Well, it's been a while, hasn't it? But I can now say that Em and I have a rather clearer idea of what we're both planning. :) And here's the chapter. Not my best, but I think it was needed.
Trains, Rain and Hot Chocolate
The train rattled its way through the French countryside, its windows a blur of autumn landscapes. Dusty golds. The sweet scent of fading flowers musty in the air. A rustle of disturbed leaves. Fields, trees and rivers flashed past, all looking remarkably similar to their English counterparts.
Atlanta sat in her compartment, gazing out of the window, wondering why she didn't yet feel the wonderful thrill of escape, of freedom, of excitement at the prospect of travelling to foreign lands. Yes, she had felt it when she first joined the circus, just a couple of days ago. Now all she felt was a hard knot of anxiety deep within her. Anxiety about what, she wasn't sure.
Atlanta sighed, running a hand through her hair before drawing herself back into a ball, her legs pressed up against her body. Well, that was a lie for a start. She knew exactly what made her so anxious. What if running away with the circus wasn't enough? What if he found her, even in Paris, and dragged her back to the life she had so desperately wanted to leave?
A knock on the door startled Atlanta out of her brooding. Before she could even call out 'Come in', however, the door burst open to reveal Benjamin, looking ready to burst with excitement and still clutching the doorknob.
'Atlanta! Atlanta, guess what? Guess what?'
'Erm … '
'Bailey says – he says we'll be in Paris within the hour!'
'Oh … that's … that's great.' Atlanta felt a sick jolt in her stomach, and realised, with some surprise, that it was excitement.
'Isn't it?' Benjamin was still holding on to the doorknob, twisting it back and forth in his small fist.
'Yeah, it's really great, Benjo. Um, you don't happen to know how we crossed the channel do you, Benjo? Only, we were in England one moment and then … ' Atlanta shook her head. It was all very confusing, and she couldn't fathom how the train worked. If she thought she would get a straightforward answer though, she was sadly mistaken.
'Bailey – Mr Clarke – he says,' Benjamin screwed up his face in concentration, 'he says we don't take the most direct route – that's why we're travelling the countryside – but we take the most pleasant route.'
'Oh … right. Did you like your drawing, Benjo?' Atlanta eyed the door apprehensively; if he didn't stop maltreating the poor doorknob soon, it was sure to break right off.
'Oh, yes! It's great! Well, see you, Atlanta, I've got to tell everyone the good news!'
And he was off, leaving the door swinging gently in time with the movement of the train.
About half an hour after Benjamin had departed, when Atlanta had closed the door and managed to get a few minutes restless sleep, there was another knock on the door. With a jerk, Atlanta awoke.
'Come in!' she called groggily, fumbling in her attempt to sit up quickly. Brushing hair out of her eyes, she stood up in time to see three people enter the room. One of them she recognised as Bailey, the circus proprietor. The other two, a man and a woman, she was unfamiliar with, though she did think she might have seen them on previous trips to the circus when she was much younger. They must be twins – they looked about the same age, and both had shockingly red hair.
'Atlanta,' Bailey smiled warmly at her, 'I just thought I'd drop in and introduce you to my … partners in crime.'
'Partners in crime? For goodness sake, Bailey, we're not bank robbers!' The woman gave an amused roll of her eyes and held out her hand to Atlanta, who shook it.
'I'm Penelope – but everyone calls me Poppet. I believe you've visited me before – in the fortune teller's tent?'
Atlanta gasped. She could hardly believe this woman, with her bright red hair and her light, cheerful voice was the same woman who she had seen sitting behind veils in a dark and mysterious tent.
'You … you're the fortune teller? Sorry,' she added hastily, 'I just didn't expect to ever meet you properly, that's all.'
Poppet smiled in an understanding sort of way.
'That's all right. I quite understand.'
'And this is Winston – Widget,' said Bailey, gesturing to Poppet's twin.
'Pleased to meet you. Bailey's told us a lot about you,' his eyes roved over her face, missing nothing, giving nothing away. Except – is that pity? Maybe she just imagined it, but Atlanta had the impression that Widget could see more than most.
Shaking her head to clear it, Atlanta realised that Widget was speaking again.
' … Pavilion of Memories. Perhaps you've visited before?'
'Oh, yes!' Atlanta's eyes lit up with enthusiasm, 'I love that tent.'
Widget smiled. 'Thank you. If you're ever looking for inspiration, something to draw, you're free to use my tent for ideas.'
'Thank you, I'll remember that.'
They talked for some time more before Bailey suddenly remembered that he had left Benjamin alone in the train's kitchens.
'If I don't go back now, he'll eat us out of house and home,' he said, looking as if he meant it. His companions laughed, bid Atlanta goodbye and left her alone once more.
Paris. They'd arrived at last. The air was cool and crisp, the light watery. Atlanta wove her way through the crowd of circus-workers, a grin fixed firmly on her face, seeking out one person in particular. It took a shorter time than she had expected to find her friend, and when she did find her, she almost walked straight into her.
'Frey – I mean, Evangeline!' She stopped herself just in time, remembering that they were in public.
'Atlanta!' Freya's eyes widened in surprise at seeing her friend again.
'I was looking for you.' Atlanta observed, with a degree of sadness, the pleasure that her words sparked in Freya. This girl was obviously unused to acceptance.
'I thought we could explore Paris a bit. I mean,' she continued, gesturing around her, 'I don't think we're needed just now, and we've got a good few hours before sunset.'
Freya beamed, obvious pleasure showing on her face.
'I'd like that. It'll be nice to get out of the crowd for a bit.'
They had a pleasant afternoon together. Atlanta couldn't help liking Freya, despite knowing that she had lied quite purposefully to her. There was something about her … somehow, she seemed to have walked into Atlanta's life at just the right time. Atlanta, so eager for and yet so nervous of freedom, was comforted by the very presence of Freya, who seemed determined to control herself and her life with strict boundaries lest anything go wrong like it had done before. They matched each other well, tempering each other's personalities and pasts like light matches shadow.
For that afternoon, Atlanta was able to escape. Nothing and no one restricted her now – she had a home, a job, and a friend who was already a better family than she had ever had at the theatre.
The rain came suddenly, and with little warning. The sky rolled with thick black clouds, and the girls stood shivering, their clothes clinging to their skin, their hair hanging in sodden tendrils.
'Let's get out of this – look, over there,' Freya was pointing towards a small café, tucked between a book shop and an ice cream parlour.
Atlanta nodded, and the two girls ran towards the building, slipping and sliding on the rain-slicked pavement.
A bell jangled merrily above them as the two girls entered the café, sopping wet but laughing at their ungainly entrance.
'Coffee? Or perhaps hot chocolate?'
Freya smiled, 'I think this weather calls for hot chocolate, don't you?'
Atlanta gave a smile in return, and before long the pair of them were sitting clutching steaming mugs of hot chocolate at a small table by the window, which was foggy with condensation.
'So … ' Atlanta wasn't quite sure where to begin, 'what will you be doing at the circus? I mean,' she gestured at the sky outside , 'apart from getting rained upon.'
Freya smiled ruefully. 'I won't be performing, exactly. I have a tent, but I'm here more in an advisory capacity. I'll be looking at people's auras and … judging what needs to be improved. I don't know if I'll have much work, to be honest. And what about you? I'm afraid we seem to have become acquainted with each other's pasts before our present selves. Who we were, not who we are.'
Atlanta nodded slowly, realising the truth in her friends' words. When she next spoke, however, she asked another question of her own.
'Do you have any paper to hand? It'd be easier to demonstrate what I do than tell you, I think.'
Freya looked slightly surprised, but she pulled a notebook from her pocket and handed it to Atlanta.
Atlanta opened the notebook, trying not to see what might have been written on the pages – she caught glimpses of what look like they must be detailed drawings of auras, and pages and pages of notes, but she didn't linger over any of them. Reaching a blank page, she took a pen from her own pocket and glanced around for inspiration.
'Name an animal,' she said finally, deciding to give up thinking for herself for a moment.
Atlanta gave a small laugh, imagining the reactions of people in the coffee shop if an elephant (however vapour-like) were to appear in their midst.
'Could you think of something a bit smaller? Something not so noticeable?'
Freya was evidently intrigued.
'OK … how about a rabbit?'
Atlanta nodded, and began to draw. It didn't take her long, the rabbit becoming more life-like with each stroke of the pen. When she has finished, the rabbit (who was obviously a baby) instantly began to move upon the page, sitting up and twitching its nose, then beginning to wash its ears with quick, neat movements from its paws. Atlanta chanced a quick glance at Freya. Her eyes were wide, her expression shocked.
Smiling slightly, Atlanta looked once more upon the baby bunny.
'Now, little rabbit, go free.'
A soft whispering began, emanating from the little rabbit, who suddenly froze, then seemed to seep of the page, the ink flowing into the air. Freya's mouth fell open as the translucent whisper of a rabbit hopped across the table to her, its little nose quivering as it sat up and sniffed at her. Its eyes were jewel bright, its whiskers the faintest quivering of air, a soft froth of smoke wreathing about its paws.
'Oh, Atlanta … it's beautiful … '
Atlanta beamed, and the rabbit vanished, reappearing in Freya's notebook in the same second.
'Here. He's yours to keep.'
Atlanta handed Freya's notebook back to her, grinning as Freya continued to stare at the little ink drawing.
'Will he carry on moving? After you've given him away, I mean?'
'Yes. But he won't come off the page unless I ask him to.'
Freya met Atlanta's eyes, and something passed between them which they would not have been able to describe, had they been asked. Atlanta didn't know why, but in that damp, cosy little café in Paris, with a mug of hot chocolate and a pen in her hand, she became best friends with a girl from Wales who could see auras, and who had come to her that morning intending to tell her the truth, but who had left with a lie fresh upon her lips.
There you go! I must say, I was rather pleased about the ending. :)