"Ladies and gents, this is the moment you've waited for
Been searching in the dark, your sweat soaking through the floor
And buried in your bones there's an ache that you can't ignore
Taking your breath, stealing your mind
And all that was real is left behind…"
-Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum in "The Greatest Showman"
The setting sun glows orange and hot as it edges its way over the distant horizon. Dust swirls in the dry West Texas air and vultures circle in the distance. The road they travel is uneven and overgrown with brush. Rusted out abandoned cars occasionally peek out of roadside ditches like grotesque wild flowers.
Charlie and Bass are tired and mostly silent, content to watch the passing scenery as the wagon jostles them from side to side. The whole Pottsboro detour had cost them a couple extra days while Charlie recovered, but they've made decent time since. At least Bass thinks they're doing okay - not that Charlie will actually tell him where the fuck they're going.
The road winds between gentle rocky slopes, and it's only as they get to the top of a ridge that they see the tired little town scattered below. Just beyond the usual assortment of boarded up businesses and burnt out houses, lies some kind of tent city lit in the twilight by what looks like a thousand lanterns. "What the hell is that?" Charlie asks, her voice husky with misuse.
Bass pulls lightly on the reins, slowing the horses into a gentle walk. "Not sure," he says. They reach the outskirts of the town, where there is an old rundown church. Nailed to the side of the building is a large hand-made advertising poster. It is worn by weather and time, but the words are still legible.
"The Devil's Circus," Charlie reads aloud before turning to Monroe. "Aw, that's sweet. They named a whole circus after you."
Bass frowns. "Do you even know what a circus is, Charlotte?"
"Sure. Went to a real one when I was little. Big striped tent. Lions. A man with a tall black hat. I got to ride an elephant. This will be like that?"
Bass shakes his head. "Doubtful. It's probably gonna be pretty bad. There are no good circuses or carnivals anymore. It's more likely a hellhole full of whores and gambling and public executions."
"So right up your alley."
Instead of acknowledging her comment, he nods to one of the horses. "Petey's going lame. We need to earn some money to replace him."
"How, exactly? You mentioned executions. Are you going to sacrifice yourself so I can buy new horses?" She flashes a grin. "That's actually really generous of you."
Monroe's eyes narrow to angry slits. "You can be a mouthy little bitch when you want to be, you know that?. A year ago, I'd have had you shot."
"A year ago, you almost did have me shot. What? Old age making you forget?"
His eyes go dark and his lips twist into an expression she doesn't know. "Not that old, Charlie and I definitely remember meeting you in Philly. Remember it well."
Her attitude fades as she tries to identify his expression. "Yeah?"
"Yeah, you stood there, facing me and my men like you were daring us to kill you. You were so stupid brave, it was actually kind of hot."
"No, Charlotte. Not gross. And if we'd been alone, it might have taken me five minutes to convince you of that."
She isn't even sure how to answer him, so she says nothing, but it doesn't matter. He's not done. "There was something about you," he says. "Something hard to define. You were fearless. Strong. Very sexy, Charlotte. You made an impression. I definitely didn't forget meeting you."
"Okay. Okay." Charlie holds up a hand. "You can stop now."
"Not saying I'm not still tempted to snap your neck once in a while."
She grins. "And he's back."
She knows he's just trying to shake her so she'll stop ragging on him. At least that's what she thinks is happening. But behind his smirk, she sees an intensity in his gaze that makes her wonder if he's mentally revisited that time they met in Philly. Maybe many times. Charlie tries not to think about what that means but can't ignore the traitorous low ache swirling as need teases at her core.
Lately that particular ache has become a familiar reminder that she is spending far too much time with this man. Charlie decides to change the subject. "So if you aren't sacrificing yourself to the devil, how are you going to make money there?"
"How do you know there will be a fight?"
"Place like this? There's always a fight."
They drive the wagon onto the town's main street just as the sun sets. Flickering candle light filters through filthy windows, casting menacing shadows as they ride along. Like most towns they've wandered through in the past month, this one is dirty and broken.
They pay the last of their diamonds to board the horses and wagon at an abandoned greenhouse turned livery. After putting that business behind them, they walk side by side down the main street, sidestepping debris and potholes.
The buildings are in various states of disrepair. Everywhere they look, Bass and Charlie see broken windows and sagging rooftops. They walk past two bars which seem to be the most successful businesses in town. Bass would kill for a drink, but they are now officially broke and if he's going to fight he needs a clear head.
A mere hundred yards separates the sad little town and the nearby circus. Bass and Charlie walk silently, each lost in their own thoughts as the sinful glow lures them in. Long before they reach the entrance, the raucous sounds can be heard echoing through the night. Clearly, the festivities are well underway.
Their senses are assaulted as they grow closer. There is a stench of stale sweat and spilt hooch. There are screams of laughter and screams of terror. Occasionally there is what sounds like roar of a very large cat.
Charlie hesitates after one particularly terrifying scream slices through the air, but Bass urges her onward with a gentle push to the middle of her back.
She tries to ignore the way her skin tingles at his touch. Instead, she focuses on what lies ahead.
The entrance to the circus is framed by colorful barrels and large wooden crates. Hanging from tall shepherd's hooks, various lanterns light the way inside. Just beyond the gates, a wooden sign that is ten feet square greets them. Painted on the sign is a picture of a traditional circus big top with a red and white striped tent. Over the picture, words have been painted with blocky black script.
"Come one! Come all! Welcome to The Devil's Circus & Fabulous Philadelphia Freak Show!"
They both stop to look at the sign. Charlie chuckles, "Philadelphia Freak Show? This really is like the mother ship calling you home, isn't it?"
"You're doing it again." Bass grumbles.
"Making me want to kill you." He begins to move again, although his steps are slower, wary.
Charlie shrugs without apologizing, falling into step at his side. "What kind of freaks to you think they'll have? Like bearded ladies and giants and that sort of thing?"
He shakes his head slowly, his expression grim. "Probably not."
"Because of the Philly thing? What do you think that's about?"
"There are stories," Bass' voice is low and Charlie has to lean in close to hear him speak. "Stories about people who got hurt but lived when the bombs dropped. People with skin dripping off their bodies. Others who were fused to things or lost body parts. My guess is that these freaks are survivors of the bombs that hit the Republic."
Charlie shakes her head, frowning. "No offense, Monroe, but this might not be a place you want to be. What if they recognize you?" She nods toward the clearly marked freak show tents. "You were in Philly a long time, right? And there were posters with your face on them everywhere?"
He won't meet her gaze. "Not everywhere."
Charlie cocks one eyebrow. "I lived in bum-fuck Wisconsin and we had a giant mural on the town's grain bin of your face."
He doesn't answer. Instead, he nods toward the opposite side of the circus, "The fights will probably be somewhere behind the gambling tents. We need to find somebody in charge."
They begin walking again. They push past a group of very drunk clowns and almost run headlong into a muscular black man who is walking a tired looking lion on a leash. Charlie lurches behind Monroe as the big cat gets closer.
"What?" Bass smirks. "You don't like lions?"
She puts on a brave face. "I like lions just fine. Like them better in cages or books, that's all."
Their conversation is interrupted by a loud chorus of cheers from a crowd huddled near the stage on the far end of a large clearing which sits framed on all sides by entertainment tents.
"This seems to be their version of the center ring," Bass says.
"What's going on?" Charlie asks.
Bass nods toward the stage. "Look up."
Hanging from the scaffolding over the stage is a noose.
"Killing criminals can be a big part of the entertainment in a place like this." As they watch, a man is brought up to the platform. He has pale skin and stringy black hair. He is snarling and fighting his captors. He's strong, but he is outnumbered and the crowd is churning with blood lust.
A scantily dressed woman with a bullhorn announces that this man is being put to death for his crimes. The crowd cheers and yells asking for a list of his crimes. She tells them that the man has raped two adult women and a young girl.
Charlie watches the doomed man. "So, this is like the law? This is justice?"
"Vigilante justice isn't always just. He may be guilty but my guess is that this guy did not get a fair trial. Be on your very best behavior here, Charlotte. And stay close. This place makes that shithole bar where you were drugged look like the Bellagio."
Charlie shakes her head, irritated. "As if I know what the fuck a Bellagio is."
The night sky is now inky black but lanterns hang in abundance, giving the scene an eerily lit quality that reminds both Bass and Charlie of New Vegas. They wander along the main concourse, taking it all in. Everywhere they look, there are signs advertising various types of entertainment. Whores. Gambling. Freaks. Drugs. Musicians and magicians perform in the open, tempting visitors with their talents, hoping for a payday. Clowns, fire eaters, and topless dancers promote their individual shows to anyone willing to listen.
Bass nods toward a dingy green tent, from which hangs a battered wooden sign that says, "Office". They walk through the flap. The interior of the tent is dark save for a small lantern that sits on a desk in the corner. At the desk, a shadowy figure is crouched over a ledger of some sort, carefully writing with a long feather quill.
Bass clears his throat. "Excuse me. Are you in charge?"
The figure turns his attention to them, slowly revealing himself in the dim glow of the lamp. First Charlie registers the pale white skin and the shocking tattoo of a tiger that covers the right side of his face. His hair catches the light as he stands and she is overwhelmed, both by his imposing height and by his long auburn hair which hangs past broad shoulders. He twirls a top hat onto the top of his head, pulling the brim down just enough to cast his eyes in shadow.
"Am I in charge?" his voice is a sultry purr. "Yes, I suppose I am." He walks toward them, every movement smooth and molten. The tall man wears a sleek fitted black suit with tails, tall lace up boots and of course, the top hat. His suit jacket is open over a bare well-defined chest ridged with hard muscle.
"Stop drooling," Bass mutters at Charlie.
The tall man grins, clearly having heard the words. "Welcome to the Devil's Circus. My name is Pearl. I am the ringmaster, the show choreographer, the owner, the - "
"Devil?" Bass interrupts, a hint of annoyance in his voice.
Peal smirks. "Yes, I suppose some would think so. But discussing my job duties is not why you are here, I'm sure. What can I do for you this evening?"
"Looking to fight. Got any openings?"
Pearl's smile deepens into a wide grin. "In fact I do. Pretty sure they just hung the fella I had scheduled for 11. What's your name?"
Pearl looks at Monroe, sizing him up carefully. There is a twinkle of amusement in his gaze. "King? You ever fight before?"
"Yeah. New Vegas for a while. Amatuer boxing in the marines before the blackout."
"New Vegas? Beat anyone I'd know?"
"Bruno Thunderdome, Mikey Two Ton, and JonJon Lewis. Some others." Bass frowns. "Can I fight or not?"
"Yes, you can, Mr. King. You'll be in the big ring behind the old oak, just past the center ring." Pearl writes Jimmy's name in his ancient looking ledger. "You're on at 11. Don't be late. Purse is yours if you beat your opponent after five rounds. Beat him too early and you get nothing. But if you don't fight hard enough, the crowd will drag you out to the big ring and beat you until you wish you were dead, so don't go easy on the other guy either."
Bass doesn't seem fazed by these rules. "Got it."
Pearl looks at Charlie. "What about you? Do you want to fight, too?"
"No." Bass says forcefully. "She's just here to watch."
"Very well then." Pearl doesn't seem bothered one way or the other. "If you want to clean up a bit before the bell rings, you'll need to go to the fighter's tent now."
"How much time do I have?"
Pearl pulls an old pocket watch from his suit coat and glances at the dial. "Half hour, and you don't want to be late." He nods toward Charlie. "Don't worry. I'll make sure she gets there, Mr. King. You need to go with Suzette."
"Who the hell is Suzette?" Bass asks.
"That's me, Sugar." A blond goddess in a long green dress appears through the entrance flap as if summoned. "I'll take you to the fight tent so you can get ready."
Bass opens his mouth to tell Charlie they should just leave, when he remembers how incredibly broke they are. They have to make some money. Charlie is thinking the same thing. "Go. I'll be fine," she says. Their eyes lock for a moment before he nods and lets Suzette guide him out of the tent.
Charlie turns to Pearl. "Just tell me how to get there and I'll go wait."
Pearl smiles. His teeth are straight and white. He is even more beautiful when he smiles. "When I asked if you'd like to fight before, you weren't really given a chance to answer for yourself. You can do so freely now."
She thinks back to Monroe's response. "Sorry. He's protective."
"Clearly, but was he right? Are you just here to watch?"
She frowns. "I don't know. What did you have in mind?"
"Something different. Earns good money. More than he'll make even if he wins." Pearl's eyes sparkle with mischief.
"He'll win, but we could use extra money. Tell me more."
"I'll do you one better. Come with me and I'll show you. Then you can decide for yourself if you want to give it a try."
They leave the office tent, turning in the direction of the big ring. Charlie walks beside Pearl, but she has to walk fast. His legs are long and he moves quickly. Everywhere she looks, people are nodding or waving at Pearl. He seems to be very popular with his people. She's thinking about that - about what kind of man would run a place such as this when he tilts his head in her direction and speaks softly, "So what's your story? Why are you with Monroe?"
Charlie plays dumb even as her heart begins to pound. "His name is Jimmy King. He's my boyfriend."
"Boyfriend? Maybe. Jimmy King? Not a chance." Pearl shakes his head, amusement dancing across his expression. "I'd know that man anywhere. He is none other than General Sebastian Monroe."
She can see the truth in his eyes and Charlie's heart lurches into her gut. "Are you going to tell?"
Charlie stops walking, feet planted, her mind buzzing with possibilities. "But why not? And how do you know him?"
Pearl gestures for her to keep up. When she's walking at his side once more, he speaks quietly. "I was a member of his militia until I was kicked out for being... different, for having tastes more exotic than was the norm. This was two years ago."
"Really?" She looks Pearl up and down. "You do not look like any Militia soldier I ever met."
Pearl grins. "Back then I looked just like all the rest, on the outside anyway. I was different and I knew that my lifestyle would not be accepted among the power brokers of the Republic. So, I kept a low profile. Nobody knew my secrets." He sighs. "Not at first anyway. I got careless and ended up at a place where I should not have been seen. Someone recognized me and the next day I was being walked to the firing squad. That's when Monroe stepped in."
"He stepped in because he knew about your secret?"
"No. He didn't have a clue about any of that. He stepped in because he didn't think I was being treated fairly. I'm not saying he didn't make his fair share of bad decisions. He made plenty. He could be cruel, but sometimes, he could also be kind. Anyway, I owe him. He let me go free, and I never looked back. Was somewhere south of Indianapolis when the bombs dropped. The only reason I am alive today is because of Monroe. If he wants to call himself Jimmy King or King Tut, I don't care. You didn't answer my question. Why are you with him?"
"He killed my dad and my brother but now we have a new enemy to fight and we need his help."
"He personally killed your family?"
"Well, no. The militia killed them but they were HIS militia."
"Speaking from experience, darling - the militia was out of control and definitely wasn't always acting on Monroe's orders - not exactly anyway. I'm not saying Monroe was innocent. He wasn't, but the militia was only a tight organization as long as Matheson was in charge." Charlie glances up, surprised to hear her uncle's name, but Pearl doesn't notice, forging on. "When Matheson left, Monroe went a little crazy and different militia leaders - lesser men than Matheson - stepped in and took over. They did their own thing or took liberties with orders. They ramped up the conscription camps. They killed indiscriminately. Monroe was on the verge of a breakdown at the time, or so we were told, and he only occasionally got involved in the daily life of his men. I got lucky. The day I was found out, he happened to be walking by. Monroe stepped in and saved my life."
"So because Monroe freed you and you were able to get away from there, you think he saved you?"
"I know he did. Saved my life and also allowed me to truly live it as I so chose."
"What about these freaks in your show? Were they..."
"Not so lucky as I. All survivors or sad victims, depending on your point of view. They were close enough to the Philly blast to have received severe physical damage but not close enough for it to kill them."
"Will any of them know Monroe?"
"If they ever ventured out of their tents, maybe. They don't."
"What would happen if they did? Do they blame him?"
"There is a lot of blame to go around regarding the nukes, and yes a lot of these people do blame Monroe personally, so it wouldn't be good."
"But you don't blame him?"
Pearl shakes his head. His long red locks swirl around his shoulders. "I know that's the official story, but no. Not for a minute. I don't think you can fully understand unless you were there, but Monroe loved his Republic. It wasn't just a plaything. Those were his people. He never would have wished that pain on them. Never."
Charlie remembers the swimming pool. She remembers how Bass said his people depended on him. She thinks she understands.
Pearl nods toward a path to the left. "Come on. Let's get you fixed up."
"To do what, exactly?"
Pearl flashes a mischievous smile. "Follow me and I will show you exactly what I have in mind."
The fight crowd is crazed, yelling and jeering at Bass and his opponent. Some of the screaming lunatics who circle the fight are holding blazing torches high over their heads to illuminate the ring. Shadows dance on the blood spattered ground as the two men circle and jab.
Bass had been worried at first. The guy he's pitted against is roughly the size of a barn and has biceps larger than Bass' head. But in spite of the size difference, Bass downs his opponent in the sixth round. It's a rough fight and by the time it's over, they are both bloody and bruised. Bass' entire body aches as his fist is raised in triumph by one of the Circus workers. Bass glances around, scanning the cheering and jeering faces.
He finds her in the crowd. Charlie is with Pearl and she nods at him when their eyes meet. She looks beautiful in the glow of the torchlight and Bass can't help but feel a surge of possessiveness as he watches them together. Pearl tips his hat toward Bass with a grin before wrapping an arm around Charlie's waist and leading her away. "Damn it," Bass mutters as Suzette appears to lead him out of the ring.
He's taken to the same tent where he'd cleaned up before the fight. Suzette helps him get into the bath, offering him soap and fresh towels. She also offers a menu of sexual favors she's willing to give him, but all Bass wants is to clean up and get his money so he and Charlie can get out of here. Suzette doesn't seem to be bothered by his rejection and leaves quietly.
Minutes later Pearl walks in. "Your lady friend will be starting soon. If you want to watch, you'll have to cut short your soak."
Bass sits up quickly, bath water splashing over the side of the tub. "Charlie? What the fuck are you talking about? Starting what soon?"
"I guess you'll have to go see for yourself. You'll find her behind the last black tent. You probably have five minutes." Pearl gives Bass's wet flesh a once over and smiles to himself. "Better hurry." Pearl tosses a small bag of diamonds into Bass' boot before leaving the tent in a flourish.
Bass gets out of the bath and dresses quickly in clean clothes that were left for him. The brown pants and plain gray shirt are nothing fancy, but they are clean and he enjoys the feel of fresh fabric on his skin. He pockets his winnings and yanks on his boots before rushing into the night to find Charlie.
As Bass makes his way through the Circus, he feels a sense of foreboding. Crowds are thicker. Everyone is drunk or high. Fights break out every few minutes. He's pushing past a man preparing to swallow a sword, when Bass catches a glimpse of a woman who is beautiful on the right side but appears to have been melted on the left. Fear churns in Bass' gut when he sees this woman who is clearly one of the Philadelphia freaks. It's time to get out of here.
The growing crowd throbs with excitement and it takes Bass longer than he'd hoped to get to the place Pearl had indicated. Jostled back and forth by cheering spectators, he fights his way to the front of the crowd. His heartbeat accelerates with each step as the intensity of the onlookers spurs his worry. What the hell has Charlie gotten herself involved in?
He breaks through the final row of the screaming throng and almost stumbles into a pit of mud. At first he's confused because the cheers seem to be aimed at the mud itself but nobody is there.
He's tempted to turn around when a figure emerges like a Phoenix from the mud. The creature is a woman, her skin is covered completely by the brown muck which sluices down over every curve. She's skinny but has big boobs. Her hair has been hacked short and sticks out it clumps around her head. Bass' attention is drawn away from her form when another female figure also rises from the mud.
This one is shorter. Leaner. Her breasts are not as large, but the mud clings alluringly to her barely there attire. What is she wearing? Maybe a blackout version of a bikini? Her hair hangs down her back in muddy ringlets. Bass barely has time to realize this is Charlie before the spiky haired woman attacks. As far as Bass knows, Charlie has never mud wrestled before but she seems to be holding her own and the crowd loves her.
Spiky Hair is evidently frustrated by her opponent's current popularity and lunges at Charlie, yanking her by the hair and punching her in the stomach, hard. Bass involuntarily jerks forward but his arm is caught in an iron like grip. Pearl has materialized. "She's good at this, Sir. A natural, really. Let her take care of herself."
"I told you she doesn't fight," Bass growls, jerking his arm from Pearl's grasp.
"And yet, here we are."
Bass wants to charge in and grab Charlie. Pearl sees his desire to rescue her and leans close. "Leave her where she is. She's going to clean house tonight and when she does, she'll easily collect twice as much as you made in the fight you just won."
This news makes Bass hesitate. "Why so much?"
"Proud Mary has been undefeated for weeks. These people have been wanting a good fight for a while now and this is the first time they've seen a remotely even match." Pearl grins. "Also, this particular crowd really loves barely clothed women covered in mud."
Bass glowers but doesn't say anything in response because his attention is once again on Charlie as Proud Mary shoves her face into the mud. Charlie's movements stop and the crowd erupts in anguished cries. Proud Mary stands with arms raised and she's maybe three seconds into her victory dance when Charlie silently rises again rounding the surprised woman and grabbing her shoulder to pull her down. At the same time, Charlie lifts a perfectly toned thigh to knee her opponent in the gut. Mary is gagging, doubled over. Charlie waits. When Mary stands up Charlie lunges forward. Her left hand digs into the other girl's shoulder and she punches hard with her right fist into the girl's kidney. He knows this move. It's one of his own.
Charlie's jaw is set tight. Her gaze is focused on her opponent. She is fearless and strong.
"Your friend is rather devastating," Pearl's voice oozes with something predatory.
"Tuck it back in, Circus Boy. She's not available." Bass knows he has no right, but there is no way in hell he's letting this guy get close to her.
Pearl chuckles. "So that's how it is. Very well."
Proud Mary falls to her knees, coughing. Pearl signals to the men guarding the ring that the fight is over. Proud Mary evidently does not agree. She surges unsteadily to her feet and reaches for Charlie. Charlie side steps and punches Mary hard, square in the jaw. The bigger girl drops, but as she goes down, her fingers tangle in Charlie's bikini top and off it comes.
A collective gasp is followed by raucous cheers.
There is a moment where Charlie is clearly surprised but she stands tall, chest heaving with labored breath, her eyes almost feral as she stares down at her opponent. Mud drips down over the cleaner flesh of Charlie's breasts, striping them with varied widths of brown muck.
Without hesitating, Bass grabs an old beach towel from one of Pearl's workers and surges forward. He doesn't even notice the mud that mucks around his boots as he steps into the pit and wraps it around her shoulders, covering her from prying eyes.
When she looks at him, he sucks in a harsh breath. She is covered head to toe in mud. Only her eyes stand out, blue on white. Her expression is savage. He knows what it's like in those first few moments after a hard fight. She's still in the zone. Charlie lets Bass help her out of the mud pit but holds her own. He is reminded of the time on the road when she'd told him he would have to shoot her if he wanted to stop her.
"What the hell were you thinking?" he hisses at Charlie.
Her eyes flash at him, white hot in a sea of mud. "I was thinking we need money. Just doing my part to buy a damn horse," she says through her teeth.
Bass knows this isn't a fight he wants to have. Not here. Not anywhere. "Fine. Let's get you out of here. These people are fucking nuts."
Bass takes her hand, pulling her past Pearl, "Can your men keep these people back?"
"Of course." Pearl signals the men who had been guarding the ring and they fall into place around Bass and Charlie. "Keep her safe, please," Pearl says.
The biggest of the men who resembles a dump truck, nods curtly. "Come on," he says to Charlie.
Pearl turns to Bass. "They'll take care of her. I know the crowd seems rowdy but they know not to touch. We don't have a lot of rules, but the no touching is one we don't take lightly."
They've only gone a few yards when a fat man with a long beard grabs for the towel Charlie wears. Bass tenses, ready to strike, but before he can move, one of Pearl's guards casually shoots the fat man in the head.
"Like I said," Pearl smiles grimly as the dead man falls, "We take our rules seriously, now come with me."
"No, I'll stay with her."
"You'll come with me, Monroe." Pearl's eyes are like steel. "She'll be safe with my men."
Bass' gut clenches with worry. He is torn between following Charlie and dealing with whatever it is Pearl wants. Bass sighs. "You called me Monroe."
They watch as the guards lead Charlie away. The crowd has fallen back but is still agitated and riled up.
"Well, it is your name."
Bass' exhales harshly. "How did you know?"
"Let's just say that today is not the first time we've met." Pearl motions for Bass to follow as he ducks down a narrow passage between rows of tents. "Your friend is attracting too much attention. Need to keep you two out of the limelight until things settle down."
"You knew who I was when you had me fight?"
"Yes, but I wasn't worried. The people who watch those fights don't pay attention to faces. They just want to see blood. I did not think you were in danger of being recognized."
They push past a man breathing fire into the air and then pause as a thin woman with painted skin throws daggers at a large wooden target, on which a worried looking man is secured with rope. Pearl nods to the knife wielding woman. She pauses with a secret smile, letting them pass before throwing another blade.
"So, what's different now?" Bass asks, following Pearl through a winding shadowy maze between tents.
"Your girl Charlie just beat our undefeated mud champion. This, people will notice. They may want to follow her out of the Circus. They may decide to look at you a little bit closer. There could be trouble."
"You wanted us separated," Bass asks.
"Just until she's cleaned up. Then you should both be on your way, discreetly of course."
Pearl walks with purpose and Bass follows. They dodge a troupe of bedraggled clowns and turn a sharp left behind another one of the tents. Bass feels completely turned around when they finally round a corner and he recognizes the tent where he'd cleaned up before. One of Pearl's men is standing guard. Pearl nods to him and after a brief conversation, Pearl pulls the tent's flap back, motioning for Bass to enter. "Tell her to hurry. It's best if you leave quietly and under darkness if possible."
"You said we met before, but I don't remember you. How do you –"
Pearl shakes his head. "I know you have a lot of questions, but I have a bit of a riot I need to handle so you'll just have to ask her. She knows most of it." He hesitates.
Pearl lets go of the flap and stands at attention. He salutes sharply in the way a member of the militia would have saluted his president. "Thank you, Sir, and good luck." Pearl turns then and disappears into the crowd that swirls around the tent.
The guard doesn't look at Bass and he also doesn't move. Bass pushes through the flap and stops short. Charlie is in the tub trying to wash mud out of her hair. She is struggling.
She glances up but doesn't stop working on her hair. "Yeah. I'm fine. You going to lecture me some more? Still think I can't fight?"
"I'm not going to lecture you, and I never said you couldn't fight. Just didn't want you to. That's different."
"Okay." She dunks under and comes up looking a little cleaner. "Going to be a week before I get the muck out of my ears," she mutters.
She wants to say no. He can tell, but she also wants to be clean. "Yeah. Help me with my hair."
He moves in behind her, falling to his knees behind the tub. She hands him a thick bar of soap and he lathers his hands before pushing his fingers into her muddy tresses. Bass massages her scalp, pulling the mud away from long strands of hair. The water is warm on his fingers but nothing compared to the heat of her skin.
He tries not to look down but even though the water in the tub is deep, the full curve of her breasts is on display. As the water sloshes, he catches a glimpse of nipples.
Bass can't take much more of this. He closes his eyes, still working on her hair with his hands. "You were really good out there. Fierce." His voice is quiet. Intense.
"Oh yeah. Forgot you get off on that." She tries to make a joke but it falls flat. The tension between them is too thick to ignore.
He helps her finish her hair and then hands her a bucket of clean water to rinse with.
"Wanna turn around?" She asks, her voice husky.
He turns reluctantly, recalling the image of her standing proud and half naked in the mud pit. He needs to change the subject. "Listen, that Pearl guy evidently knows who I am. So, we need to get out of here. Not sure if he'll rat me out."
"He won't." Charlie's voice is muffled and Bass can envision her pulling a shirt over her head.
He almost turns but stops himself. "Why are you so sure?"
"Thinks he owes you. Back in Philadelphia, he was a member of your militia and I guess he got in trouble. Some of your men were going to kill him and you stepped in. You made him leave town but that meant he wasn't there when the bombs dropped, so he counts you as his hero."
"The salute makes sense, then. Odd transition though, from soldier to ring master."
"Started working for the former owners after he left Philly. They'd run it for a long time. When they died he took over."
"Wish I would have realized who he was. I would have apologized."
"For what? Saving his life? I don't think you're listening to me. He doesn't blame you for anything. He thinks I should cut you some slack too. Says that the Philly freaks shouldn't blame you for the bombs anymore than I should blame you for my family."
Bass feels his heart lurch. "And what do you think?"
"Some of what he said makes sense. You didn't personally shoot my Dad."
"Told Tom I wanted your dad alive. Truth is I really liked your dad. He was like the big brother I never had."
Charlie hesitates before forging on. "And Danny was the only brother I ever had and I loved him but he was an idiot for facing that helicopter the way he did. And when the guys shot him, they were just doing what you do when someone is pointing a rocket launcher at you. You shoot back." She shrugs. "And I told Danny not to go out there. He didn't listen. That's definitely not your fault."
Bass closes his eyes tight against the tears that want to spill. "And the bombs?"
"Well, I was at the Tower, so I know for sure you weren't responsible for the bombs. It was convenient to blame you but not fair. I think I let my Mom convince me you were the monster under my bed."
"And now? What do you think now?
"Maybe you aren't the monster I thought you were."
"I did a lot of bad shit, Charlotte."
"Yeah, well nobody's arguing that. Who hasn't done bad things? The point is, maybe you did some good too. Maybe."
"Still thinking it over?"
"Yeah." She walks up to stand next to him. Her pants are gray and snug. Her tank top is a flimsy buttercup yellow with some faint white writing across her tits that he can't quite make out. The top almost reaches her belly button but not quite. He squints, trying to read what the writing says.
"My eyes are up here, asshole," she mutters as she shoves past. There's amusement in her voice.
He can't help himself. He grins. "Was trying to read your shirt."
"Sure you were."
They buy new horses with some of their loot and after hitching them to the wagon, they get back on the road, happy to see nobody is following them. The sky is dark, but there is just enough moonlight to travel safely on the main road. They ride in silence until Bass decides they're far enough away from the circus to make camp.
Bass starts the fire and lays out their bedding on a blanket of pine needles. He looks down at their bedrolls lying side by side. In the beginning he'd kept her close because he didn't trust her. He trusts her now but still keeps her close. He doesn't dwell on why.
There's a rustle in the woods behind him. Charlie appears holding a dead rabbit. She cleans it quickly and it's on the spit by the time Bass has taken care of the horses.
They eat in silence. It's Charlie who finally speaks. "You know, I remember that time in Philly too. When your stooge pointed a gun at my head."
"Strausser. His name was Strausser."
"Yeah, I don't care. Not the point."
"So, what's the point?"
"A part of me thought you were fierce too. Hot."
He looks at her now but it's her turn to stare into the fire. He doesn't speak, waiting.
"The way you were totally in control and not taking shit from my Mom or anyone – it made an impression."
"What kind of impression?"
"Well, later that night I dreamed about you - the way you looked at me - how in control you were. When I woke up, I wondered if I'd see you again. I'm not sure what I hoped to accomplish if I did, but there was part of me that was intrigued."
Bass pushes a couple bones around on his plate. "I had Strausser find me a whore that night that looked like you. Her face was wrong so I had her bend over my desk while I -"
Charlie sucks in a harsh breath, her eyes dark. "You ran the place. I was your prisoner. You could have just had him bring me to you, if you wanted me so badly."
He faces her then, shadows dance across his features. "Even in my darkest days, I never forced a woman. I wanted you, but not enough to do that."
"So killing me was going to be okay but fucking me would have crossed a line?"
The tension in the air is thicker than the darkness. "Yes."
"Your moral code is a bit warped."
"Says the woman hellbent on murdering me in New Vegas."
She shrugs. "Thought you needed to be dead, but I guess there was a part of me that was still curious."
"Curious, huh? In the pool, you were still pissed. Told that bounty hunter to kill me right there."
"And I meant it." She stands up and begins to pace. "At the time."
"But it didn't escape my notice that you looked just as good, leaning there all casual and dirty as you had in your uniform back in Philly, or fighting in New Vegas." She shrugs. "I was mad. I wasn't blind."
His smile is slow and it crinkles the corners of his eyes. "So, you think dirty is hot? Damn. This is good news. That bath tonight was the first real one I've had in weeks."
Charlie laughs as some of the tension fades. "That's not what I meant. Not really."
"What did you mean?"
"Maybe I am not as mad at you as I thought I was. Maybe I just didn't realize it right away. You've saved my life more than once. That's got to make up for some of the other stuff. You are an asshole sometimes but sometimes you're nice and I think you feel guilty for a lot of stuff you maybe didn't actually do. Some of that guilt might even be my fault. And Pearl said you were worth giving a second chance."
"Liking that guy more and more."
"I do have a question."
"Ask me anything."
"Back in Philadelphia when your goon was holding that gun to my head, would you have really killed me?" She watches him with a burning intensity. "Even though you had a hard on for my fierce courage or whatever?"
Bass feels his good mood fade. He stares into the fire, watching the orange flames dance. "Honestly, Charlie? Yeah. Probably would have. I really wanted your mom to play nice and she just wasn't going to do it. So, that's the truth. I would have let Strausser kill you if it meant turning the lights back on. I might be nice sometimes but I can also be a really bad guy."
Charlie sits down on the ground at his side. "Yeah, me too."
"In New Vegas, if that stupid bounty hunter hadn't grabbed you, I'd have kept shooting bolts until one went through your head. I'd have killed you even though watching you fight made me wet."
Bass watches her. "And what do you think that means for us now? Now that we don't want to kill each other anymore?"
"I think it means times have changed." She leans in close, hesitating long enough to give him an out. He doesn't take it. He watches her with a keen level of awareness he hasn't felt in a long time. Can this really be happening? Charlie Matheson is choosing him? It's been a long time since a woman came to him because she wanted him without some ulterior motive.
Bass lets her lips slide softly against his as he ponders this turn of events. Charlie is kissing him, not because of power. He has none. Not anymore - not over his Republic or anything else. She can't want his money. Other than his winnings from tonight, he's broke. He can't give her anything she probably can't get for herself. He has nothing to offer and yet she's kissing him in a way that tells him she does not care.
She's kissing him in a way that gives him hope. Hope for something meaningful in a world without meaning. Hope that maybe forgiveness is something he's worthy of. Hope that this kiss is only the beginning of something he'd never thought he could have again.
The firelight flickers just a few yards away, crackling softly in the night. Bass and Charlie fall into each other, letting the kiss take them where they are meant to go.
As the kiss deepens, she thinks back on all their moments together. With every brush of his tongue against hers, she remembers other moments with him…
Monroe's gleaming body, muscles bulging as he pummeled his opponent in New Vegas…
Monroe's arrogant smile and the way he leaned against the pool wall...
Monroe saving her in the tower...
And again in the bar…
The kiss intensifies as his lips angle over hers. This is a kiss borne of a fierce attraction that could not be fully admitted until tonight. It is in turns gentle and brutal as if they can't decide which way to go.
Charlie moans softly in his arms and he looks down at her, assigning this moment to memory. The firelight casts shadows across her face showing him parted lips and wide eyes. His mind goes back to other memories of this woman…
Charlie facing Strausser's gun back in Philly….
Charlie mouthing off in the swimming pool…
Charlie standing in the mud pit, proud and fierce…
Charlie helpless and drugged, needing him to save her again…
It's that final memory that directs Bass' next movement. Charlie is fierce and savage when she has to be but maybe this is a time for something slow, something gentle.
He lowers his mouth to hers once more. "You sure you want this? With me?" he asks. "Not wishing you were back at the Circus with Pearl?"
"Don't be an idiot. Want this. Want you."
"Yeah?" He flashes her a relieved smile when she nods.
Charlie leans in to kiss him again, sliding her tongue between his lips. He groans, pulling her closer. He takes his time tugging at her shirt. When she raises her arms, he lifts it over her head and tosses it aside. Charlie's hair falls around her shoulders, framing her bare skin. Bass reaches up to cup one perfectly rounded breast in his palm. He gently rolls a nipple between calloused fingers, watching as the rosy bud tightens in response.
Charlie presses soft kisses along his jaw, running fingers through his curls. She wants to feel his skin against her own and with that thought in mind, begins pulling at the hem of his shirt. Bass moves away far enough to yank it off. Charlie kisses him again, moaning gently into his mouth. After that, the remaining clothes are peeled off one layer at a time until bare flesh is exposed.
They touch and taste, lowering down to the bedroll. Gentle kisses and exploring fingers bring the tension higher. Bass is breathing heavily, hard and ready, Charlie spread below him, naked and beautiful in the firelight.
"Of all my memories of you," he says, his voice low, "this one will be my favorite."
Her eyes are hazy with lust but her smile is warm. "Get down here. Pretty sure the next one is going to be pretty good too."
He grins before lowering his body over hers, settling between her thighs. His lips brush against hers in a feather light kiss as he slowly pushes into her. Moaning against her mouth, he wonders for a moment if he's dreaming. This is too perfect - the feel of her body, the sound of her breath, her heat.
When Charlie wraps her legs around him in encouragement, he knows this is no dream. This is real and it is with that very satisfying thought, that he begins to move.
There is no hurry to this coupling. Bass takes his time, stroking leisurely into Charlie's core, filling her with a roll of his hips before retracting and then starting all over again. Charlie rocks against his thrusts, meeting him move for move. They kiss and touch and stroke as the tension builds.
In the distance, fireworks explode over the Circus and it is with the fire lighting the distant sky that they find their release.
Bass rolls to Charlie's side. She grasps his hand, and he squeezes her fingers in response. Quietly, they both stare up at the sky as they catch their breath and process what just happened.
After a few moments, she says, "Willoughby."
"Miles is there?"
"Yeah." Charlie nods. "Miles, my Mom, Aaron. Everybody."
"What are we going to say to Miles? He's gonna wonder why we've been traveling together."
"Yeah, he'll wonder. We'll tell him the truth." She shrugs. "We ran into each other in New Vegas and you convinced me to bring you to him."
Bass chuckles. "So, we're going to tell him part of the truth?"
"Well, I wasn't planning on telling him about having my wicked way with you, if that's what you mean."
"He's going to ask."
Charlie glares at him. "Really?"
"Maybe not about your wicked ways specifically, but he's going to ask if I touched you."
Charlie thinks about this for a moment. "And you'll say no. You'll say you never touched me."
Bass rolls onto his side, propped up on an elbow, watching her. He reaches out, stroking a finger from her chin and down the column of her throat. Charlie's breath hitches, but she doesn't move.
"I never touched her." Bass says the words carefully, trying them out, tasting the lie on his tongue. His finger slides ever so softly up the curve of her breast before circling a nipple. "I never touched her," he says again. His finger trails down the bottom curve of her breast and over her flat belly before sliding his hand between her thighs. Charlie shudders when he dips two fingers into her wet heat. "I never touched her," he whispers before leaning in to press his lips against hers.
"I would never let him touch me," she says in response before grasping his shoulders to pull him close.
"It's everything you ever want
It's everything you ever need
And it's here right in front of you
This is where you wanna be…"
-Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum in "The Greatest Showman"