Erik stood back a little as the performers of the Butterfly Circus made their way through the narrow town streets. Logan had Moira contact juggling on one shoulder while Raven was doing backflips through the streets with ease. Alex was twirling a metal ring around his body, studded with rags soaked in gas that had been set alight. Ororo and Monica were doing their traditional dances, complete with drums. This was one of everyone's favorite parts, the sheer exhilaration and shock that filled everyone's faces when the Butterfly Circus first went breezing through the town, inviting everyone they saw to come to the performance. Even Charles himself got into the spectacle of it all, his top hat gaudily embellished with all manner of faux precious stones and he'd placed himself atop stilts.
Erik couldn't help laughing as Charles swayed almost drunkenly through the crowd, looking for all the world as if he was perpetually a second away from falling to the ground. He never quite managed it, though, and Erik was clever enough to realize that meant that Charles was considerably more talented than he was letting on. If he wasn't, he'd have never been able to hand out the tickets as easily as he seemed to, grinning widely at the children and adults alike who had turned out to see the brief performance. Erik had wondered only once how Charles and the others could afford to give away free tickets and still run the circus, but Charles had only said that he had matters well in hand.
A hand on his metal arm made Erik start and he looked down to see a young boy grinning up at him, looking fascinated by Erik's arm. "Are you in the circus too?" he asked excitedly.
Erik, nonplused, was only able to stare blankly at him for a moment. "Um, no, not, uh, exactly. I help." He waved a hand. "Around. With things." Erik was not good with small children; heretofore his only experience with children was of the local ones teasing him growing up or the ones that visited the carnival and mocked his arm. Either way, it was an abysmal record.
The child looked queerly disappointed by this revelation and ducked his head down, running off to see the other performers, leaving Erik staring after him.
Soon enough, however, it was time to leave and get things settled for that night's performance and they returned to the camp they'd made a few miles out of the town proper. Everything was a bustle of activity, from setting up the tent to everyone stretching out their bodies in preparation. Erik cast an appraising eye when Raven slid neatly into a split, looking as comfortable as if she was curled up in front of the first.
"Erik?" Charles asked plaintively, summoning the man's attention. He was still up on his stilts, looking frustrated. "Everyone else is busy. Do you mind giving me a hand so I can get out of these blasted contraptions?"
"We're fine," Scott and Logan said in unison before Erik could say anything. The pair of them glared at each other, and immediately began squabbling over who would take over Erik's duties. Rolling his eyes, Erik left them to it. They seemed to enjoy the frequent, heated arguments, but Erik didn't have the patience for it.
"I can get them on without too much trouble," Charles said as he led the way to the truck, "but I'm not very good at getting them off, I'm afraid. I'm never quite balanced enough to sit down. Mind giving me a hand?"
"Of course." Having done this for Moira before, as well as some of the acrobats, it was the work of a moment to scale the hood of the truck and steady Charles as he carefully lowered himself. Erik's muscles strained when one of the stilts slipped out beneath Charles' foot, and he let out a little squeak of surprise as his weight came crashing down on Erik. Erik, for his part, managed to hold onto both Charles and his balance, though it was a hard won battle, and managed to get them both sitting on the hood without too much more trouble.
"You really are terrible at that," Erik said, perhaps more fondly than he'd intended to. "You'd think you'd have learned by now."
Instead of taking offense or replying with the quick wit that Erik had long become accustomed to, Charles ignored him loftily, attending to the stilts. Erik fell silent, watching the way Charles' brow furrowed as he worked on the straps, clumsy fingers catching on the bindings. "Let me," Erik coaxed, and Charles sighed and sat back, out of Erik's way. Patiently, Erik disconnected the wood from Charles' feet, running fingers over the faint marks on Charles' calf that even the padding couldn't quite prevent. Erik traced his fingers lightly over the marks. "You should probably have Hank look at that," Erik warned softly.
"They'll be gone by morning," Charles replied. He sounded utterly unconcerned. Taking the stilts from Erik's grasp, Charles leaned them against the side and sighed happily, turning his face into the dying sunlight for a moment. All around them, preparations continued full tilt, leaving the pair of them in the eye of the storm.
Erik followed the hustle and bustle; Raven and the other acrobats were jogging lightly around the camp, warming up their limbs before they attempted their feats of strength. The fire-tamers were practicing with their unlit paraphernalia, reminding their skin and muscles of the weight and feeling of their tools. Scott was in his element, directing everyone and everything. Irritating and obnoxious as the man could be, even Erik could admit that they wouldn't be able to do this without him; Scott was responsible for everything from where to set up the performance tent to making sure they had enough food on hand to feed everyone. Yet that was only what Erik saw at a glance; another look would show him Moira and the other jugglers on low stilts, practicing their show, Armando thoroughly stretching to make sure that he was limber enough to do his escape act, and even Logan was lifting up weights to loosen his muscles before his strong man act.
Where could Erik begin with these people; every time he gazed at their art, Erik was amazed all over again at their skill and showmanship. He was stunned by their passion and joy, the way they wanted to be here with the Butterfly Circus even if their act didn't directly require their gifts. Charles had spoken to him about a school where they taught people how to handle their powers, where they were able to remain themselves in ways that they couldn't in so-called 'normal' society. Erik wanted to see it desperately, if for no other reason than he wanted to know how it could possibly compare to this: this, the Butterfly Circus in all of its wild, unrestrained glory.
"They're incredible," Erik breathed.
Charles should have agreed, basking in the easy confidence that everyone around them displayed, but instead, his face grew haggard and bleak. He tried to keep his silence for a moment, but the words nearly burst forward out of Charles' mouth, tripping over each other. "They are some of the most incredible people of my acquaintance, and I am honored to call each and every one of them my friend." Charles paused, and his voice was wrecked when he rasped, "Then there's you, Erik. I see you, and I see all the potential you have. If you wanted, you could have a power no one here can match, not even me," Charles' voice dropped, equal measures heartbroken and frozen when he whispered, agonized, "Don't waste it, Erik."
Erik's mouth dropped open at the vehement and strained words. "What?"
Charles' eyes gleamed in the setting sun, suspiciously damp. "Do you think I haven't noticed? That none of us have noticed? The only time I've ever seen you use your powers is to move your arm. I don't know your past, and I haven't asked because it's not important unless you want it to be, but Erik, you don't have to be afraid anymore." Charles closed his eyes tight and his mouth trembled. "You are the Mechanical Man, the one that the Devil himself has claimed for his own, and trapped in a horrifying blend of metal and flesh."
Erik stared at him, aghast, before his senses kicked in. Furious, blinding, snapping rage overwhelmed him and he snarled, "Stop! That's—that's wrong! What—why, why would you say that?!" Of all the people, he thought that Charles could be trusted not to hurt him like this, to use his words like the sword he'd once wielded so adroitly. Beneath the flare of anger was unbearable anguish because this was Charles, who'd given him late night conversations and chess matches and a purpose beyond surviving one more day.
Charles, who told him he wasn't alone.
Far from being offended by Erik's temper, Charles drew in a quavering breath, hand coming to cup Erik's face, forcing their gazes to meet. His voice was excruciatingly gentle. "Because you believe it."
Charles' mouth was swift and sudden against his own, gone too quickly for Erik to do more than catch his breath in his lungs. Charles backed away, eyes still glittering with unshed tears. "But if you could only see the beauty that can emerge from ashes..." Charles shook his head, biting his lip, and pushed himself off the roof of the truck and onto the ground. He glanced up at Erik, the setting sun casting his face in shadow. "Find your heart, Erik."
Without looking back, Charles walked into the Butterfly Circus.
Erik got on his motorcycle and left.
He didn't know where he was going or what he was doing, but he had to get as far away from Charles and the Butterfly Circus as possible.
Fury and despair fueled him, knotted tight in his breast. How dare Charles call him frightened, as though he was a weeping child who wished to hide away from the world. He snarled wordlessly, bitterly, and pushed his motorcycle even further, forcing it to obey his commands—and wasn't that using his powers? He used it for more than just his arm and motorcycle, surely.
He used it for—he used it—used it for—he surely—
Erik found himself slowing to a stop, sitting astride his bike and wondering when the last time he'd really, truly used his gift. He'd done all of the mechanical repair by hand since his unofficial start in the Butterfly Circus, going so far as to keep his arm in working order using tools first and foremost instead of adjusting it using his powers. He closed his eyes against the awful realization, that he truly hadn't been using his powers in recent weeks, and even before then he'd used them grudgingly only when he had no other choice, when he'd been at—oh.
At the freakshow.
Erik stared blankly off into the dark, breath coming in short, sharp stabs.
How had he—how had he not noticed that?
Except it had always been that way, hadn't it? Ever since the train accident that had taken his parents from him, the same accident that had awakened his powers, Erik hated using the very thing that had saved him and left his parents to die. Erik had no doubt that was exactly what it was, though he couldn't prove it; how else could he have been cradled between two of the metal beams which had protect him from death when his parents had been killed almost instantly? He'd as good as murdered them himself.
It was only natural that he avoided his powers whenever possible. They were a curse, not the gift that Charles had treated them as, and Erik was justly punished for his sin with the mere existence of his arm. The monstrous thing that he'd done to himself was as much his way of recovering what of his life he could as it was to let everyone know that he was marked forever by his loss.
Erik was the Mechanical Man.
Yet his first reaction to Charles' words had been denial, dismissal. He didn't believe Charles' words, knew they were completely false. He wasn't just the Mechanical Man any more than Logan was just Wolverine, or Raven was just Mystique. It was a part of him, but far from the whole—and Erik refused to let it be the whole of who he was. How many times had he stared down the people who'd come to mock him at the carnival and known without a doubt that he was so much more than they were? The conviction that Erik could master whatever challenge he faced was already there, hidden and buried deep.
Erik would always regret his parents' death but he didn't want to hide anymore.
He gazed out into the darkness for a long time.
Erik placed a gentle hand on Charles' shoulder. He was curled up against a tree near the road, visible only because of the bright patchwork quilt draped over him. Erik's mouth curled up despite himself. It was very like Charles to try and wait up for Erik instead of sleeping like a normal person.
At Erik's touch, rather than starting awake, Charles arched up into Erik's hand, blue eyes glimmering in the pre-dawn light. "Erik," Charles murmured, voice rough and low with sleep. Then, more sharply, "You came back. Erik, you came back." There was something so thankful in Charles' voice, something so relieved, that Erik crouched down close to Charles.
Charles immediately wound his arms around Erik, and his voice was self-recriminating when he mumbled against Erik's skin, "I was so worried that you were just gone, and I was so frightened, I should have never said any of that to you, please, don't ever go like that again, I'm so sorry, I'm so, so sorry." Charles pressed his face against Erik's shoulder, shaking faintly.
"Oh, Charles," Erik replied, subdued. "Charles, no, I..." he grasped for the words frantically, but he had never been a man of many words. Instead, he tipped back Charles' head, marveling at the damp cheeks and red mouth and the alluring blue eyes that had caught his attention at their first meeting.
When their lips met, Charles froze for just a moment and then made a gasping sound and pulled Erik in closer, toppling them both to the side as they lost their balance. They ended up sprawled against each other, limbs entangled, and laughing into each other's mouth. Erik gently pulled himself free, but Charles never stopped grinning up at Erik and the other man couldn't resist pressing his mouth to Charles' once more. Erik hadn't been kissed but a handful of times and he moved carefully, following the way Charles shifted them, the way he made it softer, made it better. Charles' mouth was deliciously pliant against his own, chapped from the wind and the dust and heat and Erik wanted.
Erik didn't know how much time had passed, but warmth built between them, slow and drugging. Charles kissed him firmly once, twice, then a third time before pulling back, tucking them both securely under the quilt. The ground was still cold and hard against their skin, and it was just enough that they were able to keep their hands entwined without their world dissolving into skin on skin.
"You came back," Charles said once more, softly.
"I will always come back," Erik informed him. "Always."
Charles smiled a little then, coaxing another kiss from Erik, which he gave gladly.
Erik then took a deep breath, trying to steady the rapid beats of his heart. "I was, uh, thinking," Erik stammered, hating how awkward he sounded. "I think I should change my stage name."
Charles went absolutely still and silent. In a voice that didn't give anything away, he inquired, "Oh?"
"I'd like to be called Magneto."
Charles was what Raven liked to call, "A consummate showman".
This was made considerably less a compliment when each time Raven said those words, she was thinking quite clearly, "Kiss-ass."
Charles ignored her when she did that. Charles was just interested in people; he wanted to hear what people were doing, how they were feeling, where they were going, what they were hoping for, when they were leaving. People were fascinating, and Charles had learned all too well how much people appreciated being heard instead of just listened to. Charles knew that everyone had something interesting to offer, some story or conversation to bring that would make life a little brighter, a little richer.
That was why he was the ringmaster of the Butterfly Circus. His excitement, his energy, his emotion translated to the audience without Charles ever needing to invoke his telepathy. He knew how to work a crowd from having done it a hundred thousand times before without so much as a flinch. He couldn't even count the number of performances that he'd done with the Butterfly Circus, their family slowly growing year by year. Charles wanted nothing more than to envelop performers, crew and audience together for one evening, to let go of their troubles and live in the moment.
For the first time, that calm broke as Erik—no, Magneto—emerged from the wings.
Erik bore his sword on one hip, clad from head to toe in a dramatic black and silver, his sword encased in a new silver-detailed sheath. His arm was left exposed, the iron and steel creating a dramatic juxtaposition to the cloth. A belt was studied with a series of razor sharp and perfectly weighted throwing knives that Erik had created specifically for his performance. Anna-Marie had even tried to put him in a dramatic scarlet cape and headpiece before Erik had vetoed the first as potentially dangerous considering his act and then vetoed the second simply with the words, "Over my dead body."
Nevertheless, Erik painted an impressive figure that drew every eye in the enormous performance tent. He bowed once to his audience and strode to the opposite side of the ring, across from the target. Everyone waited with bated breath for Erik's first movement, Charles most of all.
Then, in the space between one breath and another, Erik moved.
Six blades, thrown one after another at the target, embedding themselves deeply into the bull's eye, clustered tightly in the red ring. There was an enormous, quick inhale of everyone in the crowd as Raven and Logan rolled the board forward, displaying to everyone Erik's prowess with the throwing knives. Erik bowed again as everyone broke into applause, yanking the weapons out and sheathing them once more. They set up the target a second time, and this time Erik made a smiling face on the target board, earning himself a laugh and cheers from his observers. Next was a perfect circle around the barest edge of the target, followed throwing the blades with both hands and then by Logan offering himself up as a target so that Erik could outline him in the weapons while the audience gasped and cheered. When Erik sheathed the knives for the last time, he did a full sweeping bow that brought the audience to their feet.
Charles moved forward, ready to introduce the next act as the clapping died away, but Erik hadn't moved.
Raven and Logan were moving the board away though, and Raven treated him to a cheeky grin while Logan's scowl became momentarily less menacing. They waved for him to stay in the shadows and Charles turned, wondering what Erik was about to do.
Erik turned, his profile to the audience while he faced Charles in the shadows of the tent, eyes deep grey beneath the lights. Erik's mouth curled in a smile, chin lifting with challenge and pride as he faced Charles.
Erik drew his sword.
As when Charles had first seen him, Erik nicked his finger to demonstrate that the blade was sharp to his audience. Whispers broke out, filling the performance tent with a dull roar as astonished comprehension of what Erik planned to do sank in. Erik lifted the blade to his mouth, swallowing it down under the hot stage lights, blood pounding hot beneath his skin as he reveled in what he could do. Dead silence reigned as Erik worked the blade progressively deeper into his mouth and esophagus and Charles stopped breathing, utterly entranced.
When the hilt was pressed against Erik's lips, he flung his arms wide, the ring's lights dancing against the steel of his arm and the silver of his costume. Charles pressed a hand to his own mouth as though he could press the joy back down beneath his skin instead of letting it escape out into the air.
Erik, Erik! Charles couldn't help murmuring when he touched Erik's vibrant mind with his own, mental touch reverent. He couldn't say anything more than that, just let his joy and pride find a home inside Erik's heart. Charles was just able to see it as Erik's mouth twitched in a smile before he drew the sword back out past his lips and put it back in its sheath.
The crowd rose to its feet in its appreciation, until the sound of the clapping practically reverberated against Charles' skin. Erik remained stock still, eyes filled with good humor as he continued to look at Charles for a long moment before relenting and bowing one last time to the audience.
Instead of going out like he should, Charles waited until Erik had reached the wings to wrap his arms firmly around the other man and kiss him thoroughly, body arching eagerly against Erik's own and stealing the man's breath. "Gorgeous," Charles breathed. The last thing he wanted to do was break this moment and make sure the show went on. He punctuated the compliment with another very thorough kiss.
"Your audience is getting restless," Erik managed to say, the words filled with amusement.
Charles let out a little growl and stole one final kiss. Then he darted out into the ring, flashing what he'd been assured was a brilliant smile and began to introduce the next act, feeling Erik's laughter in the back of his mind all the while.
As August began to wane, Erik could hardly fail to notice the way people began to look eastward once more as if looking for something that Erik couldn't begin to see. As the heat finally began to taper off and cool winds could be found once more, Erik knew that fall was coming, but it wasn't until Charles came up behind him one evening and rested his forehead against Erik's spine that he found out what was going on: "They want to go home." Charles' voice was muffled, a puff of hot air that cut through Erik's shirt.
"To the school?" Erik clarified. This wasn't the first time he'd heard it mentioned, and Charles had made it clear that everyone returned to the school to either teach or participate in classes, but somehow Erik hadn't realized how quickly the end of summer had come.
"Yes. Home," Charles said, putting no emphasis on the correction. "My family's home is in upstate New York. Westchester, actually. It's probably starting to get properly cold now. It's gorgeous in the winter, too. We get some beautiful snow." Charles sounded wistful, wanting. "I always miss it when I'm gone."
Erik sucked in a little breath. "So...you're leaving, then. Soon."
Charles went abruptly still. "I'm...I'm leaving?" he inquired, sounding shocked. "I...oh."
"It's nothing, I just thought, but it doesn't matter. Of course, we'll help you in any way that we can before we leave." Charles was drawing away, leaving cool skin in his wake and Erik caught the telepath's wrist before he could escape completely. The man's gaze was firmly on the ground, avoiding Erik entirely.
Erik's mouth curved as he lifted Charles' face, fingers gentle, marveling a little at how easily he could read this man now. "I'll come, if you want," Erik offered, not quite able to keep his voice steady. "You never...you never said anything about it, so I wasn't sure—"
Charles' eyes were luminous. "Of course I want you to come!" he gasped, stunned. "How could I not? I want to introduce you to my students, to the rest of the professors, to the gifted people in the network I've started to set up, all of it. Please, Erik. Come with me."
Erik's smirk was wide and sharp and he dipped his head down. Charles met him halfway in a slow, deep kiss, clutching each other tight. When Erik broke away, the smirk had gentled into something softer and warmer. "Oh, Charles," he chuckled, "I never wanted to do anything else."
Like the winged creatures the circus was named for, with the coming of winter, the Butterfly Circus disappeared as though it had never been. There was never any question of whether it would return, however; late each spring they would expose themselves to the elements once more, letting the dust sink into their skin and the hot wind sap their strength as they moved through cities and countries alike. Sometimes, rarely, they would bring with them the smell of dust after rain, the earth itself all the richer for their presence and people would set to the ground with a renewed fervor.
That was still months away, however, and for now they would seek shelter, protecting those they could. The Great Depression still raged, still stole lives and hope and futures. It would continue to do so until the next Great War, the second of its kind and thought to be wholly impossible. In the end, they would call it a World War, the Second World War and the economy would begin to thrive once more.
Those things were yet to come, however. For now, all that mattered to Charles was that Erik was standing next to him, staring up at the foreboding Xavier mansion with apprehension. “Don't tell me you're backing out now,“ Charles murmured, trying to disguise the genuine worry in his voice.
Erik shook his head. “I don't know if I'm made for this,“ he warned. “Any of this.“
Erik hadn't shared much of his past, but that was alright. Charles was sure that Erik would tell him someday. They had their whole future ahead of them. Charles kissed Erik on the corner of his mouth, brief and sweet, before tugging him towards the entrance where friends and family would be ready to greet them. “Well, don't just stand there!“ Charles cried, exuberant. “Let's go find out!“
Laughing, they went inside.