Author's Notes: This is a series of connected vingettes about Mana and Allen. This first story is how Mana and Allen met. At least, the person we think is Mana.
Spoilers for chapter 166 of the manga.
Very little in the world could impress Allen. Jewelry and fine clothes made him scoff, bravado made him roll his eyes, and talent made him shrug. A heaping plate of food could get his attention, but in that he was not unique. Born in the early 1880's to a family he never knew, he was one of hundreds of children orphaned, turned out on their ear, and abandoned to the streets of industrial London.
He lived in an orphanage for a long time; no one really liked him. Allen's deformed hand was big and red and ugly and didn't work as well as the other one, an easy target to point and make fun at. Allen glared and hunched his shoulders and ignored it. He didn't like his hand any better than anyone else. He promised himself he'd get bigger and tougher, and then he'd leave the orphanage.
Naturally he did get bigger as he aged, and when he was about six he was old enough to earn his keep at the orphanage. He recieved his first job at a texile mill that made sheets of linen for beds. All day long he hauled water to the steamers, where the soot from the mill was washed out of the linen until it was pristine white and ready to be shipped. He hated the job, but it was better than the assembly lines, reserved for older kids who didn't have shaking deformed limbs, where people were maimed or killed by the exposed whirring gears. He was paid with two full meals, one at the beginning and one at the end of the day, and his wages were given to the orphanage for his keep. The steam choked him and the workers were afraid of him, as if his left hand were somehow contagious.
He collapsed into bed exhausted each day, and the dream of running away faded. There was only work.
After six months of daily work, except Sundays, Allen came up ill. He collapsed in a puddle of water from his bucket. For two weeks he could barely raise his head from his pallet. The textile mill replaced him, so when Allen recovered he was told he had a new job, at a coal refinery. Instead of hauling water, Allen now hauled wood. Since he was so small he wasn't worth as much, and he only would get one full meal a day from his work. The coal dust made him cough and his eyes watered all day until they were so dry he could barely close them at night, and he was always filthy. His forearms were burned from being so close to the fire.
One fall morning Allen rode the wagon to his job. When the wagon came back that evening the manager was there instead of Allen, demanding to know where he'd gone. He had worked at the coal refinery for barely a month.
Allen was twenty miles south, just out of London, looking up at the tentpoles of the Cirque de Solace.
By circumstance, Allen was a realist. He knew he'd have to work to eat, perhaps even harder than he had at the mills, but it was hard to imagine a job harder or more tedious than the industrial ones. Once he had snuck off to see the circus when he heard the older boys talking about it, but he'd only gotten as far as the sideshows - the Bearded Lady and the Tattooed Man and one guy swallowing fire (which Allen thought was pretty neat) before he was caught without a ticket and thrown out. Now he stood on the outskirts of the circus grounds, hands in his pockets, and watched as men pounded huge nails into the ground and erected wooden platforms and built rickety bleachers.
He looked up at the sign he was standing next to. There were elegantly painted pictures of lions and elephants and trapeze artists flipping through the air, and a big clown face. Writing covered the clown face, which Allen couldn't read.
Allen took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh, and his stomach grumbled. Surely a place with this much going on could use an extra hand - maybe he could feed the lions or something. No use standing around, though. He drew another deep breath, held it for a moment, and strode across the grounds, dodging wooden planks and men rolling oil drums.
With this much activity there would be no way Allen could find the manager or the ringmaster or whomever and ask for a job. He knew what he looked like - short, thin, and unkempt, sweaty and sunburnt from walking all day in the early fall sun, and with a messed-up hand. He'd look useless. So Allen found a bucket with a ladle that no one was using, and the field well, and he hauled water.
For the rest of the evening Allen went back and forth from the well, offering drinks of water from the ladle to every sweating worker. It was just as much work as the textile mill, but it was far more rewarding. If anyone noticed his hand, they made no mention of it, wiping their sweaty brows with handkerchiefs and thanking him for the water.
When night began to fall a bell clanged, and with exclamations of interest the workers got up and came towards the sound. Allen followed, still dragging a half-bucket of water behind him, and his mouth began to water when he caught a whiff of stew on the breeze. When the workers all lined up for what was apparently the evening meal, Allen lined up with them. His stomach felt as though it were scraping his backbone.
When he got to the front of the line a cracked bowl and a bent spoon was shoved into his waiting hand, and a ladel-full of beef stew was poured into it. Allen took a long, deep sniff before he went to dig in, when the bowl was snatched away.
Allen squawked with dismay and looked up. The man holding his meal away from him was tall, round, and pale, but his hair was dark. it bushed out from under the kerchief wrapped around his head and in a thick, shaped beard, but it was obvious he needed a shave because the stubble was long. He glared down at Allen. "Looking for a free meal, kid? We don't feed strays."
Allen balled up his fists and scowled. This might have been the manager that he didn't want to interrupt in the middle of work, but he was so hungry he could faint. He opened his mouth to protest when someone else - one of the tent nailers - spoke up, his mouth half-full of stew. "I thou' you 'ired 'im, Alfred." The man swallowed. "He's been haulin' water long since midday at least. I'm damn glad, too, saved us alla trip and the water is welcome."
Alfred frowned at this, then looked back down at Allen. "Where you from?" he demanded.
Allen looked longingly through his bangs at the bowl of stew still out of his reach. "London."
"You got parents that'll be wantin' ya?"
Allen shook his head. "No," he emphasized, jutting out his jaw. "Jus' don't wanna work in the mills. If you got any jobs here, I'll take it. I don't care what it is."
Alfred didn't look impressed; he eyed Allen up and down, and Allen clasped his hands behind his back quickly, hiding them in folds of baggy clothes. "Hmph. You can probably barely lift that bucket," he grumbled, but he lowered his hand to return the stew. "You earn your keep, then you can stay. You gotta make yourself useful, you hear me, boy!? We're not in the business of charity! I catch you lazin' about and you're out on your ear!"
Allen snatched the bowl of stew away the moment it was within reach. "I got it, I got it," he said, shoveling corned beef and stewed lettuce into his mouth. "I c'n work hard--!"
"You'd damn well better," Alfred grumbled, and that was how Allen got his third job.