Title: "A Boy and His Horse"

Author: Shaitanah

Rating: R

Summary: Life stranger than fiction and fiction more powerful than life. Two young actors bound together by a common crime struggling to build a relationship in and out of the theatre. [SLASH; side HET]

Disclaimer: All quotes in italics are taken from Equus by Peter Shaffer, unless stated otherwise.

A/N: This piece contains semi-explicit sexual situations of homosexual and heterosexual variety. The story takes place in a non-specific country; any similarities to actual places and/or persons are purely coincidental.


A BOY AND HIS HORSE

The Lord thy God is a jealous God.

Peter Shaffer. 'Equus'

Part 1

Tom remembers the first time he saw a horse. It was a long-maned hardy rearer from his aunt's farm, compact but elegant in its own way. Tom called it Blue because someone had once stained a strand of its mane with a splatter of blue paint and it never came off. The horse was semi-feral (or so Aunty said) and it never let him come too close. Eventually he stopped trying and simply sat in the grass a few metres away from it and watched it graze.

Others came afterwards: a sturdy peasant carthorse, with its broad chest and its muscular build and sweeping motions; tall and slim thoroughbreds at the racecourse whose elegance had no equal; even a purebred Arabian once, finely chiseled and proud like royalty.

Tom both feared and admired these creatures. He took a job at the stables one summer to find his peace with them. Having spent three months scrubbing and brushing and feeding them, he could safely say he had gleaned no better understanding of what a horse was.

It seems ironic that he should play one now.

Not unlike a famous playwright, Tabitha Marrón has an antagonistic approach towards portraying animals on stage. She is fiercely intolerant of over-literal rendering; she considers completely copying the habits of an animal an insult, though it is dubious who the insult is directed at: an animal or an actor. Knowing her, Tom would say it's the former.

Tabitha has the costume designers garb the 'horses' in skin-tight outfits vaguely reminiscent of horse skin. She traps their hands and feet in gloves and high shoes that clatter softly like hooves. She places a crude, symbolic construction upon their heads that is meant to represent the face of the horse. And she forbids them to go down on all fours or bend over as they walk. They must stand tall and proud so as not to betray a hint of humanity. They must be still, moving only in due time, and when they move, they must be light and plastic and natural.

Tom never considered himself to be elegant and he certainly never considered himself to be anything like a horse. His mingled fear and respect for these animals guides him through every performance, fills him up with simultaneous doubt and exultance. Sometimes he believes he is committing an act of sacrilege by intruding into their feral world.

"You're one sick fuck, Tommy," Michael says to this.

They have quite a few scenes together, Michael being the lead star of the play and Tom being the most prominent 'horse' in the mob. It is his homage to Blue and to all those mares and stallions he looked after years ago.

After the performance, he often lies alone in the middle of the stage on the revolving platform used for the racing sequence. Sweat pools in the hollows on his body. He listens to the dull sound of his own heartbeat and regulates his breathing to correspond to that drumming. Occasionally, a girl from the orchestra would take a seat at the piano and play gentle, rolling music. He cannot see her from where he lies; she cannot see him because she has her back on the stage.

He thinks about Michael then. He barely knows him outside of the theatre. The entire cast is made up of very decent people; Tom is friends with most of them, but Michael is never with them when they go for a drink or gather on their days-off to pick Tabitha to pieces. Michael is a loner, an embodiment of talent he couldn't care less about, friendless by choice. He is crass and crude, he drinks like a sailor, smokes like a chimney and curses like a docker. Thus the transformation he undergoes on stage is even more remarkable.

Despite having never talked to Michael properly, Tom has quite an intimate knowledge of him. He relishes the feel of Michael's hands traveling all over his strained body when the boy caresses his horse. Michael's damp breath ghosting over Tom's neck makes his nostrils flare, makes him feel like he is indeed an animal. Michael lowers his head on Tom's shoulder, whispers to him softly, unintelligibly, and leads him off into the semi-darkness of the backstage.

Tom wishes he could see Michael's eyes during the act, but the large mask made of hard wire prevents him from bending his head low enough.

Michael's stage persona is woven out of contrasts as much as his routine self. Dreamy and brazen, passionate and desperate before the audience, he puts his light out forcibly as soon as the show ends. He claims to hate theatre. He is one of the most talented cast-members. It is no big secret that Tabitha holds on to him ardently, terrified of his leaving the theatre one day. Michael is obviously uninterested in pursuing an acting career, but she pays him well. As long as she does, she can be sure he'll stay.

Tom, on the other hand, has comparatively little talent. He came to this theatre a little less than a year ago, hungry, worn out, working a graveyard shift as a loader in a supermarket. It was luck for his part since he had been led there by a scrap of an old promotional flyer in the street. Tabitha saw him audition for a few parts and initially considered him for extras (according to her, he was as artless as one gets to be), but his height made him quite conspicuous: he attracted needless attention and ruined the scene. Surprisingly, Tabitha, albeit frustrated, refused to let go of him. She entrusted him with roles that required no acting: those of inanimate objects, such as trees, street-torches, even a striptease pole once. In Tom's opinion, they hardly required a live actor at all, but provocation was Tabitha's forte and it was not his place to question her judgement.

She warmed up to him gradually and promoted him to a random wolf in her adaptation of Mowgli, then to a lion in Free Ravines, a drama of her own authorship, and ultimately to a horse in Equus, which the entire cast affectionately dubbed The Play for it was the performance that brought the long-awaited fame to El Teatro Marrón. Since he was the tallest of the 'horses', there was no dispute which part Tom should play. Tabitha braced herself and cast him for Nugget. To his knowledge, he never did disappoint her.

All his parts are silent. Occasionally, he would snort, or growl, or snap his jaws, but never utter a single word. Not only he cannot deliver a single line properly, but, according to Tabitha, he also has a rather unpleasant voice. To this day, he tries to keep silent while in her presence.

Michael came along several weeks into the production of The Play. He had never studied to be an actor, never even taken part in any school shows, but then, education was the last thing on Tabitha's list of priorities. Michael had it in him to play Alan Strang, she said. He had the right darkness, the right madness. No one ever understood how she managed to see past his exterior; in the end, he made it into the main cast, replacing a haughty young man who had had a tremendous falling-out with Tabitha. Michael remained in the theatre ever since and was engaged in a few other productions.

His parts are always rather ambiguous. Dark, emotional, they require vast dedication and quite a bit of skin to be exposed. Michael never protests. He does what is asked of him, calmly and coolly. Tabitha enjoys shocking the audience but she never succeeds in shocking her lead.

Over the months of working on The Play together, Tom has developed a fixation on Michael. It goes beyond desires of the flesh, he reckons, but when Michael jumps on his back and screams and writhes in agony and pleasure, Tom takes a harsh breath and curses the impenetrable barrier of clothing that stops him from feeling the heat of his loins skin to skin. Michael rubs against him in a heated imitation of a ride, throws his hands up and brings them down on Tom's shoulders, and Tom's body clenches like a hot cloud.

Michael's duplicity excites him. He watches Michael groan while he is being given a blowjob in a tent amidst an African savannah in Free Ravines and he watches him toss a dog-end into an open sewer manhole; he watches him recite Hamlet's iconic monologue (in the only Shakespearean play Tabitha recognizes) and he watches Laia who stars opposite Michael in Free Ravines ride him arduously after the premiere, clutching a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of Caribbean rum in the other. He feels that it should help him understand Michael better, but try as he might, it will never happen. Michael, in his own way, is like Blue or like that Arab stallion, an enigma without a cause, crafted carefully by some jester from the beyond with a single goal: to torment Tom.

Michael, in his own way, is like Stevie. That is something Tom can never forgive him for.

* * *

Mother dies when he is twelve. He is supposed to grieve, but she was not a good mother and he isn't sure why he should pretend that she was. If she were a good mother, she would have brought him up in a completely different way. She would have moulded a good man out of him, instead of silently accepting him as a rascal, a dropout, and a self-proclaimed Jesse James. (Okay, maybe the only 'bank' he has ever robbed is someone's school locker, but he was five back then, didn't even go to school yet, and it makes him look incredibly badass in his own eyes.)

He gets passed down from one relative to another. Fixing tractors with his cousin Jem, sheep-herding in the mountains with Uncle Joe, selling second-hand kitchenware on the road, back to the farm with Aunty – all in the course of a little less than two years.

Aunty is not a bad person. She is sturdy, hands rough like emery, red wiry hair, and freckles scattered across her face like specks of copper-coloured dust, and she talks in a loud, commanding voice. She cares about him in her own way, though she has a dubious manner of showing it. Most of the time he is pretty sure she just needs free work force.

He likes it on the farm. The little things mostly. Like helping Aunty sell pumpkins at the autumn harvest festival or watching the neighbours break in the horses for the local derby. He likes the smell of hay mixed with the faint aroma of dung and the way the corns on his palms throb a little after a hard day's work. Makes you feel like a man, doesn't it, Aunty chuckles.

The only thing that poisons the serenity of this simple life is Frank, Aunty's on and off boyfriend. Tom doesn't like the way he talks to him or even to Aunty, the way he reeks of sweat even when he has just taken a shower, the way he throws sausage scraps on the floor for his dog that is a boxer no less disgusting than him, to finish. Aunty doesn't seem to be very fond of him either. Sometimes, when he comes to the house drunk, they yell at each other. He can hear them clearly, lying in bed at night.

He asks Aunty once why she bothers with Frank if he brings her so much trouble. Loneliness would bring even more trouble, she says.

When Frank shoots Blue after it's broken its leg, he isn't drunk. It's not an impulsive act. Tom overhears him confer with Aunty over it and runs out screaming, hoping to stop them. He clutches at Frank's elbow and tries to wrestle the rifle out of his hand.

"Get this devil away from me, Joanie," Frank bellows, "or I swear by God I'll shoot him!"

Aunty holds on to Tom until he releases Frank. Her touch is unusually tender. She strokes his shoulder and tells him everything will be all right. Frank vanishes into the stables. A second later two shots follow. Tom shivers, tears rolling down his cheeks, breaks loose and runs away. He cannot bear the thought of having to look at Frank once he emerges.

Aunty stops by his room in the evening.

"I hope you understand why Frank did what he did," she says. "Old boy broke his leg. It's the worst thing that can happen to a horse. It was a display of mercy, Tom."

Tom nods sullenly. What she means is that she wants him to be civil to Frank. He only did what I myself couldn't have done, she adds.

He gives Frank a chance by asking the man to teach him how to shoot. You ain't gonna shoot me one day, will ya, Frank sniggers at that. But he concedes eventually and even brings his old Army Colt for the practical lessons. It is surprisingly lightweight and it feels natural in Tom's grip.

Frank never praises his achievements, though he is quick to berate him for his failures. Learning to shoot a gun is easy, Tom finds; the hard part is to learn to hit the mark. They practise on empty beer cans. The day Tom hits ten out of ten Frank says gruffly, "Well done, brat," and Tom feels a detestable surge of pride at these words. Frank's opinion shouldn't matter; yet for some reason, if only this very minute, it does.

Tom resists letting Frank into his life as hard as he can, but as he shuts the door, Frank climbs inside through the window.

One day he finds Tom being bashed up in the school yard. Tom doesn't understand why he has to go to school at all. All he garners from it is shame and bruises; everything he knows, he has learnt at home.

Frank drives him to the farm in silence, which he breaks only in the living room upon making sure Aunty is out of an earshot.

"Now you tell me what happened."

Tom keeps silent stubbornly; that annoys Frank.

"Listen here. You ain't no son of mine, so by rights I shouldn't even care. But Joanie, God bless her, does care, and don't you dare act like it's nothing, you ungrateful ass!"

"They called me a queer." Tom's swollen eyes hurt when he blinks and his face burns in shame. Frank will probably proceed to hit him too now.

"Are you?" Frank asks instead.

That's unexpected. Tom never really thought it through, so he gives the most honest answer he can manage: he doesn't know.

"Well, you must be if you didn't fight back," Frank scoffs. "Doesn't matter much what a man does behind closed doors. But if a beanpole like you lets a bunch of little schmucks corner him like that, he ain't got no balls, if you ask me."

"Will you tell Aunty?"

"There's nothing to tell. Fight back next time."

For the first time since he came to live with Joanie, Tom thinks he may have underestimated her boyfriend. There is more to Frank than meets the eye. He starts hanging out around the farm more and more often, usually sober, and when Aunty informs Tom matter-of-factly that they are getting married, the boy merely shrugs and says, "Okay."

He finds himself watching Frank from time to time, uncertain what to expect from him. Frank is gruff, unceremonious, but not incapable of sacrifice: he tries to quit drinking (for Joanie) and leaves his brute of a dog at his pal's (on account that it scares the horses). He takes short of zero interest in Tom's life and rarely minds him at all. Tom learns to ignore him in turn. Frank is not his father; but then, he is better, if only because he's there.

The illusion of a family crumbles the day Frank hits the bottle again. The screaming contest begins anew, this time followed by the slapping sound and a short female gasp. Tom grabs Frank's Colt and barges into the room, hands shaking. There is no fear in Frank's eyes as he stares down the barrel of a gun, no rage even; only unadulterated scorn.

"I taught you how to use that thing," he spits, "so don't you bloody dare point it at me!"

With this, he knocks the revolver out of Tom's hand and storms out. Tom quivers; his gaze drifts towards Aunty who is standing in the corner of the room, palm pressed against her reddened cheek. She gives him an unreadable glance and leaves as well.

In the evening she comes to give him a talk, much like the day he mourned Blue's death. She lowers herself on the bed next to him, their shoulders brushing. Frank hasn't been seen or heard from for the better part of the day.

"You know why Frank started drinking?" she asks after a moment of silence. He shakes his head lightly. "There's a deep spot just down the creek," Aunty continues. "A mile short of where the Open Range begins. Frank's daughter drowned there. She was a cute little thing, always talked about how she wanted to do ballet. She was six. It tore Frank's marriage apart."

Tom struggles to imagine Frank as a father. He must have been an entirely different person. Tom doesn't know whether he should feel relieved or disappointed.

"You asked me once why I put up with him," Aunty says. "Everyone he knew has long since given up on him. To them, there is only the Frank you know. But I remember the man he used to be. Still is, I hope. Don't judge a book by its cover, Tom."

Frank returns three days later, offers a brief apology and prepares to pack. Aunty pretends to be mad at him, but Tom knows she has already forgiven him. He suspects Frank knows it too; and in the end, Frank stays.

Tom is sixteen when Frank dies. He has never indicated, not by a word or a gesture, that he knows Frank's story. He accompanies him to the Open Range, the vast prairies of no-man's land, to watch over the mustangs, but never asks Frank why they always take the long road instead of a short cut across the creek. He watches him destroy his relationship with Joanie and then rebuild it over and over again. The circularity of it is almost ritualistic and soothing.

Tom doesn't know how the fight starts. Frank has been taking part in such brawls ever since Tom remembers; but this time something goes wrong. Tom kneels beside Frank who is dying on the floor of the dingy bar, a bullet in his gut, and tries to fight back the tears. He is not crying for Frank. He hates it when Frank lifts his hand, drenched in blood, and touches his head almost reassuringly.

That night Tom takes Frank's Colt again and goes after the man who killed Frank. For once, he wishes he were a stronger person, not a wuss that he is. He wishes he could pull the bloody trigger. The man, a rumoured horse rustler and a well-known troublemaker, is drunk when he comes. He eyes Tom conceitedly through the haze of cigarette smoke and scoffs upon seeing the pistol in Tom's hand.

Tom wishes to hell he were stronger.

But he's not.

So he shoots the man in the leg, hoping he has at least smashed his knee, and bolts. He never goes back to the farm. No point now.

Three days later he finds himself walking aimlessly along the sun-scorched highway. Somewhere on the other end of the tarmac ribbon there lies a city. If he walks long enough, he might reach it sooner or later. The sun blazes overhead, and Tom's arms are covered in burdock gashes, and his feet are calloused, and his shoes are down-at-heel. He halts briefly at the milestone and licks his parched lips. He should have taken that man's car. Or at least a horse. Come to think of it, this is a foolish enterprise – but he needs his escape. He would be charged with armed assault anyway if he stayed.

A car passes by; the driver ignores Tom's outstretched arm. Tom sighs in defeat. Perhaps it's just not his lucky day.

"Where are you going?" a female voice asks.

Tom's eyes snap open. Where the hell did she come from? She is young, presumably his age, petite, wavy black hair caught in a loose bun, bronze skin glistening slightly in the sunlight. Her slanted eyes bore into him, expressing playful curiosity.

"To hell," Tom mutters.

His answer doesn't confuse her in any way. She regards him studiously, biting the tip of her tongue between her lips, as if trying to make up her mind about him. He studies her in turn, taking in the swell of her breasts under the baggy white cotton top and the chipped nail polish the colour of wild cherry.

"What for?" she asks like Tom has just confessed he was going to prison.

He likes the game and plays along.

"Fighting. Swearing. Not going to church on Sundays." He shrugs as her face brightens into a smile and adds a little self-consciously: "And I might be gay."

She opens her mouth to reply when a low rumbling sound behind their backs heralds the approaching transport. She squares her shoulders resolutely, takes a stance at the roadside and prepares to thumb a lift. Tom can't take his eyes off of the smooth outline of her hip. Her mini-shorts barely cover… anything.

"Guess you're going to hell, too," he remarks softly.

She winks at him.

"We'll have fun together."

He isn't surprised one bit when the car pulls up.

* * *

When Michael drinks, he often spills a few drops down his chin. Tom likes watching them trickle along his skin and dry little by little. He doesn't know if Michael is aware of how his simple gestures affect Tom. He wonders if Michael would care if he knew.

Sometimes Tom dreams of telling Stevie about Michael. Michael, in his own way, has come to be what Stevie was; the only difference is that Tom started thinking about her this much after she was gone, while Michael is still here.

Tom eyes himself in the mirror. He looks ridiculous thanks to Tabitha's 'experiments'. A man of his build and height wearing a bright pink tutu and yellow plume in his hair is bound to cause at least some amount of hysterical laughter; and damn Michael for following through with confirming this every way he can. His head rests on the back of the sofa, eyes half shut, and his chest heaves as he desperately tries to calm himself. Tom can see it in the mirror.

"I didn't ask for this!" he snaps.

"No-o," Michael intones. "But you'll do anything Tab asks you to do. What, you sweet on her or something?"

Tom scowls and rips the blasted feathers out of his hair. He looks like an oversized chicken victimized by the beauty industry.

It's a bloody charity show. Tabitha wants to stage some stupid vaudeville comedy for it; Tom has been cast as part of a chorus line. If Tabitha knew of his orientation, he could have no doubts that she had done it on purpose.

"You look lovely, darling," Michael chirps in his ear (granted he can barely reach it without tilting his head back, so his breath ghosts over Tom's neck seductively).

Tom shivers. He failed to notice Michael coming all the way up to the mirror and standing near him, nearly pressing against him. It makes him angry. If he could shove the cocky bastard on the table and suck him off, that'd sure wipe that goddamn smirk off his face.

The theatre is closing for the night. Normally Tabitha prefers to close it herself; today she left the keys and told (or rather, commanded in a threatening voice) whoever left last to do it. Tom wipes the make-up off and begins to disentangle himself from the tutu.

"I'll go take a leak," Michael informs casually and vanishes into the lavatory.

Tom groans. He wants to go back to his boring one-room apartment a few blocks away, to his narrow bed that smells like grass and semen, to the poetry books he only buys but never really reads. Theatre frightens him sometimes. Being alone with Michael when he's drunk and mocking him also does.

A strange sound snaps Tom back to the present. Did Michael just leave? It's probably for the best. Tom never talks to him properly anyway. He can't stand Michael. He adores him, he lusts after him, yet he absolutely can't stand him. The stench of alcohol that clings to him like second skin and his brazen behaviour is where the lines blur and Michael becomes Frank.

Something crashes on the floor just outside the dressing room. Tom frowns. It could be Michael. Or it could be someone else. Tabitha has already had her theatre broken into once before. She claimed the culprit was a lovestruck stalker.

Tom dips his hand into the pocket of his jacket and wraps his fingers around a small handgun. It is miniature, almost ladylike, and he loathes it but it's safer to carry around than Frank's Colt. Tom wonders when he has become so dependent on firearms.

He walks in on the robber (he has no doubt about the intruder's business anymore) who is brandishing a knife in front of Michael. Blood trickles down Michael's temple. He must have tried to put up a fight. Tom points the gun at the robber and tells him, in his calmest voice possible, to get the hell out until Tom has blown his head off.

The man is scrawny and lanky; Tom could probably take him bare-handed, but he was never lucky in brawls.

The man laughs. Doesn't take him seriously. Swings the knife (a rusty bowie knife, which is probably older than Tom) and takes a step in his direction. And Tom fires. The shot resounds in the narrow hallway like a clap of thunder. Michael swallows a semi-yelp and pushes back against the wall, face pale and eyes burning, like it's a shock to his entire system.

The man is bleeding on the floor.

"Fuck," Tom says under his breath, his voice rough and his chest tight with immense pride at not having dropped the gun this time. His fingers feel wooden.

"Is he–?" Michael begins and breaks off like there is sand down his throat.

Fear nests in Tom's stomach. He didn't want to kill anyone. But the man on the floor is not breathing. Tom just stands there, unable to move, to call an ambulance, and the man dies. It's a matter of seconds. It doesn't drag out like it does in movies. He is warm and covered in blood and dead.

Michael falls on his knees and vomits.

Tom turns on his heels and strolls to the bathroom, feeling like he is sleepwalking. What do we do now, he asks himself wearily, studying his reflection in the mirror. Does it change anything? Do murderers look any different? He searches his features for the traces of Dorian Gray's ugliness, but he finds nothing.

The door slams. Michael must have run off. Tom doesn't blame him. He would have liked to, but his current numbness devours everything. It wasn't Michael who pulled the trigger.

Clean up the mess, Tom tells himself.

"What do you carry the gun for?" Michael asks when Tom returns with a garbage disposal bag.

"I thought you were gone."

Michael winces.

"Help me," says Tom as he lays the bag out on the floor and rolls the body onto it.

"I'm not touching that," says Michael.

Tom gets some of the blood smeared across his knee and swears softly. The entire scene is bizarre in a sinister kind of way. Michael skulks in the corner, looking like he is about to be sick again. Odd giddiness overtakes Tom. He looks at the body and imagines himself in custody… on trial… in prison.

"We need to hide him," he mutters. "Someplace no one will ever find him."

"Got any ideas?"

He does, in fact. He cocks his head, thinking it over, and then looks straight at Michael.

"You have a car, don't you?"

"You're so not staging a carcrash using my car!" Michael bristles.

"That's not what I have in mind."

"The car's at home. I walked here."

Tom shakes his head impatiently. "Bring it here." In case the look he keeps drilling Michael with is not convincing enough, Tom adds briskly: "Can't imagine what we'll be dealing with should Tabitha find this."

It's fifteen minutes on foot from the theatre to Michael's place (at least according to him), yet he's gone for almost an hour. Tom wipes the blood off and makes sure nothing indicates intrusion. It takes him half an hour. Afterwards, he finally remembers to change and sits on the floor next to the bag, praying that Michael returns.

It's clear he doesn't want to. But he does.

They cram the body into the trunk and ride in silence towards the cemetery. Michael is still shell-shocked, which is most likely a good thing: Tom doesn't need him asking questions right now.

They find a freshly dug grave that stands in preparation for the funeral scheduled for tomorrow. Tom saw this on TV: they need to hide the body deeper, and the next day someone will be buried atop it, the grave will be covered, and no one will ever know. Tom grabbed a shovel from the properties. This should be easy.

"You've done this before," Michael states, looking at him with glazed eyes. It is impossible to tell if he is afraid.

"Not to the death. But I've shot people."

It seems for a moment in the frail light of the moon that Michael is smiling.

By the time they are through, Tom's body is aching all over. He makes sure the body stays hidden, drops the planks back in place and lies down next to the open grave for a moment, catching his breath.

"You're more than you're willing to show, aren't you, Tommy?" Michael teases. His voice trembles, but he tries hard to sound like his usual self.

"Aren't we all?" Tom replies coolly. He's in no mood for jokes.

* * *

As days go by, nothing out of the ordinary happens. Caught between rehearsals and performances, Tom finds himself quivering uncontrollably at the sound of alarm going off in the distance or the door being thrown open without a warning. Michael hasn't spoken a word to him since that night. It's almost like they have no common secret to unite them, no grave dirt to stain their hands.

Yet no matter how hard Michael struggles to act out his customary part of a debauched prat, he is somewhat distant all the time. Deep in thought, which is uncharacteristic of him. Tom's body clenches in anticipation.

Five days after that night, they stand embracing on stage, Tom in his Nugget attire and Michael in jeans and sweater as Alan Strang. Tom never concentrates on the lines. He simply listens to the soft baritone of Dr Dysart who recites his opening monologue. The man has an exquisite voice.

Suddenly a soft pat on the back of his neck makes him incline his head ever so slightly, and Michael's hoarse, barely audible whisper interrupts his daydreaming.

"Guess what I was doing just before tonight's start?"

Tom can't move, can't drop the act. He stands proud and still like a horse and waits for Michael to continue.

And Michael does.

"Jerking off to the memory of you holding that gun."

The bomb is dropped. Waves of heat travel down to Tom's groin.

And they are torn apart until the end of act one when Alan under hypnosis describes his sacred ritual to Dr Dysart.

Michael trails his hands along Tom's body (All over… belly… ribs), lets them roam unrestrained (His ribs are of ivory… of great value. His flank is cool), igniting every nerve in Tom's body. He endures the silent torment as he bends in front of the pole set in the middle of a round platform. As Michael mounts him (Take me), the other 'horses' begin rotating the platform so as to imitate the race.

"Into my hands he commends himself," Alan breathes as Nugget stamps his hoof excitedly, "naked in his chinkle-chankle."

Tom can feel him hard against the small of his back. The psychiatrist's gentle, probing voice is lost somewhere at the back of his mind.

The lights go out; only one remains pooling around Tom and Michael, casting occasional glares at the other 'horses'.

"Tonight, we ride against them all," Michael declares. Tom knows his lines by heart and repeats them to himself, echoing Michael's passion. "…all those who show you off for their vanity… tie rosettes on your head for their vanity!"

Michael's thighs clench. Sweat lathers between them. Tom barely refrains from kicking up. He is lost between ecstasy and agony, the light of that single lamp suddenly too bright, too hot against his horse skin attire.

Michael is moving on top of him, rubbing against him stealthily while spouting his insane lines.

"Cowboys are watching–," and he digs his fingers into Tom's shoulders, "taking off their Stetsons." His muscles flex. "They know who we are. They're admiring us. Bowing low unto us."

He goes rigid again, pressing hard into Tom, his breath shaky, excitement raging in his bloodstream. Beads of sweat crop up on Tom's forehead, and then Michael nearly moans:

"I want to be inside you, and be you! Forever one person."

Tom feels the heat within him burst. He shudders violently and bites his lip in dark triumph as he feels the torrid wave hit Michael as well. It seems they really are one person, breathing, feeling, craving together.

Afterwards, when Tom walks in on him with Laia, he does his best not to feel betrayed.

(I love you.)