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Title: Més Que Un Circ
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: 5563
Pairing: Josep Guardiola/José Mourinho
Summary: How do you find the strength to walk away from the greatest show on earth? FC Barcelona AU set in a circus, inspired by this incident. References real life events from the 2011-2012 season. Josep Guardiola/José Mourinho, with other possible pairings left to the reader's imagination.
Disclaimer: While inspired by real persons and events, it should be even more obvious than usual that this is a work of fiction.
Author’s Notes: Thanks so, so much to jezziejay for being my beta, especially on such short notice. Written for futbal_minibang, where it can be found with a fantastic soundtrack compiled by Mou.

The Ringmaster slid his arms into the sleeves of the stiff, snow-white shirt, straightened the collar, and followed it with the scarlet and blue striped vest, black cummerbund, and baggy jodhpurs. His fingers were still clumsy with the cold as he fastened his bow tie. He sank down on the rickety cot and pulled on his boots, butter-soft leather, glossy black, and took an experimental turn around the room, nodding at their authoritative rap against the floorboards.

His eye-catching coat hung crisply in its usual place, gold embroidery gleaming. He would have preferred something subtler and more distinguished, a dark gray perhaps, but the scarlet was traditional, and while Pep had a reputation for innovation in many aspects of their show, there were some symbols worth preserving. He fastened the battered but brightly polished brass buttons at the front and frowned; the material was hanging loosely off his lanky frame for the second time in as many years, which meant that he was long overdue for another lecture from Cristina about his stress and self-neglect.

Last, he plucked the least creased of his top hats from the tree and settled it at a rakish angle on his closely shaven head. The face that looked back at him from the mirror was that of a much older man than he believed himself to be, and many months of worry and insufficient sleep had taken their toll. His eyes no longer sparkled with energy and ambition above their dark shadows, and his lips, usually quirked in irrepressible good humor, were set in a thin, battle-weary line.

Not for the first time, Pep wondered just how much more of this his constitution could take. Then he shook himself, squared his shoulders, and gave his reflection a ferocious scowl.

“It’s show time,” he told himself sternly, and set out to round up the troupe.

As the Ringmaster approached the Strong Man’s dressing room, the door swung open abruptly, and only his quick reflexes saved him from a head-on collision. On his way out, the Lion Tamer stumbled but managed to stop himself from falling by reaching for the Ringmaster’s arm, then patted it quickly in apology. Flushing, he ran the other hand distractedly through his thick, dark hair, which was sticking out wildly in all directions. “Sorry, be right back -I’ve got to get changed.” Xavi trotted off, dressed only in black briefs, sweat beading on the muscles bunching in his upper back.

The Lion Tamer and the Strong Man had both been raised in the circus and were completely devoted to their callings, always arriving early to practice and staying late. They were currently the most senior performers in the troupe, and as such had naturally become informal mentors as well as role models to the younger players over the years. Having been affiliated with Barça for so long, they had at least as much influence as the Ringmaster, and they took their leadership responsibilities very seriously. It was not at all uncommon to see them in and out of each other’s dressing rooms as they prepared for the evening’s program or picked apart any missteps in an impromptu post-mortem. The occasional muffled crack of the lion tamer’s whip, a low growl or a hoarse shout behind closed doors, was tactfully chalked up to overly enthusiastic dramatic reenactment.

When the Ringmaster turned to look in the doorway of the dressing room, he noted that all seemed very much in order, as always: futon made up, costumes hung straight, books neatly shelved or stacked. The Strong Man was sitting on the bare floor in lotus position, breathing deeply, huge hands closed delicately at the fingertips like buds. Without opening his eyes, he inclined his head towards the Ringmaster and intoned, “It’s in the bottom drawer.”

“What is?” the Ringmaster replied, purely for the pleasure of seeing the Strong Man start and scramble to his feet to stand at attention.

The Strong Man had a craggy face with feline eyes set close together and a thick, unruly mane of tawny hair. He took pride in his physical toughness and eschewed protective clothing even on the coldest nights, performing in the minimal clothing that modesty required. In the summer he would stand stoutly under the punishing spotlights, the tendrils of an intricate tattoo sprouting from under his loincloth, massive muscles swelling beneath his dripping, deeply tanned skin. He looked like a throwback from the Ice Age, like the last man you would want to meet in an ill-lit alley.

But the truth was that Puyol was a pussycat, and everyone knew it. He was forever going around hugging his colleagues (very carefully!) and never forgot a birthday or get-well card. Almost alone among the company, he preferred to spend his free evenings curled up on his futon with a book of poetry or contemporary literature. He studied Buddhism and practiced yoga, and as the years rolled by and he reluctantly began to face the specter of retirement, his one consolation was that he would finally be able to become a vegan.

Now, alert but unruffled, he rumbled, “Sorry, sir. Thought you were Xavi.”

The Ringmaster refrained from making any obvious jokes about the differences in height or hair and only asked, “How are we looking tonight, Puyi?”

“Fine, sir. A lot of good energy. The kid is excited about his debut.”

Pep struggled to keep his lips from twitching at the 33-year-old Puyol’s avuncular tone. “Tello is ready. And Pedro and Villa will take good care of him.”

“Sir, speaking of Villa…”

Pep, already turning to go, spun back at Puyol’s uncharacteristically tentative tone. “Yes?”

“Eh, it’s probably nothing, but… I think his left leg might be bothering him.”

“Did he say something to you?” Pep was surprised.

“No, no… but when he walks, it looks like he favors it a little. And his timing has been a little off lately, he isn’t finishing as well as he used to.”

The Ringmaster was angry with himself for having failed to notice this. But then, that was the advantage of having senior performers that were always looking out for the others. “Hmm. Thank you for letting me know... I’ll be sure to have a chat with him at the next opportunity.”

“Also, sir, Leo…”

Now Pep gave his Strong Man an impatient look. “Yes? Isn’t he home in bed?”

Puyol was too respectful to roll his eyes, but he couldn’t completely subdue a snort. “Not exactly.”

The Ringmaster groaned softly and set off in search of his star performer.

He found the door to the dressing room of the Flea ajar, light spilling from inside. Advancing, he rapped sharply, peremptorily. The door opened wide almost at once to reveal the Flea staring up at him through damp brown bangs. He was bundled in a puffy black jacket for warmth, but the Ringmaster could see the telltale teal of his costume tights tucked into the tops of his thick socks.

“I thought you had the flu,” the Ringmaster said severely.

Leo shrugged, looking down and self-consciously scuffing the fuzzy toes of his left foot against the floor. “I took a nap,” he mumbled. “I feel a lot better now.”

“Leo, if you’re sick-“ the Ringmaster began.

“I’m not.” Now Leo looked up at him, brown eyes puppy-dog wide. “I didn’t have a fever this morning. And I didn’t throw up.”

The Ringmaster sighed, removed his hat, and rubbed at the back of his head, wincing at the rasp of stubble under his palm. The Flea always wanted to perform, no matter what his condition. He had come to them from a far-off country when he was very young - and so small that no one had ever expected him to amount to more than a circus dwarf. But if his now-famous billing name had once been a disparaging reference to his size, it had come to celebrate the impressive power in his thick thighs. People poured in from all over the world to watch him perform, and no matter how brilliant the rest of his colleagues were tonight, the Ringmaster knew all too well that the audience would not be satisfied without a glimpse of him.

The Flea waited patiently as his boss weighed the decision, either too wise or too docile to press his advantage. At last the Ringmaster nodded slowly. “All right. I’ll bring you on after the intermission. But if you start feeling bad, if you’re even a little bit dizzy, you tell me immediately, you promise?”

“I promise,” Leo agreed, eyes shining, and then without warning he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around the Ringmaster’s waist in a grateful hug.

The Ringmaster stood there for a moment, fighting the urge to smile, and briefly ruffled the younger man’s hair, then disengaged himself with an affectionate little shove.

Pep always made a point of assessing their audience before he actually went out under the lights to start the show. He liked to gauge the capacity, but even more so the mood, the energy, the tiny telltale signs that this was a crowd eager to be dazzled, or determined not to be impressed by even their best performance.

Tonight there was an unusual vibe, a sense of subdued hostility that stilled laughter and muffled voices. Pep peered out into the dimness, scanning the tiers of seats, trying to trace it to its source. He followed the ripples of disgruntlement to the stone-faced foursome at their core and felt cold sweat break out on his forehead as his heart began to thump sickeningly hard beneath his vest.

His old rival José Mourinho sat slouched in the front row, flanked by some of the most famous performers in his Madrid-based troupe. The Ringmaster recognized Sergio Ramos, the strong man; Iker Casillas, the juggler; and Cristiano Ronaldo, who had a death-defying bicycle tightrope act which had earned him almost as great an international reputation as Leo's. Well, they would all have to stay on their toes tonight. José would proclaim any perceived imperfections all out of proportion; he had no compunctions about twisting the media coverage of their respective troupes in order to try to topple Pep from his position.

"Mourinho's here," Xavi observed at his elbow. The Lion Tamer was now decked out in top hat and tails, his unruly black hair tamed.

"So is Casillas," Pep responded with a coolness that he knew Xavi would take for the warning it was. Sure enough, Xavi cleared his throat and hurried off, shouting orders at the partially dressed performers who didn't have to come on until the second half.

The Ringmaster regarded Mourinho for a little while longer, noting the silvering mane and the navy blue scarf draped regally around his neck, feeling the thrill of mingled fear and anticipation coursing through his limbs and tingling in his fingers and toes. He had to take several deep breaths to steady himself before turning back to his people, who obediently gathered around for the traditional pre-performance pep talk. He kept it short and sweet, mindful that the news of Los Merengues in the audience would be more than enough to motivate them, and then released them to make their last-minute preparations.

When he finally walked out under the hot circle of the spotlight, he was once again fully in control.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said solemnly, raising a hand for silence. The audience stilled immediately, hushed, expectant... all except for the four men sitting alone in the front row, who made a show of rustling popcorn bags and slurping noisily from their straws. Pep caught José's eye against his own will; the other man slouched back even further in his seat, an insolent smirk on his face.

He forced himself to turn his head away. "Ladies and gentlemen," he repeated, regaining his rhythm, "boys and girls, children of all ages... Welcome to the greatest show on earth!" The Ringmaster doffed his top hat and took a deep bow to a round of deafening applause.

"Tonight we will show you marvels beyond your wildest imaginings, amazing feats of skill and strength. Tonight," and here his voice dropped to a deliberate husk so that seats creaked as people leaned forward to hear him, "tonight we initiate you into the mysteries that have been passed down over the generations, man and boy, since Paulino Alcántara himself."

"Tonight," and he let his voice boom out again, shaking cobwebs from the farthest corners of the big top, "tonight we bring you the biggest stars in the sky, the most colossal constellations of the cosmos, and where better to start than with that aristocrat of the air... that phenomenon of flight... DAVID... VILLA!" Pep raised his hat and eyes, drawing 80,000 rapt faces along the line of his arm to the top of the tent just over the first ring.

The lights rose, outlining the tent poles encircled by their narrow platforms, the trapezes dangling, and the dapper young athletes poised gracefully in position. But Pedrito’s smile lacked its old cockiness, and Pep felt a momentary twinge of fear for him. Since recovering from injury, the young trapeze artist had been working hard to reintegrate himself, but his decreased self-confidence showed in the hesitations and missed chances that distinguished mere competence from greatness. Still, making Pedro sit out more shows would help no one, least of all himself, so the Ringmaster had continued to put him in the line-up whenever possible.

Having ascended smoothly to the opposite platform, Cristian Tello stood tall, with no sign of tension in the set of his shoulders or the width of his smile. Tello had trained with the circus as a boy, but when he hadn’t looked talented enough to ascend in the ranks, he had signed on with their smaller and less renowned rival across town. Now he was back, apprenticing with Barça, with high hopes of joining the troupe as a regular some day. This would be by far the biggest audience for which he'd ever performed, and Pep allowed himself a quick prayer for the determined twenty-year-old’s success.

With the two wingers in place, the star of the act was about to appear. As if disdaining the ladders mounted by mere mortals, David Villa was lowered from the rafters, resplendent in a long-sleeved leopard print unitard cut low in front to display his sleek and impressively chiseled chest. His dramatic descent was greeted with whistles and catcalls dispersed amid the thunderous roar of applause.

Standing on his trapeze with infinite dignity, David looked approximately twice as tall as he actually was, with several inches added by the height of his heavily gelled hair. He raised a regal arm to each of his fellow acrobats, then slid down to a seated position, leaned back, and let go. As David’s lean body described a languid arc over the center of the net, Pedro and Cristian each reached to unhook their own trapezes and got ready to register themselves with his rhythm.

What happened next seemed to unfold in slow motion, a series of terrifying snapshots that the Ringmaster knew would haunt his dreams for days if not months to come. David was still just warming up, arching his back and thrusting his hips forward in preparation for a simple dismount, his arms extended gracefully towards Pedro’s. But just as his knees straightened and his legs left the bar, there was an audible snap, like that of a thick twig underfoot on the forest floor, and suddenly David was doubling over, clutching at his shin. A bird without wings, he plummeted awkwardly into the safety net below, curled into fetal position and grimacing in pain.

Pep found himself frozen to the spot. He could hear the faint patter of bare feet in the horrified hush, and he should not have been surprised to see that little Leo was the first on the scene, clambering up into the net even as Pedro and Cristian headed hastily down the ladders from either platform. The Flea moved cautiously despite his clear concern, careful not to jar the other acrobat as he made his way over the ropes.

“Guaje,” he shrilled, “Guaje,” and he gave David his hand to grip so tightly that Leo gasped but didn’t pull away.

“I think the son of a bitch is broken,” his friend confided, sweat streaming from his forehead.

“We need the doctor,” Leo called, waving his free hand frantically. And almost immediately, there he was, glasses askew, Carles loping at his side. Behind them, Xavi trotted in front of Cesc and Alexis, who were carrying a stretcher between them. Once again Pep found himself thanking the Powers That Be for his quick-thinking senior performers, and finally managed to make his feet move forward and his voice rise above the growing murmurs of consternation in the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen! Do not be alarmed. We ask that you remain seated for just a few moments while we see to the safety of our performer. Your patience is greatly appreciated.” The Ringmaster raised his hat and once more bowed deeply from the waist, then righted himself and rushed over to join the growing group around the safety net.

Even at this distance, he could see the bit of bone sticking out at an ugly angle just below David’s knee. The troupe’s physician leaned over it, poking and prodding, and Cesc turned his head away and covered his mouth as if afraid he was going to be sick. When Pep got closer, he saw that David was ashen under his tan, but his mouth was clamped shut, and his eyes were dry. Leo, though, had tears trickling down his cheeks as he continued to hold David’s hand and patted him awkwardly on the arm. Pep's trusted assistant Tito Vilanova was already on the phone summoning an ambulance.

Pep squeezed the injured man’s shoulder and pulled the physician aside for a private exchange. “How bad and how long?”

Dr. Pruna shook his head, eyes grave. “Obviously the tibia is broken. We should operate as soon as possible. We may be looking at six months’ recovery time.” When Pep swore softly, the physician continued, “It was almost certainly a stress fracture that gave way. Perhaps he kept quiet about it so that he could continue to perform.”

“Do whatever is necessary,” Pep said, turning away, his heart sinking.

Puyol gently but firmly disengaged Leo’s hand so that he could help Cesc and Alexis lift David onto the stretcher. The Flea swiped at his face with his sleeve and snuffled, obediently stepping aside as his colleagues carried David away, the doctor at their heels.

The other performers were still standing around in a loose half-circle, staring down at their feet or up at Pep, anxious and restless, waiting for his instructions with dread. Circus folk were a superstitious lot, and the Ringmaster was no exception. Could he really risk continuing the performance on this obviously unlucky day?

But little Leo folded his arms and frowned up at his superior stubbornly. “The show must go on,” he said. “We will do it for El Guaje.”

Pep sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling a massive headache coming on. "All right. All right. Leo, I'm going to have to ask you to finish the first act, can you do that?"

"Of course," Leo said stoutly, and scampered off to change.

Back out under the hot lights, Pep apologized for the delay, then deftly recaptured the attention of the audience and directed it towards the second ring. Lights flashed, glinting off the steel bars of the circular cage, burnishing the pelts of the massive male lions that perched impatiently on their platforms, shaking their tawny manes.

Suddenly a spotlight picked out the Lion Tamer stalking into the center of the ring. Xavi was a small, compact man, but he had a commanding presence far beyond his size. Encircled by enormous predators who roared and twitched their tails at him, he stood calmly in the center, orchestrating every trick. He seemed to have eyes in the back of his head, always turning to flourish his whip in warning at just the right moment. When he finally sent his ferocious animals streaming out and took a flamboyant bow, the audience burst into spontaneous applause.

As Xavi slipped into the shadows, though, Pep couldn't help noticing the pained grimace distorting his lips, the way he rotated the shoulder of his whip arm with an alarming stiffness. More and more often, the Ringmaster's senior performers were being waylaid by injury - whether chronic RSIs like Xavi's or the more dramatic breaks and sprains suffered by Puyol. No one wanted to face the facts, but it was only a matter of time before they would have to be retired from the ranks of active performers. And then?

Pep shook his head slightly to clear it and focused once again on the task at hand. He had decided to move up the Illusionist's act as a lead-in to Leo's; it would be a fairly short first half, but under the circumstances, it couldn't be helped. At least he could be confident that the audience would feel more than recompensed for the price of the tickets.

"And now," the Ringmaster bellowed, "hailing from the arid plains of central Spain, the Great Enchanter of La Mancha, the illustrious Illusionist... Andrés Iniesta!"

Offstage, the Magician was a slight, pale, unprepossessing man, with a thin, reedy voice and a rapidly receding hairline. But as Iniesta stepped into the spotlight of the third ring in his rich robes and traditional red and yellow turban, the entire tent swayed with the roar of his name, as if he were an age-old hero returned to life.

For all his innate humility, Iniesta could command the attention of any audience with an ease that defied description, perhaps because no one could ever be sure exactly when and where he would be. With one wave of his wand he would spin and vanish, apparently into thin air; the next moment, he would reappear in the lap of a lady in the second row, or dangling precariously in a sling lowered from the ceiling.

Pep smiled, gasped, and applauded along with the rest, noticing with no small sense of satisfaction that even José had sat up straight and was watching, eyes narrowed, trying to penetrate some of Iniesta's most surprising illusions.

For his final trick, Iniesta pulled a filmy blue and white striped cloth from inside the cuff of his sleeve, lowered it to the ground, and then lifted it again with a flourish, revealing a brightly colored cube roughly a half meter square. He strolled around it, skillfully building suspense, supposedly inspecting it from all sides as the less sober members of the audience shouted guesses as to its contents.

At last he hiked up his skinny shoulders in a theatrical shrug and tapped the top of the box with the tip of his wand.

The sides fell outwards to reveal the contorted limbs of the world-famous Flea, who slowly unfolded himself from his incredibly cramped position as the entire audience chanted his name with one voice. He stretched exaggeratedly, bending over backwards until he was balanced in a bridge, then straightening his spine and lifting his legs with a low grunt of effort so that he was standing on his hands... and then on only one of them. The crowd roared their approval, raising the hairs on the back of the Ringmaster's neck.

Leo held their attention for a full five minutes of slow solo acrobatics, supporting himself on one small patch of palm, rotating himself around it at seemingly impossible angles, in absolute silence. But then, before anyone in the audience showed any signs of impatience, he slid smoothly into the second part of his performance, turning his head expectantly and holding out a hand for his assistants.

Dani Alves and Adriano marched out, a sparkly springboard braced on their shoulders between them. The colorful tattoos covering Dani's arms appeared to dance with a life of their own as his biceps bunched in anticipation. Leo took a running leap, turning a roundhouse into a back handspring and then a somersault that landed him in the center of the springboard as the audience broke into applause.

But that was only the beginning. Even fresh from the flu, the Flea was ready to dazzle, to outdo his own legend, to convince the entire tent that he was, indeed, a performer from another planet. Still, he'd constructed his act carefully, as Pep had taught him, building from trick to trick, always leaving the audience uncertain of his ability to carry it off. Countless cycles ensued of anxiety - relief - and incredulous applause. The only person not clapping and stomping was rival acrobat Ronaldo, whose sulk deepened as the level of difficulty increased and the audience's roars of appreciation rose.

All too soon, it was time for Leo's last trick. First he gestured to each of his assistants, generously acknowledging the importance of their support for his own success. Then he held up three fingers. The audience counted down as he crouched and straightened a couple of times, gathering momentum, and on their final shout, he launched himself into the air. His initial triple twist left their jaws hanging open in awe... just before the triple somersault that followed it dropped him, sure-footed, back onto the springboard.

Despite having worked with him for so long, Pep never ceased to be amazed by the Flea's abilities. He applauded as vigorously as even the first-time viewers as Leo dismounted with a huge, childlike smile and took a triumphant lap around the ring. When he returned to Dani and Adriano, they threw their arms around him and kissed the top of his head.

At the intermission, Pep dashed backstage to check on Villa, who had already been rushed to the hospital. He paused to press his palm to Leo's sweaty forehead while scanning the green room to make sure that the rest of his performers were ready to go. Alexis, the Human Cannonball, was as eager to get onstage as ever, although his usually cheerful face was clouded with worry after Villa's accident. Pep had never been able to fault the boy's work ethic, but he did wish that wouldn't jump the gun quite so often.

The Clowns, Cesc and Geri, were practicing their pratfalls and joking around as usual, although their reflexes seemed a little dull to Pep's expert eye. When they were on, they were the best in the business, and huge audience favorites, but both of them were so inconsistent that Pep often found himself at his wit's end. He still wasn't sure whether allowing Geri to persuade him to snatch his childhood friend from a rival troupe in England and bring him back to Barcelona had been sheer idiocy or a stroke of genius.

The tattooed Tightrope Walker was frowning with concentration, too keyed-up after the alarming events of the opening act. "The balls to me!" he barked irritably at his assistant Mascherano, who tossed him the juggling balls awkwardly, his timing off just enough that one of them slipped out of Victor's fingers and bounced. Victor started to let loose a stream of Catalan invective, trembling with rage, but the Illusionist immediately hurried over to talk to him in his soft, reedy voice, stroking his arm. A close friend of the temperamental Tightrope Walker since their teenage years, Iniesta had always possessed a mysterious power to soothe his troubled soul.

There was a tug on Pep's sleeve. He twisted his head to see Tito holding out his cell phone, eyebrows raised inquiringly. "Rosell wants to speak with you. And-"

Pep shook his head, already turning away. "Tell him that I'll call him after the show. If he wants to hear more about Villa's condition, he can talk to Dr. Pruna."

"But Pep-"

"Five minutes!" Pep barked, and Tito knew to back off when he took that particular tone.

The Ringmaster regretted snapping at his assistant almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Tito had followed Pep here from the junior troupe. He loved this circus as much as his boss and could be trusted to take care of every last detail the Ringmaster overlooked. Even his recent bout with cancer hadn't been able to keep him away for long.

It meant the world to Pep that Tito would always have his back. But right now he had to get away, if only for a few minutes, to re-center himself.

Pep pulled open the door to his dressing room, slipped in, and slumped against the closed door in relief... only to jump halfway out of his skin when he realized that José Mourinho was lounging smugly on the cot he called his bed. How on earth had the man managed to make his way backstage and into Pep's dressing room without being stopped? Only belatedly did it occur to Pep that Tito might have been trying to warn him about more than a call from a circus owner who couldn't mind his own business and let decent, hard-working people do their jobs. But he digressed.

"Alone at last," José all but purred. He rolled to his feet with one smooth movement and advanced on the Ringmaster, radiating the sleek confidence of a well-fed cat.

"I only have a few minutes," Pep stammered, but he was already half-hard, fingers finding their way to the shorter man's shoulders without his permission. He bent his neck to lap at the salty skin under José's scarf.

"I only need a few minutes," José growled in his ear, before biting down on the lobe, hard enough to hurt.

Pep groaned and ground against him, hating José, hating himself, hating this - this thing between them that had flared decades ago when they were training in this very troupe together. When José had been just an understudy, mocked as a mere translator, but already obviously ill-content to stay behind the scenes, and jealous of Pep's position as a rising star performer. In between those innocent days and this sordid scene there had been many circuses in many countries for both of them, long years without crossing each other's paths... but also more than a handful of encounters not so different from this one.

José drew back for just a few seconds, fumbling with his fly. Pep yet again found himself following his lead against his own better judgment, but once he'd unfastened his jodhpurs, José stopped him, grabbing his hand and thrusting it under his own trousers.

As usual, their kisses resembled wrestling moves more than caresses, José constantly shoving in his tongue and nipping at Pep's lower lip, and although this shouldn't have been in the least arousing, his scent - his strength - the sheer savagery of his desire - woke something long submerged in Pep. He responded fiercely, pushing José up against the paper-thin wall, jerking him off with a ferocity that left them both flushed and breathless once José finally came with a gasp.

Pep waited, chest heaving, almost unbearably hard, as José wiped himself off fastidiously with a white handkerchief that he then dropped on the floor before tucking himself in and tidying the front of his trousers. Then he looked straight at Pep. "Well. It's been a pleasure."

"Please," escaped Pep's lips before he could stop himself, his fingers flicking towards his own fly in futile supplication.

José smiled without mirth. "Like you'd catch me with my lips around your cock," he said. He spoke softly, but his eyes were hard and grey. Then he inclined his head briefly, just the barest nod of acknowledgment, and slipped out of the room.

Pep followed with a half-aborted movement that left him standing with his forehead pressed against the closed door, temples pounding. He finished himself off quickly, his movements perfunctory and ashamed, before cleaning up and washing his hands more vigorously than strictly necessary. He prided himself on being a perceptive person, but he had never understood how Mourinho managed it, how he had appropriated the power to play with Pep like one of his marionettes.

He didn't think he'd ever be free of the man unless one or both of them left Spain entirely.

The thought chilled him to the core. Pep had loved this family circus ever since he’d begun to be raised in it as a boy. Now, as Ringmaster, he cherished each and every performer like his own child, delighting as they developed their talents, concerned for their personal happiness as well as their professional success. But, as his wife rarely neglected to remind him, he did in fact have children of his own who longed to see more of him. Every year Pep delayed the final decision to renew his contract, and every year it got more and more difficult to decide.

Maybe this thing with Mourinho would prove itself to be the final straw.

"Pep! We need you now!" That was Tito again, his fist rapping urgently on the other side of the door.

The Ringmaster squared his shoulders and brushed a last piece of imaginary lint off the lapel of his carefully tailored red coat.

The show must go on.



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