→ Written for futbal_minibang.
→ AU; In the shadow of the Old Lady at the dawn of the twentieth century, two knife throwers and an argument that gets out of hand.
Fanmix by lunasenzanotte
The blade is off-target from the moment it leaves his fingers. Fernando knows it instinctively, the way Stephen's knees tighten right before he loses his balance or the way Claudio curses right before three-to-five pins hits the ground. Unfortunately for him, there's no adjusting the path of a knife in flight, so he can only watch in horror when, instead of the usual dry thunk on wood, there's a wrong, sickening squelch, and Alvaro jerks, eyes so wide Fernando can see the whites of them from eleven meters away.
A horrified gasp rises up from the darkened audience, but Fernando can barely hear them, his eyes are so transfixed on Alvaro in the spotlight, whose hands have slipped free from the makeshift handles on the wheel. He had meant to hit the wheel so Alvaro would feel the flat of the blade right against his hip. Instead, he buried it into the soft of Alvaro's lower belly--three centimeters of space and a world of difference.
Alvaro touches the wooden handle with the tips of his fingers, his expression dazed. He looks up at Fernando, face drained of color, expression stricken. His lips form silently the word, Fer?
Then the blood spills out of him.
The audience goes mad, wooden benches scraping against the floor and sunlight bursting in as the tent flaps are thrown open. Gigi rushes to the top of his stand, booming out instructions in his loud, commanding voice as Giorgio and Andrea rush to where Alvaro has slumped against the wheel, medical toolbox in tow. Carlo catches Alvaro by his uninjured side and lowers him the rest of the way into the ground, and then Claudio has an arm around Fernando and is dragging him away despite Fernando's loud protests.
"I know," Claudio is saying to him soothingly, over and over again. "I know."
What are you talking about? Fernando wants to shout, but all that comes out of his mouth is: "I didn't, I didn't."
He knows it's Gigi from the way the frame rattles, because only Gigi knocks with such shameless authority and gets away with it. "Come in," he says, mostly out of reflex, as Gigi sweeps in so hard the opening flaps billow in his wake. Fernando's not surprised at this manner of intrusion--his ringmaster had a bad habit of acting as though he were the groundskeeper of every inch where The Old Lady touched down--but he's a little caught off-guard when he glances up from his polishing and finds that Gigi isn't alone.
"There you are Llorente," Gigi says as though he had been expecting someone else. "I told you they were bringing in a replacement for Mirko, yes? Well here he is now. This is Morata."
He beckons his companion forward and the boy--that's all he is--straightens from his slouch and shuffles forward into the candlelight. He's taller than his frame would suggest, with dark hair, dark eyes, and an open, honest face. Morata looks like he belongs in a starched collar at a university with other wholesome, clean-cut young men rather than a circus ground. The Old Lady is prestigious enough, but even so.
"He is from Spagna, just like you," Gigi says. "And he plays with knives, just like you."
He raises his eyebrows the way he does when the show is over but the customer won't leave, and then he claps his hands and heads for the door. Fernando jumps to his feet and follows him out.
"They're replacing me already? After one year?" he calls after Gigi, not caring if Morata hears or even if he understands Italian. Gigi stops, looks up at the sky as though burdened by the weight of it, and turns back around.
"He's here to get some stage time," Gigi says. "He's from Madrid, you know. If he does well, you won't have to worry. And if he replaces you," his brows rise into his hairline. "So what?"
Fernando returns to his tent with a scowl on his face, finds the other standing over the row of knives Fernando had laid out to sharpen in preparation for the weekend. Morata has his hand on one of the bigger straight-blades that Fernando rarely used, because while throwing without spin required greater technique and concentration, the straightforward does not please an audience expecting to be entertained.
"Put that down," Fernando says, running his fingers through his hair. "You won't be handling a knife that size, even if you were capable."
"You don't know what sizes I can handle," Morata replies carelessly, almost like a challenge. Fernando stops. Morata meets his eyes and the corner of his clean, wholesome mouth curves into something wicked. Minutes later, they're horizontal on the floor and Morata--"It's Alvaro, actually,"--is sinking onto him, and Fernando is dragging him down by the back of his neck, to put their lips together, to swallow Alvaro's laughter.
Later that night, after the campground has gone dark, Alvaro muscles his way onto Fernando's pallet--"there's a spring in my back, the floor's cold, good night"--and that's how it begins.
Fernando wakes up with dry mouth and a crick in his neck. Normally, Alvaro's snores from right beside him would be loud enough to wake the dead, but today, there is only the sound of birds, the low glow of the early morning sun, and the nearest warm body is Claudio.
"What the--" he starts, and then he remembers. They must have fallen asleep in the shadow of The Old Lady, waiting. Immediately, Fernando is on his feet, ignoring Claudio's grunt as he topples on his head, and dashing toward the scene of last night's calamity. The wheel hasn't been moved, a small punch of blood start against the black and white stripes, but the big top is empty--as is his own tent, as is the medical tent, as is the open area they used as a dining area. Dawn emerges before he finally spies Gigi coming out of his own tent, wiping at his fingers with a bloody washcloth, looking exhausted but relieved.
"Llorente," Gigi greets as Fernando barrels into him.
"Is he in there?" Fernando blurts out, trying to look past him. "Alvaro, is he okay?" He tries to edge his way past, but Gigi's arms are immediately on his shoulders, rooting him to the spot.
"He's fine," Gigi says. His face pauses. "He will be fine. Perhaps..."--he looks sorry before he even says the words--"perhaps you shouldn't go in there."
"Why not?" Panic and bile rise in the back of his throat. His hold on the front of Gigi's stained undershirt tightens. "Why won't--"
The flap of Gigi's tent flies open, and for one wild moment, Fernando thinks...but it's not Alvaro. It's Carlos.
"Why the fuck do you think?" Carlos barks, storming out like a force of nature. Fernando has an entire head on him, but Carlos isn't just a strongman for show. "Maybe the first thing Alvarito sees when he wakes up shouldn't be the bastard who tried to gut him."
Fernando's insides go cold. Without thinking, his hands are at Carlo's throat and are pushing up without remorse. Someone is behind him, trying to pull him away, but Fernando holds firm, blood rushing in his ears. "You think I did it on purpose?" he hisses furiously. Carlos lifts his chin.
"We all heard you," he says coolly. "The walls are thin, you know." Then Carlos's hand is tight around Fernando's, and he squeezes so hard Fernando feels something pop painfully in his wrist. It might have turned more ugly then, but finally Gigi intervenes, shoving them apart with a thunderous "ENOUGH".
"You, you're not helping. Leave. Now." he says to Carlos, who looks mutinous, but turns heel and stalks away as quickly as he'd come. "And you--" Fernando is on one knee, holding his injured wrist. It hurts, but not enough to justify the watery blur in his vision. Gigi sighs and places a hand on Fernando's shoulder. "Let him wake up first," Gigi says, softer. "Let's see how he feels. We'll explain to him, okay Llorente?"
There's nothing to explain. I didn't do it on purpose, he wants to say, but the fight's gone out of him. Claudio finds him, and Fernando lets himself be taken to the medical tent for treatment without complaint.
"I didn't do it on purpose," he says tiredly, as his wrist is bandaged into place.
"I believe you." Claudio says. His eyes are clear and blue. Fernando thinks about saying the same thing to Alvaro when he wakes up, and wonders.
"But I can hit a target," Alvaro insists, as though Fernando hadn't heard him the first nine times. He's tossing one of the throwing axes carelessly with his dominant hand. How Alvaro could make juggling a weapon seem repetitive is beyond him, but that's typical Alvaro--solid technique and no flair whatsoever.
"I know you can hit a target," Fernando says, trying for patient but giving up halfway and ending up somewhere closer to snide. "If it was all about your aim, then you're better off in the army. You can hit every target you want and no one will applaud you."
Alvaro's forehead scrunches unattractively. Fernando sighs.
"Assume the position," he says. Alvaro raises his eyebrows. Fernando motions toward the wheel, undeterred. "Do it."
Eventually, he does, but not before running through the gamut little motions young men do when they think they are subtle in their reluctance. When Alvaro lifts his arms, a knife buries into the wood about a foot below from his outstretched fingertips--right where the white stripes met the black, but nowhere near the body itself. Alvaro flinches anyway; they were going to have to work on that.
"I could hit here," Fernando says conversationally. Another thunk on the mirror side of the first. "Or here."--a third knife flies into the edge of the painted line diagonal from Alvaro's ear. "I could hit anywhere on the wheel perfectly, and the audience would jeer me off the stage, because they want to see this."
Without breaking eye contact, he lets three of them fly--one, two, three. The first lands so the sharp edge just kisses the top of Alvaro's forearm, the second lands at a slant so the handle stretches across his thigh, and the third lands so the flat of the blade rested right against the line of his hip. Alvaro inhales sharply. (His pupils are blown.)
"People don't come here just for the skills," Fernando says, pulling the blades out one by one. "They come to be entertained. Sell them the danger, anything else is secondary."
Alvaro's hands drop to his sides. "So when's it going to be my turn?"
Fernando yanks the last one out. Pauses. "When I say you're ready."
It's not an answer he would have accepted easily if he had been in Alvaro's position, so he's not surprised to see the disgruntled twist of his lips or the tight, unhappy hold in his shoulders--but there's something heavier in the eyes--something angrier--that makes Fernando pause.
"What's the hurry?" Fernando asks. Alvaro is young, and their chosen profession had more staying power than say Pogba the Flying Man or Leo spinning round and round in his wheel. He thinks quickly, pieces together quickly the things Alvaro has told him (and everything he hasn't). "Does it have something to do with your last troupe?" Alvaro scowls. "Someone you left behind?" Fernando asks, watching closely. "Or someone who left you behind?"
Alvaro scowls as he retrieves the sopping whetstone from underneath the table. "There is someone in Madrid," he says finally as he drags the blade back and forth slowly across the smooth surface. "He made it to the final lineup."
The I didn't is implied. Fernando makes a sympathetic noise, because he knows nothing will annoy Alvaro more, and takes a seat across from him on floor, oiled rag in hand. Eventually, he thinks to ask "are you waiting to go back to him?"
He flips the sharpened blade in the air and hands it to Fernando, handle first. "I'm going to make it on my own." Alvaro says quietly. "If Los Blancos want me back, they'll have to come to me on their knees."
Two weeks pass by. Fernando doesn't touch anything sharp. Alvaro doesn't wake up.
Claudio has five pins orbiting in a circle around him as he balances precariously on a unicycle, and Fernando can't stop himself from saying, "you're not engaging." The other promptly stops his juggling, turns toward an imaginary audience and bows, smiling winningly.
"I notice you're not practicing, you lump." he says.
"My wrist still hurts," Fernando says immediately, the same excuse he's been using since that night. That being said, Claudio is probably the only one who cares. Gigi does too, of course, because Gigi cares about everything. Carlos is the most obvious worst, shooting accusatory glances every time they cross paths, but Giorgio won't look him in the eyes and now Paul hesitates before speaking to him when he never used to before.
"It was a big fight," Claudio says softly, later that night when the grounds have gone silent save for the music of crickets. "Everyone could hear."
"I know that," Fernando snaps, frustrated. His wrist throbs. "But to think I would do that to Alvaro, on purpose..."
Unexpectedly, Claudio reaches up and ruffles the top of Fernando's head, as though he were a child. "Alvaro will wake up," he says, like he's making a promise. "Talk to him. The rest will follow."
"You're ridiculous." Fernando says flatly, because any other sentiment would cause his voice to break.
"Go to sleep, Nando." Claudio rises to his feet. "Just be ready for that."
(He lays awake in the darkness for hours after that, thinking about the conversation he needs to have, and how he is utterly, utterly unprepared.)
"Shove over," Alvaro says, jostling Fernando awake at the most indecent of hours. Fernando grunts cantankerously but rolls over obediently, and Alvaro slides in beside him.
"You're so cruel to me, my love." Fernando laments sleepily. The first time he used that particular endearment, the tips of Alvaro's ears had turned a bright, sharp red as his face struggled to remain unaffected. Judging from how Alvaro noses his face into the crook of his neck right now, the effect is still intact. Fernando grins.
"Stop that," Alvaro scowls, poking him hard in the side.
"Of course, dear," Fernando yawns, catching Alvaro's offending hand and putting it behind his back. "What's got you all worked up then? What did he want?"
"Nothing. He just wanted to check on my progress." Fernando makes a noise like he's isn't hanging onto every word. "He says my stage presence improved."
"That opener we added really helped then."
"Yeah, it did. And then he said..." Alvaro pauses. Fernando forfeits any pretense of being half-asleep and props himself up on one elbow. "He says that he'll be back at the end of next year. And then we'll see."
"That sounds like Los Blancos." Fernando says with a snort. "Arrogant bunch of..." He glances down and Alvaro's expression is shuttered, his eyes downcast. Fernando shuts up. But not for long. "What are you thinking?"
"Would you ever want to go back to Los Leones?" Alvaro asks. "If they asked for you?"
"No." Fernando says immediately, flashing back to all his fights with management, and how it had deteriorated so badly, he'd left the only home he'd ever known without saying goodbye. "Things were that bad for me," he amends. "But for you..." He doesn't want to finish that thought. "Do you want to go back?"
"I'm happy here," Alvaro says quietly. "I'm so happy here I can't even think about Madrid."
But if they wanted you, Fernando thought. If they truly came for you, courted you like a lover. Could you say no then?
Two weeks later, when Gigi asks for his opinion on giving Alvaro the opening night in Turin, Fernando opens his mouth and says "I don't think he's ready."
Alvaro wakes up.
"Well, he's been in and out for the last few weeks," Leonardo explains in earnest. "But he's stable enough to take in solid food now, so. You know. " So he has the energy to face me, Fernando thinks grimly, but doesn't have the heart to say aloud when Leo is trying so hard.
"Can I see him?" he asks hoarsely.
"Yeah," Leonardo says. "He asked for you, actually. "
It's like a bucket of cold water being emptied over his head. Fernando forces himself to his feet and start walking, following Leonardo, who reads his mood and stops chattering. He had thought about what he would say, how he would explain himself, but despite his purposeful stride, Fernando isn't ready. He hasn't even thought of how Alvaro would react--what if Carlos had already convinced him it wasn't an accident? What if Alvaro only wanted to see him so he could tell him he decided to go back to Madrid?
(What if it had all been for nothing?)
He pauses, hand hovering uncertainly against the opening. Leonardo squeezes his shoulder, whispers "Strength, my friend," and Fernando goes through.
Alvaro is sitting up, legs tangled in the blanket, bandages bulking through his shirt. He's leaning almost unconsciously on his uninjured side and he's spinning a small pen knife between his fingers. For one wild, fearful moment, Fernando thinks Alvaro means to return the favor. But no. Alvaro glances up, eyes puffy from sleep and the color in his face muted from sickness, takes one look at Fernando and makes a face.
"My god, you look like shit."
"Really?" Fernando says, lapsing into the familiarity of it. "You--" and then stops, because he has no way of completing that thought. Alvaro's face goes soft.
"Come here," he says. Fernando shuffles over and sinks to the ground beside him. Alvaro offers him a hand, a gesture so routine that Fernando's breath catches painfully midway up his chest. In one swift, impulsive moment, Fernando takes his hand and then drags Alvaro against him, holding him close, head cradled against the juncture of his neck. Alvaro smells stale, like old sweat mixed with medicinal ointment--but he's warm and breathing and alive.
(That horrible moment on the wheel, confusion and betrayal before rolling up into unconsciousness--and if he'd missed any more, that could have been his last memory of Alvaro's laughing brown eyes.)
"You're shaking," Alvaro murmurs.
"Sorry," Fernando replies breathlessly. "I'm sorry."
La Vecchia Signora revives to a sellout crowd in Turin.
Alvaro returns to training, and then the stage.
He keeps his wrist wrapped long after it stops aching.
"You're not still injured," Alvaro remarks early one morning as they're getting dressed.
"I am," Fernando replies. He points to his head. "In here."
It's meant to be a joke, but Alvaro doesn't laugh. "You should take better care of yourself," he says, picking up the bucket determinedly with his weaker side. "Carlos is beginning to feel bad about maiming you."
Fernando snorts. Carlos is the kind of man who keeps a pacifier in his shorts solely for punctuation when he needs to tell someone off. He highly doubts Carlos ever feels regret about anything. Then again, he's seen Giorgio--their mighty beast tamer who can shout his lions into submission--nuzzling Alvaro affectionately like a giant cat, so perhaps he could have that effect on Carlos, however unlikely.
"I'll work on it," Fernando says.
That should have been the end of that. And then he comes back one night after cleaning duty and Alvaro greets him by lobbing a throwing axe at him. Granted he throws it in a large loop that a baby could probably catch in its sleep, but finally he loses his temper.
"What's wrong with you?" he snaps angrily, throwing the axe to the ground where it cuts into the dirt.
"Oh good, you can still catch," Alvaro says, clapping his hands together like a small child (or the occasional young lady) whenever Andrea decides to pull a coin (or the occasional rose) from out of thin air. "The next part should be easy then."
"I don't remember hitting you in the head," Fernando snarls angrily, and immediately regrets it. But before he can apologize for it, Alvaro cuts in.
"Being a little crazy is better than losing your nerve and sitting around waiting for you contract to expire, don't you think?"
That stung. "Alvaro--"
"People don't come here to watch me throw knives at whatever Claudio decides he wants to throw in the air, it doesn't matter how stylishly he throws it up there." He interrupts without missing a beat. "There's no risk involved, and more than anything, we're in the business of selling danger. You were the one who taught me that."
"Stop." The word tastes acrid on his tongue and Alvaro actually takes a step back from the force of it. Fernando's fingers are shaking again and he curls them into a fist, wills them to be still.
"Nando?" Alvaro asks, suddenly gentle. He reaches out and Fernando does the same, pulling him closer, putting his hand right over where the scar would be.
"You don't remember." Fernando says. "The sound of a knife going through a person, that doesn't leave you."
"No, I don't." Alvaro says. "And maybe you were right, maybe I wasn't ready--but you weren't either."
"Maybe that's why we're here and not in a battlefield." Fernando says drily.
"Maybe," Alvaro grins. "Here or there, we get back up."
"When my wrist heals," Fernando maintains stubbornly. Alvaro opens his mouth like he wants to object, but closes it after a pause.
"Fine." He says. "When you're ready."
" Signore e signori , ragazzi e ragazze, welcome to The Old Lady..."
Gigi's voice thunders above the excited rumbling of the audience. There are two wooden wheels behind the curtain that Patrice and Steven are prepared to drag out during the fourth act, when Paul is flying high up in the air. Two wheels, two bodies, and two sets of knives flying back and forth across the stage. They had practiced--the build-up, the rhythm, the up and up to the big finish--but his first show since that night, and he can't stop his heart from racing.
But when Alvaro turns to him, eyes bright with anticipation, and asks Fernando if he's ready, he could only ever have one answer to that.
"Always for you, my love."
+ A huge, huge thank you to my artist lunasenzanotte for her patience and understanding through this whole process. It's the first time I collaborated with someone and I'm afraid I wasn't as considerate as I should have been.
+ I couldn't find time to include all of Juventus (though I wanted to), but in my mind, aside from Gigi the Ringmaster (because who else?) and Carlos the Strongman, we also have Claudio the Unicyclist/Juggler, Lichtsteiner the tightrope walker, Pirlo the Magician, Pogba the Flying Man and Chiellini the Beast Tamer (the lion's name could be Luis, idk).
+ The setting for this is greatly influenced by the circus episode of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (which, if you haven't seen, is a stellar television show).
+ I tried to reference as much IRL happenings as I could, and in fact Morata being promoted to starter and working well with Marchisio/Tevez was a very nice thing for me. I had to decide whether or not I wanted Claudio's injury news from today to be part of the fic, but as I was crunched for time I decided against including it. (Would've worked nicely though XP).
+ That's all I can think of for now. Hope you all enjoyed. :)