Benjamin Pepperwhistle and the Fantabulous Circus of Wonders
Publisher: Storm Moon Press
Genre: steampunk-ish, gun!kink
Benjamin Pepperwhistle has one overriding desire: to handle the glorious machinery that is a gun. So when he decides to run away to join the circus, it's only natural that he should seek out the legendary pistoleer, Cole Beauchamp, and beg to be his assistant.
Life in the circus has definite ups and downs, but as Benjamin settles in to his role, he finds that some perks are even better than he'd anticipated.
It was late afternoon, the shadows stretched under the low-hanging sun, when Benjamin reached the circus.
He walked briskly, a fabric bundle holding his meager possessions slung over his shoulder, dangling with every step he took. As he neared the rickety fence surrounding the encampment, he felt his stomach tighten with fear and excitement. Two tall, green poles marked the entrance; Benjamin paused to look at the wooden arch stretching between them, decorated in bright colors. It read, in fancy, flourished letters: The Fantabulous Circus of Wonders. The words were surrounded by bold, red and yellow stripes, and there was a fat, red and white cat painted in a corner, wearing a bowler hat and a monocle.
Benjamin felt a thrill run down his back. Behind the arch, he could see a tall, broad, red and white striped tent taking up most of the lot, adorned by bright festoons. His heart jumped in his chest. It was... majestic. There was no other word for it. It overshadowed the smaller tents and painted wooden caravans scattered behind it to form a messy little village. It was worn and patched in places, the festoons were mangy, and the paint was peeling off the wooden canopy before the entrance—but to Benjamin, it was a palace; the most beautiful tent of the richest king in the world. It was everything he'd dreamed of for so long.
Now, he just had to find his target—and make that dream happen.
He walked around the tent and into the cramped maze of caravans, trying to look confident, like he had every right in the world to be there. He’d arrived late; he’d been hoping to get there before midday, when everyone would be asleep, recovering from the night’s show. But now the winding paths between wagons and small tents were bustling with performers, busy carrying all sorts of props and items Benjamin didn’t recognize. A dwarf passed by with an armful of multicolored, glittery clothes, a purple scarf trailing behind him in the dust; Benjamin turned to ogle, but jumped back when a deafening hoot sounded right next to his ear. An elephant walked leisurely where he’d been standing a moment earlier, apparently unaccompanied, wearing the biggest stovepipe hat Benjamin had ever seen. Benjamin took a step back.
“Hey, watch out!”
He jumped again, whirling around, only to realize he’d almost crashed into the legs of a lady on bright purple stilts. He danced awkwardly around her, mumbling an apology as she grumbled and stalked off in a puff of cigarette smoke. Benjamin paused to catch his breath, wiping his damp forehead, feeling suddenly very much conspicuous; not at all smooth as he’d planned to be. When he looked cautiously around, he saw that more and more faces were turning to look at him, mostly with suspicious expressions. Benjamin felt like a performer who, smack in the middle of the tent with hundreds of people staring at him from their seats, has suddenly forgotten his act.
He stepped back, trying to disappear between two caravans, feeling the weight of all the eyes intent on following his moves. In his ragged cotton shirt, his threadbare vest, and his patched, stained trousers, he was keenly aware of just how dirty and out of place he was among the circus people with their bright sparkling costumes. All those colors, shifting so fast all around him—it made him feel a little drunk, a little wobbly. He had to find what he’d come looking for, and he didn’t even know where to look—the uncertainty rose up again, like a wave.
Shaken, he retreated further between the wagons, backed away through the narrowest, emptiest paths he could find until he could hide behind a worn, low-hanging tent, out of sight. He closed his eyes, trying to shut out the kaleidoscope of colors and movement and accusing eyes, trying to ground himself. He breathed deep—and remained frozen, struck by a smell so overwhelming and thrilling that Benjamin felt it slice right through the swirling chaos in his mind, clearing his head so abruptly he nearly lost his balance. It captivated his entire attention in an instant, eclipsing sounds and colors.
He recognized that smell. It was what he’d been looking for.
It was acrid and heavy, slithering up his nose, making his nerves sizzle. It was rounded and rough, weighing on his tongue like an exotic spice and yet, at the same time, sending an excruciatingly familiar thrill through him. It was a scent he knew well—a scent that made him feel alive and brimming with energy which made his muscles tense in anticipation of--something.
Benjamin sniffed the air, trying to pinpoint where the scent was coming from, his anxiety suddenly forgotten. He had to find the source of that smell, and he would be one step closer to completing his shaky, uncertain quest--
A cracking gunshot exploded right behind him, making him jump in delicious surprise. It had been so close that Benjamin could feel the vibration in his bones: it had come from behind the ratty blue fabric of the tent.
Benjamin could smell the telltale scent of burned power, the sizzling leftover of the detonation. It called to him like the raspy, enchanting voice of a fiery-haired siren. He tiptoed around the tent until he found an opening where the flap closing the entrance had been carelessly lowered, leaving a convenient crack. He didn’t even think twice before bringing his eye to it—didn’t even take the time to look around, the greed making him careless—and he was instantly rewarded. There it was, filling the tent, seeping slowly outside: the smell of burnt powder. Benjamin inhaled deeply. He loved the smell of inert powder, but this—this was what he preferred, the scent that made his blood pump faster, his body heat up.
It took him a conscious effort to turn his focus on watching, instead.
The first thing that attracted his attention was a large, circular wooden plank propped upright at the far end of the tent. It was taller than a man and just as wide, painted in bright concentric circles of yellow and red. There seemed to be some iron paraphernalia attached to it, at the top and at the bottom. It was bright and loud and glaring, and it attracted the eye just like a target... which it probably was, Benjamin realized belatedly, if the gaping bullet holes dotting the wood were any indicator. He craned his head to the side to try and see more. There were crates, haphazardly stacked, and mounds of rags scattered on the floor. For a moment, Benjamin thought there was no one inside. But then a man stepped into his line of sight. He must have been too close to the tent for Benjamin to immediately see... how close? Close enough to hear him, to discover him? Benjamin couldn’t care less.
Benjamin could only see the man’s broad back. His dark hair was tied back in a short ponytail, just long enough to brush his shoulders. He was wearing a worn linen shirt, sleeves rolled up to reveal muscular arms. When the man lifted his right hand, Benjamin saw, with a thrill of excitement, that he was holding a gleaming, gorgeous gun. He strained to see it better. It was a model he’d never seen, with something like thin pipes curving gracefully around the cylinder—but it was sleek and polished, a dark bronze color, reflecting the light in a soft rounded glow. It looked heavy and solid, and Benjamin ached from the desire to cup his hands around it, feel the weight of it as it nestled in his palm.
The air inside the tent was hot, damp and heavy, and it seemed to grow thick like syrup, converging around that gun, as the dark-haired man took careful aim at the target. There was a moment of perfect quiet, when Benjamin found himself holding his breath, when even the dust motes hovering in the light seemed to still. There was only the tanned skin of the man’s arm, the damp fabric of his shirt clinging to his back, and his strong hand, cupping the gun with such confidence that Benjamin felt consumed by a deep, wordless yearning.
When the man pulled the trigger there was an explosion of smoke and sparks, the sulfuric smell of burnt black powder was blasted through the air, so intense and rough that it made Benjamin’s eyes water.
That had to be the man he’d come looking for. There was no mistake.
The man swiped his hand over the hammer, reloading quickly. He shot again, and then again, and again—three rapid detonations, three bouts of smoke, three showers of sparks falling on the dry sand beneath the man’s leather boots. When he stilled, a cloud of smoke lingered in the tent, seeping slowly from the crack left by the tent flap. Benjamin closed his eyes and inhaled it greedily, loving the sharp tang of it on his tongue. He opened them again, and saw--
Saw that the man was staring at him, eyes black and gleaming, just like the gun now aimed at Benjamin’s face.
“Don’t make any sudden moves, or the last bullet will be for you.”