull on his gloves before turning his attention to the upper bolt, forced to stretch up high on his tiptoes to reach it. It squawked loudly but gave way easily. The second bolt was not so accommodating. Using one hand as a hammer against his other fist, he set about trying to dislodge it. Several blows and a painful bruise later, that bolt, too, finally slid free. Much to Doyle's relief, the last one, at the bottom of the double door, yielded as though it had been greased.

Breath steaming in the air, Doyle realized he had begun to sweat with nervousness and the force of his exertions. Stopping to fill his lungs and to slow the pace of his heart, he noticed that the approach of the car was no longer audible. He guessed that it must have turned off the road half a mile or more away, for the rumble of the engine had never grown loud enough to place it nearer.

Dismissing it as of no concern, Doyle carefully pried the overlapping door a few inches off its mate and shone the torch over the interior. The whole back end of the lorry was empty, while the front half was stacked thigh-high with heavy-duty crates covered with tarpaulin.

Doyle slithered through the opening, then gingerly let the door shut behind him, taking a few seconds to ensure that he would not be locked inside accidentally. Stepping quietly, he went up to the first of the crates while digging his multi-blade knife out of his pocket.

Thick ropes secured the cargo to hooks welded to the frame of the vehicle; the gauge of them indicated to Doyle that whatever was held in their web must be of considerable weight. He sawed through a length that stretched diagonally across the tarp. It came apart with a snap, one end falling to the floor at Doyle's feet. Flipping the edge of the covering aside, he cast the torch-beam over the wooden crate beneath.

AERIAL RIGGING was stencilled on the outside. Gnawing at his lower lip, Doyle curled his fingertips under the lid and gave it a tug. The wood creaked slightly--to Doyle's mind encouragingly. He tried again. The top came off in a single piece, having been tacked down with only two nails, neither of which went very deeply into the frame of the crate.

Rough packing material stuck out in prickly clumps. Picking through it with one gloved hand, Doyle searched downward until he encountered something solid. Bent over, he peered into the bowels of the crate--

"C4." Plastic explosives.

Digging further, he uncovered field-stripped AK-47's, ready-to-fire automatic handguns and boxes of ammunition.

"Damn you, Sergei," Doyle grumbled half-heartedly.

There was no need to extend his investigation; it was time to ring Cowley. Closing his eyes for just a moment, Doyle took a deep breath, visualizing Bodie as though he stood before him. Somehow, he promised himself, somehow I'll make it work!

Pocketing the torch, Doyle tread silently to the door, pushed it open less than an inch and let his eyes adjust to the comparative brightness outside. Hearing nothing, and seeing less, he widened the opening until he could squeeze through, grateful despite his solitude, that the hinges made virtually no complaint.

Resting the door back in place, Doyle went to the end of the fender and jumped down to the ground.

"What the--!"

He swirled to face the owner of the voice, striking out at the same instant that the other man slung a fist at him. Doyle managed to deflect most of the force of the blow, while his knuckles connected rather loudly with his attacker's ear.

Larger but not taller, the other man charged in again, punching and kicking. Struggling for his very life, Doyle brought all his skills-- street-learned and CI5-issue--to his defense.

A crack to the side of his head nearly stunned him, but Doyle countered with an up-and-around knee jab to his assailant's kidneys. The other grunted but was unslowed; a flailing punch split the corner of Doyle's lip.

They went down together, neither shy about using vicious knowledge to gain the upper hand. Wriggling away like quicksilver, Doyle got a little of his own back when he cut open his fist on the man's teeth--the yowl of pain that exploded from the other's throat confirmed that Doyle had taken the lesser damage.

On the ground they tussled, tumbling into the canvas outside the tiger's enclosure. A driving blow from the other man sent them both beneath it, twisting over and over until they slammed into the metal cage.

Coming up all at once, Sanjay let out an ominous growl. The blood stilling in his veins, Doyle scrambled to get away, knowing what those long claws could do at close range. His assailant threw himself in the opposite direction. There came the shocking sound of a metal slide grating against the steel body of an automatic pistol as a round was chambered, followed by the softer scrape of the safety release giving way to the firing position.

Hunkered low and protected only by the cloak of darkness, Doyle spent half a second deciding his next move--only to lose that one advantage when the weak, overhead bulb flared to life.

"O'Shea, don't shoot!"


In an instant, two thoughts collided in Doyle's mind: the first, that Bodie was back; the second, that Bodie knew Donal O'Shea.

Wiping at the blood on his face, O'Shea seemed not to hear Bodie. The muzzle of the gun zeroed in on Doyle's heart.


"Who is this?" the terrorist rasped out furiously.

"My partner," Bodie replied, his voice placing him a few feet behind and to one side of Doyle. "He promised to take care of the animals."

"That doesn't explain what he was doing in the lorry." The words were spat out, lust for revenge burning in O'Shea's eyes.

"In the--? You must be mis--"

"Caught him coming out. Heard the door close--you can check the bolts if you like--and there he was."

O'Shea came a step nearer, head bent to one side, cradling his jaw where blood streamed out of a cut onto his hand, all the while eyeing Doyle with unsettling concentration. He said suddenly, "I know you!"

Doyle's stomach contracted as though he had taken a blow.

"Yeah," O'Shea breathed. "I know you."

"What're you talking about?" Bodie growled. "He's a bloody snoop, nothing more."

"Is he?"

On his feet now, Doyle saw no sensible way to resist as O'Shea approached to within a foot of him.


"Bodie's right," Doyle said huskily. "I was just having a look-see. When I ran into you out there, I thought--"

The pistol swung out and caught Doyle across the side of the face. He staggered, eyes watering at the raking pain.

From the cage came a hiss and snarl; Sanjay padded along the near cage wall, tail lashing fretfully.

According the animal the most fleeting of glances, O'Shea said almost congenially, "You lying swine."

"O'Shea--" Bodie began.

The terrorist gave a bark of laughter, then fell back a step, holding the gun pointed straight at Doyle's heart. "Sorry, Bodie, but this one's got to go."

"Don't be stupid, Donnie. He's just a flyer, okay?"

O'Shea's smile deepened. "CI5--that's what he is."


O'Shea licked his lip; his tongue came away coated with blood. His mouth twisted at the taste. "Don't know his name, but we've met before-- haven't we, sonny?"

"You're out of your nut," Doyle snapped. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Too bad; 'cause I remember you very well."

"Come on, Donnie," Bodie said reasonably. "He's no more CI5 than I'm MI6, eh? Just a bloody-minded dope who doesn't know when to keep his nose out of other people's business."

"You're wrong, Bodie--although the disguise is good."

"Disguise?" There was a note of disbelief in Bodie's voice.

"Yeah. The beard, the hair, the grey. This here's really a curly-haired bloke, believe it or not. When I saw him, he didn't have a beard, and he certainly didn't have any grey. None that I saw, anyway."

Doyle said, "I'm telling you, I don't know what--"

The gun rose threateningly; Doyle stumbled backward, coming up hard against Bodie, who clamped strong hands round Doyle's arms, locking them behind his back.

"It won't work! I remember your eyes, mate. And, anyway, that ugly cheek of yours is a dead give-away." The pistol rose level with Doyle's chest once more. "Stand aside, Bodie."

"You can't do that," Bodie said sharply. "The report'd be enough to bring everyone running. D'you hear me?"

"I'm not leaving him here alive."

"You fuck this up," Bodie said savagely, "and I won't leave you here alive!"

"He knows who I am; and now he knows about you, too. Have you thought of that, Bodie?"

Sanjay paused at the end of the cage not far from where Bodie stood, Doyle in front of him. His head came up as he tested the air, whiskers and nose pad vibrating.

Snorting softly, Bodie said, "You don't just want him dead, though, d'you? You'd like a little of your own back, I reckon."

"Oh, yes, I would," O'Shea said coldly. "He made things very unpleasant for me."

"Okay, then, I've got an idea. Give me that bit of rope hanging off the hook on the pole over there behind you. Cut it first. I'll need it to tie his hands and legs."

"I'm not leaving him--"

"I know, I know. But let's have someone else do the dirty work, eh?" Bodie cocked his head in the tiger's direction. "We'll feed him to the cat."

Doyle stiffened; a warming smile flowed across O'Shea's mouth.

"Can you get him in there without the moggie getting out, is the question."

"Let's get him tied up first--and gagged. C'mon, mate, give me that damned rope!"

O'Shea set the safety on the pistol and jammed the weapon into the back of his waistband. As he stepped across the sawdust floor to the pole, Doyle swung a leg round, behind Bodie's left knee, and jerked forward. They went down together, but Bodie used his greater weight to bring Doyle under him without releasing his hold on Doyle's arms.

Whipping his body like an eel, Doyle tried to break Bodie's hold. Throwing one leg across Doyle's thighs, Bodie held him down, then rose up on top of him, making Doyle cry out from the strain on his shoulders. It was a mocking re-enactment of their lovemaking of the night before; Doyle cringed inside at the memory.

"You got him?" O'Shea asked tensely.

"Yeah. Where's the fucking rope?"


"Set it down. Go out through that flap--look at me, Donal--over there, see? Round inside is the tackroom. Bring me back a tea towel from the table. Underneath the table you'll find a first aid kit on a shelf--I'll need the sticking plaster to gag him."

"Yeah, okay." The terrorist gave Bodie a level look. "Just don't go fucking me about, right?" With that he disappeared through the canvas flap into the connecting corridor. His footsteps pelted away.

Looping Doyle's wrists together and drawing the rope tight, Bodie said viciously, "You've really fucked this one up, Doyle."

"Me?" Spitting sawdust and tanbark out of his mouth, Doyle summoned a bitter laugh. "And what the fuck d'you think you're doing?"

"What I have to do." Bodie took a sharp breath. "You had me fooled, y'know?"

"Could say the same, mate." Doyle bared his teeth in a travesty of a smile. "Christ, look at me: I should've hired on as a bloody clown!"

"Never that," Bodie assured him bitingly. He knotted the rope a second time, higher up on Doyle's forearms. "Got too much style to be a mere clown, haven't you?"

The sisal cut into Doyle's skin; he forced back a gasp before Bodie could hear it.

"A harlequin, maybe," Bodie mused, oblivious to Doyle's discomfort. "Yeah, you'd make a great harlequin; they've got class, too." He finished the bonds at Doyle's wrists, and twisted round to start on his ankles. "Don't even think of trying to kick me, sunshine. You wouldn't like what I'd do in return."

"And what would you do?" Doyle said contemptuously. "'Feed me to the cat?'"

As though beckoned, Sanjay stopped his heavy-footed prowling to once more monitor the activity outside his cage. Watching him from the corner of his eye, Doyle could imagine what the tiger would do once it had tasted blood.

"Something suitable," Bodie muttered aloud. Then, mockingly: "CI-bloody- 5! Me sleeping with a CI5 agent!" A grunt of laughter fell heavy on Doyle's ears. "You're probably even straight, aren't you? No, don't tell me. I don't want to hear it."

Seared by Bodie's words, Doyle had no intention of saying anything. He was summarily rolled onto his back. Bodie stared down at him, eyes piercingly blue and brimming with mirthless humor.

The flap billowed inward, signalling O'Shea's return. He tossed the tea towel to Bodie, then began to peel off a long strip of sticking plaster.

Bodie pressed the towel against Doyle's mouth; Doyle kept his jaws tightly closed. "Open up, mate, or my friend here'll be happy to do this for me."

Furious, Doyle grudgingly complied; he knew what O'Shea would do to him, given the chance.

With a flick of the wrist, Bodie swabbed the end of the towel over Doyle's face. Doyle winced as it rubbed over the scrape at his temple and the cut at the corner of his mouth. Tucking the bloodied end into Doyle's mouth first, Bodie packed another goodly portion in on top of it, then used the tape proffered by O'Shea to strap it into place.

Despite having kept his tongue as far forward as possible to repel the intrusion of the gag, Doyle feared he might choke on the dry folds of cotton. Panic boiled up from the depths of his belly as Bodie continued to wrap the sticking plaster round his head. Claustrophobia clawed at him; he tried to wrench away.

"Stop it, Doyle," Bodie said abruptly. "I'm done."

"Doyle? Is that his name?"

"Probably not, if he's CI5 like you say." Bodie climbed wearily to his feet then dragged Doyle up alongside him. "Need you to go to that side of the cage and distract the tiger, O'Shea. Just wave your arms or something, okay?"

"You bet." As O'Shea circled round to the place Bodie had indicated, he asked, "You sure this'll work, Bodie?"

"No doubt at all. In fact, it'll probably be messy enough even for you."

"I don't know," the man said sardonically. "I owe Doyle a lot."

"Don't worry. Once the cat's finished with him, they may not even be able to tell that he was tied up--which would leave you and me and Sergei in the clear." Bodie frog-marched Doyle closer to the cage door. There he undid the latch one-handed. "You ready?"


"Then do it; we're running out of time."

Several yards away, O'Shea leapt toward the cage, bashing his hands against the metal bars. Sanjay roared--the first time Doyle had heard the cat do so, full-bodied and unrestrained, and devastatingly terrifying--and launched himself at his tormentor.

At once, Bodie swung open the door and thrust Doyle inside. Landing roughly, Doyle managed to make short work of rolling as far away from the incensed tiger as he could get. When he fetched up sharply against the opposite end of the cage, Doyle scrabbled to his knees and thence to his feet, balancing himself against the bars to remain standing.

The door closed with a mighty clang. Bodie fixed the latch. "That's enough, O'Shea! If the cat carries on howling like that, someone'll be sure to wonder what's up."

"They'll expect boyo here to see to it, though, won't they? You said he was looking after the animals. What the--!" The man's hand was a blur as the pistol appeared out of his waistband; he aimed it at the lower hem of the canvas sidewall. "It's a dog!"

Bodie went very still.

"It's his dog, isn't it?" O'Shea exclaimed.

"Yeah," Bodie said tonelessly. "Bloody mutt. Basil! Come here, girl. Come on, Basil."

Doyle jerked around, spying the black and white terrier as she crept out from under the bottom of the canvas. Hesitantly, and with several nervous sidelong glances at Doyle, the dog obeyed.

"C'mere, girl."

"No!" Maddened with outrage, Doyle shouted wildly. Although the sound was muffled by the tea towel stuffed in his mouth, Basil heard him--but so did Sanjay, who brought his massive head round in Doyle's direction. Crippled by indecision, Basil lowered her hindquarters on the spot, while, intrigued, the cat dismissed the man who had been bedevilling him and shifted his stormy gaze to Doyle instead.

Bodie lunged forward, one foot impacting loudly with the cage. Sanjay spat his startlement, sending Basil skittering to her feet. But the dog was too slow; scooping her up, Bodie fell back just as Sanjay made a swipe at him through the bars.

"Jesus!" O'Shea said, impressed.

Bodie's lips tightened. "Put the gun away, will you? Don't much care for the way you wave that thing around."

"Know what I'm doing." O'Shea defiantly used the barrel to rub at his shoulder. "That the dog Sergei was talking about?"


"Could she really untie him?"

"We can leave her here, if you'd care to find out," Bodie said, his voice lacking all inflection.

O'Shea shrugged. "Nah. Can't take the risk."

"Right. Let's go."

"Yeah, okay. Wait, Bodie, look! The cat's going to see about dinner." The glory of retribution lit up O'Shea's face, glinting in his eyes and stretching across his mouth in a pleased smile.

"Let's go, O'Shea!"

"Damn it, Bodie!" Despite his rebellious manner, the man made to join Bodie, bringing up a hand and waving "good bye" to Doyle with pretended regret. "It was worth the wait, eh, Doyle?" Pausing at the support pole, O'Shea pulled the light cord. His last words, as he slipped through the canvas entry, came to Doyle through pitch darkness: "Sweet dreams, mate."

In the seconds that followed, Doyle stood as still as a statue, pressed up hard against the cage wall, willing his eyes to adjust quickly. The crunch of heavy, metal doors broke the stillness; shortly afterward, the big engine of the lorry choked and sputtered, sounding as though it were crushing rocks into gravel. Once the motor caught, the vehicle ponderously backed down the mud track, rolling noisily away from the animal enclosure.

Concentrating intently on the passage of the vehicle, Doyle was slow to take in the meaning of the other sounds registered by straining ears: Sanjay was on the move.

Suddenly conscious of the blood trailing down the side of his face, Doyle sank back against the bars. He dared not push away too quickly, or he might fall; but to stand here, and do nothing to defend himself, seemed unconscionable.

Powerful paws ate up the distance between Doyle and the tiger, each footfall striking the ground with a distinctive thud. Sanjay was panting, his labored breathing made disproportionately loud and harsh by Doyle's inability to see. There was no question but that he was seeking Doyle out--and why not? The rich, alluring odor of blood must be drawing him like a bee to nectar. Doyle caught his breath as a darker shade of black rose up in front of him.

All at once, Sanjay was there.

Retreat was useless. Yet, Doyle shrank back against the bars, instinct compelling him to act when logic would have had him do nothing. A huge object smacked into Doyle's chest; by tightening his fingers Doyle managed to remain upright--but only for a few seconds. Sanjay's head came up again, his presence not to be ignored. A third head-butt had Doyle over, though he frantically sought to retain his hold. He twisted clumsily, meaning to keep his back to the tiger--instinct, again--but his balance was off and he crashed helplessly to the sawdust floor. Before he could wrench himself away, the tiger had dropped down beside him, sniffing interestedly at his mouth and temple, where the worst damage had been done.

For a moment, Doyle could do nothing at all. Then, keeping his efforts as fluid as possible, he mustered his strength to move--only to have the cat lift one huge forepaw and lay it heavily across his chest.

Heart rate soaring, Doyle squeezed his eyes shut and bit his lip to keep from crying out. The cat's breath poured down on his face, hot and unpleasant. Then the wide, wet tongue came out and rasped over Doyle's cheek and forehead, as abrasive as sandpaper. Shifting nearer, Sanjay lowered his nose, whiskers brushing across Doyle's jaw. The cat opened his mouth and licked again.

Waiting for the instant when Sanjay's rough-tongued ablutions turned to tearing bites, Doyle tried to withdraw into himself. Trussed up like a sacrificial victim awaiting slaughter, it occurred to him that he would have been better off had O'Shea shot him outright. But for Bodie's ingenuity, Doyle already would be dead.

Thoughts of Bodie sent Doyle even deeper into himself. Lying motionless under the cat's paw, his head rocking uncontrollably with every sweeping stroke of the animal's tongue, Doyle chose to disconnect, well aware that the first ripping pain would bring him back to himself all too quickly.

It might have been hours or only minutes later that Doyle realized that Sanjay had put his head down and was now asleep, leaving Doyle, impossibly, still alive. The cat's paw yet lay like a dead weight across Doyle's chest, causing him to breathe shallowly and with some difficulty.

In the interim, the cage had grown noticeably colder. At some point Doyle had begun to shiver; the violence of his tremors promised to exhaust him should they continue for any length of time.

Moving very carefully, Doyle began to extricate himself from the proprietary paw. Sanjay stirred, a low groan resonating from the depths of his throat. He opened his mouth and smacked his lips, then heaved himself, puffing softly, onto his side. The change of position set Doyle free at last.

Resolutely, Doyle crept away from the enormous creature, sighing inaudibly at every inch that put him further in the clear. Once a few feet lay between them, he commenced a torturously slow and arduous, but slightly less cautious, journey to the cage door. Above all else, he did not want to wake the tiger again, and hoped absurdly that Sanjay might sleep through until morning.

Seemingly centuries later, Doyle reached the other end of the cage. After several moments of awkwardly feeling his way around, he came upon the framework that surrounded the cage door. Breathing heavily through his nose, he leaned forward and lay his uninjured temple against the cold metal.

The illusion of success was short-lived; fingers and toes tingling forewarningly reminded him that he must still try to escape, and the hardest part loomed before him. On his knees, Doyle brought his arms up as high as he could, and began to pull this way and that, testing his bonds, trying to gain every centimeter of leeway Bodie may have inadvertently left to him. All of his efforts were to no avail, however-- Bodie had done an excellent job of binding Doyle's hands and legs.

And now there was no Basil to rescue him.

The dog had been stupidly devoted to Doyle; else, she would never have entered the tiger's tent uncoerced. Worse, she had even trusted Bodie. Now she was undoubtedly dead, either cast out of the moving vehicle to meet her death on the asphalt road, or dumped in the dirt after having her neck broken by O'Shea's loving touch. Maybe, Doyle was forced to concede, it was Bodie who had done the deed.


Despite everything, Doyle wanted to believe that Bodie would have killed her quickly.

Finding little solace in his bleak ruminations, Doyle set about trying to untie his feet. More supple than most men, he was able to arch far enough back to bring his fingers in contact with the rope at his ankles-- but the ends had been knotted in front and no amount of writhing and twisting would grant him the reach and leverage he needed.

Admitting defeat once more, Doyle breathlessly struggled to his feet beside the cage door, and turned his mind to finding a way out. With the use of his hands, it would have been dead easy to reach up through the bars, unclip the spring-clasp located high on the other side, lift the latch, and let himself out.

Without them....

Picturing the metal framework surrounding the cage door, Doyle knew a moment of optimism: some of the edges were rusted and rough--he remembered snagging his sweater on one of the posts. Perhaps he could use one of those edges to saw through the bonds at his wrists. Gathering his rapidly depleting energies, Doyle swung himself round and fell back against the mesh door--wincing when it made a rather profound clank-- then set to his self-imposed task with grim-faced determination.

Sometime later, having made no appreciable headway insofar as he could tell, he lowered himself to the ground and gave in to a moment of inanition. His hands were almost numb and he could no longer feel his feet to stand. It would not be long, he suspected, before his arms would refuse to work altogether.

Sitting there, he determinedly thought of nothing beyond the moment. Blood had dried annoyingly on his face and under his collar, his head throbbed with a syncopated beat, and myriad scrapes and bruises burned with incessant anger. For all that, he felt strangely removed from the world--and in a very real sense, the world he had known had ceased to exist. Despite himself, the treacherous thought stole into his mind: Was it really possible that only a few hours ago, I was plotting my very own happily-ever-after?

Needing activity to keep his mind at bay, Doyle started in with renewed fervor, scraping the ropes against the edge of the metal, but perforce rubbing his forearms and hands against the outer edges of the frame as well. The resulting pain served to keep him awake, so it was not without purpose. Nothing was without purpose--or so Doyle chose to believe.

Plagued by various bruises, numbing limbs and the added annoyance of increasingly frequent bouts of dizziness, Doyle nevertheless refused to give up. Nothing would please him more than to make it through this wretched night. And when he did--not if--he would hunt O'Shea down, and slowly, and with great pleasure, pulverize the sadistic bastard. And once he had finished with O'Shea--


Doyle laughed hopelessly to himself, the sound trapped at the back of his throat. Letting his hands fall idle, he stared emptily into the night.

Bodie, you bastard.

Close your eyes, sunshine. 'S dark in there.

For Doyle, it was dark everywhere.

Across the way, Sanjay let out an abrupt rumble. He rose and yawned with a snarl, then walked to the spot in the cage where he habitually relieved himself. The acrid odor of fresh urine stung Doyle's nostrils. And then Sanjay swung round--headed unerringly for Doyle. Listening to the animal's steady approach, Doyle discovered that the fear had gone all out of him. In a way, this seemed to be happening to somebody else-- with Doyle in the role of vaguely interested onlooker.

This state of dissociation did not waver, not even when the tiger, exuding a strength far exceeding Doyle's own, stood towering over him. The cat's whiskers brushed against his temple, and Doyle flinched; but it was a reflex action, no more. In fact, a second later, when the tip of Sanjay's tongue curled out and flicked across the clotted-over wound, Doyle's only thought was that he would melt from the stupefying blast of the cat's breath.

Harlequin Airs Plate 17 thumbnail

Perhaps he would not meet his fate as the main course on the tiger's menu after all; instead, Doyle would be found in the morning a victim of suffocation.

Not a mark on him, sir; haven't a clue what killed him.

Sanjay lowered himself to the ground, so close that Doyle could feel the creature's heat. He remembered the sensation of sinking his fingers into the soft, thick fur; it would be lovely to curl up next to his oversized companion, a living blanket to keep Doyle warm.

A cracking of jaws and another wave of odoriferous air bespoke Sanjay's enormous yawn. The great head sank down to lie on equally huge forepaws. Very soon, the wheeze of rhythmic respiration made it clear that the cat had resumed his slumber.

Bemused, but too pragmatic to allow himself any real hope, Doyle forced his wrists up behind his back and doggedly set his bonds against the rusty metal once more.




The whispered summons dipped shallowly into the frenetic landscape of Doyle's dream; he was deeply, torpidly asleep.


He knew that voice, even tense and raw as it was now.

"Ray, please wake up."

One ear filled with an irregular, too-rapid tattoo, Doyle was forced to shift his head in order to hear the speaker more clearly.

"Ray, mate, you've got to wake up."

Commanding leaden eyelids to stir, Doyle peered hazily through gummy lashes at the form crouching only inches away, but separated from him by metal bars.

"You are alive! Ray, we can't get at you until you move out of the way of the door. D'you understand me?" Simon clutched his arms around his slight chest. "Oh, Derry, look at him!"

The other man's ungoverned emotion slammed into Doyle like a cold, wet rag. All at once he remembered where he was and how he had come to be here.

Beside him, Sanjay lay with forepaws stretched out, awake and alert, regally contemplating Simon and Derek, who stood on the other side of the bars staring anxiously down at Doyle. Huddled close to the cat's warm flank, Doyle cautiously brought his head round a little further before lifting it out of the sawdust.

His memory of how he had come to lie so intimately beside the tiger was murky at best, beclouded by shock and pain. The early morning cold must have driven him here, no longer caring whether the tiger chastised him for his effrontery or accepted him, for by then he had craved warmth above all else--and Sanjay possessed that in plenty.

"Oh, yes, that's it," Simon breathed hopefully. "Slide to your left if you can, so Derek can open the door."

Moving as feebly as an arthritic old man, Doyle obeyed, keeping one eye on his immense companion. Sanjay, however, sat serenely removed--or, more likely, Doyle thought, too weak to express an opinion. The heart murmur had worsened; having been pressed up close against the animal's chest, Doyle was certain of that. He had no doubt but that Sanjay's condition had been aggravated as a result of this night's work.

"There, that's got it," Simon announced in a rush, his voice strained but steady.

The hinges wailed like tiny banshees as Derek slid the cage door inward. He stepped through the narrow opening gingerly, for Sanjay had not deigned to give ground. Facing the tiger at all times, Derek edged round him before he could crouch down behind Doyle. Positioning himself with care, Derek slipped one powerful arm under Doyle's back, the other under his knees, and lifted him up. Holding him firmly against his chest, the animal trainer skirted the cat once more, and sure-footedly but with haste made his way through the door.

Two yellow eyes thoughtfully observed Doyle's leave-taking; over Derek's shoulder, Doyle saw the tiger's head drop to his paws. An instant later, he appeared to be sleeping.

That image lingered in Doyle's mind as he was whisked through the canvas partition down the short corridor, and into the tackroom. Wielding Doyle's lanky form as though he weighed no more than a child, Derek lowered him into a chair. He squatted down in front of him, contemplating Doyle's battered face, gauging the severity of his wounds with a seasoned eye.

Behind him, Simon cut through the bonds at Doyle's wrists; released, Doyle's arms fell forward to hang uselessly at his sides. Derek took them up at once, and began a slow, exquisitely gentle massage from elbow to fingertip to restore the circulation to his hands. Melting back against the chair, Doyle grimaced at the agonizing relief that flowed through his shoulders and spine now his arms were no longer pinned back.

Seconds later, the gag was peeled away--along with several clumps of hair; Doyle clenched his teeth to keep from groaning aloud.

"Ray, what happened?" Simon blurted. "Who tied you up?" He raised a cup of strong, hot tea to Doyle's lips.

Sipping gratefully, Doyle let the heat and moisture soothe the parched mucous membranes of his mouth and throat before trying to answer. Forcing the words out, he said gratingly, "Doesn't--matter." Feeling suddenly very weak, he took another swallow of tea before pressing on, "I need--one of you--to drive me--to a call-box."

"Don't be silly; you can't even move!"



"Bodie--tied me up," Doyle said bluntly. "He's involved in something--he shouldn't be." Coughing dryly, Doyle jerked his head for Simon to give him the cup again.

"Drink all of this before you try to say anything more," Simon ordered, bracing Doyle's pounding skull with a hand. And then he exclaimed, "Oh, Ray! You can't be serious! Not Bodie!"

Doyle concentrated on finishing off the cup, tensing with the first cramps that heralded the arrival of the hot fluid in his stomach. "It was Bodie," he said hoarsely. "Oh, God, Derek, you're killing me!"

The animal trainer ignored him. Sensation, relentlessly reawakened, poured into Doyle's limbs far faster than he would have liked. His head swam, the pain smouldering at his temple suddenly rekindled, and with the gag removed, Doyle's efforts to speak had caused the split at the corner of his mouth to break open again. Blood leaked onto his beard, and seeped sickeningly into his mouth. No part of his body seemed unbruised, every inch of it throbbing with a hot, ungovernable pulse.

Helpless for the moment, he gave himself up to Simon and Derek's care, no longer holding in his whimpers and cries, beyond caring what the others thought. There was no question but that the pain was a good thing; the quicker he regained the use of his limbs, the quicker he could function. But it was difficult to appreciate this blessing when he felt so shatteringly wretched.

Some while later, washed and bandaged, Doyle sat bonelessly exhausted in the chair, elbows buttressed on the table, the mug of tea held between his own trembling, but newly responsive hands. "Thank you," he murmured. "The pair of you'll get a mention in my will."

"Stop that!" Simon's voice sparked with anger. He was instantly contrite. "I'm sorry, Ray."

"Don't apologize," Doyle said, reminded by Simon's rare burst of anger of how much he owed these two men.

"You said Bodie did this." Simon picked his words with care. "I don't believe that; I know how he feels about you."

"It's true," Doyle said hollowly.

"Then you've got to tell us what happened. Why were you in Sanjay's cage? Were you there all night?"

Doyle cautiously brought the mug to his mouth while he ordered his thoughts. Licking a trace of tea off his bottom lip, he began, "Happened not long after you left. Got caught having a look inside the lorry. There were--some things in there I wasn't supposed to know about. Bodie tied me up and threw me in with Sanjay." Gaze turning cold, he said broodingly, "Expect he'll be disappointed when he finds out Sanjay didn't fancy me for a midnight snack--nor breakfast."

"Don't even joke about that." Simon shuddered. "What was in the lorry that was so awful?"

"Can't tell you."

"Why not? What could've been in there that you weren't supposed to know about?"

"None of us were to know. And I meant it when I said I can't tell you, so don't waste your breath asking. The less you know the better."

Simon gave a huge sigh of frustration. "You're saying Bodie did all this to you?" A wave of the hand encompassed Doyle's various bruises and cuts. "He would no more hurt you than--"

Amused by Simon's sudden loss for words, Doyle essayed a smile--then grimaced ferociously when the tear at the corner of his mouth deepened. "You don't think it was my idea to go in with Sanjay?"

Derek shook his head. Sitting across from Doyle, a mug between his large, rough-hewn hands, he repeated the gesture with emphasis for Doyle's benefit.

"It was Bodie's idea," Doyle said flatly. "Believe what you like--"

One big hand, affecting the jaws of the cat, closed over the opposite wrist--only to spring open a second later. Derek's eyes burned into Doyle's face.

"Yeah," Doyle conceded with ill grace. "That crossed my mind, too. But I couldn't know that--and I dare say you wouldn't assume it either."

"Assume what?" Simon said, aggravated, having watched the by-play between the two men without understanding any of it.

"That Sanjay wouldn't hurt me. Derek thinks Bodie believed that."

"Oh-- But it's obvious."

Canting his head to one side, Doyle gave Simon a derisive look. "Would you have fancied staying in the tiger's cage all night?"

"Of course not--but, then, Sanjay doesn't like me; he never has."

Smiling affectionately, Derek pretended to growl at his lover, then raised his hands and cringed in his chair as though terrified.

"Well, I am afraid of him!" Simon sniffed. "He would've eaten me!"

"He's dying," Doyle said abruptly. He regretted the callous words instantly; Derek stiffened as though he had been struck. "His heart," he elaborated unwillingly. "I could feel it."

Picking up his mug, Derek nodded with resignation.

"That's why he didn't hurt me," Doyle explained stonily. "Only that."

But Derek disagreed. Forming the cat's head with his hand again, he touched the tips of his fingers to Doyle's mouth.

"He still says Sanjay likes you," Simon translated the obvious. "And, honestly, he should know."

Doyle managed a weak grin. "Romantics, that's what you are. Even Bodie said-- Well, it doesn't matter now what Bodie said, does it?"

Speaking briskly to cover Doyle's lapse, Simon demanded, "So where was Basil during all this? You never left her in your caravan?"

"No." Doyle studied the angry looking welts surrounding his wrists. "Bodie took her."

"He took Basil? But why--?" Pulling at his lower lip with sharp, white teeth, Simon glanced across at Derek. The other man's face offered answers Simon had failed to reason out on his own. "Oh."

"I still need you to drive me to town," Doyle said tiredly. "It's important I report this as soon as possible."

"There's a call-box just down the lane." Simon's voice was thick and a little unsteady. "We don't have to go all the way into town."

"Is there? I must have missed it." With that, Doyle set the cup slowly and with inordinate care on the edge of the table. With the same pronounced caution, he struggled to his feet, exhaling sharply as his legs took his weight.


"I'm all right." He shot a rueful look at Derek, who had risen at the same time and stood now a few feet away, arms folded across his chest, expression knowing.

Glancing from one man to the other, Simon said, "You're being so secretive-- This isn't the local cop-shop you're ringing, is it?"

"They'll probably be involved eventually," Doyle hedged.

"And the circus? Is something going to happen to all of us because of this?"

His face grey, Doyle said, "I don't know, Si. I hope not."

Patched through to Cowley a few minutes later, Doyle leaned heavily against the inside wall of the call-box, holding the hand-piece in one whitely sculpted fist while clinging to the welded metal shelf with the other. He made his report as complete and concise as possible. Then, shivering in the grip of a cold sweat, he made himself focus on the Scot's words, only slowly, stupidly registering what the other man was saying.

"Did you hear me, Doyle?" Cowley queried, his sharp, disembodied voice stabbing like an ice-pick into Doyle's head.

"I-- Yes, but-- Did you say Willis will be sending a mop-up crew?"

"That is correct."

"But he's MI6!"

"It does occasionally happen that our interests overlap, as you well know. In this case it was fortunate that MI6 were investigating Circus Sergei, since they were better placed to move in quickly." The rebuke was made without elaboration or emphasis; for all that, it cut to the quick. "And you will undoubtedly be pleased to hear that Donal O'Shea and his associates were apprehended just on an hour ago. A comprehensive sweep will certainly follow; I imagine the circus can expect MI6 on its doorstep at any moment."

"O'Shea...." Shifting his weight from one aching leg to the other, Doyle looked out through the thick, mullioned glass; Simon sat in the Rover waiting for him. "And Bodie?"

"I believe his name was mentioned, yes."

Doyle's eyes rolled up toward the angled ceiling. "Then--I wasn't needed here at all."

"So it would seem. Doyle--you are all right?"

"Perfectly," Doyle replied softly.

"You did what you could, lad," Cowley said, the understanding tone Doyle so seldom heard inexplicably filling him with resentment. "And no more than I asked of you." There was a brief pause; when Cowley spoke again, his voice was as professionally detached as ever. "That's all. Is there anything you wish to add, Doyle?"


"Then you can set about putting your affairs in order at once. Any questions from MI6, refer them to me--is that understood?"


"Right. I'll expect you in the morning, then."

"In the--" Catching Simon's inquiring look, Doyle stitched together a smile. "Maybe, sir."

"What do you mean, 'maybe,' Doyle?" Cowley asked, instantly on the alert.

"As you well know," Doyle said, unintentionally echoing Cowley's own words, "there's nothing certain in life. Good bye, sir."

Ringing off despite Cowley's incipient protest, Doyle pushed the door open and stumbled out. Simon was beside him in a heartbeat, wrapping an arm round Doyle's waist, lending him his own strength.

"You are an idiot, d'you know that?" Simon informed him peevishly. "You haven't eaten yet, you can hardly stand, and it's bloody frigid out here."

"That's certainly true."

"Ray--" Simon fretted, "Oh, Ray, you look awful!"

In fact, he felt as though he had been gutted with a very blunt knife. But Doyle said, "I'm fine. Just take me home, Simon."

The day unfurled like an unhappy dream. Cowley had been absolutely correct: MI6 were crawling all over the compound by the time Simon and Doyle returned. Slow risers--of which there were few--were rousted out of their caravans by overly polite, besuited individuals, who herded them to join the rest of the troupe in the Big Tent. There, it was explained to everyone that MI6 were conducting an investigation. Certain individuals would undergo questioning; it was possible, however, that the circus would be able to keep one or both of its scheduled commitments later in the day.

Sergei was taken away first.

Moments later, a row flared up between Derek and an armed agent when the animal trainer attempted to leave the group to care for his charges. Doyle, not yet entirely steady on his feet, leapt to the other man's defense. Between him and Simon, it was explained that the horses could not be neglected. Willis' intervention was sought; arriving soon afterward, his first question addressed Doyle's arresting appearance. Doyle, backed by Simon and Derek, blamed his injuries on a bad fall. Willis listened to him without a flicker of expression. Then he assigned the three men a guard and sent them on their way, suggesting that Doyle might benefit from something to eat and a brief kip.

Chagrined at the man's perspicacity, Doyle spent the morning in the animal enclosure, helping with the feeding and grooming of the horses while adroitly disregarding Simon's disapproving glances. Afterward, he accompanied Derek--and the armed agent--into Sanjay's enclosure, more than a little concerned at what he would find there.

The cat roused sluggishly as they entered the cage, taking in the presence of their new companion--who remained on the safe side of the metal bars--with little interest. That alone was unusual, and said much about the tiger's decline. Doyle spoke to him quietly while Derek administered the medication; yellow eyes closed to half-slits and a soft puffing purr greeted Doyle's touch. In moments, the tiger slept, remaining undisturbed while Doyle and Derek raked out his cage and refilled the water bowl.

Soon thereafter, Doyle was summoned to an audience with Willis in Sergei's caravan. Sergei was not in evidence; when Doyle pointed this out, Willis explained that he was on his way to London, and would probably not be coming back.

"You're CI5," Willis said, pushing a cup of tea across the table to rest before Doyle's hands.

"Am I?"

"You needn't be coy; I've seen you before."

Doyle brought the mug up to his lips and sipped the warming brew with subdued relish.

"I wasn't told that CI5 had a man inside."

Doyle shrugged. "You'll want to talk with Cowley about that."

"Yes," Willis said with lilting amusement. "I shall. What happened to you?" A sweeping wave of the hand indicated Doyle's injuries. "I mean, truthfully."

"You'll want to talk with Cowley about that, too."

"I see." Willis studied him a moment. "You would agree, I imagine, that Sergei was the only individual in the circus we need concern ourselves with at this time?"

"I would," Doyle said without inflection. "According to Cowley, you took the others first thing this morning."

"Yes." A slight incline of the head gave added stress to the single word. "We will be clearing out in the next hour or so. After that, I think you can expect the local CID to put in an appearance."

"Is that really necessary? No one else was involved. And the circus has two performances tonight."

"Why should that concern you?" Willis asked. "I should think you'd be rather eager to be on your way back to Town."

The head of MI6 had never been a stupid man; nor had he ever been a very likable one. Biting back a retort, Doyle said mildly, "I prefer to see a job through to the end. You have a better handle on what was going on here than the local constabulary could ever hope to match."

"They wouldn't take kindly to being left out."

"They've been left out up till now. Besides, there's no point in advertising what's been going on."

"Sometimes a rousing success is good for public confidence."

"And it would look very impressive, wouldn't it, this coup?" Doyle commented with weary sarcasm. "All those women and children exposed to terrorist danger every time they stepped into the tent...?"

A slight smile played across Willis' thin but not unattractive mouth. "Does it matter so much to you?"


Steepled fingertips tapped together. "If you ever get bored working for Cowley," Willis remarked with studied discretion, "be sure to give me a ring, won't you?"

Not smiling back, Doyle said, "Probably not."

The chair scraped across the linoleum floor as Willis stood up. "Perhaps the day will come when you reconsider. In any case, I have no more questions for you, Doyle. You're free to go."

Bolstered by the heavily sugared tea, Doyle hauled himself to his feet.

"I highly recommend you have that rest, you know," Willis murmured, as Doyle made his way to the door. "Especially if you intend to perform on the trapeze tonight."

Hand on the doorknob, Doyle glanced back over his shoulder. He said politely, "I'll keep that in mind."

An hour later, Circus Sergei had been released, and the team from MI6 had gone. Gathered together in the Big Tent, the entire company turned out to discuss plans for their immediate future.

"It would seem, ladies and gentlemen," Riley articulated dolefully, "that we are in a bit of a pickle."

"Hear! Hear!" Falstaff agreed contemptuously.

"But we're only down two men--Sergei and Bodie." Riley smiled suddenly. "Sergei we can do without. Bodie, on the other hand--"

"I can't believe Bodie would--would--" Lily faltered.

"Of course you do," Hannah said wearily. "If you mean, that is, that he was chancing his arm on the side. But, then, we don't really know what he's supposed to have done, do we?" She turned and directed her bold stare at Doyle, who sat a few rows behind her.

"No," Simon said sharply. "We don't. Nor does it make any difference, does it! The question is, are we willing to continue as we are? We managed without Bodie before--and we've certainly managed without Sergei all along!"

"Hear! Hear!" Aidan laughed.

"Simon's right." Riley tapped his ring whip against his boot. "Doyle, you're the one most affected. Can you do the haute école alone?"

"Not the way it's set up," Doyle said. "But, Simon or Derek could work opposite me--"

"And what about your head?" Simon reminded him tartly.

"Doing much better since I finally had something to eat," Doyle said candidly. "If you'll ride Tuppence, I think I can handle Piper."

"It would be nice to have some rehearsal time, y'know!"

"We've got the rest of the afternoon. Which means, two shows are out of the question--at least for me. Riley?"

"I see your point, Doyle," Riley said thoughtfully. "It might be better to cancel the first performance altogether and charge half price for the second as a come-on for people staying through."

"I think we all could use the extra time," Hannah said frankly.

"Everyone! Your opinion, please?" Achieving an immediate and vociferous consensus, Riley said wistfully, "Wish you lot were always so agreeable. All right, one performance it is. What about the aerial routine, Ray?"

"I'll do the same one Bodie was doing," Doyle said flatly.

"Don't take this wrong, mate," Riley said gently, "but are you up to it?"

"Wouldn't offer otherwise," Doyle replied, unoffended. "Might be nice to have some ring time to prepare for that, too."

"Point taken." Riley gave him a look of complete understanding. Then, ever the showman, he turned round in a slow circle, arms outstretched. "That's it, ladies and gentlemen--let's get to work!"

The temperature dropped as the day wore on. By evening, there were predictions of freezing rain, possibly mixed with snow. The circus troupe, subdued but by no means cowed, worked hard to look beyond the calamity that had befallen them.

Following a run-through on the haute école horses, Doyle scurried up the ladder to the fixed trapeze, and there attempted to reconstruct Bodie's routine. He started off with a few easy swings to loosen up his muscles, then gradually intensified the intricacy of his moves. There was a moment of dizziness, which sent him into the net; but he did not lose consciousness. At Simon's terrified, white-faced stare, he explained that he was simply looking for a spectacular way to end the routine--and up he went once more.

Later, standing before the mirror in his caravan, Doyle adjusted the Regency jacket on his shoulders and took a deep breath. With sticking plaster on his forehead, which was covered for the most part by a heavy lock of hair, and trowelled on make-up to cover the scrapes and bruises on jaw and chin--although no amount of cosmetics could conceal the disfiguringly swollen lower lip--Doyle knew himself to be vastly substandard of what was expected of the elegant trapeze flyer--far less the sophisticated dandy.

Bodie, now--


After so many years of feeling nothing, this terrible pain that had taken up residence under his heart was a most unwelcome novelty. It had been important to him to make it through this day, to complete, in some small way the obligation he felt to Circus Sergei--no, to the people of Circus Sergei. But so much of his life here had been defined by his relationship with Bodie, that Doyle found it immensely difficult to do anything without thinking of him--and thinking of Bodie was the very last thing he wanted to do.

Doyle had put off returning to his caravan until the last minute--and had come back then only because his costume hung waiting in the cupboard. Every unthinking glance tightened the vise round his heart: the bed where he had known such unexpected pleasure--both as giver and taker; the table where he had sat opposite the man who had been his partner--looking into his eyes, sharing his laughter, listening to his voice; even the kitchen window, standing open, awaiting Basil's return.

For the most part, he had been able to shove aside the angry hurt of betrayal, but it never sank far below the surface, a cunning predator waiting with incalculable patience for its next opportunity to tear at his wounds.

Staying here--even one more day--had not been a good idea, and Doyle knew that now. Yet here, there had been a certain comfort--and in London, there would be none. But, he reminded himself, neither would there be anything in London to remind him of this remarkable time; there, he would be able to forget.

Insofar as he was able.

The night's house was restless and out of sorts. Several people had taken the altered schedule badly, even with the promise of a reduced ticket price as compensation. The first acts found the sulky public heavy going, but their undaunted cheerfulness and determination to entertain slowly melted the ice. By the time Doyle and Simon took the ring, the audience were quite willing to enjoy themselves.

Their act lacked the smooth precision that Doyle and Bodie had rehearsed into it; nevertheless Simon was an excellent horseman, and Piper and Tuppence did their best to overcome the flaws of their riders. At the finale, Doyle coaxed the Friesian into a magnificent capriole--and in that moment, he was able to think of nothing but the magic of riding a flying horse. Up and up Piper went, back hooves shooting straight out behind him while he hung seemingly suspended, removed from the constraints of gravity for a long, breathless second. Then he alighted, as collected as at the start of his leap, Doyle virtually motionless upon him.

After Tuppence had withdrawn behind the red curtain, and Piper had sounded his consternation, the hush that fell over the audience was remarkable--especially in contrast to the tumult that erupted when Doyle rode the Friesian after her.

"It worked!" Simon enthused, standing next to Derek, who held Tuppence's reins.

"Of course. No one rides better than you, Si."

"Except Bo--" He bit his lip. "Sorry."

"Don't be." Doyle stepped down out of the stirrup and turned his attention to Derek. "Everything going okay?"

Answered by a staunch nod, Doyle handed over the reins. "Right. I'm off to change costumes. See you lot later."

"Simon implied you know more than you're saying. Is that true?" Lily paced to the end of the costume rack, spun round and started back.

"Depends," Doyle replied. He slung his snug, still warm breeches over the side of the dressing screen.

"You do, don't you?" Lily persisted.

"If you're asking about Bodie, all I can tell you is that he's gone." Poised on the edge of the chair, Doyle carefully drew the thick tights up over his right knee.

"He didn't cause that cut on your lip--or the ones on your face, though, did he? He couldn't've." The soft voice pleaded with Doyle to confirm the woman's hopes.

"No," Doyle said quietly. "He didn't."

"There, you see?"

"He did tie me up, Lily," Doyle said damningly. He rose and smoothed the material up around his waist. "And he's the one who suggested feeding me to Sanjay."

"The one?" Lily chewed the words meaningfully, her brow furrowed. "If he didn't hit you, you mean there was someone else?"

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Doyle scowled, grateful for the partition that shielded his features from the woman. "Didn't say anyone hit me, did I?" Doyle said peevishly. "Bashed myself trying to get away. And I only meant it was his idea about Sanjay, okay?" He sat down again to slip the all-white booties onto his feet.

Lily muttered stubbornly, "I just can't believe he'd do something so awful. Bodie was a good man; I know he was."

Doyle stepped round the dressing screen. At sight of him, Lily turned her head away.

"Ah, Lily--"

"It's all right. Don't mind me." The woman's voice splintered. "You--go on."

But Doyle padded across the floor and dropped down on one knee in front of her, taking both of her hands in his. "Lily, don't."

"Can't help it. Bodie was so--"

Squeezing her fingers, Doyle said carefully, "Yes, he was. And in a way, you are right, y'know?"

She sniffed lushly; tears fell onto Doyle's bandaged wrists.

"He was good--at least part-way, I reckon," Doyle equivocated. "Better than most. He treated you well--and me, for that matter. Lots of others. Everybody liked Bodie, didn't they?"

Lily's face glowed with reminiscent joy. "That, they did," she said, her voice hushed. She smiled gently. "And he was especially good for you, Ray. I saw how you changed from those first days; y'know, when you took over from Roger. Distant, you were--you smiled, but it wasn't in your eyes. Just lately-- Well, you were happy, weren't you!"

Doyle looked down at the pale, plump hands lying trustingly in his. "Yeah, love. I was happy."

Amidst the brilliance of the single great spotlight, Doyle performed Bodie's aerial routine. By then he was beyond pain, cloistering the remnants of it deep inside so it would not interfere with his performance. Over and around the bar he went, flinging himself high into the air, pirouetting round, then catching hold of the bar as he plunged downward.

Below him, the gasps and muffled squeaks of the audience told him that he had yet to bore them. For himself, this was the finale, the last time ever he would perform on a trapeze, with or without a partner. So he gave it his all, employing every trick he knew, milking every last start of awe and wringing of hands the audience had to give.

With chest rapidly rising and falling from his exertions, Doyle spun round a final time--and dropped straight down into the net, landing perfectly on his back. With a toss of the head and a wave of the hand, he acknowledged the audience's cheers--more, in Doyle's opinion, than he deserved, since the circus had promised them a delightful fairy tale, and had given them only him.

Behind the red curtain, Simon handed him a towel, holding Doyle's glittering cape over one arm, prudently drawn to one side as several energetic web climbers jostled past them into the darkened ring. "Wouldn't it be quicker to cut your wrists?"

"Don't be melodramatic." Doyle buried his face in wonderfully dry cotton, then began to rub down his chest and shoulders.

"Be honest, Ray," Simon said fiercely, "you almost missed a couple of times. I saw you."

"Okay, Simon, I admit it. But I wasn't trying to commit suicide." He waggled his brows for effect. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be here now, now would I?"

Simon snatched the towel out of Doyle's hand--and suddenly threw his arms round him, clasping him to his breast. Almost as quickly, Simon let go. Thrusting Doyle's cape at him, he said, "Thought you could use a hug; everyone needs one once in a while."

"You were right," Doyle said, despite himself. "Thank you." He applied a gentle fist to Simon's shoulder and started for the exit to the dressing tent before he was tempted to say something unforgivably maudlin.

Lily greeted him with an understanding smile and a fresh, steaming cup of tea. Summoning a jaunty grin in return, he gratefully accepted the cup then willingly spent a few moments drinking it down while sitting with the woman. As they chatted, it occurred to him how completely he had been taken into this tiny community. Perceiving him as one who had been grievously wronged, they had closed ranks about him, determined to protect him from further harm. Considering how completely he had divorced himself from the goodwill of his fellow kind such a short time before, Doyle found this nothing short of staggering.

Giving Lily a pat on the cheek, Doyle thanked her for the tea and retreated behind the dressing partition, aware that he must forge on before every muscle in his body seized up--and there was the parade yet to get through. Changing sluggishly out of his leotard, he felt himself beginning to wind down at last, like a clockwork toy that has exhausted its spring. Every niggling discomfort rose up to taunt him; every moment of sleeplessness weighed heavily on his eyelids. He was glad that he had not attempted the drive back to London; feeling as he did now, facing Cowley would have been unwarranted torture.

He reached down for one of the high-topped boots and poked his toe into it, moving as feebly as an old campaigner. Shoving his heel into place, he bent over to grab its mate.

Simon's voice came to him taut and high-pitched, "Lily, have you seen Ray?"

"He's behind the screen, Simon. What's--?"

There followed a brief flurry of heels impacting on the linoleum; Simon appeared round the edge of the partition, a hand pressed to his chest as he sought to catch his breath. "Ray, thank God I've found you."

Rising to his feet, the second boot clutched in his hand, Doyle knew by Simon's face that something had gone horribly wrong. "What's happened?"

"Taffy took a fall; Flash cut her open with one of his hooves."

Forcing his foot into the boot, Doyle prompted, "Go on."

"Derek and Des are taking her to the vet; she's bleeding badly."

"What does Derek want me to do?"

"Nothing you can do--about that. Ray-- Oh, Ray, it's Sanjay."

Green eyes stared hard into Simon's unhappy face. "Yes?"

"I don't think he can get up anymore."

The tiger's enclosure was rank with cat waste. Doyle only noticed the odor in passing; his attention was riveted on the tiger himself. Lying on his side, breath loud and guttural, Sanjay stirred only enough to mark Doyle's arrival: He tried to raise his head.

"That's all right, old son," Doyle said reassuringly, entering the cage as quickly but unalarmingly as possible. "You're tired. Just rest." Glancing about, Doyle saw that the cat's food and water containers were still both full. He stopped to collect the water bowl and carried it to the tiger's side.

"Try some of this, eh?"

He knelt down, positioning the bowl near the tiger's nose, where the water could be scented. Placing one hand against the deep ribcage, he searched out Sanjay's heart. It could not be missed, beating wildly against Doyle's fingers, like a creature trapped inside the broad chest, desperate to get out.

"Ah, Sanjay," Doyle sighed.

The cat's whiskers shivered; his eyes were half-open. Doyle rose up and stepped over the animal's shoulders. Crouching down at his head, Doyle eased the huge skull a few inches off the ground, feeling the slight flex of muscles that told him Sanjay would do this himself if he only could. The broad, no longer pink tongue ventured out, and lapped at the water--one swipe, no more. "Try again, mate," Doyle urged gently, "Might make you feel better."

But Sanjay's interest had fled; he weakly pulled his muzzle to one side, resisting Doyle's efforts. Defeated, Doyle slid down until he rested on the ground, then lowered the cat's head onto his lap. Sanjay's pallid tongue came out once more, this time to scrape across Doyle's knee. Carefully scratching behind the rounded ears, Doyle said, "That's okay, mate. You took care of me last night; I'll take care of you tonight. What d'you say?"

The cat's ears twitched, tracking Doyle's voice. He gave the leg under his jaw another lazy lick.

"Bloody awful getting old, isn't it, sunshine?"

As if in answer, the cat tried to lurch up off the floor, legs flailing in their struggle to lift the long, unresponsive body. Unequal to the effort, Sanjay collapsed back down, panting harshly, lips drawn back from his teeth in a rictus of dismay.

"Gently, Sanjay. Gently, eh?" Pressed up close against him, Doyle ran a hand down one of the tiger's no longer powerful legs, noting the flutter in the failing muscles.

With a low, throaty moan, Sanjay turned his head, rolling his muzzle back onto Doyle's lap as though it were an old, familiar pillow. The yellow eyes rested for an instant on Doyle's face, that enigmatic gaze seemingly cutting to the depths of Doyle's wounded soul.

Choking around the constriction in his throat, Doyle scraped a finger under the cat's chin, watching gold-lashed lids drift downward until the yellow eyes were hidden. He floated a hand over the tiger's heart; the frenzied leap and shudder of the failing organ had grown more pronounced even in the brief minutes since Doyle's arrival.

Stroking the cat's fur and murmuring softly, Doyle settled in to await the end. The harsh breaths came slower and with greater effort. Although he was very weak, and trembled unceasingly, Sanjay seemed to suffer no pain. Hunched over the great creature to share his own comparatively meager warmth, Doyle refused to admit even to himself that it was not the cold that caused the tiger to shiver.

From the other side of the animal enclosure, the muffled flourishes of trumpet and horn sounded the first notes of the parade. The drums beat in a jovial marching tempo, conjuring in Doyle's mind the image of Riley grandly announcing each act.

The web spinners would charge in first, their gaily painted faces and colorful costumes rousing a cheer; next would come the clowns, amidst an unruly display of dogs somersaulting, dancing, and balanced on shoulders and heads; following them the jugglers and the fire-eater would stroll in, all performing amazing feats as they kept pace to the music; on their heels would prance the horses, caparisoned in feathers and glittering baubles--lacking Taffy, of course, who had been injured; then Simon would appear, dressed now in jodhpurs and a white, blouson shirt, riding Pat, who would canter unfalteringly in the ages-old gait of the voltige horse--

Sanjay convulsed. His forepaws clawed violently at the earthen floor and his head reared back painfully into Doyle's chest. The tiger let out a quizzical snarl; a hissing grimace revealed long, stained canines.


A deep, rasping breath dragged at the tiger's chest; it was followed by another a few seconds later, though this one was less labored, less pronounced. And then Sanjay went utterly quiet, his muzzle leaden on Doyle's thigh.

Under Doyle's fingers, the tiger's heart stilled.

"'S all right, Sanjay." Doyle swallowed hard.

The tiger's fur remained unchanged, still soft and warm despite death; unthinkingly, Doyle curled and uncurled his fingertips in the rough pelt, finding comfort in the animal's lingering heat--the heat that had offered him protection the night before. He shut his eyes, too late to forestall the two tears that spilled onto Sanjay's coat, turning a lemony patch of fur to burnished copper. Breathing perforce through his mouth, Doyle brought himself under control at cost, almost strangled by the presence of his heart in his throat.


By voice alone, he knew it was Simon. Doyle announced harshly, "Sanjay's dead."

"Oh, no--" Simon's tentative footsteps bespoke his arrival at the cage door. "Oh, Ray, I'm so sorry." He gave up a heavy sigh. "Ray, there's-- someone here to see you."

Only then did Doyle look up from the cat's motionless body; he took in the identity of the intruder with no real surprise.

"Fancy meeting you here," he remarked to George Cowley.

Unperturbed by Doyle's sarcasm, the controller of CI5 said, "Doyle." He gestured at Simon to undo the latch.

Simon did so with conspicuous reluctance. Pushing the door inward, he swept inside, leaving Cowley to follow.

"This is Sanjay?" Cowley asked, his eyes travelling from Doyle, still dressed in his Regency outfit, to the dead tiger, up to Simon, who radiated protectiveness, and back to Doyle.


"Magnificent beast." Cowley squatted down, one leg obstinately unbending. "Was he very old?"

"Very," Simon clipped the word off at both ends.

Cowley's hand respectfully came down on the tiger's coat. "I'm sorry, too." He examined his agent without expression. "It is time for you to come back, Doyle."

"What do you mean, 'come back'?" Simon interrupted angrily. "Ray, who is this?"

"George Cowley," Doyle said. "My boss."

"Your boss! But-- I don't understand."

"No reason why you should," Cowley stated without condescension. "Doyle is my operative; he works for CI5."

Simon's eyes saucered. "CI5! But--"

"It's true, Simon." Doyle only just managed to keep from apologizing.

Removing his hand, Cowley glanced curiously at his fingers; he began to rub the tips together. "Circus Sergei has been doubling as a way station for arms movements by a subversive organization. The group involved was seized at five this morning; there is, consequently, no longer any need for Doyle to remain here."

Face wrinkled with distaste, Simon said, "A spy? Ray!"

Scored by the disillusionment in Simon's voice, Doyle replied shortly, "It's my job, Si."

"Is that why Sergei was taken away? He was part of it?"


One corner of his mouth curving petulantly downward, Simon muttered, "Reckon that explains where the money was coming from. And Bodie was involved, too?"

Doyle briefly closed his eyes. "He was."

"But you're a great flyer! How could you do that and--?"

"So was Bodie."

"But Bodie was a flyer. You're a CI5 agent pretending to be a flyer!"

Doyle met Simon's stricken gaze unflinchingly. "You saw where I got my training. Donny Devereaux's circus, remember? Mr. Cowley never lets anything go to waste."

"No, he doesn't," concurred Cowley. "And that is really all we can tell you. Are you ready, Doyle?"

There was no anger in Cowley's craggy face, no disappointment, no doubt. It was as though he found his agents keeping vigil in a sour-smelling tiger cage every day of the week.

"I'd like to change out of this gear, if you can spare the time," Doyle said calmly.

"I can."

Very gently, Doyle raised the tiger's head in the cradle of his hands and shifted it from his lap to the sawdust floor. Then he deliberately brushed a palm across the long, sensitive whiskers--something he would never have been allowed, had the tiger still breathed.

Exhaling sharply, Doyle unfolded his legs and rose. Unasked, he stretched down a hand to Cowley, and unasked, pulled him to his feet. Once the older man stood on his own, Doyle cocked his head to one side and spoke to Simon: "Come with me?"

There was a mutinous pause. Then Simon grudgingly agreed, "Oh, I suppose."

"Where's the car, sir?"

"Behind the stables."

"What about my bike?"

"Arrangements have been made for its return to London."

"Right. I'll meet you behind the stables in a quarter of an hour."

The wind had come up; it snatched at Doyle's hair and plucked at the rich fabric of his jacket with icy fingers. At his side, Simon walked uncomplaining, huddled up to his ears in Derek's oilskin.

A rustle of movement came from the side of the path; Doyle's head jerked round to track it, eyes wide and searching--but it was only a field mouse taking fright at their passage.

Turning away, Doyle tried to ignore the ache gnawing at his insides. "Tell Derek and the others good bye for me, eh?" He glanced sidelong at Simon, who was bent forward against the fierce wind.


In silence, they left the path and strode across the gravel topping to Doyle's caravan. Poised on the top step, Doyle opened the door and went inside, leaving Simon to follow.

"Help yourself to anything that's edible." Doyle went to the tall cupboard behind the bed. There was little enough to pack; a very few personal items, his clothing. Doyle gathered the bits and pieces that had not been ruined in Sergei's rampage and stuffed them into the bag.

Stripping off in the cold caravan, Doyle made a quick sweep to ensure that he had got everything he needed, poking his head into the bathroom-- where he swiftly wiped off his make-up--bedroom, cupboards, and kitchen. His eyes skimmed over Basil's water and food bowls, the plywood platform covering the sink. Lips pressed into a thin line, he concentrated on climbing into his jeans.

Neatly folding Doyle's Regency breeches along the outer seams, Simon said quietly, "Will you come back to visit sometime?"

"Sure you want me to?" Doyle burrowed into the bulky sweater, putting off the moment when he would have to meet Simon's eyes.

Pausing in his self-appointed chore to give Doyle a reproachful glare, Simon chided, "Yes, we would. Even if you are a spy." He laughed without amusement. "A spy!" Shaking his head disbelievingly, he said, "Promise you will, Ray."

"Could be a while." Doyle pulled on his trainers, then hoisted one foot onto the lip of the sideboard so he could tie the laces.

"When you can. Just promise. Providing there is a circus, of course."

Doyle found a smile for him. "There will be. Yeah, okay." Switching feet, he said, "I'll try to get hold of Rose, let her know what's--"

"I already have. Earlier, while you were working out on the bar."

Doyle let his foot fall to the floor. "You knew where she was?"

"Since the day after she left, actually."

"But you said--"

"She made me swear not to tell anyone--except Derek, of course. She was worried, y'see, about all of us. Expect she'll be back in the morning; she's been staying with her sister in Leeds." Simon took up the patterned waistcoat.

"That's probably the best news I've had all day," Doyle said frankly.

Staring down at the elegant material in his hands, Simon whispered, "We'll miss you."

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Doyle reached out for the other man and pulled him roughly into his arms. "And me. More than you know." He kissed Simon's forehead and backed away, picking up his bomber jacket. "And now I must go." He shrugged into the jacket, running the zip up to the base of his throat. Slinging the hold-all over his shoulder, Doyle jerked the door open, a gust of arctic air blasting full in his face. Pasting a smile on frozen lips, Doyle said briskly, "Good bye, Simon."

Simon only waved.



During the ride back to London, Doyle opted to sit with the driver so that Cowley could have the back seat to himself. Despite his state of exhaustion, Doyle got little rest. In his head, images frothed like seething water at the base of a cataract. He tried every trick he knew to relax himself; but previously workable methods failed miserably, as did a brief spell of conversation with the driver, who, bored and finding Doyle exceedingly unforthcoming, soon turned his attention back to the road. Resolutely closing his eyes, Doyle found his head awash with thoughts of Sanjay, Basil, and inevitably, Bodie. Unconnected memories fetched up against his mind's eye, shattering across the lens like a body hurled against a windscreen.

With his head rocking against the window, Doyle was held captive by the surrealistic images, and only as the hours went by did they become less fraught, less vivid, less gruesome. Eventually a certain quietude descended, which allowed him respite, if not sleep.

Once outside London, he was utterly at peace, accepting all that had gone before--including his part of it. In retrospect, he had to concede that he had learned much about himself. More than that, just as Lily had said, he had changed. No matter how much he may prefer to hold the world--and himself--at arm's length, he would never be able to subvert his feelings so thoroughly again. Two weeks in Circus Sergei had brought him unremittingly to life--and although it would be some time before the wounds healed and the searing pain faded away, there was no doubt within him that he would come to learn how to cope with this new existence.

The tape recorder clicked off with a note of finality.

"That's all, Doyle. You can make out your written report Monday, if you like." George Cowley pried open the plastic cover and took out the tape recording of Doyle's formal debriefing.

"That's all right." Doyle scrubbed a hand across his face. "I'll do it now, while everything's fresh."

"As you wish." Cowley dropped the cassette into a neatly labelled, manila envelope and folded his hands on top of it. "Monday morning, then; at eight."

"Eight; right."

"Get some sleep, man," Cowley recommended shortly. "You're practically out on your feet."


The man behind the desk sat patiently awaiting Doyle's departure, pale blue eyes tracking his every move, clinically assessing, considering, diagnosing. Excruciatingly aware of that unblinking stare, Doyle raised himself wearily out of the chair. The sleep stolen in the back of the Rover must have done Cowley good, for he displayed none of the fatigue currently plaguing Doyle--and suddenly it occurred to him that Cowley had made the hours-long trip to Newcastle simply to escort him back.

"What about you, sir?" Doyle asked boldly. "You can't have had much rest over the last couple of days."

"Enough," Cowley said.

"You didn't have to collect me, y'know." Doyle thought it important that the other man know this. "I would have been on my way this morning."

Cowley said, "I don't doubt it."

Unaccountably abashed, Doyle nodded his head and made for the door.

"I would like to have seen your routine with Bodie," Cowley announced without preamble, "if your act last night was anything to go by."

"Saw that, did you?"

"You were--reckless, suicidal, insane." Cowley folded his arms across his chest and sat back. "And absolutely spellbinding."

Feeling as though some small part of him had slipped unnoticed back onto track, Doyle raised a ghostly smile. "Thank you, sir."

"That's quite all right, lad."

Doyle fled.

Gritty-eyed from lack of sleep, Doyle purchased a cup reputedly of tea from the rest room vending machine and made his way to the cubicle he called his own. There he spent an hour jotting down notes, preparatory to formally typing his report. He thought it strange how committing his memories to paper in this fashion made them seem less real, and stranger still, somehow less his own.

Before winding paper into the typewriter, Doyle took a moment to ring up his hairdresser. It took some glib talk on Doyle's part, but Evans finally agreed to work him in after lunch.

There were no more excuses to be had. Regarding the blank sheet of paper inimically, Doyle lowered his fingers onto the keyboard, and slowly began to type.

"What on earth happened to you?"

Eyes at less than half mast, Doyle slumped into the chair Evans' hand had indicated. "Was done up, of course. You don't imagine I did this walking into a door?"

"You supposed to admit that to me?" Evans operated a lever, easing Doyle's head toward the sink.

"That's why you work for CI5," Doyle reminded him, yawning cavernously. "You're trustworthy."

"What a horrid thought."

The water blasted on; powerful jets of it soaked through Doyle's hair to his scalp. Skilled fingers began to massage a palmful of shampoo in, lulling Doyle with their gentle rhythm.



"Don't fall asleep yet, old son. You were rather cryptic on the phone. What exactly do you want me to do?"

Eyes staring sightlessly up at the ornately plastered ceiling, Doyle said, "Put me back the way I was."

Evans squeezed foamy bubbles out of Doyle's hair. "Not so easily done, y'know--unless you want me to color the white out, and give you a perm to restore the curl."


"You're sure? If I recall correctly, your boss was none too keen on the expenses for this last little transformation."

Doyle yawned again; Evans' hands were putting him to sleep. "That's his problem."

"But he'll pay?"

"Doesn't he always?"

Water sluiced over Doyle's scalp, rinsing away apple-scented shampoo.

"So far. What about the beard?"

"Hack it off--gently, mind."

Evans sighed his opinion. "And such a work of art."

"Get stuffed," Doyle suggested, unsympathetically. "Better yet, get started."

Doyle stood before the mirror, groggy with snatched sleep, and surveyed his altered appearance. His curls were back, though Evans had recommended a slightly looser coil than Doyle's own in order to effect a more natural transition. The grey had been replaced with a uniform color closely approaching the dark auburn-brown Doyle was accustomed to. And for the first time in over a month, his face was clean-shaven.

Having been intent upon effecting this change as quickly as possible, Doyle wondered now why he had bothered--no amount of perming or coloring could erase that wounded look from his eyes, nor the most dramatic change-over in the world undo the last two weeks.

"Thanks, Evans." He plucked at a fat, droopy curl. "It'll have to do."

"It looks great. Just get some rest, mate," the other man said kindly. "You'll feel better for it."

"Probably." Doyle clapped a hand on the hairdresser's arm. "Ta. Really appreciate your working me in."

"For you, anytime."

A fleeting smile twitched across Doyle's face. "Until I ring again, you mean. See you."

In a daze, Doyle returned to CI5 Headquarters to call at the Armory, where he collected his weapon. Once reclaimed, it seemed very odd to have the P-38 lodged under his arm again. Next he visited the pool to check out a car. The gold Capri was available; comfortable with it, he was content to sign it out.

After the rustic surroundings of Circus Sergei, Doyle deemed London traffic a trifle overwhelming. Overtired to the point of giddiness, he nevertheless made a stop at the shops near his flat to lay in a few supplies. He only just avoided an accident when turning back onto the main road; much more alert after that, he paid especial attention the rest of the way home.

The corridor outside his flat was cold and unwelcoming. Doyle keyed the locks and let himself in. Setting his jaw against the bitter temperature, he placed his purchases on the sideboard in the kitchen, where they remained until he had got the boiler lit and the timer overridden so he would not have to wait until evening for hot water and heat.

In the event, he stored his goods, munched on a carrot to tide him over until dinner, then took a can of Newcastle Brown into the lounge and settled with it on the sofa. Three swallows later, the can stood forgotten on the coffee table; for Doyle was out cold, lying on his side with hands tucked into his armpits, knees curled up close to his chest.

He dreamed of Circus Sergei.



The purple and maroon tulips had been removed; in their place someone had left pansies of an astonishing variety of colors and sizes. To these Doyle added fresh daffodils and a sprig of lilac. The latter would not last long, but its scent held the promise of spring, and the tiny purple blooms gave color to an otherwise drab day.

Doyle had slept through to morning. Rising with the dawn, he had donned track suit, gloves, and hood to run alone on the rain-washed pavement. There had been few people as venturous as he at that time of day and in such inclement weather; Doyle had claimed the solitude for his own, needing no human company when preoccupied with such morose thoughts.

Later, in his flat, while forcing down a breakfast of tea and toast, he had cast a jaundiced eye over the dust that had accumulated in his absence. Soon thereafter, he had knuckled under to give the place a thorough cleaning, a frosty breeze given welcome through the open windows so that it might clear out the fusty air that had lain dead for so long.

Forgoing lunch, for he had had no appetite, Doyle had annoyingly found himself at a loose end. Dressed in moleskin trousers, a bulky green sweater, and a down waistcoat as protection against the cold--which seemed far more cutting than the fresh air of Newcastle--he had taken a stroll to the nearest tube station. Having no clear destination in mind, nonetheless he had disembarked at West Brompton, and from there had walked the short distance to the cemetery.

And now here he was, crouched forward on the balls of his feet at Chandra Malik's grave, idly mixing his flowers with those that had been left in his absence.

"You deserved better, y'know?" he said with sudden conviction. Surveying the new arrangement critically, he trailed a finger over the brightly colored, pliantly curved petals, the rich green stems and leaves.

"Should've had a real partner." A snort of laughter slipped through his lips. "Crazy, isn't it? You should've had a partner like Bodie."

Doyle sat back, hands hanging loosely between his knees. The damp breeze, warning of renewed rain, lifted the curls off his forehead.

"Of course, a Bodie who wouldn't've betrayed--"

An animal darted out from behind a nearby headstone. Slightly built, long and slender, its smooth white coat was mottled with black markings. "Bas--?"

The cat froze, returning Doyle's startled gaze--then turned and leapt away.

Doyle closed his mouth abruptly. Tilting his head back, he looked up at the sky through desolate eyes, and let the hurt break free, knowing an instant of utter misery as it cut, like a thousand lancing talons, into the core of his being.

The sense of peace acquired on the ride back from Newcastle had proven cruelly ephemeral--or perhaps Doyle's defenses had simply given way altogether, and he no longer knew how to guard himself. It seemed that two short weeks had left him weaponless against his own emotions.

At the outset of this undercover operation, Doyle had entertained the idea of quitting CI5, of removing himself from Cowley's machinations once and for ever. Now, he was forced to acknowledge that there was nothing left for him elsewhere--no friends, no home, no family of any import.

As a member of Circus Sergei, he had been treated with respect and, more importantly, affection. Like a neglected flower opening to the sun, he had absorbed that freely offered succor and thrived; now, without it, he knew what it was he had given up after Keith's death--only now, the pain had grown ten-fold, and he did know how to deal with it.

Sanjay, Basil--Bodie, in his own way--were all dead.

Chandra was dead.

Keith was dead.

Bereft, Doyle bowed his head.

"I'm sorry," he whispered to the wet, grey headstone. There was nothing more he could say.

Harlequin Airs Plate 20 thumbnail



"He said he wanted to see me at eight," Doyle said curtly.

"I'm sure he did," George Cowley's secretary, Betty, said evenly. "However, his appointments have been pushed back. He asked that you wait in the rest room. I'll summon you there."


Left with a nagging headache following a restless night, Doyle pivoted on heel and strode out of the controller's antechamber. In the rest room, he thrust a hand into his jacket pocket seeking coins for the vending machine--only to come across the small box placed there the night before so he would not forget it. He took the container out between finger and thumb; removing the lid he studied the single, diamond-studded earring that had adorned his ear while in the service of Circus Sergei.

A moment later he was in the lift on his way to the "props" department-- as all who specialized in undercover operations referred to the small, nondescript offices which housed the myriad accessories necessary to establish a temporary identity.

There he signed over his last physical connection with Ray Doyle, circus performer, suffering a twinge of regret as the brilliant stone disappeared in the warder's hand. Mumbling a vague thanks, he rubbed at his scarred earlobe as he made his way back toward the lifts.

"Ray Doyle?" Betty's voice came tinnily across the intercom.

Doyle heaved himself out of the chair, tossing a half-empty beaker of cold tea into the bin. "Here."

"Mr. Cowley would like to see you right away."

Flashing his teeth in a mocking smile, Doyle said, "On my way."

Obligingly presenting himself to the woman very soon thereafter, Doyle glanced pointedly at his watch, curling his lip expressively when he saw that more than an hour had elapsed since last he had stood here.

Betty announced him, then went to the door and pushed it open herself. Raising a brow at this uncommon formality, Doyle gave her a cool nod and stepped through.

"There you are," Cowley said irritably.

"Here I am," Doyle agreed. "You said--" Out of the corner of his eye, Doyle took note of a second individual in the room. As recognition flared in his brain, he swung round, eyes huge with shock and disbelief.


"Hello, Ray," Bodie said.

He stood near the corner of Cowley's desk, dressed tidily in a dove grey suit made less somber by a cerulean blue tie. Above his left eye, from the upper edge of his eyebrow all the way to the hairline, Bodie sported a large white square of sticking plaster.

Doyle's mouth came open; words failed him.

"Come in, Doyle, and sit yourself down," Cowley directed.

But Doyle made no effort to obey. In his head, thoughts were grinding like the long-unused gears of a vast piece of machinery.

Continuing smoothly, Cowley said, "Introductions, of course, are not necessary. You know Bodie. He has decided to leave MI6 for CI5. Bodie will be your new partner."

His voice as rusty as an abandoned gate, Doyle echoed flatly, "MI6?"

"Big surprise, eh?" Bodie remarked. As Doyle had examined him, so Bodie studied Doyle in turn, lustrous blue eyes roving over Doyle's body from the top of his curly head to the familiar trainers enclosing his long feet.

Raw, Doyle countered, "Big enough." Turning toward Cowley, Doyle stated, "Willis couldn't've been overly pleased."


"Pulled a few strings, did you, sir?"

Cowley said mildly, "A few."

"I'll just bet." The gears in Doyle's mind grated to a halt. "You knew Bodie was working for MI6 from the first, didn't you?"

"C'mon, Ray," Bodie interposed, before Cowley could answer. "MI5, MI6, CI5--we're always looking over each other's shoulders."

Eyes fixed exclusively on his employer, Doyle said shrewdly, "That's certainly true. But that wasn't why you sent me there, was it, sir? Not to look over Bodie's shoulder."

Meeting Doyle's penetrating stare without hesitation, Cowley chose not to answer.

"I'm right, aren't I?" Doyle insisted. His hands were clenched into fists at his sides; he had never felt so betrayed in his life--up to and including the last two weeks.

"Bodie should make a welcome addition to the Squad," Cowley replied blandly.

"You--" Doyle clamped his lips together; it would serve no purpose to vent his temper now.

"Would someone please explain what you two are on about?" Bodie requested with labored politeness.

Allowing himself a single look at the man he had fallen in love with, Doyle said acidly, "You ought to know what you're letting yourself in for when you work for George Cowley."

Bodie spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Ray, I know you're narked about what happened in Newcastle, but I contacted Cow--Mr. Cowley, okay?"

"Did you," Doyle said softly.

Cowley was watching him closely, pale blue eyes challenging him to contradict Bodie's words.

Doyle drawled, "And you expect me to believe that you rang him up out of the blue--and he immediately agreed to take you on?"

"Well-- Not exactly out of the blue," Bodie admitted warily. "But it was over a year ago that he asked me to--" Eyes darkening with comprehension, Bodie turned toward the head of CI5. "You wily, conniving, old--" he broke off, his mouth forming an admiring grin.

"Do go on," Cowley invited, interested.

"You used Doyle as bait!"

Cowley did not flinch; Doyle, however, did.

"I had thought of pairing you some time ago," Cowley revealed phlegmatically, "right after my recruitment sources suggested you to me, in fact. Circus Sergei simply provided me the opportunity to see how the two of you would get on."

Stung by Bodie's amusement, Doyle said grimly, "Well, now you know; in fact, we got on better than even you may have anticipated." Shaking with fury--and the need to keep it at least partly hidden--Doyle jammed a hand into his back pocket and fished out his ID. He flung it onto Cowley's desk, then reached for the pistol in his holster.

"Don't bother, Doyle," Cowley advised. "Unless, of course, you have a notice of resignation--in writing--in your possession, as well."

"You know I haven't." Breathing hard through flaring nostrils, Doyle regarded the other man with unconcealed contempt.

"Then, sit down and listen to me."

Defying Cowley's command, Doyle said belligerently, "I'm listening."

"Good." Concentrating his basilisk stare on Doyle's rigid features, Cowley said quietly, "You have this week to familiarize Bodie with our set-up. Since he has joined us on rather short notice, his personal belongings have been delivered to your flat; he will stay with you until accommodations become available." He raised a forbidding hand as Doyle drew air to protest. "Security assure me that something should open up within two weeks."

"You can't be ser--!"

"You are the only unmarried agent with a two-bedroom flat," Cowley barked, his strident tones easily overriding Doyle's strangled croak.

"Which you moved me into just after Chan died!" Doyle snapped back.

"You were due a move," Cowley reminded him, unrepentant. "Monday next I'm shipping you and Bodie off to Jack Crane for a full evaluation. I recommend you both bear that in mind over the remainder of this week. Questions?"

Doyle snatched his ID off Cowley's desk. "I'll have that document for you before the end of day." He wheeled round and strode toward the door.

"I sincerely hope not," Cowley said.

Slamming out of Cowley's office, Doyle was down the corridor and in the lift seconds before Bodie could join him. Taking little comfort in the beleaguered frustration glimpsed in Bodie's face as the lift doors shut him out, Doyle seethed through seven flights before being deposited at the main lobby. From there he marched out into the cold, wet morning, then clattered down the concrete steps to the pavement, his destination the pool car park located under the neighboring building.

With keys in hand, Doyle worked the lock, paying no attention at all when a voice called from the edge of the car park, "Damn it, Doyle, wait up!"

Doyle yanked open the door just as Bodie pelted up to the passenger side of the gold Capri.

"Before you go chasing down a typewriter, can I show you something?"

Though Bodie was not breathing appreciably harder than usual, Doyle could see that the sprint from building to car park had taken a certain toll. "You don't care, do you?" he said savagely. "About what Cowley did to you? What he did to me?"

Clinging with bloodless fingers to the roof of the car, Bodie added rashly, "What we did to each other?"

Biting off an exclamation, Doyle started to climb into the vehicle.

Bodie took two steps forward, braced himself with a hand on the bonnet and vaulted over the nose of the car. Before Doyle could jam the key into the ignition, Bodie grabbed the door on the driver's side and forcibly held it open when Doyle would have shut it.

"Just let me show you this one thing, eh? Please, Ray."

Confused, hurt, angry beyond words, Doyle slowly looked up: Bodie's eyes were red-rimmed and puffy in a face devoid of color. Gritting his teeth, Doyle growled, "Get in."

"Thanks, mate," Bodie said breathlessly. He raced back round to the passenger side; by then, Doyle had unlocked the door. Bodie jumped inside.

"Where to?"

"Brompton Cemetery."

Doyle shot him a tense look. "Why there?"

"You'll see." Bodie strapped the belt across his lap and pulled the door closed. "It's important."

Without another word, Doyle turned the key, pressed down on the accelerator and threw the transmission into first. Wheels squealing, they tore out of the car park and onto the main road. Once amidst the congestion of traffic, Doyle wielded the vehicle more conservatively-- after all, Bodie would not be the only victim if they were in a collision.

Ten minutes out, Doyle informed his companion coldly, "Sanjay is dead."

"I know." Bodie met Doyle's hostile glance with some reluctance. "Saw Derek and Simon yesterday to see how they were getting on." The corner of his mouth formed a rueful smile. "You really won those two over, y'know? They were ready to nail my hide to the pole. Took a bit of explaining before they came round."

"But you're a quick talker, aren't you, Bodie? Talked 'em round in no time, I'll bet."

Bodie went on as though Doyle had not spoken. "Rose was back. She's determined to make a go of things."

"Claiming she knew nothing of what her husband was up to?"

"She didn't," Bodie said confidently. "Not specifics anyway, not that the IRA were involved."


"Everyone's behind her. They all seemed pretty chipper; except for Derek, of course. He got Taffy to the vet in time, by the way. He thought you might want to know that. But Sanjay's death hit him pretty hard."

"You sound as if you actually care," Doyle said caustically.

"Could say the same about you."

Gripping the steering wheel more tightly than was necessary, Doyle kept his voice even through force of will. "And what about Basil?"

Bodie turned his head to stare out the window. "What about her?"

"She didn't suffer?"

"Of course not!" Bodie replied irritably.

"I suppose--" Doyle guided the car onto Fulham Road. "--I should thank you for that."

Bodie said nothing.

Five minutes later, Doyle backed the Capri into a space on the street, switched off the engine, and let himself out. Bodie met him on the pavement. Purposely lagging a few steps behind, Doyle then followed Bodie's lead, every muscle in his body tightening imperceptibly as they drew abreast of the row of graves where Chandra Malik was buried. But Bodie did not hesitate there; instead he continued several meters along the drive before heading down another row.

Slowing his pace, Doyle watched the other man come to a stop before a double grave-site. Bodie summoned him with a beckoning hand. As Doyle trod nearer, he turned his attention to the headstone with two arches: BODIE, JAMES; ELEANOR; WILLIAM.

"Your family?" Doyle asked remotely.

"Yes. My brother, his wife, Ellie, their little boy--"

"Your namesake."

"Yeah. And one in the oven, who never got a name."

Knowing with certainty that Bodie had not hauled him out here simply to introduce him to his dead relations, Doyle spent a moment studying the information chiseled in stone. While born on different days in different years, all, notably, had died on the same date.

"That's the date of the Selfridge's bombing," Doyle observed, hardly aware that he had spoken out loud.


"About a dozen people were killed."

"Yes," Bodie said again.

Understanding went some way toward banking down the smouldering embers of Doyle's fury. Burying his hands in his jacket pockets, Doyle asked abruptly, "Where were you?"

Bodie gave a humorless laugh. "Falls District."


Matter-of-factly, Bodie went on, "Made it into the Paras soon after; was attached to the SAS a year later."

"And used that as a springboard to MI6."

Acknowledging that with a nod of the head, Bodie said, "Jimmy was all the family I had left. Our parents died when we were lads; our aunt--me mum's sister--took us in. She was a kind old trout, but I resented her. So I ran off when I was fifteen; stowed away on a merchant ship--"

"--and ended up in South Africa with the Boswell-Wilkie Circus."

"Yeah. The first of many places--and jobs." Bodie rubbed his hands together; they were very pale and trembled a little. "Donal O'Shea was the head of the cell that arranged the bombing."

"You're telling me that MI6 took you on, and put you on this last assignment knowing all that?"

Bodie arched his brows. "They needed someone with unimpeachable credentials. Clowns and roustabouts are immediately suspect; but a flyer--"

"You and Cowley will get along well together," Doyle remarked obliquely. "Speaking of Cowley, he said O'Shea was taken into custody alive."

Shrugging, Bodie said, "Was never my intention to murder the bastard." He pressed his lips together. "Although when you showed up and he wanted to kill you--"

"You fed me to Sanjay, instead," Doyle finished bitterly.

Bodie threw his head back and gave a cough of harsh laughter. His breath pin-wheeled mistily; Doyle wondered how warm he could be in his handsome, but insubstantial suit. "Simon said Derek found you curled up fast asleep beside him Friday morning. I'd just looked in on him, Ray, before you showed up; he could hardly stand."

"Stood up well enough when O'Shea came in, though didn't he?"

"Because he was worried about you. Bloody tiger; I knew he wouldn't hurt you."

"Did you?" Doyle said sardonically.

"Was pretty sure," Bodie confessed, "though I had my hopes pinned on Basil staying in the clear till after we'd gone. She'd've had you out of there in no time. Anyway, the way O'Shea was waggling that fucking gun about, I had to play along. If I'd tried to jump him, he'd've shot me, then you. I thought about making a break for it when I sent him off into the tackroom--but he'd've had us both before we could've got very far."

Bodie concluded gruffly, "With Sanjay, you had a chance; with O'Shea, none."

Silence closed around them while Doyle digested Bodie's explanation. In his place and with his knowledge, he was not sure what he might have done. "Did you know who I was, Bodie?" he asked, unwittingly holding his breath.

"You mean, CI5? No, not until O'Shea identified you."

Staring down at the lime-streaked headstone, Doyle announced, "One of my objectives in joining Circus Sergei was to gain your confidence--you know what I mean--so you'd spill your guts about everything you knew. Did Cowley tell you that?"

"No," Bodie said wryly. "Said you were sent there to be his eyes and ears." He bent his head to one side. "Anyway, you never tried to--"

"No," Doyle cut him off. "I didn't."

Blue eyes widened fractionally at the magnitude of Doyle's unstated revelation. Bodie said softly, "Cowley contacted me just on a year ago. I told him I was interested, but the operation I was working on then-- O'Shea and his lot--would have to take precedence. First chance I had Friday morning--after the lads had moved in and O'Shea'd been shut down-- I rang Cowley. Told him, if he still wanted me, I'd be happy to give CI5 a go--but with a few provisos: He'd have to partner me with you, right now, and square things with Willis for me."

Despite himself, Doyle was impressed by this extraordinary disclosure. "He must have wanted you very badly to agree to that."

"Suppose so."

"You do understand that he set us up?"

Grinning reminiscently, Bodie muttered, "Yeah, I'm not that stupid. Crafty old sod."

Doyle shook his head. "You really don't mind?"

"How can I?" Bodie regarded Doyle with open affection. "If it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't have you now."

"Have me?" Doyle bristled.

"That's right," Bodie said obstinately. "If only as a partner."

Exasperated, Doyle burst out, "You don't even know me. You've spent the last two weeks with a bloody circus performer. What if I hadn't been CI5, Bodie? What if I'd really been a flyer?"

"Then I'd be back in that grotty little green caravan outside Newcastle, trying to explain why I had missed the Friday performances."

Stunned, Doyle could think of nothing to say.

"You don't understand, do you, Doyle?" Bodie said patiently. "If you don't want me around, I'll go; otherwise, it's you and me, in bed and on the street, for as long as you'll have me."

"Don't!" Doyle fell back a step, a hand raised to warn Bodie off--even though Bodie had not moved at all.

"Cowley showed me your file, y'know," Bodie said, undaunted by Doyle's outburst. "Told me about Keith, Chandra, you. I don't care what happened before, okay?"

"Big of you, mate," Doyle said cuttingly. "And what about you? D'you really think you can give up Murphy and Roger and whoever else happens to catch your fancy?"

To Doyle's astonishment, a soft shade of rose bloomed in Bodie's normally porcelain-pale cheeks. "You're going to have a look at my file, Ray; Cowley said that's how he handles it with partners. So you may as well know now--you're my first bloke, too."

Doyle's eyes narrowed to slits. "Pull the other one, Bodie. What about Roger?"


"You're joking!" Doyle exclaimed unkindly. "And your Murphy--I suppose you're going to tell me that he was MI6, too?"

Wincing slightly, Bodie said, "Yes--because it's true. Roger was supposed to provide backup. Couldn't fly to save his self-centered soul; he'd never have worked. Murph was my outside contact."

"You said you knew him from before," Doyle reminded him.

"Well, I did--the Flying Hussars, remember? Except it was the SAS, just as I said. He signed on with MI6 a year or so after me."

"So," Doyle said slowly, feeling as though he were picking his way through a field of thistles, "what you're really telling me is that you're straight."

"Late developer. Willis sent me to Circus Sergei to seduce info out of Alf. Lucky for me, I wasn't his type."

"And now all of a sudden you're ready to go off the straight and narrow? Give over, Bodie!"

"Okay, so it doesn't seem likely--but no more unlikely than you lasting all these years without a tumble!" Eyeing Doyle uncertainly, Bodie frowned moodily. "I thought you must have guessed about me Wednesday last, when we--" His teeth ground together. "Well, I didn't know what I was doing, and I hurt you. Thought it must be obvious I'd never done that before."

Remembering the pain--as well as the searing pleasure--of Bodie's lovemaking with indelible clarity, Doyle murmured, "It wasn't obvious to me."

Emboldened by that small concession, Bodie pressed on, "Look, Ray, it's all up to you. If you don't want to stay in CI5, I'll go with you--it's in my contract. Didn't think you'd be too pleased with Cowley when you found out he'd taken me on, and I thought I'd better have that option available. He wasn't keen, but I insisted. If you want to stay but leave out everything except us being partners, I won't like it--but I'll stay, too. If nothing else, it'll give me time to change your mind. But if you want to give us a real chance--CI5, partners, the lot--I think it'll work."

Bleakly, Doyle said, "And if it doesn't?"

"It has to."

Blinking at Bodie's uncompromising assertion, Doyle demanded, "Why?"

"Because, you bloody-minded, ill-mannered bugger, I don't think I can stop loving you--and I'd sooner not have to try."

Struck dumb once more, Doyle stared across at the dark-haired man, the last vestiges of hurt and anger melting away. In their place, a frighteningly intense hope kindled inside, its flickering heat warming the walls of Doyle's frozen heart. In a hushed voice, he said, "Swore, when Keith died that no one would ever be able to hurt me like that again. And no one--"

"You don't have to love me back, Ray," Bodie interrupted fiercely.

"And no one has--" Doyle overrode him gently, "--until you, Bodie. When you walked out Thursday night, leaving me alone with Sanjay, I--" Doyle's voice fell to a whisper. "I didn't think I could bear it. God help me, Bodie, but I love you too--and it scares me to death."

Bodie's eyes shone like sapphires. "Must be the only thing you are afraid of, then. Never met anyone like you, Doyle. Cowley's right, y'know? I think we'll make a great team."

"Cowley." The name was not so much spoken as spat out.

"Don't blame him too much, sunshine. He wanted to keep you, and he wanted to get hold of me--bit unconventional way to go about it, but you must admit, it worked."

"He only cares about the Squad," Doyle warned him, unamused. "He lives and breathes it."

"To the point where he got up the noses of several assorted ministers and the head of MI6 to keep his best agent happy. Face it, Ray, he knew you were taking things badly, and he was afraid of losing you."

"He said that?"

"Not in so many words," Bodie said dryly. "But it seemed obvious to me, yeah."

For the first time, Doyle comprehended just how many favors Cowley must have called in to winkle Bodie out of Willis' clutches. "Your Willis was not pleased?"

"Understatement," Bodie said with a make-believe shudder. "Never liked the swine anyway. Cowley should be a pleasant surprise."

"Tell me that again--after we've begun evaluations."

Bodie's face sobered; he regarded Doyle steadily. "Does that mean you'll give us a chance--you and me, the whole works?"

Rubbing the point of his shoe in the thick grass, Doyle looked up at Bodie through dark lashes. If he said "yes" now, he would be leaving himself open to incalculable hurt--especially considering their chosen profession. And if he said "no"--

He couldn't say "no"--not if it meant losing Bodie again.

"Don't see as how I've got a choice, what with you and Cowley both conspiring against me," Doyle said. "But I do have one condition."

"Yeah?" Bodie asked uneasily.

Eyes softening, Doyle said, "Promise you'll put on your leotard for me once in a while?"

A huge, relieved grin flowered on Bodie's face. "Think I can manage that."

Dropping his gaze to the grave marker, Doyle said heavily, "Sorry about your family, mate. Can see now why you were so keen on settling the score."

"Kinda crazy, though." Bodie shrugged deeper into his jacket. "Somehow it was more important at the outset. I mean, O'Shea had to be stopped-- him and all the others like him, but-- Well, somewhere along the way, it no longer mattered why; it was just something I had to do."

"Because it wasn't personal anymore; that's what this job does to you, mate."

Faintly troubled, Bodie asked, "Is that good or bad?"

Shaking his head, Doyle said, "Who knows?"

Gravel and stones crunched underfoot as the two men walked through the misting rain toward the gold Capri. "Cowley said I am to spend this week getting you settled in," Doyle said reflectively. "Expect we should start at the flat--do the unpacking and all that."

"Oh, yeah," Bodie said slowly, "the flat."

Absorbed in his own thoughts, Doyle failed to notice Bodie's lack of enthusiasm. "In fact, if things go well, we'll just keep it," he stated boldly--then hesitated. "Unless, of course, you'd rather have a place of your own?"

"You don't think Cowley would mind--you and me living together, I mean?" Bodie asked.

"He started this."


As they stepped through the great, metal gates, Doyle tapped his partner's arm. "You haven't answered the question. If you'd rather not--"

"Stop it, Ray," Bodie said, unbothered. "Haven't you figured out yet that I'll go along with anything you want?"

With complete honesty, Doyle said, "I don't understand why."

"Well," Bodie drawled, "it might take a few days to get it through your woolly head how I feel about you. We were both playing roles, y'know, and sometimes it's hard to tell where the pretending ends and reality begins."

"Were you pretending?" Doyle asked, not completely certain that he wanted to hear the answer.

"When I had to," Bodie said bluntly. "Mostly with Simon and the others. All the time with Sergei, since I had to convince him that I was on the take. But, believe it or not, I tried never to lie to you, Ray."

As they ambled onto the pavement, Doyle mulled this over. "You said, 'countless men and thousands of women'."

Bodie snorted. "'Thousands' is a bit of an exaggeration, that's true."

"And countless men?"

"You can't count none," Bodie pointed out reasonably.

"But you're really sure this is what you want--to be gay?"

"It's what I am, what I've been for a long time, even though I wouldn't let myself act on it while I was in the Army and SAS--even MI6, though I would've there, given the opportunity. Just common sense, really--not that it was ever easy." He shot Doyle a sidelong look. "Anyway, sex with you--it's the best ever. Couldn't give it up if I wanted to, mate."

Doyle looked his partner full in the face, need and yearning clearly revealed on his own. "Yeah," he breathed. "It was fantastic."

"And will be again," Bodie vowed.

"Okay, you've told me how you and O'Shea drove the lorry to the drop site; how your heroic lads moved in and saved the day--without anyone getting hurt," Doyle said, walking alongside Bodie up the steps to his block of flats. "But you haven't explained that bit of elastoplast on your forehead."

Bodie dismissively waved a hand. "O'Shea, of course. Soon as he saw that the game was up, he tried to cut down the odds. Never trusted me, y'see, and he was afraid I'd shop him come the push. So the miserable prick tried to shoot me."

"Appears to have succeeded, if that bandage is anything to go by."

"Grazed me, you idiot," Bodie corrected. "Otherwise, I'd be dead."

Having already determined this, Doyle remarked calmly, "Then, MI6 doctors must be as unreliable as our lot. You've probably got concussion, and here you are out and about when you should be in bed."

"A little lie-down would be nice."

"We'll soon see to that," Doyle assured him. He pulled the main door open, courteously waiting for his partner to pass through before him. "Lift's on your left."

"See it. By the way, what happened to you? Couple of days ago, you had straight hair and a beard, both distinctly grey. Simon was right: You look ten years younger without it."

"Don't laugh, but I-- Well, I needed to be myself again." Doyle rang for the elevator; from overhead came the promising sounds of gears meshing together. "Does it bother you?"

"Not in the least," Bodie replied. "Just wondering what it'll be like to kiss you without all that fuzz on your face."

Blanching, Doyle cast a quick glance all around. "Lunatic!"

But Bodie was unrepentant; his eyes rested familiarly on Doyle's mouth.

The lift doors slid open. "Get in there." Doyle gave his partner a shove and followed him inside. He poked a finger on the button for his floor. "I'll sort you out in a minute."

"Counting on it," Bodie said happily. He thrust a hand into his trousers pocket. "By the way, Cowley gave me a set of keys."

"Expect he did. And?"

"Probably ought to give them a try, that's all. Make sure they work."

In the enclosed space, Doyle balled his fists at his sides to keep from reaching out; he wanted very badly to have Bodie in his arms. "Yeah, okay."

The jingle of metal against metal issued from the depths of Bodie's pocket. He dangled the newly issued keys, still attached to an identifying tag by string, in front of Doyle's nose just as the lift came to a jarring stop.

"Come on, you," Doyle said impatiently. He tugged at Bodie's arm, then immediately released him as they stepped out onto the landing.

There was no one else to be seen. The door to Doyle's flat stood at the far end of the landing. Bodie placed a finger to his lips and crept toward it on tiptoe; Doyle rolled his eyes but remained obediently silent. When they stood outside the door, Bodie noiselessly guided the key into the lock; a second later he repeated the stealthy process in the electronic secondary.

Looking on with bemused affection, Doyle indulgently waited while Bodie eased the door open. The frequently oiled hinges made not a sound.

"Go on, then, mate," Bodie whispered, and gave Doyle a push forward.

From out of nowhere, something came hurtling at him. It sprang up onto Doyle's thighs, then bounced off his chest. He stumbled backward, one hand scrabbling for his gun, even as his stricken brain recognized the identity of his attacker.


The dog threw herself at him again, and this time Doyle swooped her up, gathering the squirming animal into his arms. Clutching her close, Doyle rounded on Bodie. "You said--"

"That she didn't suffer," Bodie anticipated him. "And by God, she hasn't. Been driving me half-insane, she has."

"Oh, Christ, Bodie!" Doyle's eyes flooded with unexpected tears; he reached out blindly for his partner. "I thought--"

Bodie gathered him in his arms at once, careful not to crush the ecstatic animal, and received a widely flailing tongue across the jaw for his efforts. "O'Shea wasn't keen on having her along, but I told him if he laid a finger on the mutt, I'd fuck him up good and permanently."

"Oh, Bo--" Doyle's voice shattered; he clutched at the other man's arm with one hand, the other fully occupied with keeping the squirming terrier from pitching to the floor.

"I'm sorry, Ray." Bodie curved his fingers into heavy curls; he drew Doyle's head into the hollow of his shoulder. "About everything: Sanjay, Basil, me. Could see it in your face when you thought I was working with O'Shea." He kissed the top of Doyle's head. "Tried to tell you, y'know, but I guess you didn't understand. I probably wouldn't've either, under the circumstances."

Inhaling wetly, Doyle said, "Tell me--what?"

"Who I was. Remember, when O'Shea said you were CI5, I said--"

"That, 'if he's CI5, then I'm MI6'--or something like that." Chagrined, Doyle made a minor production of wiping at his cheeks. He sniffed unselfconsciously, "Yeah, 'course I did. Just thought you were rubbing my nose in it."

Brushing his chin idly over Doyle's thick hair, Bodie murmured, "Like I said, don't know that I would've caught on, either."

"It was a complete cock-up," Doyle pronounced with uncomfortable self- assessment, his voice low and husky, but once more under control. "Cowley should've had my balls on a platter."

"If I recall, he told you not to move on your own--more, I suspect, to keep you from stealing a march on Willis than out of any concern of your getting nicked."

"Little did he know." Easing himself out of Bodie's sheltering embrace, Doyle met his partner's tender gaze through spiked lashes. "You were quick to believe O'Shea about me."

"It explained a few things."


A smile twitched across Bodie's mouth. "You fly like a dream, sunshine-- but being the best flyer in the world would never have satisfied the Ray Doyle I met at Circus Sergei."

"You're saying you were suspicious of me all along--is that right?"

Bodie laughed. "Reckon so. 'Course, once Derek'd found you nosing round the delivery lorry, I did wonder."

"Yeah, okay. Point to you." Doyle pulled free. "Down you go, Basil." He cast Bodie a searching glance. "She's been fed, hasn't she?"

"First thing. I handed her over to the removals rep in Cowley's office so they could bring her here, out of harm's way."

Straightening up, Doyle held out a hand; he jerked his head toward the stairs. "Then it's time we started unpacking; get you settled in."

Curling his fingers round Doyle's, Bodie asked, "Then why are you leading me upstairs? My tea chests are in the lounge."

"You're not dressed for it, mate; messy business, y'know? Thought I'd just lend a hand to speed things up. Act as your valet, like."

"And then we'll start unpacking?" Bodie asked guilelessly.

"Well-- Maybe not right away."

"Oh, good, I'd much rather have that little lie-down you promised before we get stuck in it."

"Sorry, sunshine," Doyle informed his companion gravely, pausing at the head of the stairs. One hand worked deftly at Bodie's collar, loosening the blue tie. "But it isn't little, and it won't be lying down--but, with any luck, it may get stuck in something."

A complacent smile lay claim to Bodie's lips. "Oh, well. Who says you can't have everything?"

Opalescent light shimmered through the net curtains obscuring the bedroom window; a soft rain pitter-pattered down, streaking the glass and dripping steadily onto the sill.

"You've lost weight, Ray."

"Have I?"

Doyle lay on his back, propped up by several pillows. Bodie was sprawled across his chest, dark head cushioned by Doyle's bony shoulder.

"Think your hip bones left grooves." A blunt-tipped finger prodded experimentally at Doyle's sharply defined pelvis.

"Was I too rough?"

Bodie snorted. "You are kidding? Expected you to break out the incense and holy vestments at any moment--first time I've ever been bloody worshipped!"

Unfazed by Bodie's invention, Doyle murmured, "Must mean I like you."

Bodie's head came up; amused blue eyes examined Doyle's contented face. "When you saw me in Cowley's office, you looked like you wanted to kill me."

"I did." Lazy fingers left off their explorations of Bodie's smooth shoulder to caress his cheek. "Then I decided I'd rather kill Cowley."

"Don't like him much, do you?"

"I--admire him; respect him," Doyle said ruminatively. "Like him? Sometimes, I reckon I do. And sometimes, I just hate him."

Turning his head, Bodie kissed Doyle's forefinger. "Consistency is everything. By the way, it's nice without the beard, too--kissing you, I mean." He raised his brows hopefully.

"That's certainly reassuring," Doyle said drolly. Very gently, he dropped his mouth to Bodie's lips.

A moment later, Doyle asked, "What'd he say to you, Bodie? Y'know, Cowley, when you told him you wanted on the Squad?"

"Not a lot, really," Bodie said with a crooked grin. "I tried to come on the hard man over the phone, y'know, all bluff and bluster. Like I told you, I rang him as soon as I could, after the lads had moved in. Had the excuse of this--" he indicated the bandage on his forehead, "--to leave the mopping up to everyone else. Luckily Willis had gone to Circus Sergei to personally collar Alf, dangerous criminal that he is, poor, dumb sod. Cowley saw right through me, I think, but he arranged a meet for that evening, even though by rights I should've been swamped with debriefings and paperwork. Not a man you want to mess about, your Cowley. Very powerful. Could be dangerous if you got on his bad side."

"Doesn't have a good side," Doyle observed trenchantly.

"Anyway, I told him what I wanted; he told me what he expected in return--and that any personal involvement on our part--you and me--would not be allowed to affect the Squad--and we agreed that I would come in first thing Monday morning to make it official."

"This was on Friday?" Doyle's fingers were no longer moving.

"Yes; late in the afternoon."

"He could've told me!" The husky voice was shot through with renewed anger. "Who you were. Why you were working undercover. The miserable, manipulative old--"

"I--got the impression that it was important to him to see how you rolled with all this, Ray. He more than half expected you'd hand in your resignation today."

Doyle pushed Bodie off his chest, shifting onto his side so he could look into the face of his lover. "And here was me thinking I had nothing left but CI5--resigning was the last thing on my mind. I don't always like my job, Bodie, but it's necessary, and sometimes--not always--I'm good at it."

"You don't have to convince me--he showed me your file, remember?" Bodie ran a fingertip across the abraded skin on Doyle's left forearm, a lurid memento of Doyle's stay in Sanjay's cage. "You're better than good. You may not like to admit it, but losing your partner--especially like that-- gave you a bloody bad turn."

"And you think sending me to Circus Sergei was the appropriate cure?" Doyle said scornfully, no longer pretending that Chandra's death had not affected him.

"Worked, didn't it?"

Slowly rocking his cheek on the pillow, Doyle intoned, "Like I said, you'll get along well with Cowley."

"He did what he had to, to keep you, Ray." Bodie affectionately rubbed his nose against Doyle's. "So-- What do we do now?"

"What d'you mean?" Doyle's eyes darkened with query.

"You and me."

"Thought we'd worked all that out." Doyle lowered his head and gave Bodie's shoulder a lingering kiss.

"Could probably use a few ground rules, so there're no misunderstandings later on."

"For example?"

Bodie curled a forefinger under Doyle's chin and forced his head up; troubled green eyes could no longer evade him. "I'll stay until you don't want me anymore--when you get tired of me, I'll go, okay? And I'm a selfish prick who doesn't like to share. You have a bit on the side, I might do something stupid--so it'll be smarter if you tell me good bye first."

Searching Bodie's open features, Doyle questioned, "And if I never get tired of you or want a bit on the side?"

"I'd like to think that might happen," Bodie whispered, "but we're neither of us children. I'll fight for you, Ray, but only if you're honest with me."

"That's fair enough. Can I expect the same from you?"


Placing his hand flat on Bodie's chest, Doyle tipped the other man onto his back. Then he rose up on one elbow, so he could stare down into Bodie's handsome face, his fingers gliding upward to lie gossamer-light around Bodie's throat. "Then I don't think we have anything to worry about."


Doyle bent down to kiss his partner's mouth, taking his time over the cool upper curve, the succulent lower pout. "No." He opened his eyes; Bodie's unguarded expression betrayed a longing that had nothing to do with sex.

"And you said I worship you," Doyle chided softly.

"Can't bloody help it, can I?" Bodie burrowed nearer.

Gathering the muscular body into his arms, Doyle settled the covers over them both before asking, "How's the head?"


"Think you're ready for that little kip now?"

"If you'll stay with me." Bodie's tranquil voice was muffled against Doyle's neck.

"Not going anywhere."

"Promise?" Bodie insisted sleepily.


A movement at the door brought Doyle's head up; Basil stood there, looking on inquiringly, a partially mangled shoe hanging from her jaws.

"What size shoe do you wear, Bodie?" Doyle asked softly.

"Shoe?" The sticking plaster wrinkled with Bodie's frown. "Eight. Why?"

"No reason," Doyle murmured. "Such dainty feet you have."

Choosing the plush rug beside the bed as the warmest spot on the floor, Basil lay down with her prize and set to with a will.

"Doyle--" Bodie's voice came out unexpectedly acute, "--if that dog of yours is eating my shoes, I'll vivisect her."

"Nah," Doyle assured him. "She's not. Put your head down, mate."


"Don't worry. I'll break her of the habit later. Right now she can have anything she likes."

One eye rolled open and peered fixedly over the slope of Doyle's chest to the floor beyond. "That's your shoe, idiot!"

"She missed me," Doyle said, unconcerned.

"You're mad, Ray Doyle," Bodie decided, relaxing limply upon his partner's accommodating shoulder once more.

"Very likely," Doyle agreed. To himself he added, "Too bad I can't borrow yours, because I wear a nine."

There was no point in saying more, for Bodie was already dropping off. Drowsily content, Doyle allowed his mind to wander. In a thousand dreams and fantasies he would never have imagined that he might be happy again. Yet, Bodie had been restored to him, as had Basil--although he had not a clue how he would care for the dog. He only knew that he would.

Four days ago, his life had been in ashes. Now, like his mythical hero, he had risen to new heights--and the reason for his rebirth lay here in his arms. Bodie was wrong in believing that Doyle would eventually choose to move on; on the contrary, he needed Bodie as he had never needed anyone. And he would do anything to keep Bodie at his side.

"Love you, Ray," Bodie whispered, surprising Doyle, who had thought his partner well away.

Tightening his grasp, Doyle revelled in the silken feel of his lover, the heat he exuded, the heady scent of him. "Love you forever, mate."

Bodie's soft lips crept into a smile. "And you. Forever."

Harlequin Airs Plate 21 thumbnail


The Big Tent glowed like a Chinese lantern. From the foot of the drive, at the bottom of the parallel rows of sideshow exhibits and games, the nattering crowd could be heard, impatient for the beginning of the second performance.

"C'mon, Ray! We're already late."

"Probably too bloody late," Doyle groused, loping to catch his partner up. It had been left to him to lock the car and see to Basil.

"Nah, they'll still let us in--Rose can't've changed things that much."

For all that the end of May was only a few days away, the weather was chill and drizzly--not unlike March in Newcastle. Keenly reminded of that time now a scant two months past, Doyle made no effort to stopper his memories as his searching gaze took in the familiar layout, colors, aromas and noises. Only the landscape had changed; for this was Norwich.

"Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Circus Sergei!" Riley's voice boomed over the Tannoy, his reverberant tones made more resonant still by amplification.

"Makes you want to run and fetch your tights, doesn't it?" Bodie teased.

"Not me," Doyle rejoined; he would not have admitted for the world that the inclination did, in fact, exist.

They braked to a stop outside the ticket booth. "Two, please," Bodie requested on a sharp exhalation.

Having observed their approach with perceptible interest, the lad behind the counter exclaimed, "Thought it was you! Hang about."

With that, Damien stuck his head round the curtained-off entry into the kiosk and shouted, "Rick! They finally made it! Take 'em up front, will you?"

Bodie and Doyle exchanged bemused looks. They were given little time to ponder Damien's remarks, for Rick, the young man who took tickets at the main entry, appeared within seconds.

"Well, and not before time," he proclaimed. "Come with me, please."

"What's not before time?" Doyle whispered, as they entered the Big Tent.

"Shh," Rick hushed him loudly.

"Don't you want us to pay you, then?"

"Shhh!" Rick repeated.

People packed the stands on either side of the aisle, stretching and shifting in their seats to get a better view of the ring. The music bellowing from the musicians' box was deafening. In the middle of the freshly sawdusted arena Riley held court, perched on Flash's back. As phlegmatic as ever, he let his voice do the work in place of extraneous facial effort--and as ever, was winning the audience over in the first moments.

Ignoring the grumbling complaints of onlookers, Rick led Bodie and Doyle to the seats held in reserve for visiting VIP's.

As he waved them in, Bodie murmured, "Cor, son! You sure you're supposed to sit us here?"

"Rose's instructions," Rick advised him tersely. Signalling them to stay put, he then strode back to the entry, giving the impression that he had left his post too long unattended.

Having the best view in the house, Bodie and Doyle settled in for an evening of painless entertainment--in two months their first night unfettered by the demands of CI5. Given the okay by Cowley earlier in the day, they had raced back to their shared flat, loaded up Doyle's gold Capri, and had struck north.

Unwittingly grinning from ear to ear as the jugglers were superseded by the clowns in their marvellously funny free-for-all, Doyle was scarcely aware that the tension accumulated over the last two months was evaporating from his body with every passing second. Beside him, Bodie dug an elbow into his ribs and pointed out Aidan's half-witted jig, which was new to his act. Doyle nodded, having noticed it himself, never once taking his eyes from the havoc being wreaked on the sawdust and tanbark stage.

Simon took the ring next--Bodie stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled loudly. The young man, dressed from bewigged head to slippered toes as a woman, rode with consummate--and still astonishing--skill, not in the least bit encumbered by his full-cut, pleated skirts, which vanished from his lean frame as layers were plucked away by the web spinners pretending to be tree branches. Within moments, his femininity stripped away, Simon stood smugly on Mickey's back, arms spread wide, his male physique clearly visible for all to see. As he passed their box, Simon lifted both hands to his mouth and blew kisses their way. Laughing, Bodie and Doyle waved back; once more Bodie whistled ear- splittingly, which earned him a sharp elbow in the ribs.

The order of routines had been altered since their sojourn with Circus Sergei. As soon as Simon and Mickey had exited through the red curtain, the web spinners launched into their act, choreographed to suit their costumes, and to highlight their youthful limberness. A delicate, tranquil performance, it gained the audience's approval and their hearts--and primed them for the dressage act, which followed in its wake. Much like the routine Bodie and Doyle had perfected, this new version boasted Piper and Tuppence in all their refined but glittering glory, ridden now by Derek and Simon--the latter of whom was unrecognizable in his Regency costume as the voltige damsel.

This house was no more unaffected by the equestrian drama than those Bodie and Doyle had performed for. As Piper disappeared behind the curtain, a single sigh went up, given voice by many throats.

"It is impressive," Doyle admitted, whispering in Bodie's ear.

"Told you. 'Course, we did it with a little more élan," Bodie replied incorrigibly.

The balancing act starring Aidan came next. He convincingly mixed broad slapstick with elegant acrobatic skills; Bodie and Doyle cheered him as wholeheartedly as the rest of the audience.

Riley's liberty horses erupted into the ring amidst a thundering of galloping hooves. Having admired the ringmaster's horsemanship from the start, Doyle leaned forward and, rapt, savored every flawless turn, leap, and dancing maneuver. At the end, as the animals careered off stage in order--the now-healed Taffy weaving ubiquitously in and out and under the larger ponies' legs--Doyle clapped until his palms stung.

And then the lights went down, a single, wide-focus spotlight fixed on the empty trapezes suspended overhead. This lasted only long enough for Riley to announce the oncoming act, and to give the workers time to erect the net for the aerial performance. "Arturo Falconi"--in reality, Clive Bruce--was first to appear, the huskily built young man perched upon the catch trap. The light moved away a second later, to seize his more lithesome counterpart, "Victor"--Clive's recently healed brother, Alex Bruce. At once, "Victor" grasped his trapeze and swung out, graceful and in control, leaping across open space to have his fall arrested with equal adroitness by his brother. To Doyle's critical eye, the two men were better than yeomanlike, but somehow fell just shy of spellbinding.

Theirs was a basic routine, employing none of the dramatics incorporated in Bodie and Doyle's short-lived act. Nevertheless, Doyle was not disappointed in their leaps and pirouettes and the double layout salto with which "Victor" ended their set.

"Not bad," Bodie commented.

"Not bad," Doyle agreed.

Next came Falstaff, Taffy, and Hannah's dogs playing errant pupils to Flash's teacher horse routine. Charmed by the silliness, Doyle was even more amused by Bodie's giggles--a little boy's laughter he all too rarely heard.

And then it was time for the final parade. Each act appeared at Riley's summons to take their bows. The house applauded and shouted their pleasure on this unseasonably cool, wet day outside Norwich.

Moments later, the house lights came on as the ring went black. The public rose to make their way outside.

"Should we go round and see if we can visit with Simon and Derek?" Doyle asked.

"Sit tight, sunshine. Simon said someone would fetch us."

"It's been over a month since you heard from him," Doyle argued uncertainly. "Maybe--"

"Rose is still in charge; don't worry, Ray."

"'M not worried."


"Be embarrassing to be booted out, that's all."

Bodie chuckled.

Within moments the Big Tent was an empty husk. Just as Doyle was beginning to fidget nervously, the house lights dimmed and the ring lights came on again--and there, in the center, stood Riley.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he started formally. "Ah-- Excuse me, gentlemen only: May I introduce my wife, Melanie, and my son, Neil."

Two figures stepped out of the shadows, a young woman with pleasant features, wearing an assistant's costume, and a stocky boy who resembled the woman beside him.

Bodie nudged his partner and heartily applauded. Entering into the spirit of things, Doyle joined in.

"Oh, come down here, you silly buggers!" That was Simon's voice, soon met by Simon's face and form as he strode into the ring from the red curtain, shadowed by Derek.

"Took you bloody long enough," he stated, aggrieved, coming up alongside Riley and his family.

The spotlight shifted, burning down now on Bodie and Doyle. "That's what Rick said," Doyle noted, grinning.

"Turn that thing off!" Bodie growled. He was already on the move, Doyle trailing behind him as they made their way off the stands.

As they drew nearer, Doyle was taken aback to see that most of the troupe were in evidence, filtering through the red curtain singly and in groups of two or three. "Good Lord," he exclaimed as he stepped over the curb onto the sawdust floor. "Haven't you lot got anything better to do?"

"Than to greet old friends? Don't be simple. My God, Ray--what have you done to your hair?" This, from Simon who walked up and threw his arms round Bodie first, then Doyle. "Oh, I like it!" A second later, Doyle was taken into Derek's rugged grasp, and lifted completely off his feet.

"You maniac," he gasped. "Put me down!"

Amidst a whirl of greetings, which Doyle was stunned to recognize as a full-fledged home-coming, Hannah uncannily echoed his thoughts. Taking his hand in her firm clasp, she said, "How's it feel to be the prodigal son?"

"Most strange," Doyle laughed. "Bodie, I could understand--he was here for a year; me--"

"Sometimes you can be a bit slow, Ray," Hannah said kindly. "Part of your charm, eh?"

"Sweet talker."

"You still have Basil, according to Bodie." Hannah picked up one of her terriers that had slipped through the forest of loitering legs before it could run afoul of a misplaced foot. "How's she getting on, then?"

"Better than I do, most of the time. You might see her; she's here somewhere. When Bodie and I have to be away for more than a day, there are a couple of wives we can rely on to look after her."


Doyle hesitated. "Y'know, some of the blokes where we work are married."

"Oh. Spies have wives, do they?" She gave him a penetrating once-over. "Are you happy playing James Bond? Truly?"

"Yeah, believe it or not. And it's even better now, with Bodie."

Hannah smiled. "Wouldn't wish him on my worst enemy."

"He's not that bad," Doyle defended his partner. "Well, not all the time, anyway."

"Who's not that bad?" Bodie wanted to know, clapping a hand on Derek's shoulder as he looked Hannah's way.

"You. Eavesdropping again?" Hannah asked sweetly.

In answer to that, Bodie pushed Doyle aside and gave the dog trainer a crushing hug, raising a yelp from the terrier still held in her arms. "I've missed you too."

"So what did you think of the show?" Riley asked, forcing a gap between milling bodies into which he moved, accompanied by his son.

"Great," Doyle said truthfully. "You lot only get better."

Riley's son stared up at him with round, respectful eyes. "Dad's told me about you--and about your special act."

"Has he?"

"He's told us, too," another voice contributed, this one of a much lower register--and totally lacking the reverential tone.

"Hello, Clive," Bodie said. "Alex. Good to see you two back in commission."

The "Flying Falconis" were still clad in leotards and glittering capes. While manifestly different in body size and physical attributes, there was, overall, a distinct look of brothers about them.

Alex gave a nod acknowledging Bodie's remark. "Don't reckon the pair of you would like to give us a private showing? After all, you've seen how we perform. Would only be fair, don't you think?"

"Oh, would you!" Neil Riley chimed in excitedly.

"Come now, Neil," Riley said reprovingly. "They haven't practiced--"

"We'd love to." The words were out of Doyle's mouth before he had quite thought them through; however, despite Bodie's look of startlement, he had no desire to take them back. The prospect of going up on the trapeze one last time--with Bodie as his partner--appealed to him with unanticipated intensity.

"Are you sure, Ray? Bodie?"

Bodie shrugged. "Why not?"

"But you're hardly dressed," Lily pointed out; her familiar voice had teased at the edge of Doyle's hearing for some moments. She reached out and took Doyle's hand in hers. "Told you so, didn't I--about Bodie?" Her mouth curved into a Cupid's bow smile. "D'you want your old costumes, loves?"

"Hello, Lily. Go ahead and gloat: You certainly did tell me about Bodie." Doyle bent forward and kissed the woman's cheek. "I'm game, if Bodie is."

Blue eyes traversed from Doyle's composed expression to Neil Riley's bright eyes. "Costumes, eh?" Bodie reached down and tweaked the lad's nose. "What d'you say, Neil?"

"Oh, yes, please."

"Well, that settles it, then. That is, if the lads don't object to putting the net up again?"

Tom announced from behind Riley, "Happy to, mate."

"Donal, d'you want to work the lights?" Bodie asked.


"Des? You there?"

The stocky Irishman waved at Bodie from the edge of the ring. "If Ray'll trust me to."

"With my life," Doyle assured him. He gave Riley a crooked grin. "Do you remember the spiel, then?"

The long nose rose haughtily. "I have an excellent memory."

Bodie waved an arm at the now-empty musicians' box. "We seem to have lost our musical accompaniment."

"Surely you can do without it?" Clive Bruce insisted.

"Some of the effect will be lost," Doyle cautioned.

"No matter."

"Right, then. Let's get kitted up, shall we? After you, Lily."

Hands and forearms coated with a dusting of sticky resin, and wrist bands wetted down with alcohol to keep them from slipping, Doyle stood once more on the platform high above the circus floor. Across from him, Bodie sat on the catch trap, wearing the specially designed costume that transformed him from Good to Evil and back again in a tick. The snugly fitting tights and body suit emphasized Bodie's muscular frame; Doyle happily looked his fill, still subject at odd moments to questioning his incredible good fortune in having acquired Bodie's love and unwavering devotion.

In the last two months, they had undergone Cowley's most grueling indoctrination along with a physical assessment that would have seen lesser mortals cashiered from CI5's elite roster. They had supported each other without fail, experienced their first fire-fight together, suffered the fishy looks of unenlightened colleagues--and through it all their nascent love had continued to take root and bloom.

"You ready, Ray?"

Doyle gave him a wink. "Always."

Bodie shook his head. "Hold that thought for later, eh? D'you think we can pull this off?"

"Easily." Bravado--born of certainty--framed the single word.

Winking back, Bodie said, "Good enough. Riley! Cue everybody, will you? We're set."

Over the Tannoy, Riley's voice rumbled loud and clear, taking Doyle back to an instant he had thought lost forever in time. With an innate suppleness that could not be taught, he flew out over the ring that lay so many, many feet below, let go of the bar, and gave himself over to Bodie. Four hands clasped hold of four wrists simultaneously; Bodie's timing was as instinctive and impeccable as ever.

Away Doyle spun, catching his trapeze on the return swing. Incapable of explaining this rather singular talent, he chose instead to immerse himself in it, moving from one stunt to the next with fluid grace and total trust in Bodie's ability. There were a few rough spots, to be sure, but Riley's voice and Donal's lighting created the effect that only magic--or supreme skill and rare prowess--could achieve.

Afterward, diving down into the net, Doyle became aware of the applause honoring their untarnished showmanship. On the ground once more, he readily accepted the towel handed him by Derek, returning the other man's approving smile as he began to wipe himself down.

"Not bad," Clive said neutrally; his eyes, however, betrayed a certain admiration.

"You were wonderful!" Neil Riley exclaimed in his high, piping voice. "Fantastic!"

"Thanks, son," Bodie said, taking the towel from Doyle for his own use. "And thanks for asking. I think we both quite enjoyed that."

"You bloody wallowed in it," Simon said indictingly. "And now I think it's time you two came back to the tackroom and had a cuppa or two."

"Soon as we get changed." Bodie nodded at Clive and Alex Bruce in parting, clipped Neil on the chin, and cocked his head toward the red curtain for Doyle to join him.

Standing behind the dressing screen, Bodie remarked knowingly, "You certainly enjoyed that."

"Yes, I suppose I did." Doyle leaned dreamily against one of the corner poles, arms folded across his chest. They were alone in the dressing tent, having been left to their own devices for the moment.

The moment did not last long. "And you were magnificent!" Rose announced, stepping through the opening. "If you ever want your jobs back, just ring me!"

"Rose, how are you!" Bodie called out, fingertips waggling over the top of the screen.

"I'm fine, Bodie. Don't need to ask how you two are getting on, though, do I?"

"No," Doyle replied amiably. "You had a good crowd tonight; how's the circus getting on?"

Rose sighed dramatically, despite the smile on her face. "Pretty harrowing on occasion. But I've turned ownership over to the troupe; we'll sink or swim together."

"Great idea!" Bodie stated approvingly. He appeared around the edge of the screen, fully dressed. "Your turn, Ray."

As they switched places, Bodie walked up to Rose and greeted her with an affectionate hug. "You look great, love; are you all right?"

"Not bad," Rose assured him. "You know, I meant what I said just now, about your flying for Circus Sergei again. You and Ray--even without the music--you were enchanting."

"You're kind, love. We'll bear it in mind, though, okay? Just in case we decide on a change in careers."

Sobering, Rose murmured, "I do wish I'd known just what Alf was up to, y'know. Maybe I could've--"

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Bodie shook his head implacably. "You couldn't've. By then, he'd already dug himself a hole a mile deep."

"It was for the circus." Her voice, plaintive and remorseful, carried to Doyle clearly. "He could never find enough money. The circus was his first love, always."

"And he was yours," Bodie said gently. "I am sorry."

Smiling faintly, Rose nodded her head. "That's all right, Bodie. Ray!"

"Yes, love?" Sliding the tongue of the leather belt through the loops on his jeans, Doyle left the protection of the dressing screen.

"Take care of this big lout for me, will you? I owe him."

"It's my job, Rose. But I would, even if I didn't get paid for it."

"Mercenary toad," Bodie said without heat.

"I think Doyle's perfect for you," Rose stated, patting Bodie's cheek with a smooth palm.

"So does he," Bodie said, as his partner came alongside him. He drove a fist without force against Doyle's shoulder. "And he's right."

The small creature swayed from side to side, its oversize ears flapping forward and back, feet planted firmly on the hay-strewn floor of its enclosure.

"Where on earth did you get that?" Doyle demanded. "Stay out of there, Bas; she'll step on you--that is, I think it's a she?"

Derek nodded. He stood next to the months-old pachyderm, a hand running down her scarred legs and back.

Providing Derek's voice, Simon said, "Some ignorant bastard had her smuggled into the country for a pet. Hadn't the faintest idea how to take care of her; and he had a cruel streak as well."

"Can see that." Doyle eyed the animal from the tip of her trunk to the bristly end of her straggly, ceaselessly flicking tail. "Will you be able to use her in the show?"

"Derry's already working her into one of the dog and clown routines. He says she's a natural."

Doyle nudged his partner. "What d'you think?"

"We don't have space for her," Bodie replied promptly. "And that miserable git of yours is bother enough."

"Such a negativist."

"Negativist," Bodie repeated sourly. "Got your pocket OED handy, Si?"

"Can I come in and see her?" Doyle asked Derek. Receiving a summoning curl of fingers in answer, Doyle stepped round to the cage door and let himself in. The elephant's ears flared; her eyes fixed on Doyle as he approached.

Behind him Basil whined; Bodie squatted down and placed a hand on her back. "'S okay, mutt. He isn't bringing her home."

Simon laughed. "He certainly isn't; Derry would put up an awful fight."

"She's a lovey," Doyle murmured, having got close enough by then to place a tentative hand on the animal's hide, just behind her head. "Just look at you," he cooed.

Rolling his eyes, Bodie muttered, "You'd never know this was the same lad who collared a couple of murderous villains the other day. Had 'em cowed and whinging for mercy even before I could provide back-up."

Drawing a face, Simon mused, "It's awfully dangerous working for CI5, isn't it? I mean, we hear about the sorts of things you get up to sometimes."

"Thanks to the press." Bodie scowled. "And only then when things get out of hand. Actually, it's probably safer than working here on a hairy day."

Simon gave his arm a pinch. "Listen to you!"

"'S true. We spend more time on stakeouts and obbo ops than chasing down raiders. You lot, on the other hand, risk being stomped by horses, falling off horses, slipping in horse shit--"

"In fact," Doyle interrupted before Bodie could continue, "if Cowley knew that we'd gone up on the trapeze, he'd give us a dressing-down that would leave our ears blistered for days to come."

"Cowley." Simon rolled the name delicately in his mouth. "He wasn't very nice the night I met him."

"No," Doyle said, remembering that night all too clearly. "But, then, it's not in his nature to be."

Basil let out a ululating whine. "C'mon, Doyle," Bodie said, "put the dog out of her misery, will you?"

Simon bent over and caressed the terrier's ears. "She's only jealous."

"In a minute, mate!" Doyle tugged at the elephant's tail; she twitched it out of his hand. "Derek--" Even though he had steeled himself for this moment for more than two months, Doyle found it difficult to put his feelings into words: "About Sanjay--"

But Derek stopped him with a look. He lifted one hand and laid it upon Doyle's chest, over his heart. Then he copied the gesture upon his own broad breast.

Understanding, Doyle admitted, "Yeah. I cared. Just wish I could've done something worthwhile for him."

Derek tapped a finger against Doyle's forehead, his expression speaking volumes.

A hint of color invading his cheeks, Doyle murmured, "I'll remember." He looked across at his partner; Bodie was watching him through the bars. "Is it time?"

"And then some. We've a long drive to London."

"Yeah." Doyle gave up a heavy sigh.

"It's okay, Ray," Simon said consolingly. "There'll be another show; maybe, some day, we'll come and visit you in London."

"We'll hold you to that," Bodie promised. Rising, he drew Simon up alongside him, and briefly immobilized him with a quick hug. "You lads take care. Thanks for the tea, eh?"

"Any time, Bodie."

The gold Capri stood alone in the makeshift car park. Lifting Basil off his shoulder, Doyle shifted her to one forearm so he could key open the lock.

"A penny for them," Bodie said, walking past the bumper to the passenger door.

"I'll have a kiss instead--later, you moron!" Doyle amended swiftly, as Bodie made as though he would come round to Doyle's side.

"In the back, Basil!" Bodie shooed the dog off the seat before slipping inside and pulling the door to behind him.

"Just thinking about the last time I left Circus Sergei," Doyle said pensively.

"With Cowley, you mean?"


Bodie buckled his belt, then reached for the dog. "Come here, mutt." He wound the window down so she could poke her nose out. "Idiot animal," he grumbled.

Laying a hand on Bodie's knee, Doyle said, "You put up with a lot because of me."

"That's certainly true."

"Like driving up here tonight, when we could've been catching up with our sleep."

"Better than that, we could've been catching up with another bedtime activity I'm very partial to."

Flashing his partner a grin, Doyle said, "We'll find a way to work it in."

"Wey hey, 'work it in.' Love it when you speak dirty to me, Ray."

Doyle started the engine. "Didn't expect all that, y'know? Was one hell of a welcome." He flipped on the lights, then released the handbrake and changed down to first.


"Everyone looked pretty much the same--although I think Lily's lost a bit of weight."

"Pining for me, isn't she?"

According this comment all the attention it deserved, Doyle went on, "Although, on the other hand, Tom seemed bigger than I remembered him."

"Wouldn't be so quick to try and knock him down now, you mean?"

"Emma wouldn't let me; nor those strapping lads of hers."

Laughing softly, Bodie said, "Tom never did completely figure you out. Just an overgrown pup, he is."

"If you say so." Braking sharply and swerving to avoid crushing a hedgehog darting across the road, Doyle managed to straighten out the car without any of the passengers coming to grief--all the while suffering his partner's voluble opinion of his driving skills.

"Sorry about that," Doyle said, his tone not at all apologetic. Flicking a finger under Basil's chin, he wondered aloud, "How much trouble d'you reckon Riley had arranging to get his family into the country?" Favoring Bodie with an ingenuous grin, he prompted, "Nice aren't they? Pretty wife, handsome lad."

Allowing himself to be cajoled out of his sulk, Bodie said, "Hm. The boy's clever, too."


"Yeah. He set Clive and Alex up like a real professional."

"Set them up? What d'you mean?"

"Last time I heard from Lily, she complained about the Flying Falconis falling back into their old, uppity ways. Thought they should be brought down a peg or two."

"You're not saying--?" Doyle turned the car onto the road which led to the junction with the London motorway. "I don't believe this! All that about how great we were, and how much he wanted to see our 'special routine'--that was all rubbish?"

"'Fraid so. Still, it worked--and you got to fly again, didn't you?"

"You toe rag!"

"Now, now. You telling me you didn't enjoy showing those toffee noses up? Not the weest bit?"

"Didn't care about them at all," Doyle said grudgingly.

"Well, then--"

Shooting an exasperated glance his partner's way. "You're impossible, d'you know that?"

"You seem to handle me very well." Bodie smiled back at him, promise glinting in his eyes.

"Thank God for that," Doyle said fervently. "Tell you what, I'll sort you out first thing we get home." He pulled at his nose thoughtfully. "Well, after we feed the dog, of course. And there's laundry to do, as well--great, heaping stacks of it. And the flat hasn't been aired in over--"

"Forget it, Doyle," Bodie said serenely. "Tonight, your arse is mine."

"Just my arse?" Doyle snorted indignantly.

"And the rest, of course: your cheeks--both upstairs and downstairs, mind; and your furry chest; and your nipples--they pucker up so nice and tight when I--"


"And your thighs--I especially like the bits on the inside, where it's all silky-like; and your belly button--been a long time since I stuck my tongue in it and made you squirm. I like to make you squirm--"


"And your mouth--love your mouth, y'know, especially when you taste like me, right after you've--"

"Christ, Bodie, you're making me--"

"And your bony hips--don't know why they should be such a turn-on, but they are; and your smooth, flat belly--like to rub my hand over it, real slow. That makes you squirm, too, y'know. And then I like to reach down and wrap my fingers round your--"


Over the hill the car sped, down toward the city of Norwich. Unnoticed in the field left behind, the lights in the Big Tent winked out, one after the other, until the canvas structure lay cloaked in darkness, a massive shadow crouched low against the night sky.

A reedy, plaintive trumpeting erupted from the animal enclosure at the back of the compound, carried eerily on the fresh, moist air. Seconds later, it was answered by an unsympathetic equine retort.

And then all fell quiet, save for the smooth rumble of the motor car fading in the distance, and the susurrant whisper of the rising breeze.

Circus Sergei slept.

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-- THE END --


To Suzi: For suggesting the project to begin with, and for giving me more than enough rope to hang myself.

To Jason: Proof-reader par excellence, who with the assistance of The House of Bob, provided in-depth commentary.

To Jo Ann: For sharing her knowledge and expertise regarding matters equine. Any and all inaccurate horsy bits are my fault, unequivocally not hers.

To Michele: For ongoing (and never unappreciated) support, and a critical eye (or two) when requested.

To Ann: As always, for inspiring me in ways she cannot imagine; and here, specifically, for providing two excellent British books concerning the circus. They were immeasurably helpful.

To Gale & Kathy: Eleventh-hour corrigendum spotters, whose feedback proved both enlightening and useful.

GENERAL NOTE: For those circus aficionados among you, I know I've tested your credulity in more ways than is feasible to list here. If you're looking for the "real" thing, I can recommend "The Catch Trap" by Marion Zimmer Bradley and "Airs Above the Ground" by Mary Stewart. There are, of course, many other sources both fictional and non-, quite a few of which are to be found in the juvenile section of the library.

To give full credit where it is due, Bodie and Doyle's "dramatic" flying sequence is based on The Flying Cranes, a Russian aerial ballet troupe. A tv clip featuring their magnificent routine fired Suzi's interest in the first place. They are unqualifiedly fantastic.

HARLEQUIN AIRS is dedicated to Rowen.

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