A Gift For: twilightthief
Characters/Pairings: Charles/Erik, ensemble
Summary: When Charles Xavier first shows up at Erik Lensherr’s carnival sideshow, the last thing he’s expecting is someone like him. Charles is more than just the a spectator, however—he’s the leader of the legendary Butterfly Circus, and he’s about to change Erik’s life.
Notes/Warning: Period appropriate ethnic slurs and comments, language.
It seemed at times that there had never been anything but this: parched dirt and dry wind.
In the cities and countryside alike, there was the unshakeable feeling that the earth itself was dead. After all, there was no water to slake the thirst, no food to sate the hunger. The bounty of years past, even when the Great War threatened to tear the world apart in thunder and fire, had deserted them now.
Jobs were lost, the economy fell to pieces, and to part with a penny was a matter to fear. For so many, the future never looked so uncertain or so bleak. People tried to make joy where they could, but too often they were like the dust of the plains or the concrete of the metropolis—brittle and cracked and dingy. When there was nothing to be had, it was difficult to coax fragile hope into one's breast.
In the height of what people had taken to calling the Great Depression, however, there grew whispers in the places of greatest need, that when things grew beyond bearing, They would come, and bring with them the elusive hope.
What they would do always seemed to be in contention, but there was one point one which everyone could agree.
There was nothing quite like the Butterfly Circus.
Erik had been in the sideshow long enough to tune out the cruel taunts and hissing whispers. Even the horrified stares didn't phase him. He'd had an awfully long time to be inured to such behavior, and it was very difficult to take offense at every little thing. If he attacked everyone who gave him a nasty look, Erik would have spent his entire life fighting.
He kept his expression blank as Levine spoke from in front of the curtain. Erik had heard this speech a hundred thousand times, always a variant on the same theme: "So gather round, my friends, gather round close. I've got a special treat for you tonight, something I'm sure you've never seen before. The Devil has claimed one of us for his own, and trapped the poor soul in a horrifying blend of metal and flesh. In return, he has given him the most amazing of powers. Ladies and Gentleman, I give you—" the curtain was whisked back, and the bright lights blazed in Erik's eyes. "The Mechanical Man!"
Gasps, shouts of muted horror, near-panic and shock filled the crowd. Erik caught mutterings of, "Abomination!" and "What kind of creature is that?" and "Mama, look! Look at his arm!" and "Merciful God!" Occasional bouts of laughter rang out, cutting him more than anything else.
Erik knew the act now like the back of his hand and kept his face stoic and bland. He met their gazes challengingly, refusing to be the first to glance away. He let the audience stare, eyes wide and mouths open, gaping like the mindless imbeciles they were. When the moment was right, when the shock had faded into discomforted mutterings, Erik stood. With a mere thought, his powers stirred, and Erik raised his arm, flinging it out to the side.
Erik knew what they saw, for he looked at the massacre each and every day. Levine hadn't lied when he'd called Erik a horrifying blend of metal and flesh. Steel covered the entirety of his left arm. A brace from shoulder to elbow and then elbow to wrist stretched across bare flesh, looking to be almost seared to Erik's body. The strips of metal were bracketed by pins that had been embedded deep into Erik's muscle and bone. Even the delicate skin of Erik's hand was covered in pins and metal, the entire mechanism linked together seamlessly to allow for freedom of movement.
Erik smiled at the half-awed, half-disgusted reaction of his captive audience, and it was all teeth.
There was already a sharpened sword awaiting him against his chair, wider than Erik's palm, and he unsheathed the weapon smoothly. For effect, he nicked a fingertip with the edge of the blade, the dangerous smile turning into something incredibly feral. A drop of blood slid across his skin, which he displayed to the crowd before licking it away. Smoothly, still using his powers to manipulate the unfeeling flesh of his left arm, he grasped the sword firmly, lifting the blade his lips.
Dead silence filled the dim, smoky tent as Erik swallowed down the blade.
For anyone but Erik, the blade would have been too sharp, too wide, to ever fit down a human throat. The second it entered Erik's mouth, however, he changed its shape and size, letting it flow easily down his esophagus. He didn't stop until all but the hilt had passed into his body. He let his hands fall away, body straining up towards the ceiling as he kept his body in alignment for the metal piercing him.
This moment, at least, Erik could bask in, as the cries of astonishment and delight echoed, the clapping of the spectators thundering through the small tent.
In one slow, long movement, Erik pulled the sword back out, sheathing it with a flourish and bowing grandly. The clapping increased wildly for a moment before fading away as the excitement of the moment faded and the dismal exhaustion started seeping into their tired bodies once more.
Erik sank back into his chair, depression of his own settling in, and Erik watched with blank eyes as the people who'd come to see a mere curiosity departed.
Except for one.
He was soft-featured, young, with brilliant blue eyes. In a plain blue button-down several shades darker than his eyes and a gleaming patterned vest in the same shade of blue, with the details in shades of silver and complementary shades of blue, the man looked like he belonged in a ballroom with champagne in hand rather than kneeling in the dirt before Erik. The man was even wearing a top-hat, which should have looked ridiculous but somehow suited him.
Erik's mouth tightened. This wouldn't be the first time someone thought wealth gave them the right to harass him, nor would it be the last. Erik would defend himself if need be without pause and damn the consequences.
The man gazed up at him, and Erik edged back despite himself. There was too much—something in the man's eyes. It was almost painful to be the object of that intense stare. The man took of his hat with reverence, searching Erik's face for something.
"You are magnificent," the man breathed.
Erik's heart stopped.
His mind, however, did not. In an instant, the man at Erik's feet was also at the end of Erik's sword. He pressed in just hard enough that blood welled at the base of the man's throat and slid down beneath his shirt, a flash of red against ivory skin. "Don't come near me," Erik commanded in a voice that shook despite his best efforts. "Don't even think about it."
The man's expression remained utterly serene. Levine's however, did not, nor did the woman standing in the shadows that Erik had missed. "What is wrong with you!" Levine hissed, though he didn't go anywhere near Erik and his blade, while the woman Erik missed shouted, "Charles!" in a panicked voice.
The man called Charles remained almost preternaturally still for a long moment before rising gracefully to his feet, absently pushing away Erik's sword by the flat and digging a hand into his pocket. "I was sure I had it in here," he murmured absently under his breath. His words were lightly accented and elegantly cultured, out of place in this threadbare freak show. Charles did an awkward little dance as he tried to grab hold of whatever was evading him. After a second or two of movement, Charles successfully drew out a handkerchief and dabbed at the blood at his throat and peered at the soiled cloth. "Oh, not bad. That's something." He waved off Levine and his companion's aid. "No harm done, really, none at all."
"Charles," the woman said with exasperated fondness. "You'd say that even if he'd run you through."
Charles laughed, a brilliant and bright sound that sounded more vibrant and alive than all of the applause Erik had endured earlier. "Come now, Raven, give me some credit." He spared a glance for Erik, and those blue eyes pinned him in place. "It was my fault."
Erik opened his mouth, though he had no idea what he was going to say. Charles cut him off, those blue eyes pinning Erik in place even with his weapon still naked in the air. "It was my fault," Charles repeated firmly. "I only wanted to say thank you, my friend. Your performance was..." he trailed off, eyes glowing, "extraordinary." Charles' smile was as charming and well-bred as his voice. "I had hoped to convince you to spare a few moments for conversation, however."
Erik's blade didn't waver as he pointed it directly at Charles' throat once more. "Whatever you're offering, no thanks. You've got nothing I want. Now get the fuck out of my freak show and don't return."
Levine and Raven started forward at that, but Charles just raised a hand, his body language assuming the absolute obedience of the others. Indeed, both stopped as if frozen.
If you ever reconsider, my friend, just ask around for Charles Xavier. There's always someone who can point you in the right direction, Charles told him without ever moving his mouth. His lips quirked with a little grin. I think you'd find it worth the risk. You're not the only one with gifts, you know.
Erik stared at him, open-mouthed, as Charles looked down demurely, lashes shielding his gaze for an instant. Goodbye, Erik Lensherr. I hope we will meet again. He placed his hat back atop his head, positioning it at a rakish angle as he treated Erik to a guileless grin.
The Charles stepped back, gesturing with one hand. Raven instantly fell in beside Charles, casting a suspicious look in Erik's direction. Erik just watched them go, heart thundering in his chest and mind chaotic.
Levine broke the moment by hissing, "If you ever do that again, rest assured you will be out on your ass before you can say, 'lickety split.'" Erik noticed that Levine stayed well out of reach of Erik's sword and backed away out of the tent before Erik could reply.
Erik snorted, sheathing the blade at last. It was second nature by now to use his powers on his mangled arm, and it took him no time at all to perform the maneuver. Unless Charles Xavier planned on taking the matter to McCone, it would be Levine's word against Erik's. Besides, Erik was responsible for the upkeep of practically half the carnival, and was the most popular sideshow act as well. Short of actual murder, Stryker wouldn't dare kick Erik out.
Erik started at the sound of low laughter from the booth beside his. It gained an almost hysterical edge, until Erik stalked over, treating the ignorant ass that he privately referred to as 'Toad' in his mind to a glare. For once, however, it wasn't enough to shut the man up. "You're a fool, Erik," the man cackled, eyes lit with unholy glee. "Even I didn't think you'd be stupid enough to threaten Charles Xavier."
Erik's brows lifted at that, and his scowl turned into something more bemused. "How did you know who that was?" he demanded, raising his sword threateningly.
"Oh, you don't know!" Toad exclaimed, grinning maliciously. "How could you not know? My, my, Erik, you seem to be losing your touch." Those yellowed eyes gleamed in the half-light and Erik rested a hand on the hilt of his weapon. Toad snorted, but he answered quickly enough, "Everyone should know Charles Xavier! He's only the greatest of them all, the most well-known and greatest showman to ever live!"
Dawning horror struck, and Toad grinned knowingly, his voice turning condescending.
"That's right, Erik. You just cut the showman of the Butterfly Circus."
"You need to stop taking it so personally," Raven instructed as Charles huddled by the edge of their fire. Once the summer sun set, the resulting chill had everyone either clothed against the wind or crowding close to one of the fires that dotted the landscape. "Not everyone wants to admit they're different, Charles. You know that."
Charles' mouth was settled in a downturned pout. "Raven," he muttered tiredly, rubbing at his forehead. He'd been suffering a headache the last few hours since returning to the carnival. Crowds had never been his strong point, especially when combined with the smoke and dismal atmosphere. The almost manic expression of joy the men and women were prone to, both in the mindlessly milling audience and those in the carnival itself, didn't disguise the panic and stress that lingered. It was an undertone to their every movement, the frenetic worry. Charles made a face. "Just...I know, Raven."
Raven's face did something complicated, before she sighed and relented, scooting over closer to him and resting her fingers on the other man's temples, rubbing in slow, rhythmic motions. Charles took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, letting the familiar warmth of Raven's hands soothe him. He didn't mention it, but it was the familiar undertone of Raven's thoughts that was more comforting. Raven hated it when Charles read her mind without permission, but they'd come to the tacit agreement that if Raven initiated the contact, any mind-reading that did or did not happen while their skins were touching was permitted; it wasn't like Charles could control it, at any rate, when someone got this close.
The tension pounding through Charles' head and shoulders eased, and he sent across a gentle wave of gratitude to his sister. You are the best, you know. I don't know what I would do without you. The mental speech was silvery thin, a brief touch.
Raven's eyes lit up, glimmering their true amber in the firelight. Fail miserably, probably, she responded lightly, and Charles laughed. "Not everyone wants to be saved. Not everyone needs to be saved." Raven shrugged. "Sometimes it's just enough to know you're not the only one out there." They were all words Raven had told him a hundred thousand times before, each time Charles encountered someone who refused to so much as listen to what he had to say. It happened more often than Charles would have liked. With jobs so scarce and employers looking for any reason to cut down on costs, no one wanted to admit that they were different or strange.
"I know, Raven," Charles murmured yet again, but he hugged his sister obediently and shifted away from her. "Besides, we're not moving on until Thursday morning. Maybe I'll go back and see him."
"You are not!" Raven hissed emphatically. "He was two seconds from slicing your throat open, and damn the consequences, Charles!" She reached out and rested his fingers against the now dried cut at the base of the telepath's throat. "I don't care if you can stop him with your mind. You know how crowds get to you. Besides, you saw how it was—the Mechanical Man is one of the main attractions."
"In the sideshow," Charles snarled with evident disgust. The word alone offended him on every level possible and even saying the word was the easiest ways to be treated to Xavier Rant #1, 7, 12 or 13, all of which featured sideshows, freakshows, the abuse of mutants and the dehumanization of those who were different or some combination there within.
Raven was half-convinced she would be treated to any or all of the rants, but Charles' shoulders tightened up again, undoing all of the work she'd done to relax him. Raven wanted to reach out and touch him, to try and coax the sunny smile that Charles was known for out. There was something hard in Charles' eyes however, that kept her at a distance.
They sat in silence for long minutes, the sounds of the camp going on around them. Sean's joyous shouts, carrying hints of his power, filled the air. Ororo was singing in harmony with Piotr, his deep rolling base the perfect counterpart to Ororo's lilting alto. From the sounds of things, Alex and Scott were embroiled in yet another argument; as fiercely as the brothers loved each other, they were had a tendency to quarrel in explosive ways. With two young men whose gifts included being able to emit plasma beams, Charles wasn't surprised. The sounds all seemed distant, which was somewhat unnerving. Usually everyone crowded around Charles, eagerly chatting with their ringmaster and professor over anything and everything.
They'd learned by now to distance themselves, however, leaving Charles to his guilt and shame over being unable to convince Erik to come with them. It happened each time Charles failed to bring someone into their midst.
"He's beautiful, Raven," Charles whispered almost too silently for his sister to hear beneath the snapping of the fire.
Charles continued gazing at the fire. "He really is. That arm of his—and that mind! It's one of the most incredible things I've ever seen. His strength, his will, I've never seen anything like it." Charles gestured randomly, as though he could paint in the air what he was trying to describe. He felt Raven's eyes on him, but he ignored them. He was too caught up in remembering the sensation of heat and fire and pain that blazed in Erik's mind each time he used his powers, especially on his arm; the sense of self-recrimination and sorrow like a brand on Charles' skin. The staggering sense of loss and the passion that nevertheless abounded, like a shout that Charles was helpless to ignore. "He's beautiful," Charles repeated hopelessly, even though that was too much and not nearly enough. Erik's mind called out to him, even now, a bright and brilliant presence that glittered like steel in the sun against Charles' senses.
Charles sat bolt upright after a second, because he wasn't just feeling Erik's mind in the carnival, which he had all evening, but it was moving now—quickly, and towards Charles. The telepath rose to his feet, orienting himself to Erik's unique mind and sprinting away from the fire. Erik's mind was moving faster than Charles would have expected, and Charles picked up his pace, dating through the camp, heedless of the chaos that he inspired as he ran through games and barely dodged dancers and musicians.
Standing on the edge of their temporary home, Charles tried to catch his breath, uncaring of the way his breath was coming in gasps or the way his bared toes were growing chilled. Erik's motorcycle came to a stop with a low purr right in front of Charles, and he couldn't help the way his face lit up with a broad smile.
"Erik," Charles whispered as the man slung his leg over his motorcycle, gesturing with a finger to set up the kickstand. Erik leaned against the bike, features barely discernible in the starlight and glowing fires behind them. "You came." The words bubbled out of him, delighted in a way he hadn't been in a long time.
There was a flash of teeth, glinting white for an instant. "Well, I'm given to understand I'd be a fool to turn down the ringmaster of the Butterfly Circus." After a pause, he added grudgingly, "Sorry. About your throat, I mean. I didn't know who you were."
"It's fine," Charles assured him breathlessly yet again. "Really."
They stood there in awkward silence for a moment or two before Erik said in a very dry voice, "So where can I put my things?"
When Erik awoke, the sun was high in the sky and uncomfortably warm against his skin. He'd long since shed his blankets, the fire that he'd curled up beside having long since turned to ash. Erik stood, stretching, feeling more rested than he had even on the hard ground. Charles—for the ringmaster of the Butterfly Circus insisted on being called by his first name—had assured him half a dozen times that Erik and his belongings would be safe for the night, and Erik had made sure of that by sleeping with his naked sword in hand and his motorcycle against his back. There was no fuel in it, anyways; Erik used his powers to keep it repaired and running.
Still, Charles' assurance shouldn't have been enough for Erik. He'd slept far more lightly in places that should have been far safer than a camp of strangers, but Erik couldn't get past Charles' words from the night previous—the words that had been spoken directly into Erik's mind by some strange force, carrying with them an unbridled joy and hope that filled Erik's senses even now. Gifts, the man had called them, and a whole world of possibilities was now opening in front of Erik's eyes. The knowledge that Erik was not a freak in truth, that others might have the same talents that he himself had so long viewed as a curse—it was exhilarating and far more restive a thought than Erik would have previously given credit. Sleep came easily when he wasn't tormented by should-haves and could-haves and might-have-beens for once.
Besides, Erik had honed his skills for detecting people intending to do him harm in the middle of the night years ago and even in the deepest of sleeps, his powers were always active and searching for any hint that someone was creeping up on him with malicious intent in mind.
A quick and cursory check revealed that what few belongings he'd wanted to take with him were all in place—a long photograph of his family, taken two years before the accident, a few baubles from his childhood. A well-thumbed copy of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. His motorcycle and sword as well, of course, and a small medical kit that was well-stocked with everything Erik needed to take care of his arm.
Folding the blankets up and setting them with the pile of spare, generic belongings from which they'd been pulled, Erik found himself gazing around, trying to find one of the two familiar faces without actually looking as lost as he felt. His entire world, upended in a single night when he least expected it, everything that he thought he knew about the world having been proven false, made him want nothing so much as to have Charles sit down and explain how Charles had found him, how he'd known that Erik was gifted. Any of it, all of it.
Erik wanted answers, wanted to be reassured that he hadn't thrown away his entire life on a single bright, burning moment of hope that Charles could help him.
As if summoned by his thoughts, Charles came around the edge of the tent, carrying two plates loaded with food. When he saw that Erik was awake, Charles' face lit up with a smile. "You're up!" Charles greeted. "How are you feeling? You had a bit of a late night last night, so we all thought that it would be best to give you some more time to rest."
Well, that explained the relative emptiness of the camp—between Charles keeping everyone away and the midday meal being served, it only made sense. "Good morning. Well, afternoon, now."
"Mm, yes," Charles agreed. He was still wearing that almost ridiculous top-hat, but he'd changed the silk shirt and neat clothing for an almost dowdy pair of trousers and ragged button-down that was creased with dirt and grime and patched in a few places. Charles had gone so far as to roll up his sleeves, baring forearms that were surprisingly strong. He passed along one of the plates to Erik, a fork precariously balanced atop the simple boiled potatoes, grilled sausages, and roasted onions. All of it smelled delicious.
"It's not poisoned or anything," Charles said through a mouthful of food, having already sat down next to the cold fire. He'd covered his mouth with his hand when he spoke, but was otherwise uncaring of whether his manners offended Erik. It was nice, almost, to see someone with such whole-hearted enjoyment of food. Too long Erik had been making do; the carnival Erik had made his home was generally uncaring of whether Erik got three proper meals a day. Assuming the food was even edible in the first place; the Great Depression hadn't lent itself to excess of food and what was fresh was hard to come by.
There was nothing for Erik to say to that, so he simply sat himself down just out of reach of Charles in order to start in on the food as well. Erik ate quietly and quickly, keeping his head down. He didn't waste a bite, the food filling him up. Charles, thankfully, didn't drag him into conversation, focusing on his own meal. It was only once they were done that Charles took both of their plates and set them aside.
"Now that we're both feeling that much more satisfied, go on. I'm sure you have questions. People usually have questions." Erik might have expected the words to sound irritated, but Charles mostly sounded content and pleased with himself. When Erik remained silent, Charles prodded, "Unless you'd rather I start?"
"No, no, it's just..." Where did one even begin? Erik wondered. A thousand questions leapt to the front of his mind, but he couldn't seem to verbalize any of them.
"Who are you?"
Charles grinned cheekily. "Well, now, that's a loaded question. Who am I personally? Who are we as the Butterfly Circus? Or did you mean what am I?"
"Yes," Erik said, frustrated. "All of it."
Charles settled down, and it seemed like he was finally prepared to be serious. "My name is Charles Xavier. My sister, Raven, is the woman that was with me last night. We, along with some friends that I'm sure you will meet shortly, run the Butterfly Circus. The ringmaster is yours truly," and watching Charles bow while lounging seated on the grown made Erik's mouth twitch in a smile despite himself, "but Raven runs all the acrobatics, and you'll meet Hank soon who does all of our medical aid, Scott does logistics and so on. I'm currently trying not to inundate you with too many visitors, I'm afraid some of our members tend to be somewhat...excitable." Though Charles had sounded dry, there was an unmistakable happiness in his eyes.
Erik let Charles continue uninterrupted. "But that's not the interesting part, it is, Erik?" Charles was quiet for a moment, leaving Erik on tenterhooks. "For as long as I can remember, I've been able to hear the thoughts of people around me. I assumed it was something everything could do, at first, but I figured it out sometime around five, maybe? That not everyone was like me, I mean. And I thought, or at least, I hoped, but I felt rather sure that I was right, but there had to be others like me, surely. Or well, not exactly like me, because you're not exactly like me, but different, special, like me, and I..." Charles let out a sigh. "Oh dear. I'm just bolloxing this all up, aren't I? I'm usually much more collected when I give this speech."
Charles cleared his throat. "When I was about twelve, I thought I heard something downstairs. I came down, and my mother was there. Except...she wasn't my mother. You see, with my gift, I can sort of..." he gestured wildly, "feel minds? Except that's not quite right, it's like I can sort of sense them?" Charles scrunched up his nose. "All I knew was that it looked like my mother, except it wasn't, and I knew something was different, and I told her so with my gift, and...there was Raven." Charles sounded as awed as Erik imagined he'd looked when Charles and Raven had first met. "And I knew in that moment I had been right. I wasn't the only one. So when I was old enough, I started this—we use the Butterfly Circus to track down others like us during the winter and summer, and the rest of the time we spent at the school, where I help those I find with their unique talents. With my gifts, I can find others like me; that's how I found you, Erik."
Charles suddenly pinned Erik with his gaze, eyes absurdly brilliant in the sun. "You're not alone, Erik. You're not alone."
Erik was slowly but surely introduced to the thirty or so people that made up the Butterfly Circus over the following hours. It was a far smaller number than Erik was expecting, giving how famous they were, but everyone seemed to know exactly what to do and what their role was; they fit together seamlessly, leaving Erik to awkwardly follow them. There was easiness here, a comfort with their selves, even those with the most unusual of gifts—from Raven's natural blue skin and golden eyes to Hank's unusual feet. There wasn't even the usual treatment of Armando as colored, as though that was all he was. It was reassuring, in a sense; Erik's Jewish heritage was something he'd taken pains to hide. He'd long grown sick of being called everything from Kike to Shylock when he wasn't being called a monster or a thing for his arm.
Erik remained the observer, trying to understand.
That night, they put together a party in his honor, building up a roaring fire and using him as an excuse to indulge in the moonshine they'd gotten their hands on from the locals. Erik didn't take it personally; these days, everyone was looking for an excuse to strengthen the fragile hope in their chest. He mostly let everyone enjoy themselves, obliging them only when it seemed they'd take offense.
Not long after the drinking began, the dancing started, and Erik feasted on everything from the traditional dances that Ororo and Monica performed to the singing everyone engaged in to the slow waltz that was played at the end of the evening. Everyone paired up, Charles even giving Erik a hand in welcome. Erik stared at it for a moment, eyes wide with discomfort.
Over Charles' shoulder, Alex and Armando swayed together softly, Raven in her beautiful blue twirled with a laughing Sean, Scott and Jean performed the dance almost painfully perfectly, and for the first time it really sunk in.
There would be no barriers here.
Charles' palm was warm and when he pulled Erik in he smelled faintly of the moonshine and earth. They stumbled through a waltz of their own, and Erik laughed for the first time in years, Charles' breath soft against his skin.
Erik could understand how, to the untrained eye, what they did looked like magic. Erik knew how it all worked and it still felt like magic each and every time. Alex's ability to throw fire, or Danielle's illusionist act, or Raven's acrobatics with Jeanne-Marie, Remy, Joanna and occasionally Hank, or Darwin's escapist feats were all the more incredible because Erik knew how they worked rather than despite it.
Then there were other talents entirely. In spite of his first impressions, not every single person in the Butterfly Circus had the same unusual talents as Erik or Charles. Moira, for instance was completely ordinary, insofar as anyone in this circus could be, but Erik was nevertheless completely transfixed by her contact juggling.
"Very nice!" Moira was saying approvingly once Ororo had successfully balanced the smooth plastic ball on the back of her hand. Erik had seen the polished and perfectly smooth glass set Moira used for performances, but with Ororo just learning, drops were inevitable. Better not to risk the real things. "Now I want you to toss it up in the air and catch it on the back of your hand like this." She demonstrated what she wanted several times.
Biting her lips, Ororo tried it herself, throwing the ball up in the air a few inches before precariously catching it. Her hand wavered and she frowned at it. Moira stepped back, observing quietly and mindlessly rolling the ball across her body with a thoughtless familiarity that made Erik ache for unknown reasons.
As Ororo got more and more comfortable tossing the ball up and catching it, she began doing it with more confidence, the gleaming plastic reaching higher and higher each time. Erik stared at them without shame, watching Ororo's fumbling attempts and Moira's smooth grace, going so far as to catch it and roll it across her foot, balanced easily on the other before kicking it up to slide across her shoulders.
"Do you want to try?" Moira called suddenly, and Erik froze, feeling caught. "Ororo is just learning too."
"Definitely learning," Ororo muttered under her breath as she dropped the ball for the third time in a row.
"Hush, you," Moira retorted, nudging Ororo gently with her elbow as she twirled the ball with her hands. "Well?"
"No, thank you," Erik replied stiffly. He wanted to get angry at Moira, because of course there was no way for him to do it, with his arm being what it was. Erik would never be able to so much as balance the ball on the back of his left hand, not with it marked by metal across almost every free inch of flesh. His arm, which only moved when Erik forced it too because he'd turned it into a machine and weapon. Erik hated when people stared at it, the way Moira and now Ororo were staring at it.
Erik swallowed down furious words, for which he was proud of himself, but he did it mostly because he would sound all the more the fool. He didn't want to give Charles a reason to kick Erik out of the Butterfly Circus so quickly for his own temper. Doubtless they meant nothing by it. Erik shifted, turning so that the mangled flesh was out of sight.
Moira shrugged, keeping her gaze steady and on him. Utterly unflinching. "Another time, then," she answered, as though Erik wanted the offer to remain open. "Whenever you'd like."
Erik dropped his gaze, returning to the fire he was attempting to start. "Maybe."
He kept his gaze down until he heard Moira return to the instruction of Ororo; if either noticed that Erik continued to watch, neither spoke.
They were headed towards the next town when the truck broke down. Under the hot summer sun, it seemed like an impossibly daunting task to figure out how to fix it. On the truck was everything from their performance tent to some of their larger equipment to the costume boxes; they couldn't afford to leave any of it even if they wanted to.
Erik was one of the last ones to join the group crowded around the truck with despondent faces. Even then, he stayed near the outskirts of their huddle. "The nearest mechanic is at least forty miles," Charles was saying with frustration evident in his voice. "I don't know how we're going to get the truck there."
Immediate discussion of potential ways to tow the machine began; this wasn't the first time one of the vehicles they used for transport had broken down, but the ponderous truck had never done so; it was usually the one pulling the vehicle, and no one seemed to know whether any of the other cars was even capable of doing it.
Erik walked around the edge of the crowd, coming to stand at the side of the engine. Logan was ignoring all of the fuss, rummaging around the engine. Of the circus, Logan was the one with the most mechanical experience, but Logan simply lacked the patience for anything more than the barest fix. Erik, however, knew engines well enough. Though he didn't choose to use fuel for his motorcycle didn't mean he lacked comprehension of how it should work. After all, he'd spent a full year and a half doing under the table mechanic work before the shop had shut down, its owner up to his ears in debt. It's how he'd ended up in the carnival in the first place, unable to find any sort of work after the stock market crashed.
Erik did a cursory check of the engine. He didn't even need to use his powers to figure out that the engine had seized. Slipping past the crowed, he went to the back of the cramped car he'd put his belongings in. Rummaging around, he pulled out the bottle of oil he used to keep his arm mobile. It wasn't technically engine oil—in fact, Erik wasn't entire sure what kind of oil it was, considering he'd stolen the bottle—but there would probably be enough in it that they could at least get to the next town, if not the next mechanic.
Holding the bottle of oil, he went to Charles, gesturing at the truck slightly. "May I?" Erik asked. "I worked as a mechanic once."
Charles blinked at him, then grinned widely, distracted from his attempts to calm the shouting match Logan and Scott were currently engaged in; they were not the only ones arguing over what was best, but they were certainly the most vocal. If this went on for much longer, everyone would either start taking sides or taking bets—possibly both. "Yes, please. Anything besides listening to people argue. Do you need a hand with anything?"
Erik shook his head, indicating the tools with him. They weren't technically the right ones, but Erik could make do. He was good at that, these days. "It shouldn't be long," Erik promised. His fingers never forgot the feeling of metal. Behind him, he could hear voices slowly dropping as people realized what he was up to. No one interrupted his work, however, for which Erik was grateful. People who hadn't done this work before had no right to come and instruct him on the best way to do it, but it was something he'd encountered more than once, no matter the guise it came in.
Erik worked quickly and efficiently before firmly shutting the hood. "Try it now," Erik told Logan, who was chomping obnoxiously on his cigar. Scott was nowhere in sight; perhaps Jean had finally taken him in hand. Charles offered an old rag for Erik to clean his hands on and some water when he was done.
The engine successfully turned over, and Erik was suddenly at the center of a crush of people, all of whom wanted to offer well-meaning congratulations and praise, sounding absurdly pleased for something so simple.
Still, when he was back in the car with Erik and Raven, windows down so that the air, dusty though it was, could cool the sweat from his skin, Charles murmured, "Thank you, Erik," in so sincere a tone that it made Erik's breath catch.
"Not a problem," Erik replied gruffly. "Any time."
If Erik had known that doing a temporary fix on the truck would lead him here, he would have never admitted he was capable of it.
Actually, that was false. It wasn't that Erik minded taking over the mechanical repair from Logan as such, it was just that it still felt unusual. Even a month later, Erik kept expecting to wake up and take his place in the carnival freakshow as the sun set and the carnival filled in earnest. His entire world still felt dangerously unbalanced, like the Earth had decided to go careening off in a wildly different direction, leaving him to hang on for dear life. Not that he disliked it, at such—how could he regret Raven's excitement over trying on yet another form, or watching Alex and Scott compete good-naturedly to find out who had the best aim, or even letting Hank offer ways to make his arm easier to manage.
Of course, there was also Charles.
Charles, who was standing down in the ring, the consummate showman. "And now for the great escapist, Darwin!" Charles called. As the audience gasped in appropriate surprise, Charles narrated what was happening to the man in question. "Bound in heavy chains and this tarp, Darwin will find himself completely immobile." When it was proven by an audience volunteer that Darwin was in fact properly encased, Charles stepped back and gestured at the tank of water being rolled in. "Now we will dump him into seven feet of water. I ask you, my friends—will the courageous Darwin make it out alive?"
Erik, in the audience, watched in awe as Armando contorted himself to rid himself of his bindings and get up to the surface. With Armando's mutation, the man wasn't in any real danger, but Erik still felt a curious sense of anxiety pressing down on him. The question of whether Armando would be able to manage the feat never quite left his mind even though Erik had seen Armando do it half a dozen times before, though never from the crowd's perspective.
When Armando finally made it to the surface, and the crowd, small though it was, broke into thunderous applause, Erik found himself joining them. A sudden upwelling of happiness and hope caught him by surprise, and Erik realized what was going on; he'd felt it, occasionally during his time in the circus. Though Charles had been fervent about his promise not to real Erik's mind—a courtesy Charles extended to everyone once he was absolutely sure that they would not betray the Butterfly Circus' cause—he was prone to projecting his emotions if he was feeling them strongly enough. Erik had felt someone else's contentment and regret and hope settle into his heart as if they were his own more than once over the past few weeks. Raven, Erik and Moira seemed to be especially susceptible, and though Charles had given him sporadic excuses and explanations, Charles hadn't stopped, either.
Erik wasn't exactly sure if he wanted Charles to.
Either way, Erik knew that this was Charles' doing, amplifying the anxiety and making the hope a searing presence in the audience's chest. That was the second, equally important purpose to the Butterfly Circus' trek across the barren wastelands and despondent cities: to bring hope back to all who ventured beneath the performance tent. Charles was doing what he could to lift the despairing pain, if even for an evening, helping the awe and joy over the performances become rooted deep.
I shouldn't, I know. Charles' voice rang in Erik's mind, like a bell to Erik's senses. Erik felt foolish describing it as such, especially because of the undertone of all the ephemeral things that made Charles up—his good humor and terrible jokes and love of books and incredible intelligence—laced beneath each word meant that 'bell' seemed like an absurdly poor metaphor. I can't help in any other way, though. I'm doing what I can. Maybe evenings like this will soften the months to come.
Erik didn't quite know what he was supposed to say to that.
Nothing. Charles' voice ghosted through his mind, a tender connection that Erik relished despite the intimacy it assumed. Only enjoy yourself tonight.
Erik settled himself more comfortably in his chair, meeting Charles' penetrating gaze with a challenging stare of his own.
"And then he actually ate it!" Raven shrieked, dissolving into gales of laughter. She wasn't the only one either; Sean was practically bent over with the force of his snickering and Alex and Armando were all but propping each other up. Danielle was wiping away tears from her eyes and even shy Anna Marie couldn't stop giggling.
Charles' entire face was scarlet from the roots of his hair down to his collarbones, before the hot flush disappeared beneath his shirt. Erik was queerly disappointed by that fact but tried not to draw attention to his staring. "Will you ever stop telling that story?" Charles inquired plaintively, and Raven snorted.
"So long as there are new people to share it with, no, brother dearest, you will never, ever live that down. Ever," Raven shot back. Charles groaned and covered his face. Erik hid his own smile by gazing down at his food. They didn't often eat together as one enormous group, but occasionally they would all drift to a common fire, exchanging stories and ridiculous tales and songs. "Let's be honest here. I've got more dirt on you than even you can imagine. Just give up now."
Erik patted Charles on the back consolingly, but his mouth was twitching in a smile. "Raven's right, give up now. Her victory will be less painful that way."
That produced a whole new set of people laughing. Charles made a face and flopped back on the ground, setting aside his finished plate in the progress. "My heart!" he cried. "Such a betrayal from my erstwhile friend! I am forever wounded!" Charles threw a hand across his forehead as though he were a swooning maiden from the old legends. Erik snorted at the mental picture.
Charles smacked his leg in retaliation, looking grumpy. "Don't go looking if you don't think you'll like what you're going to see," Erik told the telepath serenely, and Charles made yet another face. Unperturbed, Erik ate the last of his corn and did as everyone else had, throwing the empty cob into the fields to their right.
"I can't help it if you're practically shouting it, Erik. That being said, I don't think pink's my color. Now, as for the rest of you, don't stay up too late. I am going to take my leave of you before you turn the evening into 'Let's Mock Poor, Helpless Charles, Our Benevolent Ringmaster and Charming Professor'."
Logan grinned almost wickedly. "You mean it wasn't that already?"
Charles rolled his eyes as more laughter spilled into the darkened night. Charles stood, brushing off his trousers for all the good it would do him. They really had seen better days and were gathering holes at an alarming rate, faster than Moira or Anna Marie could mend. "Yes, Logan, thank you so much for that." He eyed Erik for a moment. "I'm going to abandon everyone. Are you up for a game of chess?"
That had Erik grinning. "So I'm no longer the betrayer of our friendship?" he asked innocently.
Charles huffed out a breath, smiling wryly. "Is that a no?"
Erik reached out a hand and allowed Charles to pull him up. "It's not a no," Erik allowed. Pleasantly full, he stumbled closer to Charles than he meant to, and for a brief instant felt the surprisingly strong and lithe body beneath the ridiculous clothing. Erik stepped away quickly, flushing as crimson as Charles had earlier. "I'll just go, uh, set up the chessboard," Erik stammered, and fled, all too aware of Charles' heated gaze on his back.