Author's Notes: Based on this kink meme prompt:
A traveling circus sometime during the Victorian era/early 20th century has a freakshow as one of its main attractions. However, instead of the usual tattooed men and dwarfs, this freakshow has a lot more exotic and interesting oddities from all over the world (think snakeman!Arthur and similar ones), one of them a Japanese woman with giant butterfly wings growing out of her back. Then one day she meets and befriends a young Grecian man who eventually joins and works for the circus. Eventually the two fall in love and start a relationship - much to the displeasure of others around them. Up to filler whether they stay together in the end or not (if the latter, not because they broke up but because fate can be a very cruel force).
Title is transliterated as "petalouda", and is Greek for "butterfly." "Gáta" is Greek for "cat." "Konnichiwa" is Japanese for "hello", but I assume most people already know that
"I am poorly-educated, but eager to work."
The man is dressed like a gentleman, top hat and three-piece suit, though it is a hot day for England and he's not sure the man could be comfortable. "Hmm," says the man, and Herakles hopes that is not an actual word. "I really can't afford to feed many more mouths."
herakles understood "can't" "afford" "feed". "I eat small," he says, aware it's not right. "I need work."
The gentleman appraises him, eyes green as the Kent countryside. "Do you have family?"
Herakles nods. "Wife. Almost. Home." Perhaps she is not really family, but she has been his friend and partner all these years and he always knew he would marry her, so she is the best answer – to say no would probably do him a disservice. And, for that matter, her.
"Hmm." Perhaps Herakles should learn the meaning of that? "Very well then. I will employ you, for manual labour setting up the exhibitions and so forth. You are, under no circumstances, to interact with any of them do you understand?"
Herakles doesn't really, but nods excitedly in gratitude anyway.
The circus doesn't suit Kent. The bright red and yellow clashes with the serene peaceful countryside. The tents, the noise; they belong somewhere warm and dry and loud – like home. It's ironic, because these seem far more common here.
It is Herakles' job to set them up, to transport boxes back and forth, to secure cages for wild animals. He always leaves before the actual show – he sees no joy in watching creatures being slaves to human masters.
He has his own tent almost a mile away, simple and plain without even a bed. He relies on the circus for everything, and is paid as much in food and water as in coin. He has to be paid in coin though, for when he goes home to marry. He cannot forget himself.
A small cat sneaks into his tent at night. Herakles finds himself welcoming the company; he has always been fond of animals, which is partly why he never attends the circus. Animals are so much more pure than humans. The cat is small and thickly furred, black and white and blending into the landscape.
"Gáta," Herakles calls it with no better name. He soon realises that may as well be its name. He's the only Grecian for miles, so it will be unique.
One night, Gáta leads him to the circus while it's performing. Herakles doesn't know why he would do such a thing, but chooses to trust the animal's instincts. It is a nice night and he enjoys walking amongst the stars, even if it will always be colder here than he's used to.
There's something so childish about hiding underneath the bleachers, hoping not to be caught. He knows if he is it is the end of his work here, but he trusts Gáta would not lead him astray. Inside, the circus is magnificent; far larger and grander than the few tents Herakles helped set up. It is warm and inviting, and it still does not belong where it is, but inside Herakles forgets where it is anyway.
His boss, Arthur, the man who employed him – is larger and grander also, grinning wildly, entertaining the crowd. "And now," he whispers, raising tension, "it is time for the eagle and the bear!"
Fighting animals? He gives a curious look to Gáta, who remains quiet under his palm. Why would you show me this? However a curtain is pulled back, and what is revealed to be in cages is not two animals – it is two men.
Two men in cages, snarling and hissing at one another like wild dogs. One is large and silver, barely fitting within his cage. The other is smaller and a striking gold, grinning through his cries.
"Well well well, don't they look eager!" Arthur shouts to the roaring applause of the crowd. Herakles runs his hand through Gáta's soft fur. "Alright, alright folks; I won't keep you waiting. Let's get things underway!"
Herakles expects the cages to slide open, for the men to go at each other instantaneously. This does not happen. There is a pause where the crowd falls silent, and so do the "eagle and bear" – as they press against the edges of their cages.
Herakles blinks in surprise as the two men rip the cages open.
Suddenly there is screaming and shouting above him as the audience cheers for its favourite. The eagle and bear rush for one another; the bear tries to grab the eagle, which darts and ducks and swoops upon him. Herakles realises the eagle can just tear the bear off it, which makes no sense given their sizes. Eventually, the eagle has the bear trapped beneath it, perched on his chest. It raises its fingers to the bear's neck, like sharp talons ready to slit a throat.
"Caw! Caw!" A sharp, silly sound comes out and the audience struggles to decipher where from. The two men draw away from each other, at attention. It is Arthur. "Well, wasn't that exciting folks? Still, best not have 'em hurt each other, eh?" Arthur shakes his head at the crowd's disappointed groan. "Yes yes I know, but you have to think about our costs people!" That gets a laugh. Herakles doesn't know why they couldn't just have faked the men's deaths, but it doesn't matter he supposes.
He is almost ready to go, but Gáta remains firmly still. "Now," says Arthur, voice quieter than before. "I believe after that, we would all like to see something less... intense. Perhaps something... beautiful?"
The lights go out. The crowd gives anxious whispers above him, and Herakles frowns, confused. Then a light comes back, high in the sky, higher than can possibly be within the dingy little tent he set up. Then he sees it. Her.
A woman, with black hair and blacker eyes, pale skin, clad in a silken purple robe. She stands higher than any human being has ever stood. Get down from there! Herakles feels the impulse to shout, despite what a strange command that would be and how important silence is for him right now. The crowd gives shocked gasps, but then becomes quiet, as if they know their noise would defile her. She stares straight ahead, looking at something none of them have ever seen. She doesn't respond to the gaping animals beneath her.
Slowly, something magical happens. Thin, translucent, violet and ivory wings spread from beneath her. Herakles must smother his own gasp. They become wider than her, almost wider than the circus – they dwarf everything.
After a moment, she steps forward, and begins to fly.
He cannot honestly say what happens when he watches her fly. The patterns that flicker and change as her wings flutter. The slack-jawed stares from the astonished audience. His own desperate searching for some sort of wire holding her up, where the wings are attached, some semblance of reality in this experience. He cannot be sure any of that really happened. Certainly none of it was real.
What he is sure of, however, is that watching her – he was not silent.
He sneaks out as the crowd disperses, hoping Arthur doesn't see him. The people whisper and gossip amongst themselves – he has no idea what they are saying, of course. He sees so many of them lingering, then wandering into another tent, one with something written above it – something he doesn't understand. He has never met the man at the door, one with curling hair and soulful eyes, so he buys a ticket to the strange tent and spends some of his hard-won gold to do so. He does it silently. He wonders where Gáta has gotten to.
As he ventures in, he's not sure what to expect. He finds people in cages. Oh. It shouldn't surprise him and so it doesn't, and so he examines the increasingly deranged looking people – the bearded ladies and contortionists, the half-animal ones, the persons with nothing more than outrageous disease – with no reaction.
He plunges further and further into the labyrinth, until he reaches it's centre. There. There she is.
She, unlike the others, is not in a cage. She is sitting on a platform, cross-legged and completely still. Those black eyes are closed. He reaches forward and strokes along her forehead, as if she were a painting and he wishes to feel her texture. She is smooth and pliable; if he pressed particularly firm against her he thinks she might stay in that shape forever.. She doesn't react. Slowly he moves his finger downward, over her small nose until it rests against her lips. Slight moisture arrives on his fingertip, but yet still no reaction.
He continues until his finger arrives at the valley between her breasts. He frowns. He has never been shy when it comes to sex, but there is something wrong when it comes to touching a woman who cannot – or at least will not – respond. He steps back. She doesn't seem to have noticed.
He thinks of his fiancé, and how familiar with her breasts – with her entire body – he's always been, years before there was anything sexual between them. He saw her naked because she didn't bother to put on clothes for him; there were never any secrets between them. Whereas this woman before him now, she is nothing but a secret.
He becomes uncomfortable with the ring on his finger.
He notices the wings folded behind her, so only the very edge can be seen. He stares. Slowly, he reaches out and brushes his hand against one purple side. It feels like he's touching air.
Suddenly, her eyes snap open.