Of course Allen knew what Christmas was. At Christmastime toys of all sorts appeared in the windows of shops in London, wreaths graced the doors of wealthier homes, and carolers would go from door to door to wish a Merry Christmas and demand pudding. The orphanage always got three huge turkeys, let everyone have seconds, and gave out hard candies, two for each child.
Now far away from the orphanage and London, Allen had not realized it was Christmas Eve until Mana told him, while he was burying Asimov the Great. He was sore from being beaten the night before, but mentioning it to Alfred wouldn't get him much sympathy. Alfred would trust Cosimo over Allen. There likely wouldn't be any candy this year, and Asimov was dead. It was a pretty terrible Christmas.
Allen scrubbed his cheek with his sleeve and wrapped his arms around his knees. It was cold and the sweat he had worked up from hauling water was cooling and making him shiver. He looked up at Mana, who was in his full clown makeup, ready to do a minature performance to advertise for the circus, only his assistant was dead. How could Mana do nothing about it? Mana could probably beat Cosimo within an inch of his life.
Thinking about it made Allen want to cry again, so he sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "So where're you goin'?" he asked. "After tommorrow, I mean."
Mana shrugged. "I don't know," he said. Even this close, his makeup made him look as though he was continuously smiling. "Where I always go, I guess."
Allen raised an eyebrow curiously.
Mana's lips curled upwards a little under his makeup. "Nowhere at all."
Allen rolled his eyes.
Mana got to his feet with the groan of an old, old man, and looked out towards the bare horizon. The grass was brown under their feet, and their breath came out in puffs of mist. "I guess I'd better give my last performance. Will you come toss balls for me? Without Asimov ..."
"I dunno," Allen answered after a moment, resting his chin on his knees and blinking hard. "Alfred--"
"I'll talk to him," Mana interrupted. "Come on." He offered his hand to help Allen up.
Allen ignored it, getting to his feet on his own. "Okay." He didn't really want to pick up litter anyway.
The job ascribed to Allen was very easy; he had a bin of balls and pins by his knee, and he only had to toss them to Mana when Mana gave a little nod. He was a very smooth juggler and he made horrendous faces as he went, all the while balancing on a bigger ball. Little children laughed at him, and when Mana finished tossing the balls back to Allen to put away, Mana continued to do silly things while Allen handed out flyers to the passerby.
"You did well, Allen," Mana said as they walked back to the grounds, but Allen scoffed.
"Anyone could do that," he grumbled.
Mana laughed. "I never had to reach for a ball you tossed, and that's good. I thought for sure you would at least smile for a compliment."
Allen rolled his eyes again, kicking the dirt as he walked.
He and Mana parted ways when Allen was yelled at for running off, cuffed at the ear, and sent off to do the job he'd abandoned, despite Mana's protests. When Allen saw Cosimo passing by he kept his head down. Despite fantasies of revenge, he knew there was nothing he could do on his own.
That night when Gregory tried to send Allen with Cosimo's meal, Allen refused. "I'm not goin' back to that bastard," Allen informed him bluntly.
Gregory raised an eyebrow. "You'll go if I say it and that's all," he snapped, but Allen folded his arms and wouldn't take the tray. It was the first time he had refused any job. Gregory was nonplussed.
"See here, boy," he said. "This is your job. You do it, however you like, but it gets done-!"
"I'd soon kick him as look at him," Allen shot back, and then Gregory got angry, his brows drawing down.
"I've a mind to slap you silly! Cosimo earns your bread and butter! Do you want to argue over something so simple as that? Then get out, whelp, and come back when you've a mind to do your work!"
Allen got out. Supper was a loaf of bread he filched on the way. Somehow in wandering he found himself at Mana's carriage before he remembered that Asimov was dead. He glared at his bread until it was clear in his vision again.
Mana opened his door, his face now washed and wearing street clothes. "Ah, Allen. Did you bring supper?"
Allen sniffled and glared. "No."
Mana sighed and shrugged. "Ah well. Still crying about Asimov?"
"No!" Allen barked, infuriated by Mana's blase attitude.
Mana didn't bat an eyelash. "Out of jobs for the night, then? Come on in. I can tell you about Asimov."
"I don't care about him," Allen said unconvincingly.
"Then we'll play cards." Mana would not be dissuaded.
Allen looked at his half-eaten loaf of bread and the empty dirt where Asimov slept, and trudged up into Mana's carriage. "I don't need you to look out for me," he said, just to make sure Mana knew exactly what was going on.
"Don't worry." Mana closed the door behind Allen. "I can see you look out for yourself just fine."
Allen realized he was being mocked. "And I still don't think you're funny."
Mana laughed while Allen shifted from foot to foot. Mana's carriage was lit by two gas lamps, and other than the pallet most of the space was taken up by two stools and a table to match. His clown costume was hung by the door and some of his juggling tools were in the corner, but what Allen found curious, and had the few times he brought Mana his meal, were the six knives hung by the door. He had never seen Mana juggle them. It was a little warmer in here but not much; if Allen hadn't been rebellious he would have been warming his hands at one of the bonfires Daniel had set up.
Mana sat down on one of the stools. "Sit," he said, drawing a pack of cards out of his pocket. "We can play Gin Rummy."
"You weren't joking about cards," Allen said after a moment, and took his seat. He didn't remember finishing his loaf of bread, but it was gone.
Allen didn't actually know how to play Gin, so Mana taught him while Allen rubbed his hands together to get warm. He saw Mana glancing at his deformed arm, but Mana didn't say anything.
When Mana wasn't trying to be funny, he was patient. In the cold even Allen's left hand was affected and it was hard for him to handle the cards without dropping them. He could see Mana was humoring him by letting him win some rounds. "Just because I'm a kid doesn't mean you have to go easy on me," Allen protested in a fit of irritation.
"It's not because you're a kid. I don't even like kids like you," Mana answered. "It's because of your hands. They're thick-skinned and slow from the cold. Have you ever owned a pair of gloves? Well, never mind, I imagine not."
Allen glared at Mana, then glared at his cards instead.
"Anyway, you'll get faster as you get older, too." Mana put down a card and slapped them. "Gin!"
Allen threw the cards at the table, tired of the game, and shoved his hands in his pockets. "Why're you being nice." His voice was flat.
Mana raised his eyebrows as if he was surprised, and put down his cards on the table too. "Because you were friends with Asimov." Mana smiled. "Asimov didn't make friends with just anyone."
Allen didn't know how to react, so he said nothing. Mana started gathering up the cards and opened his mouth to say something else when a knock came at the door. "Ah, that will be supper," he said with a wink, and got to his feet.
It was Gregory. "Supper," he said, sounding disgruntled.
"Thank you," Mana replied, taking the tray. The smell of Greg's best stew wafted in and Allen's stomach growled.
"If you see that urchin Allen, give him a cuff and send him my way, will you?" Gregory added. "He ran off all in a flurry and no one's seen him since. I've got pots for him to clean."
"I will," Mana promised. "And Merry Christmas." Allen blinked at the lie.
"Same to you," Gregory said before Mana closed the door behind him.
He set the tray down on the table atop the cards without care. Allen's mouth watered and he regretted refusing to serve Cosimo, even if it had meant getting struck again. It would have been worth the meal.
Mana saw him looking on and handed Allen the cut of bread that came with the stew. "Have some," he said, smiling, and took his spoon to the food. Allen didn't need a second invitation, and in short order half the stew had disappeared into Allen's mouth, along with the bread. Mana grasped the bowl out of Allen's reach then. "Not all of it! I want supper too," he protested, but he was still smiling.
Allen's stomach still felt empty but it was a little better. He licked his fingers and watched Mana eat. "... Thanks," he said eventually, begrudging.
"Ah, you know a little bit of manners after all." Mana scooped the last of the stew into his mouth. "Mm, delicious. And I'd better send you back to Greg or he'll be really upset in the morning. What did you run off for?"
"Nonna your business," Allen grumbled, unhappy about having to face Gregory.
"Hm." Mana said nothing more about the subject, turning to his pallet and pulling out a small bag that he hid underneath it. "Well, it may not be a very merry Christmas, but every child deserves a treat, even ungrateful brats who don't laugh. Here." He took Allen's hand - his left one, as if he didn't care - and placed a single piece of hard candy in it. "Suck on it while you're scrubbing pots."
Allen stared at the candy, and the hand holding it, for a long while, before he curled his fist around it. He didn't know what to say, so he didn't say anything.
"Psst," Mana whispered in exaggeration, bending down towards Allen and curling his hand around his mouth as if telling a secret. "The word you're looking for is 'thanks'."
"That's not funny," Allen said, but a terrible, unused giggle burst from him anyway.
On December 26th Mana put on his tall top hat and his coat and picked up his suitcase, and he said goodbye to the Cirque de Solace as abruptly as he'd joined it. The snow had missed Christmas by a day, coming down in slow, occasional flakes. When he walked by the weathered sign declaring the circus grounds, a small, pale boy with brown hair and slightly oversized clothes appeared as if he'd been waiting for Mana to come.
"I want to come with you," Allen said, his mouth set in a hard line as if he wouldn't take 'no' for an answer.
"It won't be easy. I'm not rich and I move a lot," Mana warned him, although he knew it would not deter Allen.
"When's anything easy?" Allen demanded, crossing his arms and shivering a little in the cold.
Mana chuckled. "You're right," he said, and beckoned to Allen, and together they walked off to nowhere.