Characters/Pairings: Matt, Daphne, Eden, Samuel, Lydia, Jessica, Niki, others in ensemble, Mohinder
Spoilers: Vague S4, but set in an AU
Warnings: Mild disturbing imagery, some situational prejudice.
Disclaimer: Heroes belongs to Tim Kring, NBC et al.
A/N: Written for kethni and boudecia7’s Matt-a-thon for the prompt: “Matt is a heavily tattooed strongman in a Depression-era carnival; he performs half-naked and is much respected by his fellow carnival workers.”
Summary: At the Sullivan Carnival, the Illustrated Strongman performs more duties than simply lifting weight; he’s the cornerstone of his family.
“The tent’s filling up!” Daphne whispered, peering through a chink in the curtains. Eden edged closer for her own look, while Matt waited. There was no way he could clandestinely peek without accidentally starting the show early; subtlety was not his forte.
“Full house!” Eden reported, her whisper on fire with enthusiasm. “And I can hear more outside!” That meant the full dozen or so seats were crammed for the small individual attraction tent. That should help pay the bills, if they could keep people coming in the rest of the afternoon. Everything depended on the first performance, because while Lydia’s colorful posters in town and Samuel’s patter were excellent attractors, word-of-mouth was key.
Matt could hear sounds filtering in from outside, the sounds of the crowd as the perused the attraction tents and tried their hands at the midway games like the bottle toss and shell game. People shouted with delight as they rode the Ferris wheel and flying swings, and there were cries of awe as the fire eaters and sword swallower worked their magic to attract people to the carnival. Meredith and Flint did a fantastic job of bringing the dazzle with their brother-sister fire act, and Adam added danger as he fenced with an invisible opponent only to take the sword in question down his own throat. They got people here, so that they would spend some of their hard-earned cash in a few happy hours of forgetfulness. And while the fire and swords were free, the other tents weren’t. You just had to make your act as irresistible as possible so people would clamor to line up for your tent. And Matt was good at that.
Samuel slipped into the back of the tent, his red jacket and top hat slightly dusty from standing outside and working the crowd.
“All right, let’s give them a show!”
Matt stood, coming nearly eye-to-eye with the tall, thin barker, but outweighing him twice over in muscle. He wore little more than a loincloth, better to show off not only the musculature he’d worked so hard to gain, but the colorful pictures inked all over his skin. Eden and Daphne were in brightly colored singlets, and they flanked Matt as Samuel slipped onto the front of the small stage, immediately commanding the crowd’s attention.
“From the far west, comes a man born of stone and steel, able to perform feats of strength that would make a dozen other men quail. Steeped in the mysteries of the Dark Continent and the Exotic Indies, he was imparted his might through strange powers, written on his very skin.
“Please, for those in our audience of delicate sensibility, what you are about to see will shock you to your very core. Take care, ladies and gentlemen. If you think you will be unable to bear it, I will refund your tickets now.” Samuel paused and raised an eyebrow, extending a hand to the crowd. Behind the curtain, Matt grinned. He’d never seen anyone back out after Samuel’s speech. You’d have to drag the audience away with wild horses to get them to leave now.
“No? Then prepared to be amazed by… The Great Khan!” Samuel swept the curtain aside to reveal Matt, a massive bar of weights across his shoulders.
Daphne and Eden standing next to him made him seem even larger by contrast. The audience gasped, not only at his size, but at the brilliantly colored pictures that covered his pale skin. Eden and Daphne each grabbed into one end of the bar and swung themselves upward to do a handstand, ending by posing with one foot touching the backs of their heads. The two women had their own contortionist act, but enjoyed helping out “The Great Khan,” giving the act a little more flare to make the audience remember.
“See the Tigers fight each other!” Samuel said, as Matt lifted the bar higher, his pectorals rippling. Across his chest, two tigers fought, their mouths open to expose their fangs, their claws unsheathed, rearing up along his ribcage to snarl at each other across his breastbone.
“Who do you think will win? And who will the Tigress choose?” Samuel used a short baton to point at the Tigress, a mixture of tiger and woman, sensuously sprawled across Matt’s abdomen. Her eyes were not on the fight, but straight ahead, as if she were considering the viewer for her mate. People murmured to each other, sounding deliciously shocked.
“The Rampant Stallion!” Samuel cried, pointing at Matt’s right leg. A black stallion, its coat gleaming in a ruddy sunset, reared up on its hind legs, its hooves scything the air from Matt’s thigh to shin. “See how he fights the Laughing Wolf!” A great gray wolf with an almost obscenely lolling red tongue prowled down Matt’s right leg, looking as if he might dare those thrashing hooves.
Matt turned at a quick glance from Samuel and lifted the weight higher, letting Daphne and Eden drape themselves over the ends like dangling human pretzels.
“The Dragon,” Samuel said, pointing at the red and gold dragon that mantled its wings across Matt’s shoulders. Its body curved down his spine, its tail scandalously dipping into the waistband of his loincloth on the way to an unknown destination. Matt hefted the weight a few times to make the dragon flex its wings, then paused, legs extended.
“See here! The Stooping Hawk!” A bird of prey, wings folded in a dive, its plumage fancifully touched with blues and reds, stopped down the back of his right thigh towards-.
“The Defiant Mouse!” A bold mouse, wearing the bright clothing of a swashbuckler, rapier at the ready, thrust its blade at the hawk from Matt’s left calf. Though less fantastic than Matt’s other tattoos, many of the audience could see themselves in the Defiant Mouse.
Daphne and Eden alighted from the bar as Matt put down the larger weight and picked up a heavy dumbbell. He went to one knee, turning to the side, flexing to bring his tattoo on his arm to high relief.
“The African Queen!” Samuel said, relishing the shocking glances and gasps, the hurried murmurs as people got a good look at a tattoo that really needed an arm of his size to properly display it. A tall African woman, her skin dark as mahogany, stood proudly along the lines of his bones. What little clothing she wore was brilliantly colored in green and gold and red, from her jewelry to her feather headdress. Her arms were flung out behind her, as if she were leaning into the wind, her naked breasts pushed out. Yet she was not lustful, but rather completely free and unconcerned with what anyone thought of her. Daphne and Eden balanced on the barbell on tiptoe as Matt switched to his other hand.
“The Serpent!” Samuel cried, pointing at the green-and-black scaled snake that wound down Matt’s other arm to his hand. The head was on his wrist, its red eyes gazing up at the viewer mesmerizingly.
With a smooth motion, Matt swung the barbell down, its twin burdens descending, only to pick up the larger bar weight in one hand. Then he picked up another of identical size with his other, bearing their weight negligibly as Daphne and Eden leapt upon them. The audience gasped as Matt’s face reddened under the strain.
“See them dance! The Great Khan holds over five hundred pounds!”
The Tigers fought their endless battle as Matt pumped the iron. The Serpent slithered, and the African Queen swayed in the wind. Daphne and Eden echoed their poses as they jumped from bar to bar, a living background to his feat of strength.
The audience gasped and stared, covered their eyes and uncovered them again to watch them more closely. Matt held dangerous amounts of weight as Samuel pointed out a detail of a tattoo, titillating them again. Men blushed for one reason, women for another, confusion and fascination on their faces until Samuel waved his baton in a final flourish.
“The Great Khan, ladies and gentlemen!” The audience applauded wildly as Matt, Daphne, and Eden held their final poses until the curtain fell down across the stage.
Matt smiled briefly at Daphne and Eden as they slipped out the back of his tent. After five performances, he was done for the day, but they’d do three turns in their own tent before Samuel announced the show in the Big Top. The Flying Petrellis always gave folks their money’s worth. It was a family act, Peter, his older brother Nathan, Nathan’s wife Heidi, and their two sons. Trapeze artists and tightrope walkers all, they gave folks the heart-stopping, death-defying kinds of thrills they wanted. If that didn’t set people’s hearts pounding, there was Edgar and his knife-throwing act with Lydia, the tattooed lady. Or there was Claude, or rather The Mysterious Zambini, who could make his assistant Claire disappear from various seeming deathtraps. These were the thrills people wanted, rather than the uncertain ups and downs of the world outside.
And for some folks, they would do a lot to keep that forgetfulness going. Matt quickly clothed himself so he could slip into the Big Top unnoticed, just another guy trying to have a good time. He eased into the back and stood against the canvas. He lurked unobtrusively as the Petrelli brothers and Heidi tossed themselves across open space twenty feet above the floor, while Simon and Monty balanced on the tightrope, inserting themselves fearlessly between their family’s flight path.
People gasped at their daring, eating popcorn and cotton candy, Samuel glorified the acts with his patter, while Matt scanned the crowd for any who were not enraptured. Those who were not the inclined to be entertained sometimes sought their own entertainment, to the detriment of anyone in their way. Matt hunted for troublemakers as the Petrellis gave way to the flashing steel of Edgar and Lydia, and then the swirling cloth and smoke of Claude and Claire. Because there were always some who couldn’t admire something without wanting to possess it.
There were one or two young men who looked at Claire with lustful eyes, but none whom Matt thought were determined or desperate enough to try anything. It was his self-appointed duty to watch for trouble, and it seemed that at least today, there was none coming. He heaved a small sigh of relief as the acts performed their last, and the crowd cheered in happy abandon, smiles on all their faces.
Any of the patrons might have found the carnival twice as odd after the customers were gone. That was when everyone could relax, let their guard down, and mingle together with their family. A myriad of tables and boxes had been pushed together to create a dining area, and all the performers and staff were gathering around under the lights from the attraction tents.
“Good show everyone!” Samuel announced, waving a large fist full of money, part of the ticket sales from this afternoon. “Lydia’s still tallying, but I know we are solidly in the black!” Grins greeted that pronouncement, and people dug into the D.L.’s platters of fried chicken and baked beans with hearty enthusiasm. While he and Monica were great at carnival food, neither of them missed an opportunity to delve into local recipes, and they’d outdone themselves tonight.
Samuel’s voice was harsh from all the shouting this afternoon, and he savored a beer in silence, letting the others spread the wealth of conversation and happiness. Meredith, Flint, and Adam joined him in quiet contemplation; after chomping on sparks or shoving a blade down one’s throat all day long, silence was more than golden.
The others happily chattered to make up for it. D.L. and Monica kept the food flowing, while D.L.’s son Micah, a mechanical genius, tinkered with some part of a generator motor while he ate. Matt just hoped he wouldn’t try to tighten a loose nut with a drumstick. Again.
People were unusually solicitous, politer than one might expect with “rough carnies.” With everyone living and working on top of each other, respecting privacy or administering a dose of courtesy kept everything running smoothly. Even the rowdiest showmen appreciated the homey solicitude of their fellows.
Jessica and Niki emerged from their own tent, and sat down at the end of the area, turned sideways so they could both get a glimpse of what was going on. They were one of the freaks in the sideshow, twin sisters joined at the head, their blonde hair smoothly flowing to cover their shared scalp. They were somewhat sideways to each other, which gave people a start if they initially angled themselves so that only one twin was seen. The two grimaced slightly despite hearty hellos from Heidi and Claire, and only picked at their food, though they made an effort to smile at the others. Claire casually leaned over to rub at Jessica’s shoulders, and Eden joined in to help Niki a second later without a word being said.
Matt caught Samuel’s eye, flicked his eyes over at the twins, and Samuel nodded. Jessica and Niki were prone to terrible migraines, and the carnival had enough money this time to get medicine for them. Mostly the carnival took care of their own problems, whether they were simple as muscle strain from an athletically difficult act, or exotic as minor burns from fire-breathing. None of them liking having to consult outsiders, but sometimes they had to. There were some kinds of medicine that just couldn’t be gotten over the counter.
Matt laughed at some joke Peter cracked, and slipped off to Lydia’s tent under the cover of laughter from the rest of the group. Inside, Lydia was bent over a huge old ledger, something she’d gotten on the cheap when one of the banks had gone under. Now she used it to track the carnival’s expenses, and she had the best head for business in a hundred-mile radius. That wasn’t what people expected when she was half-naked and strapped to a rotating board to be a living target for Edgar.
“Matt!” She smiled as she looked up briefly, and quickly scribbled down the last few numbers. “Lots of tickets sold today, more than we’ve had in a while. People were talking about you; I heard them.”
“What, over the thunk of Edgar throwing knives at your head?” he teased, crossing to her and giving her a kiss on the top of her head.
“What can I say? I like it when people admire my art. Speaking of that…” She gestured imperiously for the hem of his shirt to come up and eyed him critically when he complied. “The Tigress needs touching up.”
Matt made a face and Lydia waggled a finger at him.
“‘The Great Khan’ must look his best.”
“And the Tattooed Lady mustn’t go blind trying to write in this light. But I wasn’t here for ink. Do we have enough for medicine?”
Lydia’s expression softened immediately. “Of course we do. God knows they’ve been patient enough since that last dry spell. Go and get what they need; there’s a pharmacist in town.”
Lydia counted out the money with care. The whole carnival felt for Jessica and Niki, but Lydia and Matt understood them. They had taken their own turns in the freak tent, when either of them had been too ill or overworked or injured to do their own acts. They’d sat to be gawked at, pointed at, and whispered about, rather than celebrated for their skill and admired for their art. Niki and Jessica knew that feeling every day – that’s why they’d joined up with the carnival.
“Better to be paid to be stared at, since people will do it anyway,” was their philosophy. And they worked as hard as any other member of the family. Maybe they weren’t flinging themselves through the air or lifting heavy weights or swallowing swords, but they endured the fear and disgust of the curious, the flip-side of the shocked awe that the others enjoyed. They sat in the sideshow tent, between jars of preserved oddities and creatively taxidermied animals, shocking artwork, and other exotica, alongside Luke the Dog-Faced Boy and Gabriel the Albino, and all four of them could bring in as much money as any two other acts combined.
Matt folded the bills into his pocket and tugged his shirt straight, hiding any hint of “The Great Khan,” and headed out into the night. He walked down the dusty road from where the carnival was set up, aiming for the plain lights of the town. The street lights did not beckon like the carnival did, with its flashing, colored lights, the calliope music drifting from the carousel, or the smells of fried dough, hot dogs, and cotton candy. This town was respectable, only lightly touched by the poverty that lay so heavily on other cities, and yet eager for the distraction the Sullivan Carnival and Sideshow could provide as any other.
Of course, they wanted that distraction at a distance, compartmentalized away from their lives, not in the town square. After all, carnies were thieves and drunks with criminal histories and loose morals, and not decent company for regular folk, except when they were entertaining, of course. That was why everyone trusted Matt to go on errands like this; when he performed, no one was looking at his face. Dressed in regular clothes, and strong enough to defend himself against a late-night hooligan or three, he could pass unmolested in even the most conservative places. He’d rather he didn’t have to hide what he was, but bringing home something needed for his family was more important than indulging his personal fashion sense.
Matt walked along the streets, careful to tip his battered hat to the few others out at this hour, until he’d found the pharmacist. At least he was kind enough to stay open late for the benefit of the working man. The door jingled as Matt pushed it open, and he was struck by the unreality of the normalcy. There were clean shelves full of hundreds of items under bright lights, instead of tag ends of a few dozen bottles and tubes in a battered and painted cabinet under dangling lights that hid most of the flaws. No sawdust or dirt here, but squeaky clean linoleum, waxed and polished.
Stepping carefully, feeling as clumsy as an elephant, Matt went to the counter at the back, politely ignoring the others in the store. He rang the bell, and a thin voice, muffled by shelves, called for him to wait. A moment later, a thin, dark-skinned foreigner, Indian if Matt had it right, all but popped up behind the counter, his pristine white coat and a pair of glasses perched on his nose identifying him as the pharmacist.
“Yes, sorry, I was in the middle of-.” The pharmacist came to an abrupt halt when he saw Matt, and Matt took the opportunity to pass over the prescription.
“I just need this filled Dr. …” Matt squinted at the name embroidered into the man’s coat. “Suresh.” There was a trace of an accent in the man’s voice, but he must have been educated abroad, probably England. Why he had come to this lonesome little Southern town, Matt wasn’t sure.
“Oh?” Dr. Suresh got his aplomb back, and picked up the paper, raising an eyebrow. “For yourself?”
“Co-workers. Friends,” Matt explained briefly.
“These are pretty powerful…” Dr. Suresh sounded uncertain, and Matt didn’t blame him. There was a reason those pills were so expensive.
“They’ve taken them before. It’s a chronic condition,” Matt said with a hint of sadness.
Dr. Suresh looked down at the script more closely and finally nodded. “All right then.” He started to turn away, and then turned back reluctantly. “You can pay?” Matt briefly showed the cash and Dr. Suresh breathed a sigh of relief. “Just a moment.”
A few of the other customers were occasionally shooting irritated glances at the pharmacy counter and the man puttering behind it. Small-town minds like their exotica separated, thank you very much, not behind their counters. Matt put on a scowl in their direction, and the overt looks stopped; even clothed, Matt was still a big man.
“Here you are,” Dr. Suresh said, coming back with a bottle and a smile. Matt reached for it, and saw Dr. Suresh freeze in place, staring at his hand. Matt looked down and realized his shirt cuff had ridden up, exposing the head of the Serpent on his wrist.
“Oh,” Dr. Suresh said softly, and ruddy color touched his cheeks.
“I’m from the Sullivan Carnival,” Matt explained quickly, handing over the bills. Dr. Suresh didn’t take them, his eyes on Matt’s tattoo still.
“I saw you on the posters around town. I just didn’t recognize…”
Matt didn’t detect any malice in the man, just a genuine fascination. Here was someone who didn’t mind his attractions up close and personal.
“I thought the posters were detailed, but the reality is even-.” He stopped himself, blushing furiously.
“Thank you,” Matt said simply.
Dr. Suresh slowly took the money, but was apparently trying to get up his courage to say something, so Matt lingered.
“It must be so freeing,” he blurted out finally. “No worries about what someone thinks of you.”
“I only worry about what my friends think.”
Dr. Suresh sighed in envy. “Who are the pills for, if I may ask?”
The man’s expression softened; there were posters of every act around town. “Ah. I understand. It’s not as easy as it seems, is it?”
“Sometimes not,” Matt admitted. “Sometimes there are weeks with almost no profit, or towns that don’t want us around at all, or people that are worse freaks that us on the inside that want a piece of us.”
“You’re not freaks, none of you,” Dr. Suresh said vehemently. “I’m a doctor, I know the difference.”
Matt smiled broadly. He had yet to meet anyone outside the family that accepted them all so easily, until tonight.
“I know why you do it. Why they,” Dr. Suresh nodded at the bottle, “do it. At least your own folk accept you. I’m just glad I could help someone-.” He hesitated, reluctant to finish the sentence.
“Someone who doesn’t look at you like a sideshow attraction?” Matt suggested.
Dr. Suresh let out an explosive sigh. “Yes, that.”
“We’ll be in town for another week or so,” Matt said, and added something in a burst of inspiration. “You ever thought about running away to join the circus?”
Dr. Suresh gaped at him in shock, and Matt extended his hand to shake, more of the Serpent being revealed. Dr. Suresh took his hand, his own slender, clever doctor’s hand being swallowed up in Matt’s calloused paw.
“Think about it. Come see me tomorrow. It’s quite a show.” Dr. Suresh tried to stammer an excuse and Matt casually added, “I’m tattooed all over, you know.”
Dr. Suresh could only nod dumbly in assent, and Matt turned and left the drug store. The distant lights of the carnival gleamed, and Matt began to whistle as they showed him the way home.