Thornbush's Three Ring Hullabaloo

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    Three Ring Hullabaloo

    Come One, Come All

    Not too far outside New York City

    July 4th, 1926​

    Sundays were more often than not enjoyable days for the folks of the widely renowned though dubiously successful traveling circus. It frequently marked all sorts of things: the day after the oft rowdy Saturday night shows, the day before a week of travel to the next location, the period of rest and recovery before the next performance, the day of worship for those who cared to. Sundays meant a great number of potential things indeed, though only one of those things proved true on this particular Sunday.

    Last night's show had been somewhat muted. The Big Toppers, as they were usually referred to as, had caused a bit of a ruckus before the show and refused to speak of it despite the frustrations of their colleagues. They had maintained stony and unwelcoming expressions as they flipped and twirled and spun through the air - acting magnificently, yes, but without luster. Though they had still impressed the not-quite full house, the audience had left feeling oddly scrutinized and harshly considered by the aerialists, sensations clear on their faces if not formed into words.

    Their behavior had, as it tended to do, gotten rather aggressively under the skin of their ringleader - a side effect of their angst they did not seem to predict or, upon realizing, care much for. The young man - Jacob, he was named - had, as a result of their troubling show the previous night, spent the morning in a huff in the company of his rather large friend, Rocco. The two had found refuge in a field outside the rented plot of the circus and sunk the sleepy hours of the day taking turns partaking of the hair of the dog Rocco always kept in a flask on his hip. Whatever their troubles were, they were too far out to be heard.

    "I don't understand," the youthful, smooth-faced man said slowly through a tight-lipped wince that had formed in the aftermath of a swig of bourbon, a couple of words coming out a little choked, "how so few people can cause so much aggravation in only one man."

    "Two men," the big lug corrected politely, his Brooklyn accent seeping in through even the smallest phrases.

    Jacob nodded his head, his top hat, worn sloppily to the side as if thrown on out of habit instead of necessity, wobbling in its loose position. "Of course, but regardless I think I pose a valid question."

    "I would say so," Rocco said reflectively before tipping the cold metal of his flask against his lips to shoot a mouthful of honey colored alcohol into his gut. "Beats the hell outta me, boss. Kids'll be kids, supposin'."

    The two stood silently side by side for a long moment, both thinking different yet very similar things about the troublesome Aldo Tessitore but neither feeling their thoughts were appropriate for polite conversation. Rocco sighed at the scenery, the vivid green grasses of summer lush and welcoming in the pleasant coolness of the morning. He had missed New York - always did when he wasn't there - and the recent return had knocked loose some nostalgia he'd had rattling around in his brain for the last few months. He substituted thoughts of Aldo with plans to visit his mother and take a walk around his old Borough, just the idea enough to bring a soft smile to his face.

    Jacob, on the other hand, was far less skilled at replacing negative thoughts with positive ones and used the silence to unintentionally agitate himself further. The blasted Tessitores had been nothing but trouble since they had muscled their way into the show through his father and with each indiscretion Jacob inched closer to removing them completely. As appealing as the thought was, however, he knew the follow-through would be more punishing than simply dealing with their malarkey. They were, fortunately and unfortunately, their big ticket performers and without them there was no question whether or not the last leg of the Three Ring Hullabaloo would break. He mimicked Rocco's sigh, but it was constricted and short.

    Rocco glanced sidelong at his friend then looked at the ground. He offered his flask again and when Jacob took it he said, "I know times is tough, it's a hard world of give and take we livin' in. You take the Tessitore bullspit, you give a lot of otherwise helpless people some hope. You know as well as I none of these folks would last a day in such a cruel place as the world. This place is a refuge - that kinda thing takes some sacrifices."

    Jacob tossed his head with the flask and grimaced at the alcohol again - not usually one for imbibing such a harsh drink - then promptly handed it back as if trying to rid himself of the burden. He pinched the bridge of his nose with his index and thumb and squeezed his eyes shut. "I know... screw it. That doesn't make it any more appealing to deal with."

    Rocco nodded solemnly, knowing by the tone of Jacob's voice that he had understood his point. He shifted his foot out and put his heavy arm across the much smaller man's shoulders, earning a light 'unf' from Jacob. "It'll sort itself out, pal. Keep your head high - the worst thing a guy can do is let the bullies know he's breakin'. You got my support and that ain't no small thing."

    Jacob couldn't help a small smile under the immense weight of Rocco's arm and patted his friend's hand for release. "I know, my friend. As always... thank you."

    Rocco smiled, more earnestly than earlier, and nodded graciously. He took one last swig from his flask then screwed it shut and pocketed it in his faded lime green and white stripped pants. "Anytime, boss. Best be gettin' back, though. No question they're being a bother to someone as we musin' by our lonesomes out here."

    Jacob lifted his hat with one hand and swept his other hand under it to fix his hair, still ruffled from sleep, then plopped the top hat down again. He adjusted his plain white t-shirt with a brisk tug and joined Rocco on the return to the camp.

    With the exception of the hangover palatalization the morning went rather smoothly. To Jacob's not insignificant relief the Tessitore family was no where to be found and he was able to enjoy some sliced fruit and a sandwich for breakfast. He sat by himself by chance, the clowns he had sat with originally having finished their breakfast soon after he had started his but was content to be alone and ate peacefully.

    Rocco was in the process of serving himself a wooden bowl of oatmeal, still hot from the pot, when a lively body with a droll expression snaked its way over to him.

    "Roderick," the underfed Frenchman purred, the cigarette in his lips bouncing with each syllable so that ash trickled off like powdery snow.

    Rocco eyed the man across the table as he grabbed a tin cup from a rack, the container looking more like a teacup in his meaty hand. He'd never really found a good reason to dislike the funny lookin' foreigner but he'd never found a reason to like him either. He filled the cup with water from the cooler on the table and raised one suspicious brow. "What can I do for you, Dutch?"

    The man, all covered in dark, black ink ('tattoos, you rube!' he called them, a phenomenon that had gone clear over Rocco's head), waved his arms in a way that was somehow sharp yet loose and limp, as if his hands were too heavy for his forearms. "Nozing," he said, habitually replacing his th's with z's. "You ask me always, 'what can I do?' as if I am in need of you. I am simply seeking conversation."

    Rocco narrowed his eyes further, staring at Dutch over the rim of his cup for a moment before responding. "It's just a figure of speech, like a greetin'."

    "You should greet wiz hello's, like average people, Roderick. It will do you good."

    Rocco resisted a sigh. "I'll keep it in mind."

    Dutch squinted at Rocco then relaxed his expression and closed his eyes, two fingers taking the cigarette from his mouth to tap accumulated ash onto the breakfast table. "Good, as we all know Dutch's advise is ze best advise, no? But of course, no need to say yes." He returned the cigarette to his mouth and brushed his black hair from his forehead. "So, I hear our Roderick was once a gentleman in love."

    Rocco jerked, his cup sprinkling water on his hand. "Uh," he grimaced, his rather full lips skewing in displeasure, "I'm gunna cut you a break since you ain't been here so long, but that ain't somethin' we bring up around here."

    The Frenchman looked surprised, puffing on his cigarette with raised brows. "Oh? Why is zis?"

    "We just don't, alright?"

    Dutch stroked his chin then shrugged and fixed the rolled up sleeves of the tight cotton shirt he wore under a dusty dark green vest. "Zen I guess it is no concern of yours if zis lady is back."

    Rocco couldn't help the itch of anger, not taking kindly to the scrawny man's game. He furrowed his brows, his thick jaw tensing as he spoke, "I'm not kiddin' you, pal."

    "And I am not doing zis 'kiddin' either!" He said indignantly. "Marianna, is she not? So fine, her sculpted features are," he shifted uncomfortably, "attractive. She has returned to the circus and is in search of you." Rocco clenched his teeth and started to say something but was interrupted by Dutch's finger pointing past his head. "See? You do not believe Dutch, yet I am always right!"

    Rocco, fulling expecting to turn and find nothing, was shocked to see the figure moving towards him as if out of a dream. He was so gripped by seeing her that his fingers fumbled the bowl of oatmeal still in his hand, which he tried to catch with his other hand but only succeeded in spilling water on himself as both the bowl and the cup clattered to the floor. He cursed and, more awkwardly than he had ever done anything in his life, quickly knelt to pick the things up and shove them onto the table behind him as if nothing had happened. A couple of people stared at his struggle for a long moment before returning to their conversations.

    Immediately his heart raced and he could feel a fire in his face that only served to make him even more embarrassed. He desperately tried to keep his cool but, very clearly, failed.

    Jacob had been watching the Rocco/Dutch interaction with some dark amusement. As fond as he was of Rocco, he always took a little enjoyment out of watching him interact with some of the characters he lived with. He was a fairly normal person, at least when put side-by-side with the other folks, and the way he dealt with the differences was interesting in its own right. That being said, when Dutch mentioned Marianna he stiffened and awaited for the backlash. When it did not come, and instead the big galoot dropped his breakfast, he was inclined to look over his own shoulder to see Marianna, true and in the flesh, walking towards him.

    The !@#$%^&* was back...

    It had been three years since she had walked away, abandoning the Family and everything they had worked for, and now she was just going to waltz back in, as if nothing had changed. It was infuriating. It was maddening. And it was entirely what Aldo Tessitore had come to expect from the dog of a Ring Master, too obsessed with fraternizing with the monstrosities outside of the Big Top to realize his pitiful circus was falling to pieces around them.

    Their protests had, thus far, gone ignored... and when the news came that Marianna was returning, it was with such an air of pleasantry Aldo had felt nearly ill. It was time for drastic measures. Something had to be done, and clearly, no one could be trusted with the job outside of their circle. Even then, with his sister's triumphant reprisal, there was no telling how the others might react.

    The time had come for change... Real, permanent change. He would play no more of their ridiculous games, listen to no more of their asinine excuses. In the ancient days of Rome when a leader failed to perform adequately, they were forcibly removed from power...The Ring Master had to go, and with him out of the picture... it would finally open the door to ridding their enterprise of the nightmare Freaks.

    But none of that could happen... none of that could come to fruition till he had his own personal vindication... She was back, but Aldo would be damned before he allowed her treachery to go unchecked.

    She was back...

    It had been three years since her hiatus and everything, entirely everything, was just as she'd left it. The Big Top... a stunning red and white canvas stretched up towards the sky on strong, mighty poles, a defiance of weight and limitation... a magnificent beacon, which could be viewed from miles away. Caravans of smaller tents and brightly colored carts were scattered around the grounds, and from a distance one could smell the heady aroma of mud and animals, and kettle corn and peanuts. Life in the circus was a never ending parade of colors and smells, music and life. And until she had stepped foot on those grounsd again, she had not realized how desperately she had missed it.

    Now, twelve hours later, face to face with her reason for leaving, she could almost not remember why she had come back.

    At least, as face to face with the towering brute that was Roderick Magliocco as one could get.

    He looked the same. Those powerful, striking features... the dark eyes, like stormclouds. He'd always been intimidatingly large, but she knew better how gentle a giant he was. And if he had not so powerfully devastated her heart, she might have worn a kinder disposition than the frown, which graced her lips.

    "Hello Roderick. Judging from that look of panic on your face, I imagine my return was left a surprise?" Shooting a look to Jacob, she returned her gaze to Rocco, shaking her head.

    "Somehow, that doesn't amaze me... You look well."

    Rocco shied away from her when she approached with vastly more confrontation in her expression than he had pictured in his head all the times he had imagined her return. He knew his ears and high, rounded cheekbones were blotched red and he inwardly cursed the lack of facial hair that would have given him something to hide behind. His brows knitted together, his momentarily averted eyes further shadowed by the ledge of concern the thick-haired isosceles triangles created on his face. He self-consciously brushed the water off his hand and shirt and took on a forced expression, like he was trying and questionably succeeding to rein in the ridiculous number of emotions her reappearance had provoked.

    He cleared his throat, an animal-like grunt, and muttered "M-marianna..." in his gravelly voice, his accent catching the 'ia' as a hard 'yah'. Her name had grated through his throat, the perfect series of letters locked away for so long that he had almost forgotten how to put them together.

    She still looked as stunning as he remembered her despite the dissatisfied downturn of her mouth. He remembered every inch of her, the one photograph he had of her well worn from constantly taking it out of its box to look at it - her triangular jaw tipped with a chiseled yet smooth chin, the heart-shaped wave of her cheeks, the seductive curve of her eyes. He felt terrified and lovesick all at once, the thought of his perfectly composed and wizened self from just that morning cropping up in his head only long enough to make him feel even more foolish for his current flurry of feelings. He felt too large and bulky, only wishing to crawl under a table and hide until her expression returned to one he was more familiar with. He sort of didn't really know what to do with his hands, those two big, meaty claws.

    Jacob raised his brows sharply when Marianna threw him the cat-like glare, startled by his sudden inclusion and relieved when it ended. He did, however, feel awkward about his sandwich, which he'd had raised to his open mouth when the woman looked at him. He slowly set it down, a little embarrassed he had continued to eat with no regard for the situation unfolding in front of him.

    It was true that Jacob had known about her arrival, but contrary to what she likely believed he hadn't found out until only an hour or so ago. Getting information out of the Tessitores was like extracting teeth from a pissed off horse and the only reason he had even suspected the woman was back was because Dutch had come to him eager to talk about the new 'tail' he had gotten a whiff of that morning.

    Rocco rubbed his fingers together, the rough skin of his working-man hands making a leathery sound, and said, "'course it was, what are you talkin' about? It's been three years, I was beginnin' to think I would never see you again."

    Dutch shifted onto his tiptoes and leaned to the side to peer around Roderick. The woman was tantalizing - cutely built and, more importantly, very not french looking. He pulled one last puff out of his cigarette then dropped it on the ground and smothered it with his foot. "Marianna, yes? I'm Dutch." He said inappropriately over the lug's shoulder with a sly smile.

    Jacob stood up so quickly that he knocked over his chair. He collected his sandwich of shame and rushed past Marianna and Rocco to seize Dutch by the arm and practically drag him away without a word.

    Rocco tried his very best not to sigh yet again.

    He was so unnervingly exactly as she remember. The way he looked, the smell, those little lines that crinkled the corners of his eyes when he was nervous... how he said her name, so perfectly unlike anyone else, so wrong and yet so entirely right. Time was a funny thing... in that it could provide both clarity and reason, but also confusion. She recalled, distinctly, her reason for leaving and it was this which she'd imagined might keep her sober minded and vigilant, prepared to battle against the man's inexplicable wiles under which she had been so easily ensnared before, but standing there now, trapped by the tantalizing gaze of those twilight eyes, pools of ink the likes of one used to compose sonnets, she could scarcely remember her own name... let alone the basis for her anger at the gentle giant.

    She was momentarily, blessedly distracted by the voice, the unfamiliar drawl of the Frenchman, whose interruption was both amusing and a little sad, his obvious attempts to be flirtatious a little embarrassing, all things considered. Before she could reply, he was whisked away by Jacob and as she watched the pair leave, she chuckled quietly.

    Short lived, though, was the interjection... Her eyes returned to Rocco and her lips fell into a frown again, as she mulled for a quiet moment over his comments.

    "...I'd always meant to." She said finally, her voice softer, her narrow shoulders rising and falling in a shrug of uncertainty, "I just... I never knew quite how. I needed time, I guess. Time to sort things out... to make sense of..." Chewing on her lip, a terrible habit she'd tried in vain to break, she shook her head, "None of that matters now. I just wanted to say hello and ensure you that despite our last conversation and all the in between, I am more than capable of behaving in a professional manner. Water under the bridge, as they say."

    "Yes. Indeed. All under the bridge." This time the voice which interrupted was neither unfamiliar or amusing. Turning slowly, Marianna met her brother with a soft scowl, her eyes narrowing as the darked hair man approached, long, slender fingers arched into a steeple in front of his lips, brushing back and forth, slowly, across the bristled mustache beneath his long, narrow nose, "...So kind of you, Mari, love... to visit with family, first. Or is it that you were planning on saving the best for last?"

    "I informed Uncle Antonio that I would be stopping by the tent later this morning. Am I wrong to assume that the scheduling is still very much the same, or do you no longer rehearse this time of day?"

    "...Magliocci..." Aldo murmured to Rocco, simultaneously ignoring his sister's question and the pronunciation of the Strong Man's name, "...How nice it must be for you to know our dear Marianna harbors no bitterness over the termination of your little fling. I myself had worried it might... distract her from her performance. I would hate for to get hurt. I'm sure you understand."

    "...That's enough, Aldo. This isn't any of your business. I will be in the tent in a few minutes..."

    His dark eyes, like onyx stones were fixed on Rocco, a slow, easy smirk on his thin lips as he nodded, "...Certainly, Mari. Good day, Magliocci."

    Turning on his heels, Aldo made his way in the same direction Jacob and the Frenchman had gone, his pace fluid and poised, cat like in quality. Marianna watched him leave, then returned her gaze to Rocco, her eyes apologetic, "...He's just the same as always, I see. Triste piccolo re di un piccolo castello triste. I'll see to it Uncle Tony talks to him about his behavior."

    Biting her lip again, she looked up and her expression softened, just so, "...It is good to see you, Roderick."

    It was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the most glorious, wonderful, magnificent thing Annabel Tupper had seen in her entire life. And it was entirely her own. The wagon was bright blue, with yellow shutters and a bright red door, an arched wooden roof and three green step. So welcoming and warm and marvelous.

    It had been a solid six months since she and Wiser had joined the Hulabaloo and every week something new and incredible came her way, but this, thus far, had been the thing to take the cake. Jacob had informed her the construction would officially close out that morning, and he had not disappointed. Her very own wagon... A home on wheels, with a bed and a stove, and a little chair that sat by the window, overlooking the big top in all it's glory.

    Standing there, looking up at the cherry red door, her lips were curved in a smile so wide all of her teeth could be seen, and as she shook her head back and forth, she clapped her hands together.

    "Perfect!" She said, to no one at all, "Just perfect!"

    Rocco muttered, "dunce..." at his chest when the Frenchman suffered his lapse in situation assessment but the lift in Marianna's disposition made him raise his head and his brows optimistically. A trio at the table nearest to them exchanged conspiratorial mutters and chortles that merited a silencing glare from Rocco. Suddenly extremely aware of the people eating around him he scratched his head with his mitt and gestured outside with it as it descended back to his side. He stepped into the open, the summer sun immediately pleasant on his face, and turned back to the woman.

    He resisted displaying his immediate dejection at her words, the flush in his cheeks and ears fading with his hopefulness. He pulled in a breath to speak but before he could get a word out he caught sight of him. Aldo, that pompous control-freak, swaggering in on Rocco's private business - again - with his stupid facial hair and dumb face. Rocco bristled at just the sight of the interloper and looked down his wide, crooked nose at him with an obvious grimace, teeth grating at the perceived as purposeful mispronunciation of his name. He couldn't muster more than a parting "Tessitore..." (pronounced "Tesseh-torh-ay"), the man's open threat making him far too angry for anything more.

    Aldo, that rat !@#$%^&*, still perfectly willing to imply harm to his own family even after three years. Rocco was admittedly hurt by Marianna's request for a purely professional relationship but after seeing Aldo he immediately convinced himself it was for the best. If she didn't want him back then there was no reason to push the psychopath's buttons by continuing to pursue her. He cleared his throat once again, the sound more like a bark, and shook his head. "Don't worry about it... he just wants to cause trouble. Best not to humor him none. It's... it's good to see you, too."

    He wanted to compliment her - no, it would be better to pick her up and swing her around, but he stuffed his hands into his pockets instead and looked away. "You plannin' on stayin' or is this just a stop through? I know Jacob would be glad to have you back - he understood you leavin' but I think he took it a little harder than he let on." He wanted to keep asking questions but he closed his yap to let her answer the one he'd already posed.

    Jacob pulled Dutch towards the Big Top and swung him not over-aggressively away so they were face-to-face.

    "Ey, cool yourself off, Jacob. I was simply greeting the beautiful woman that just arrived in my home!" Dutch said indignantly, pulling sharply on the edges of his clothes to straighten them. He flipped his hair from his eyes with a head toss and pulled a narrow case from his pocket. He popped a little latch and withdrew a cigarette, which he put in his mouth, and a lighter, which he lit the stick with.

    "I honestly don't care what you do with people in private, Dutch, but my woman and that one-" he pointed, "-are off-limits, unless you really want to feel the wrath of not only the entire Tessitore family, but the ham-fists of Rocco Magliocco as well."

    Dutch shrugged, his elbows flopping out then against his sides. He puffed on his cigarette. "Fine, since I am rather fond of my handsome face I will stay away from zese women, but I will make it known zat I am not happy about zis!" He nodded to punctuate his point then turned away sharply to head back towards his trailer, leaving Jacob to roll his eyes alone.

    Dutch marched through the garden of brightly colored sleeping quarters on a mission to his room that was abruptly forgotten when he spotted the wonderful newbie admiring her place. He stood back and eyed her for a moment before changing course to approach her. "Annabel, good, yes! Your wagon, she is finished!" He said, all indication of his prior irritation completely gone.

    It was an understatement, to put it mildly, referring to her brother as a troublemaker. Aldo had been, since her childhood, a nightmare of epic proportions. When he wasn't being a slave driver with the troupe, he busied himself with finding other means to torment her, his favorite being to interject himself into every positive relationship she'd ever had, including her relationship with Rocco.

    Smiling dryly, her nose crinkling at the bridge, she. shook her head, "You know as well as I do, Aldo wouldn't know what to do with himself if he wasn't getting on everyone's nerves. He's mostly harmless, though. Probably just overprotective, considering... Well."

    Water under the bridge... That was what she had said. Even if she had more questions than answers, there was no sense in dragging up the past if she was looking to repair even the semblance of a relationship, professional or otherwise. And that, ultimately was the problem. No matter what Rocco might have wanted, it was a lot easier saying the words than it was following through. The fact was, she had never stopped caring for him... but he had made it clear that there he had no interest in being with her, and she was nothing, if not gracious.

    "I mean to stay, if Jacob will have me. It's true, I suppose, what they say. It's in our blood, the circus. I can't get away from it. In truth, I never really wanted to... but I figured all things considered, it would be best for everyone. If... if my returning, however, doesn't work for you I... I can go..."

    Annabel looked up when Dutch approached, her mood so elevated that even the nuisance of a Frenchman couldn't bring her down. Not that he really bothered her, all that much. She might even have been flattered by his attention, were she not privy to his rather provocative nature.

    Since her arrival, he had been pretty relentless in his flirting, but she had learned early on just what sort of lifestyle Dutch lived, and she had been cautious since then not to lead him in the wrong direction. She was simply not that kind of girl...and she wouldn't allow herself to be someone's conquest. Even if he was stunning...

    And to her great misfortune, Dutch was certainly easy on the eyes...

    Grinning brilliantly, she turned to face him, her blue eyes sparkling as she gestured to the brightly colored wagon, "Gorgeous, right!? I can hardly believed it's real."

    Rocco's heart melted at the folds she created on her nose, the habit summoning buried memories that made him chew the inside of his cheek. "Harmless... Sure..." He said distantly, recalling the final exchange he and Aldo had before Marianna left, bitterness not entirely held out of his tone.

    He shuffled the painful thoughts out of his head before he could remember her expression when he had told her their relationship was over and perked up when she spoke again. "Oh! Yeah, of course I want you to stay. I missed you-" he blurted before he could stop himself and immediately withdrew into himself, physically and emotionally. "Ah, no, I mean..." He hesitated, "it'll be nice to have you around again. Hasn't been the same without my favorite Tessitore." He managed a small smile that made him look sheepish. He felt like an idiot for the slip - as badly as he wanted her back he needed to repeatedly remember the psychopathy of her sibling. It would be hard to taper emotions that ran so deep.

    Dutch nodded enthusiastically as he exhaled a nebulous cloud of smoke into the sky. He regretted his reputation as it often made it difficult to lure in the ladies he lived with but he never let it put a damper on his efforts. He had admittedly been paying a not insignificant amount of attention to the petite young woman lately and he had convinced himself it was just because he was trying to obtain the unobtainable.

    That wasn't to say he didn't find her astonishingly attractive. Her skin was light and smooth, her faintly orange undertone and brown freckles enough to send Dutch rocketing - and that was just the beginning!

    Her hair was full and smartly cut to compliment her round features and large, friendly eyes. Her lips were curved in a unique way so that all smiles somehow looked coy and knowing. The way she looked at him, gaze always curious and appraising but never coated with impulse and kinky desire like his were. Everything, down to her shapely eyebrows and well cared for teeth made Dutch struggle to keep himself at bay.

    Oh, right... and her body - oddly enough often the last thing to spring to the Frenchman's mind when daydreaming about her. The little figure, so bendy and lithe. Dutch often thought of how her curves would feel in his hands - wondering that didn't always include her in the buff. Truthfully he rarely thought of her without her clothing, a fact he had yet to notice, or even if he did, didn't have the faculties to analyze.

    She was a pretty face, and a chase, and that was all. Right?

    He took his cigarette between his fingers and gestured at the wagon. "Have you been inside? I am sure Jacob has provided you wiz all the necessities... No question he found you a comfortable bed, yes? A reason to be happy?" He said opaquely. "Le bonheur est la seule chose qui se double si on le partage, you know!"

    Rid of Dutch and robbed of both Marianna and Rocco, Jacob decided to return to the woman he had left in his bed that morning.

    He passed Dutch and Annabel on his way to Lily's trailer, assuming she would have gone back to hers after he left. He paused midstep with the intention of intervening but Dutch, for once, was standing such a respectable distance away from the woman that Jacob actually didn't want to interrupt. It was rare to see him display anything like respect and his position and posture were so different than what they usually were that Jacob thought there was no reason to punish him with shame for 'good behavior'. He continued walking, far enough from the couple that his footsteps wouldn't disturb them.

    He arrived at her wagon - especially ornate with curls of wood and flashy yet attractive colors - and climbed two of the three steps to the bright orange door to rap his knuckles on the wood. "Lily?"

    He waited eagerly for her response, exceptionally ready to see her face after his strenuous morning. He couldn't help a smile in spite of his growing list of frustrations.

    She knew, even if she wasn't aware of all the details, that Rocco and her brother had something of a rivalry. They hadn't exactly attempted to keep it low-key, and over time, she imagined, that mutual dislike for one another had only grown more intense. It might have bothered her, were she not also generally put off by Aldo. Still, the depth of his bitterness surprised her, and a soft frown stole over her expression as she shook her head, "...I will talk to him, and see that he stops butting in where he isn't welcome."

    At the polar flip in his energy, she smiled again, just catching his words, before he corrected himself. It was a little disappointing, really. As if he needed to remind himself of the appropriate things to say to someone you no longer harbored feelings for. He was trying, she could see, not to lead her on... and that was appreciated, she supposed, but it was also painful. Incredibly painful.

    "Life has not been the same without you, either, Roderick." She said, softly, her gaze lowering, "...Without all of you. I suppose I should have known I couldn't stay away for long. How have you been? Well, I hope? It is good to see you..."

    The French went over her head, and probably for the best, she imagined, but his comment on the furnishing had not and Anna made a face, rolling her eyes. He really couldn't help it, could he? Idly, she had to wonder if he was even capable of having a normal conversation, without somehow making it about sex.

    It was a large part of why she kept her guard up around him. It would be only too easy to give in and give him exactly what he wanted, and if that happened she didn't doubt for one moment he would get bored of her immediately, thereafter.

    Of course, she was entirely too excited to care about any of that, and shaking her head, she looked back to the wagon, "You're a terrible flirt, Dutch. You really are." Glancing to the Frenchman again, Anna smiled warmly, but sheepishly, "To be honest, I'm a little afraid to go in. I'm afraid I might jinx it. I've been standing her for ten minutes, now, and I just can't make myself move."

    Lily woke to a familiar sound outside of her wagon door and a smile warmed her features as she sat upright. That morning, she'd woken to find Jacob already gone from his own bed, a typical occurrence for someone with so much to do. It wasn't his fault, but it wasn't never easy, waking alone, and it never stopped being disappointing to roll over to the cold side of a mattress.

    Wrapping the sheet round her shoulders, she slid out from the rest of the blankets and made for the door, cracking it open, peering through with a small smirk and the handsome figure on the other side, "...Good morning, my love. You had better have breakfast with you... if you expect me to let you in..."

    Rocco's chest ached a little and his stomach was folded in on itself and every word that came out of his dumb mouth made it worse. The weird note Marianna's return had started on had set him on a path of horrible awkwardness and insecurity and he could not get himself to step into the middle ground of emotions. He wanted to get away and sort out his thoughts but he had missed her so desperately that he didn't want to sacrifice time with her. He shifted his stance and breathed deeply before doing his best to pull up some form of casualness.

    He nodded. "It's been pretty quiet around here, to be honest with you. I've uh, been alright," he said, not entirely untruthfully though he neglected to say aloud the troubles he'd had with Aldo. "That odd foreign fellow has been a bit of a nuisance since he got here a little more than a year ago but I haven't had to hit him yet so I guess he ain't that bad. That's Dutch, then we got Annabel the acrobat... Erzabets took over as magician..." He rambled, hoping to steer the conversation away from himself.

    Dutch's sombre expression was hardly effected by the raise of his brows, maintaining his usual drollness in spite of his feigned surprise. "I zink you mean to say I am an excellent one of zese 'flirts'!" He tapped his cigarette to clear the ash. "I am desired by many - except you, it seems, zough I do not know why. Ze elusive Annabel!"

    He dragged one last time on his cigarette then flicked it to the ground and crushed it under his heel. He waved his hands and bowed slightly at the waist. "No, zat is unacceptable. Come, we will do zis together!" He set his right foot on the first step and turned the knob and pushed the door open slowly with his long fingers sprawled across the wood. He offered her his other hand to help her inside. "It is only right if you see it first, of course!"

    He stared at her for a moment, his eyes widening slowly. "Oh!" He smacked his palm against his forehead, nearly knocking his hat off, and turned halfway down the stairs. "I can't believe I forgot again! The morning has been a little rocky and it just slipped my mind. What would you like?"

    "Hmm..." Lily started, her lips curved upwards, "...A tall, well-built young man. Preferably one with a thing for top hats..."

    Jacob paused before a sly smile spread across his lips. He faced her again, both hands on either side of the doorway. "Those are quite the rare commodity... if I didn't like you so much, you might out of luck."

    Smiling coyly, Marianna shook her head, "I may have been gone a while, but I think I know you well enough, Roderick, to know when you're not being honest." Reaching out, she gingerly rested her hand on his arm, her expression soft with concern, "...I know we... we haven't talked, but if you need to... I'm here."

    Biting her lip, she stepped back, chuckling gently, "And that's great, for Betty. I'm glad to hear she's stepping into the role. She'll do wonderful. Dutch seems like a character and half... and a new Acrobat, too? We are building, aren't we. It'll be nice, being back. Or at least, I hope so. I don't suppose my old wagon still around? I hadn't thought of that, to be honest..."

    Rubbing the back of her neck, she shrugged, "It's no trouble, really. I can manage a hotel, for now."

    "There's nothing elusive about me, Dutch. I'm really not even that interesting. You just want what you can't have. And you know what they say about people like that? They never get they need." She shot him a look, but it faded as quickly as it appeared when he moved to the staircase. Her hand shot out, but she missed him and a gasp escaped as he pushed open the door.

    "Oh! You wicked thing!" Her lips curved and she stared at his outstretched hand, apprehensively reaching out to take it. His hands were large and warm, and up close, she could see those spectacular eyes all the better, the little flecks of gold light in those dark forest orbs. He was trouble, he was...

    Putting her hand to the door, she pushed it fully open and with a deep breath, stepped inside. Her jaw dropped at the sight of the brightly decorated interior... The small stove in the corner, the cozy looking loft bed, a small table with two chairs... It wasn't much, but it was beautiful, and comfortable, and everything she had been too afraid to imagine, "Oh. Oh wow. Dutch. It... it's incredible."

    Lily laughed softly, and pulled the door open, leaning against the frame. She wasn't dressed, but the sheet wrapped around her small, thin frame covered everything important, though the long, lean leg that peeked out was resting as an extremely blatant tease.

    "And what makes you so sure I was talking about you, Chief? Maybe there's another perfectly gorgeous top-hat wearing gentleman wandering around the campsite? One who won't shirk his duties to bring me breakfast..." Leaning forward, she tapped the tip of his nose with a slender finger, before leaning in the steal a kiss, "You are very lucky you're cute."

    Erzabet sat inside the empty big top, the notebook splayed out in front of where she was curled, cross legged on the floor. The show that night would be the first time she'd performed without a proverbial net and her nerves were on edge. Flipping through her notes, and those left by the former Hulabaloo magician, she shook her head, scribbling frantically on the pages.

    But it wasn't the performance alone that had her on edge. She'd received a letter the evening prior that, and she imagined it was entirely the point, had sent panic through her like a fire-refined dagger John had been spotted in the city... It had been years, but there was no mistaking, the letter writer had indicated. It was definitely him.

    She'd gotten complacent, over the years... but if he was that close, she needed to be more cautious.

    Perfect timing, all things considered.

    The touch was almost... painful, but Rocco couldn't bring himself to shy away from it. His brows were still bunched together even as he gave her a smile and nodded. "You know I know it, Marianna. And I'm here for you. If your brother don't ease up... you just let me know." He said it gently, no threat discernible in his rocky but friendly voice.

    He gestured with his head towards the area of the circus where the wagons were gathered. He used the excuse to start walking that way, talking as he crunched grass under his boots. "Of course it is. We kept it, just in case. We always hoped you'd come back. We, uh, did move it, though... closer to the rest of the Tessitores." He decided to leave out the part about petitioning Jacob to move Mari's wagon away from his own - the constant reminder of her absence too much for him to handle. He had dragged it away himself.

    "It's just like you left it - I made sure of that."

    Dutch basked in her scolding, the rejection summoning a fluttery feeling in his gut. He laughed honestly as she took his hand and passed him, his chuckle a little goofy but endearing. "Wicked is good, is it not?" He asked though he very well knew it was not.

    He stepped completely onto the little set of stairs and peered into the wagon by standing on his tiptoes and looking over her. He pulled his mouth down in approval disguised as 'not bad'. "Jacob does not cut his corners, does he?" He said enthusiastically.

    Even though he wanted to climb right inside and wisk the little Annabel into bed he remained respectfully outside the door, waiting - hoping - for an invitation inside.

    Jacob smirked, shrugged his shoulders with a slight incline of his head so that the hat momentarily shielded his eyes. "Then I hope this other top hatted fella can handle the force of nature that is the wondrous and charming Lily - and serve a mean meal." When he looked up again her hand was halfway to his face and he closed his eyes as she booped him and blessed him with a kiss.

    Jacob was, as he recognized frequently, mighty lucky to have such a playful, sexy, loving woman as Lily. She was supportive, forgiving, understanding, and knew the proper way of pushing Jacob's buttons without driving him crazy. He returned the kiss and when she pulled away he leaned in for another, a hand wandering to touch that tempting limb so expertly displayed through the sheets.

    Abraham Ebenezer - no, he didn't make that name up himself - had woken up particularly stiff that morning and spent a good portion of the day doing stretches. It was the usual routine: first he reached towards the top of his tent, fingers brushing the peak, then reached towards the ground almost nine feet below his head. He straightened then carefully rotated his torso left, then right, then rolled his head in a circle. He supported himself on a set of bars Jacob had made for him so he could safely stretch his legs and turn his feet in circles to relieve his ankles. Thoroughly exercised, Abe dressed in his expertly tailored clothes - courtesy of Jacob, once again - and ducked between the special made tent flaps to walk out into the sun.

    It was a pleasant enough day. It seemed the hubbub had started without him as it usually did, several people dispersing almost at once in the distance - Aldo, Rocco, Jacob, Dutch all finding their way from the canteen within a couple minutes. Abe watched Aldo pass by with a snide look on his face but was so used to the treatment that he could hardly find it within himself to care. He loped towards the Big Top, one of the few places his size felt negligible, and was pleased to see Erzabet sitting on the stage.

    He had grown rather fond of the new magician. Though he was treated well by most in a general sense, she was one of the few that made him feel, well, average - in as good a way as possible. He smiled and waved one of his massive hands from his position near the entrance. "Hello, Ezra," he said in his rumbling baritone, his voice so deep it made Rocco sound soprano.

    Closer to the rest of the Tessitores... Somehow, those words were more painful to hear than she had expected. Initially, she had thought perhaps there was still room to repair, to rebuild the relationships that had been severed before she had left, but with those words she recognized only the absolute hopelessness. He didn't want to be near her. He wanted her with her own sort... And really, she couldn't blame him. He had broken it off, certainly, but she had had enough to do with it, she was sure.

    Following after him, she looked in the direction he gestured, towards the vibrant cart. It was, indeed, exactly as she'd left it. She wouldn't have been surprised, even, if the broke coffee cup was still on the floor, where she had thrown it, the morning of her departure. It had been a difficult decision, but one that had felt so necessary. Now, she could hardly recall what had prompted her to make that choice. It all seemed so silly... so petty.

    Pausing before the wagon, she put her hand to the railing, a frown lowering the corners of her lips, "...It feels so long ago. I wasn't sure what it would be like, coming back. But I didn't expect it to feel like this. Maybe it was... Maybe it was a mistake, leaving. I feel like an outsider in my own family. Not... not that family..." She said, vaguely gesturing to the other wagons around her own, "...But this one. My... my real family. You, and Jacob... the others. I've missed so much... I don't know that I'll ever really belong again."

    Her hands exploring the interior of the wagon, Annabel took everything in with an intense focus. Every minute detail... from the hook rug on the floor, to the little china teacups on the shelves above the small wash sink. Jacob, she knew, was a wonderful leader and a kind man, but he was hardly a master in a decor. She imagined Lily had had something to do with selecting the bits and bobs that made the wagon so homey. Her fingertips ran along the fringe on the curtains and she turned, looking to Dutch with a bright smile, "...He certainly didn't. It's perfect."

    Biting her lip, she eyed the cups again, then pulled open a cabinet - Inside, there was a copper pot, "...It's customary, in my family at least, to break in a home by inviting guests. If you think you can behave yourself, you're welcome to come in for tea."

    She smiled, slyly, taking the pot down from the shelf, "...And that is not a euphemism."

    Lily grinned as Jacob leaned in, looping her arms over his shoulders to pull herself infinitely closer to him, her lips curved in a grip beneath his own. She allowed him to linger for a moment, then leaned, carefully back against the door frame.

    Breaking that second kiss with a purr, Lily put a hand over his, guiding it carefully along her hip and up around her waist, leaning close... her lips brushing his ear as she whispered, "Hmm... He is, in fact, quite capable. Really, you should be worried. Of course, I never said there wasn't anything you could do to make it up to me..."

    Running her hands along the lapel of his coat, she bit her lip, "...Unless of course you're busy?"

    Erzabet looked up when the figure appeared in her peripherals, a pleasant, but strained smile lifting the corners of her full lips, "Oh, Abe. Hey. Sorry... I've made quite the mess here." Dragging the scattered pages closer to her, she frowned, "I'm just making sure I'm prepared for tonight. Well, not, that's entirely true... I'm really just trying not panic about tonight, and distracting myself with completely unnecessary work..."

    Chuckling, she rose to her feet. On her tiptoes, Erzabet came to the giant's ribcage, taller than most women, but still dwarfed by the giant of a man. Still, she had never and would never treat him differently for his size, or the limitations of his condition. He was a wonderfully kind soul, and that was all that mattered.

    "...Even if it's entirely ridiculous, would you mind telling me I'll do perfectly fine... so I can stop worrying?"

    Rocco, still sick to his stomach about the break up, had spent the time since moping around his wagon. He had ventured out in the late evenings to eat but the guilt and frustration he suffered made him desire solitude and the warmth of his bed, especially when concerned members of his family kept asking him what was wrong. It wasn't that he didn't appreciate the caring or attention, it was just that he had never felt so helpless in his life. It was a painful realization, one that worked hard to get the best of him.

    Though Jacob had known of the complications between Rocco and the Tessitores he had hoped sincerely that their problems would sort themselves out. He was devastated when he was wrong, less because he would deeply miss Marianna and more because he knew the surprise would set Rocco on an even more turbulent emotional roller coaster than the one he was already on. However badly he wanted her to stay, for selfish reasons or not, he understood she would not have even considered leaving if she hadn't felt it necessary. It was with a heavy heart that he approached Rocco's cabin only three days after the split and a few hours after her departure.

    The knock on his wagon door had jerked Rocco out of a light, restless sleep and - hoping it was Marianna - quickly rolled off the bed and pulled on a shirt. The immediately extinguished hopefulness on his face was almost enough to make Jacob turn tail but he took off his hat and held it against his chest bravely instead.

    "It's unbelievably hard for me to be the bearer of bad news, Rocco... but Marianna left this afternoon."

    Rocco stared at his friend with scrunched eyebrows and narrow eyes, confused at first, then disbelieving. "Left? To where?"

    Jacob shook his head somberly. "I don't know. She said she was worried her staying would cause trouble, with all the strain between the Big Toppers and the side show. She... didn't say she would be back."

    It was painful to see Rocco searching the ground for answers, to see him desperately grasp at things he could have done differently, but it was excruciating to watch him climb out of his wagon to run over to hers. Jacob remained where he was, his hat in his hands, silently experiencing Rocco's doubt and remorse from the outside. He watched Rocco indecisively reach for her door, then step away, then reach again, then pace the grass in front of it. It was troubling to see a man Jacob had always gone to for strength and support look so... lost. After a few torturous moments, he approached the man but left some distance. "I'm sorry, Rocco. If you need me, I'm here for you."

    Rocco glanced at Jacob but said nothing, turning away to scratch nervously at his head. He nodded but he feared he would have to choke down tears if he spoke. Eventually, Jacob left and for the first time in a long time, Rocco was alone with the crickets. It took him a long time - an hour? two? - before he could summon the emotional wherewithal to finally step inside her wagon. It was weird being inside now, the once homey and exciting space now dark and cold. He did pick up the cup, collected the pieces in a napkin and kept them in his hand as he rummaged lightly through her things for some sign that she planned to come back. He sat at the table for a while until staring at her bed wasn't satisfying enough, then got up and slowly walked the length of the wagon to sit on the mattress. It felt weird, like the first time sitting in a stranger's bed, but the longer he sat, the more complicated he felt. He wanted to stay, to lay in her bed and remember her scent, but just the thought hurt so bad that after only a few minutes he got up again.

    There was nothing here for him.

    It was dawn when he finally left, and after six months passed with not even so much as a note from Marianna, he told Jacob his want to move it and within the hour he had hauled one end over his shoulders and carried it away from the freaks, never to touch it again.

    Being so close to the wagon again sent a twinge of agony up Rocco's chest. The land it rested on had been so forbidden for so long that he felt like he shouldn't be there. He stayed behind Marianna a bit, his arms crossed.

    She was right about one thing - it did feel like an eternity ago since she had left. It was an odd sensation to be speaking to her again but it felt... right. Rocco shook his head. "You did what you needed to do, it's alright. I can't speak for the Tessitores but... I know the rest of us are just glad you're back. You need us to do anything to make you feel welcome, you just say so." Again, as always, he was eager to please, but not desperately so. He genuinely meant his offers not out of some need to make himself feel better but out of the honest desire to make her happy, regardless of the standing of their relationship.

    "Oh, and uh, maybe it's a little different. I got what's left of that coffee cup you left... somewhere." In a box under his bed with her picture.

    Tea? Tea was, more or less, a mystery to Dutch, his heart and loyalty belonging to coffee. He had only tried the drink once and rejected it for lacking the musky, bitter kick of coffee, but the offer was so kind and the host so lovely that he nodded his head with something just shy of enthusiasm. "Tea, sure, yes. You zink I cannot behave myself? I will show you, Dutch is a right gentleman!"

    He pulled himself into the wagon, finding it necessary to duck his head through the doorway. He scrutinized the room - Annabel's painted in much brighter colors than his own - but found it rather comfortable and cozy. He nodded again, slowly, as he appraised, then scooted past her to sit at the table. "Zis is nice, no doubt. You should visit mine sometime, perhaps. I have many pictures of my home zere, and ze best coffee outside of France. You offer me tea, it is only good to offer you coffee, yes? What is more gentlemanly zan zat?"

    Jacob's fingers grasped gently at her waist, the curve feeling pleasant in his palm. He sighed with desire, unable to break his gaze up at her. "With Lily Tsong on the line, I think I can free up my schedule..."

    Lily grinned, giving her shoulders a shrug, "Well.. if you've got nothing going on, then..." Releasing her hold on his lapel, she turned away and stepped back into the wagon, crooking a finger at him, "...Come on in."

    Jacob swooned as her hands and leg slipped away from him, a big dumb grin on his face as he scurried into her wagon and shut the door behind him.

    Abe nodded amiably as he continued his slow gate, all of his actions a little slower than those of most average sized people. He put his hands out and said, "Ma'am, there is no question in my mind that you will be utterly successful tonight, and I do not just say that because you requested I do." He, eventually, arrived at the stage and sat down on it - it being the only place he could sit without running of the risk of his seat collapsing. Even sitting, they were almost eye-level. He stretched his legs, first one, then the other, then offered her his hand so that he could encompass hers with both of his.

    "If it will make you feel more confident I would be glad to attend. Alternatively, if you'd rather I don't come, I will not be offended. Tonight is your night, Ezra," he said wisely, his middle ground expression a little tired but still expertly friendly.

    Smiling faintly, Marianna looked to him, her eyes damp, her cheeks reddened, and she shook her head, "...You're sweet, Roderick. Honestly, I'm just ready to put everything behind me and start over again. I've spent the last three years dreaming about this place..."

    Taking the steps, slowly, one at a time, she paused outside the door, "...It feels surreal. Like I never left."

    Turning the handle, she pushed the door open, letting it swing inward, where it hung for a moment, the hinges squeaking from a lack of use, "Would you like to come in?" It felt like it might have been an inappropriate question, but there was a glimmer of hope that even if it were, he might let it slide. He had, after all, offered to help her feel welcome.

    Annabel pulled a few more odds and ends from the cabinets, then moved to where her things had been laid out, opening a small wooden box. Inside, was three small compartments of loose leaves. She took a pinch from the middle compartment, pulled out a small satchet and filled it, repeated this with a second bag, then dropped both into two tea cups.

    The put, she filled with water, and placed on the stove top, looking over her shoulder as she stoked the coals in the stove belly, "...Maybe I'll take you up on that. I've never tried coffee. Always wanted to, but it's expensive around here, and most of my pay goes to Wiser's upkeep. He's an expensive brute, that one. Very lucky he's totally worth it."

    While the stove heated up, Anna moved to the table and sank into the seat opposite him, "...So you grew up in France?"

    Erzabet smiled at his words, taking the proffered hand, "Thank you. I'd have been okay, even if it was just because I asked, but somehow it means something more, when it's genuine. I know I can do this, I just... I worry sometimes, that I'm going to disappoint everyone. Arvin was so popular, and his illusions were so good... so well thought out. I mean, I've watched him for so long, it's not that I don't know what I'm doing, I just can't help but feel like I may screw it up."

    Chuckling softly, she took her hand back and leaned against the stage, "But I would love for you to come. It will be nice, having a friendly face in the crowd. And hey... if I mess up, you can rescue me."

    The question was, as Marianna had feared, inappropriate, but probably not for the reason she thought it was. Rocco wanted desperately to say no, to avoid potential trouble and abstain from any private place with her, but her faint smile and watery, hopeful eyes made it impossible for him to reject her.

    That isnt to say he didn't hesitate. He lowered his head briefly then put his hand on the banister, his fingers wrapping around the plank to meet his thumb on the underside, and looked up at her with a smile. "I promised Jacob I'd do some work before the show but I would love to sit with you for a little bit. We're doin' a special show tonight for the holiday, gotta set up fireworks."

    Dutch continued to sweep his eyes around the wagon, pausing whenever Annabel wasn't looking to admire her dainty curves only to quickly flick his eyes away each time her gaze returned to him. He observed her preparations silently, momentarily puzzled by the mention of Wizer, wondering if he had somehow missed a boyfriend before recalling it was her horse. The lapse in memory combined with her appalling confession permitted her enough time to ask her question, which he completely ignored. He flattened both hands on the table with elbows akimbo and exclaimed, "what?! Never tried coffee?!" He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders in refusal to believe. "Coffee is ze, as you say, necter of ze gods! Zis is unaccepta--"

    He suddenly remembered his promise of gentlehood and cleared his throat, speaking a little sheepishly, "ah, I mean to say you must absolutely try it, it is a most wonderful zing... Did you ask me a question?"

    Abe gave her a mildly incredulous look over his glasses, one brow perked a little higher than the other. "You know as well as I do that Arvin is as excellent a teacher as you are a student," he said decisively. He adjusted his glasses with his freed hand then lowered both into his lap and chuckled, the sound rumbly. "It may be a slow rescue, but I can assure you I will get there eventually!"

    "Why don't you take a break with me? Sometimes mental rest does more than over studying. Have you had the opportunity to eat? I, for one, am starving."

    "...You're being polite." Marianna said, suddenly, looking at Rocco over her shoulder, "That kind of polite. The sort where you only agree to something to keep from looking rude." Had they really devolved that much? Feigned civility? There was a point where she had thought, possibly, that she had been wrong, all those years, thinking their relationship had broken apart so irreparable ... she had dared to hope, but it was only a pipe dream, shattered by his forced congeniality.

    It hurt... more than she had anticipated. Hey eyes burned, but she blinked the tears away, forcing a smile, instead.

    "...There's really no need, Roderick. Honestly. I'll be fine. And I wouldn't want to put you off schedule... I'll just see you at the show tonight. Maybe I'll stop by the Little Top, say hello to everyone."

    Anna laughed softly at Dutch's exclamation, unsurprised by the Frenchman's outrage. In the pot, the water began to bubble and she rose to ladle the boiling liquid into the two teacups, bringing each to the table and setting one before Dutch before she took her seat, "It's not that I never wanted to try it, I've just never had the opportunity. But now that I have such a well cultured friend, well... you'll just have to educate me."

    Taking her cup, she blew the steam from the surface before taking a slow sip, "...I was asking what it was like, growing up in France. You must have a million stories. Is it as pretty there, as everyone always says? It sounds terribly romantic. I'd stick out like a sore thumb, I'm sure."

    Erzabet laughed, softly, a silvery sound, rare in such a stressful time, and so refreshing, "I just don't want to let him down. It means the world to me, doing this show... but I don't think I've ever been so afraid of anything, so wonderful... in my whole life." Rubbing her arms, she looked up at the giant, her smile kind and warm.

    "...I'm not even sure I ate dinner last night, to be perfectly honest. I've been so focused. If you hadn't come by, I likely would've spent the entire day working on those notebooks. I probably would've passed out in the middle of the show and ruined everything."

    Straightening, she rose to her full height and nodded, "...Food sounds great."

    Rocco winced a little, his hand pulling away from the banister. He looked hurt as he said, "What? No, I just... I didn't know you were comin' and I didn't get the chance to free up my afternoon. I promised Jacob somethin', you know how it is."

    He scratched his neck. "You really think I'd lie about wantin' to spend time with you?"

    "Quite the opposite, really. I don't think you'd do anything to hurt me, Rocco. Including telling me you have to do something else... to avoid telling me you’d rather not spend time with me. It was stupid of me to ask... after everything that happened. I guess I just always hold out hope, but I have to stop fooling myself."

    Smiling sadly, she patted the doorframe, "I don't learn, I suppose."

    "Ahh, no... Don't take it like that, Marianna, please." Rocco sighed and rubbed his cheek with the hand that had been at his nape. "I've fucked this up."

    "No..." Moving down the steps, she covered on of his massive hands with two of her own, shaking her head, "Don't do that. Don't. Honestly... it's okay. I... I sprung this on you, and that wasn't fair. I just figured with all that happened... I wanted to send a letter, but after the last time. Please don't feel bad. It was my fault."

    He pulled the corner of his mouth in self disappointment, staring at her hands before her words perked him up. "Last time? You sent me a letter?"

    Frowning, Marianna released him, "...I sent... Roderick, I sent you more than a letter. I sent one every week... for a year, after I left. You never replied, so I... I stopped sending them."

    His expression went from puzzled to angry. He looked away from her, never able to let her see his rage. He said nothing for a long moment then muttered. "Guess they got lost..."

    "You... you never got them?" Frowning, Marianna looked past him, considering something for a moment, before shaking her head, "...I checked the papers for the troupe location. I guess I got the addresses wrong." Chuckling dryly, she shrugged, "...Maybe it's for the best. All things considered... You ended things, and I need to respect that."

    He cleared his throat. "Yeah... Anyway, let's go inside... If you'll still have me."

    "You really don't have to, if you've got things to do..." Marianna continued, though with very little conviction, "...But I'd like you to."

    "Lead the way."

    Nodding, she turned away and headed up the steps, into the small wagon, "...It's kind of sad. I've been staying in a small rental in the city... nothing extravagant, but it's roomy... and the view isn't half bad. But I used to think I could be staying a penthouse ... and it still wouldn't possibly compare to this creaky old wagon..."

    He followed her up the stairs, expression serious. He didn't look around much. "I don't think that's sad."

    "Well, no..." She chuckled gentle, "But you've always been sweet like that." Taking hold of the backs of one of the two wooden chairs she sighed, softly, "So the show tonight... You mentioned fireworks?"

    He wrung his hands together. "Yeah, real big thing for... You know... Freedom. I gotta position them and whatnot."

    "Sounds thrilling. Maybe I'll come watch. It'll be strange, not being in the show... I'm not sure what I'll do with myself, otherwise." Biting her lip she looked back at him, "Unless that's...uncomfortable?"

    "I would love if you spent the show with us but I understand if you spend it with the others."

    "...It's not like I haven't seen the Big Top before. I mean... it's wonderful, but I could probably perform half of it in my sleep. Besides... I'll be back to work soon enough, and I might not get another chance."

    Rocco considered for a moment then offered, "Why don't you visit us after the show? Fireworks won't be until after that anyway and you should see the show. It's changed a bit since you left."

    A brow quirked, and Marianna was quiet for a moment before she nodded, "I'll do that, then. I would like to see Betty perform... after all.

    “I'm sure she'll be glad to see a friendly face. Tonight is her inaugural show."

    Mari smiled, nodding again, "Then it's settled. But you'll be sure to save me a place for the fireworks?"

    He broke his stern expression to give her a small yet reassuring smile. "Of course. Uh, I should..." He gestured at the door with a thumb over his shoulder. "But I look forward to seeing you tonight - and I'm not just saying that."

    "See you tonight then, Roderick."

    "Hmh! Zis is good!" He approved of her excuse, scrutinizing the tea as it poured from the spout and into his cup. "Oh yes, France is ze most beautiful and sexy place in all ze world! Zere is such wonderful art and culture! She is my country, and I am proud of zis!"

    Dutch wasn't lying, per say, but he also wasn't telling the whole truth. However, this was not a problem as the man had perfected the art of miscommunication.

    "Zat is where I got my tattoos!" He said, bouncing his eyebrows.

    "I'd love to go there, someday." Anna said, smiling, "I've seen pictures... but I imagine they don't do it much justice." Looking him over, her eyes fell on the most visible of his many tattoos, "...Quite the undertaking that must have been. Do any of them have special meaning...?"

    "Zey are ze tales of my trials and tribulations! ... In not so many words. My first was zis," he pointed at a band around his right wrist then shrugged. "It was not so bad, and terribly worz it."

    "You'll have tell me that tale, someday." Taking another sip of tea, she leaned back in her chair, "Does it hurt? Getting them? I've always wondered..."

    He fleetingly considered sharing but the story of his life was one known only by himself. He shook his head, "Not in ze way most zings hurt. It’s sort of a numbing vibrazion... Only really causes pain when going over ze bone, like my chest," he tapped his sternum, "was an adventure."

    "And you've got them just about everywhere? It's amazing, really..." Chuckling, she shook her head, "I could never do that. You're a brave man, Dutch."

    He puffed out his chest, "Seventy-five percent of my body, officially! It is really only my head that I do not have covered." He paused. "And brave is... Sexy?" He asked with a sly grin.

    Anna laughed... a genuine, but gentle laugh, "It's certainly a better trait than some." Picking up her cut again she took a long, slow sip, smiling as she eyed him over the rim, "You know, Dutch... you really don't have to try so hard. When you aren't being obnoxious, you're actually kind of charming."

    "Obnoxious?!" He repeated indignantly. "I am not obnoxious! I am simply... Driven!"

    "Driven... Is that French for Obnoxious?"

    He looked caught off guard as he laughed. "Quick kitten!"

    She laughed as well, wagging a finger at him, "And don't you forget it."

    Taking another sip she set the cup down, running her finger around the rim, "...You do speak it, I suppose? French? I mean, besides whatever that smart remark was before I invited you in..."

    He finally picked up his cup, holding it under his nose as he spoke, "Je ne veux bien sûr! Si vous ne me croyez pas je peux vous le prouver dans le sac." He winked.

    Grinning, Anna straightened in her chair, "...Do I even want to know what you said...?"

    "That depends how much you like me." He grinned and took his first sip.

    "Hmm... Not nearly enough, you clever man." Chewing on her lip, she shrugged, "...You think you could teach it to me...?"

    "But zen I would not be able to say sneaky zings!" He joked. "It would be my pleasure."

    "...I could pay you, of course... for lessons. Wouldn't be fair, not to."

    He waved his hand and set down his cup after another sip. "No, no, absolutely not."

    Chuckling, Anna shook her head, "I wouldn't feel right. I could teach you to ride... but I don't know if you'd even want to. And I'm a terrible cook... otherwise I'd offer to make you dinner or something."

    "Perhaps I can meet monsieur Wizer, then! He seems like a gentleman."

    "Oh," Her eyes brightened at the mention of the horse, her smile soft and warm, "...He's the biggest sweetie. Bring him an apple and he'll love you for life."

    "An apple and French lessons it shall be!" He paused then added, "but on ze condition zat you enjoy tonight's fireworks wiz me."

    A brow quirked and she straightened, fixing him with a contemplative expression, "...Just the fireworks?"

    He straightened as well and narrowed his eyes... Then backed down. "Zis is ze only zing. If you wish to spend more time with me I would be a fool to say no, but it is perfectly acceptable for you to leave me." He closed his eyes.

    "...Fair enough. I'll have Charlie stable up Wise after the show. He won't mind. We've got a deal..." Smiling again, she held her hand out to him, to shake.

    He opened one eye then smiled again and took her hand enthusiastically. "Deal!"

    "It is perfectly reasonable to be worried - but that doesn't mean you should be."

    Abe chuckled, that burbling wave of baritone, and stood up so that his knees popped loudly. He made a soft, voiceless sound, the kind often emitted when experiencing sharp pain proceeded by relief. "After you."

    Betty flinched at the sound and reached out, her hand supporting his arm. It was more comforting than anything else. She would never have been able to brace him, at his height, but he seemed to recover quickly enough anyhow, and so she released him, letting her arm fall to her side. "You want to see what they've got in the mess tent? Or walk down into town?"

    He acknowledged her aid with a smile and gingerly began his lope again, heading towards the main entrance of the Big Top. "I wouldn't mind going into town... But as I said, it is your day so I will gladly have whatever you'd like."

    "Town it is, then..." She said with a nod.

    It was about half a mile to the small town, a pleasantly flat walk on a decently paved path. Betty led Abe to a small corner café with a bright red awning and a sign in the window boasting "Best Coffee in New York".

    Gesturing to the sign she chuckled softly, "It's not remotely true... and it's more expensive than would be reasonable even if it was, but they've got the most wonderful pastries."

    The walk covered a relatively short distance but took a rather long time. Abe's legs were long but the strain of his height and weight made the trip into a trek.

    When they finally arrived he still seemed to be in good spirits, if not a little tired. He raised his brows as he looked around at the several tables and chairs outside the cafe then noticed a brick wall nearby. He fished some coins from his pocket and handed them to Ezra as he said, "Pick me your favorite, I'm afraid I won't fit through the door. I'll wait here for you, if that's alright."

    Betty laughed softly... not mockingly, but in gentle understanding. She took the coins and nodded, "Be right back..."

    Stepping through the door, she approached the counter, studying the pastries encased behind the glass for a long moment, before waving over the clerk. The tall, thin red headed man appeared before her and she offered him a kind smile, "I'll take two of the strawberry croissants, please."

    The clerk removed the pastries from the shelf, bagged them separately, and then took the coins from Betty.

    Bags in hand, she returned to the front of the cafe, where she met Abe with a grin, "Here you are...There's a bench just down the street we can sit at."

    Abe took a seat on the wall for the few minutes she was gone, long fingers rubbing gently at his legs in the meantime. He stood up at her suggestion and moved towards the referenced bench.

    "What's your haul?"

    "Uh uh... You have to wait. This, my dear friend, is an experience. You cannot rush it." When they reached the bench, she waited until he'd taken a seat, then set one bag down, opening the other, "Do you trust me, Abraham?"

    He laughed softly through a smile. "With my life!"

    "Close your eyes..." She said, reaching into the bag, "Open your mouth. No cheating. No peeking."

    Abe adjusted his glasses, an act of nerves as indicated by the immediate close of his eyes, and did as he was told.

    When his eyes closed, Betty broke off a piece of the strawberry danish and carefully, using her free hand to brace his chin, she lowered it into his open mouth, "...There. Now, how's that."

    He savored the treat, chewing slowly, then smiled and nodded his approval. He opened his eyes and pushed his glasses up once again. "Absolutely the best!"

    Chuckling, Betty nodded, "Isn't it, though?! I'm afraid I won't fit into my costume anymore, I've eaten so many." Handing the bag over, she took up the second and sank down in the small space beside him, "And the chocolate éclairs... they're dangerous."

    Opening her bag, she pulled out the pastry, but as she brought it to her mouth she froze, the smile fading from her lips. Slowly, almost absently, she rose from the bench, her arms falling lamely to her sides, her eyes fixated on something across the street, mouth opened in a silent 'O'.

    He returned her chuckle as he took his pastry and freed it from the bag. He started to take a bite but paused when she rose. "... Ezra?"

    She stared for a long moment, silent. When she thawed, it was almost with a sense of not having known what had happened. Jumping slightly at the sound of his voice, she looked down at him, frowning softly, "Sorry. I... I thought I saw someone. Something! Just... it was nothing."

    Sinking back down, she forced a smile, "Sorry."

    He scrutinized her, glanced where she was looking, then gave her an incredulous stare. "You look like you saw a ghost. Are you sure you're alright?"

    "Fine..." She said, a little too quickly, clutching and unclutching her hands, which were trembling, "Probably just nerves. Don't you go worrying about me, Abe... Really."

    He looked her over. He could tell something was wrong but if she wasn't willing to share then he wasn't willing to push. "If you insist..." He took a small bite of his pastry with lowered eyes.

    Breaking off a piece of her own pastry, Betty turned her gaze to Abe, smiling genuinely that time, before she gently nudged him with her shoulder, "...Honestly, Abe. There's nothing to worry about. I thought I saw someone I recognized. That's all."

    "Alright, well, if you'd feel more comfortable enjoying these elsewhere then feel free to lead the way."

    Chuckling softly, Betty shook her head, "Here is fine. It's nice here... and far enough away from the Big Top that I don't have to think about tonight. Well, with the except of right now... since I just brought it up."

    He gave a small smile and took a few bites of his food. The pastry was as delicious as Ezra had talked it up to be but he still felt the twinge that something was off. When he was about half way through his food he cleared his throat and said, "you know, I've been thinking of getting a cane recently... the problem will be finding one that's about as tall as an average person."

    "A cane?" A brow quirked and Betty frowned, "Everything alright?"

    "Oh," he looked at her. "I'm fine but last time Doctor Morris was out he suggested I get one. He told me there's some strain on my knees and ankles that could be problematic later on. Everything's fine for now, it's just preemptive."

    "You should talk to Jacob. I'm sure he would get something commissioned for you." Biting her lip, she looked to his knees, "...I feel awful, having made you walk all that way."

    "Hmm... oh, no, it's okay. Exercise is good in moderation, don't fret. I should speak with him, I just feel a little hesitant requesting he spend the money on my behalf."

    "You're worth it, Abe. You're an important part of what we do. And I know Jacob wouldn't hesitate. You more than make up for the cost with al the work you do."

    "I suppose..." he mused.

    Ezra nudged him again, frowning, "Don't you do that. You know it's true. At the very least, you've been an invaluable friend."

    "I try! The doctor visits aren't cheap - I've got to earn my keep somehow." He took a reflective bite of his pastry.

    "You're too hard on yourself, Abe. You're an asset to the Circus. To all of us."

    "Most people prefer the Big Top acts, more and more now than ever. The Tessitores are the real money makers, even if they are trouble."

    "Oh, nonsense. People love you guys, just as much. It's people like the Tessitores who are trying to make you think otherwise. I know for a fact Aldo is nothing but a jealous egomaniac. He's terrified you guys will get more popular and steal his thunder."

    Abe scoffed. "I may be a lightning rod but I am no thief of thunder. He may be a little nutty but I think he knows exactly what the situation is."

    "He's more than a little nutty, Sugar. I'm surprised the Elephants don't wait outside his wagon all night..."

    He laughed, nearly dropping his pastry. He rescued it from its awkward position on the back of his hand as he said, "What makes you so sure?"

    "The way he looks at her... Mari." Frowning softly, she started at a spot on the ground, shaking her head, "Like she's property. Never surprised me when she left."

    "Hmm... I guess I sort of forgot about that - it's been so long since I've seen them together. You think it's more than just because they're family?"

    Smirking dryly, Betty shrugged, "I've got a brother, but I never looked at him that way. Never would, either. He's cute as a button, but he's my brother..." Taking a bite of her danish she sighed, softly, "Ugh. Listen to me. I hate gossip. Sorry. Just hard not to notice..."

    He shrugged, "it is a difficult situation that potentially effects us all. Sometimes gossip is just nervous discussion." He copied her bite then added, "regardless, poor Rocco."

    "Poor Rocco, indeed. I wouldn't be half surprised if he broke it off with Mari because of Aldo. He loved that girl... We had money in the Big Top that they'd be engaged by Summer."

    He furrowed his brows. "I don't even know what to make of all that..."

    Looking at him from the corner of her eye, she grinned a teasing grin, "Never been in love, then?"

    He laughed again, "me? The only thing that's ever been interested in me is one of the giraffes."

    "Oh stop, now. You're completely appealing. Not just to giraffes, either."

    He finished his pastry with a silent smirk.

    "You are!" She continued, "You're a sweetie... And you're certainly not difficult to look at. And a girl would never have to worry about reaching things on the top shelf of the cupboard..."

    He snickered. "At least I got 'high up things retriever' going for me." He rolled the bag up and said, "anyway, we can return when you're ready."

    Finishing her own danish she shook her head, "And humble, to boot. Why Abraham Ebenezer... You're quite the catch."

    "Whatever you say, Miss Ezra!"

    "Come on. We'll walk back, now." She rose, holding out a hand, as if she might help him up.

    He took her hand and stood carefully, dropping his trash in a nearby bin once he was up. "After you."

    She held his hand for a fraction of a second longer than she might have needed to, before following her own trash after his, then starting along the path they'd come on.

    He noticed but said nothing in regards to it.

    "...Any idea what time it is?" She asked, as they walked.

    "I haven't the foggiest. Not to late, I imagine. You're welcome to go on ahead if you need the time."

    Chuckling softly, she shook her head, "Oh no, trust me. I'm alright dawdling as long as possible. I need to keep out of that Big Top until tonight. It's maddening."

    "Hah, fair enough."

    The walk was quicker on the way back, partially downhill, and when they arrived outside the tents again, Ezra looked at the Big Top with something of a formidable expression, "And here we are."

    Abe set his eyes on the canteen and told Ezra, "I may pick at the remainders in the food tent - the pastry was well worth the walk but unfortunately I need to eat like an elephant to keep myself going. You'll excuse me?"

    "Oh, yeah. Go on. As much as I hate the idea, I really ought to go rehearse, anyhow."

    "I'll see you tonight!" He waved and began his slow journey to the tent

    Giving him a wave, Ezra turned to the tent and, with a sigh, made her way inside.

    Evening came faster than anticipated. The show wasn't sold out, but it was packed and that, for Thornbush was never a bad thing. The talk of fireworks had drawn in quite the crowd and everyone was excited... Everyone, perhaps, except Erzabet, who had spent a good portion preparing for her performance while battling a suddenly violent wave of nausea.

    For Marianna there was a strange sense of detached sadness about the whole thing. She had spent so many years performing and it would be the first time since her childhood where she would be enjoying the show as a spectator only. It felt strange, sitting in those chairs, staring out at the rings... The clowns were out now, rolling somersaults across the floor and running into one another in a comical fashion... The elephants came next, on their backs the beautiful Tsong twins, riding high and glorious, their thin, long figures contorted into curious, almost painful shapes. The parade was continued by the acrobats, tumbling and flipping - and last came Anna on the back of the stunning Lipizzaner stallion, the smokey grey horse rising high into the air on it's hind legs. Anna, a quirky character outside of the show, was something majestic on the back of the horse - ethereal and beautiful, seated in the saddle as if she were floating, her red hair curled and wild, a contrast to the dusty coat of the animal, her blue bodysuit sparkling with rhinestones.

    It had always been entertaining to watch from backstage, but there was something different from the audience stand... Something magical... awesome about the show. Jacob ran the rings like his father - a master of control and excitement, a talented narrator to the thrilling events.

    Erzabet was towards the middle of the show, and arrived on stage looking impossibly calm, considering how nervous she had been earlier. Her black suit - a fashionable, glamerous version of a tuxedo - shined under the spotlight, her black top hat perched atop blonde curls. The illusions were fascinating and some were a little frightening, and the audience was transfixed, as the woman ran through the routine as if she had performed in thousands of times.

    When it was her family's turn to entrance the crowd, Marianna was so enraptured, she could barely hear the announcement made by her brother, his subtle Italian accent in that deep, rich timbre rumbling through the tent, "We are all of us as eager as you for the fireworks this evening... but tonight, it would seem, holds more excitement than one! I'd like to take this moment to announce the return of our prodigal! My dearest sister has graced us, once more, with her presence - a gift we cannot possibly put into words... And I think... if we are very good and ask very nicely, we might perhaps be lucky enough that the greatest of the Tessitores might be convinced to join us for a surprise performance! What do you say, Mari, mi amore? Will you perform for us?"

    The spotlight, rather suddenly, was on her, quite literally, the brilliant, hot beam staring her in the eye as Aldo's words resonated. She had been stunned into silence, but she could hear the shuffling around her as the audience turned in her direction. The cheering came next... a slow murmur of encouragement at first, then steadily building into an exuberant chant. It was impossible to resist. Smiling dryly, she rose and, without really knowing entirely what she was doing, she bowed her head in a nod.

    It was a few minutes later that she had been squeezed into one of her old costumes, a comfortable enough fit, and as she stepped out onto the floor to the thunderous applause there was a thought which rang through her mind clearer than any other. How had she ever left this?

    Climbing the ladder onto the platform stories above the ground, her heart pounded with anxiety and adrenaline, her thoughts reeling. She reached the top, met Aldo's eye from across the trapeze line and grinned, turning and giving the crowd a spectacular, sweeping bow and a wave, before, as i she had never left at all, she launched onto the trapeze bar and sailed... soared through the air.

    It was magnificent. It was indescribable. It was everything to her and every fiber of her being screamed with pure, unadulterated joy as she whipped back and forth, flipped and twisted, in and out of Aldo's strong grasp, back to the bar, then up again, savoring each gasp and squeal from the crowd below, the blare of the music, the thrill...

    Then it happened...

    She'd been careful...Nothing complex. Nothing dangerous - just the old training routine. It had been too long and she wasn't ready for anything more. The flip came, a simple up and over, and she felt Aldo's hands grasp her wrists... Then only air. Flailing, to no avail, she looked up to see her brother swinging past her, arm outstretched... face fixed with a look of shock and fear...

    Something in his eye though... there, just in the corner... something she could only just make out...

    And then she was falling, plummeting. The audience screamed. She might have screamed as well... and then, with a heavy thud, she hid the sturdy safety net, the breath crashing from her lungs. Something snapped, somewhere and pain blossomed in her wrist, then came the bounce, up into the air, an uncontrolled roll and with a 'thwock' she hit the ground, where she did not move again.

    Jacob had been anticipating a larger crowd than usual with his knowledge that fireworks always attracted costumers but when the Big Top kept filling up past half he became ecstatic. It was stunning to see a real line at the ticket booth for only the second time that year and Jacob's enthusiasm shone through his recently wet-towel demeanor like the piercing light of the heavens.

    Rocco, on the other hand, was in affected spirits. The conversation with Marianna had been more turbulant than he could have imagined and the sudden bursting forth of deeply buried emotions merited slightly more liberated alcohol consumption than usual. Before the show had started he had emptied the last of his flask with the presumptuous help of the one and only Dutch and briefly returned to his wagon to rummage for more. With freshly uncorked bourbon sloshing around in his gut and flask, he decided to weave his way through the sideshows to hang around the back side of the Big Top - his usual place to hide when the norms weren't around to entertain. A few family members were playing poker and offered Rocco to join but the transition from standing to sitting brought his inebriation to his attention he decided his money would be better spent if he burned it. He sat and watched the game through the proud voice of Jacob and the cheering of the crowd.

    Abe, as promised, had taken a seat early in the Big Top as to not interfere with the paying crowd. He was towards the back at the edge of an aisle, a little out of the way but with no question that he would be seen. He felt what could only be described as pride for Erzabet, her performance raising gasps and cheers that made his stomach rise to his chest and brought a smile to his face. That feeling did not, unfortunately, last long. The surprise announcement from Aldo first drew Abe's gaze to Jacob, who was standing in his usual place off to the side with an expression Abe knew to be his attempt to mask concern. He knitted his brows and did the only thing he could, looked up.

    Rocco stood up so quickly that he nearly tipped the crate the others were playing on. One empty cup tumbled into the grass but the whole family had turned their ears as one towards the tent. His heart immediately started racing and his flask was left abandoned in the dirt as he dashed under the tent flap and into the Big Top.

    A knot locked up his throat and his fingers shook with adrenaline as she climbed the ladder to the top. He was running towards the center ring the moment he saw their fingertips brush in a miss. To the break of his heart he was not fast enough to catch her on the come down but he slid on his knees to her side only moments after she landed.

    The audience gasped, a few screamed, then fell into collective silence. Several members of the circus rushed over then one was immediately sent away to fetch the doctor from town. Rocco headed the consciousness department, leaning low and speaking softly but desperately. "Marianna, sweetheart... hey, come on, I know you're in there..."

    After a moment... a long, tense moment, her eyes fluttered, then opened, slowly, rolling upwards to meet Rocco's.

    "...W...what happened?" She asked, weakly.

    "Aldo--... you fell. I think you're okay but try not to move. The doc's on his way." He didn't dare touch her, worried even the slightest brush of his hamhands might hurt her.

    "...Did I miss the f...fireworks...?"

    "No, don't worry - they're not going off without you. Can you stay right here for me? You got lots of people ready to take care of you."

    "Don't.. don't you leave me, Roc." She grimaced, sucking in a wheezy breath, and a tear slid from her eye, down the side of her face, "...Don't, okay?"

    He sighed and settled into the position he had been tentatively holding. "I ain't goin' anywhere."


    "Cross my heart."

    Jacob reined in the crowd and used his well-trained speech skills to lead them outside, where the fireworks show would commense shortly. After some bustling, the group, now including Abe, was eventually left alone with Marianna and the recently arrived doctor. Rocco let Jacob do the talking and carefully scooped Marianna into his arms when he was instructed to do so. He couldn't keep his eyes off her face, her barely open eyes enough for Rocco to hold a reassuring smile.

    Rocco deposited her in her wagon as he had been instructed, only himself, the doctor and Jacob entering the small wooden structure. In the comfort of the bed she had missed so dearly, she promptly permitted her eyes to close and dropped unconscious.

    The strongman waited a few minutes, listening silently to the conversation before getting up and leaving the wagon. A crowd of family (excluding the Tessitores) had maintained outside and though the bombarded Rocco with questions he marched right past every one of them.

    He was a shark that had smelled blood.

    Abe had seen a look in Rocco's eyes that he hadn't seen in years - one of masculine determination, and one that should rightly be feared. He followed slowly after him, waving the couple others that had noticed away. He assured them numbers would only escalate things and, reluctantly, they allowed him to go alone.

    Miserable, egomanical, pompous worm. Rocco bursted into the segregated Tessitore like a bull in a china shop, face pulled into a disgusted snarl. He beelined for the man's wagon, punched the door open with an awesome splittering of wood, stomped inside and swung a fist where ever the man's unfortunate face happened to be. "You !@#$%^&* piece of slime! I've been waiting a long time to feel your smug little face on my knuckles!" He growled, his normally attractive and endearingly deep voice now horse and watery from alcohol and rage. Assuming his fist actually hit, he would throw no more.

    Aldo toppled backwards as the meaty fist connected, blood blossoming through his fingers, streaming in rivulets down his face, pouring down the back of his throat. Slowly, he righted himself, grinning a Devil's smile, red and wicked. He spit and pink foam hit the floor between Rocco's feet, "What did you expect, you stupid fool? I warned you what would happened if you tried to see her again..."

    Rocco flexed his hand gingerly. A couple splinters from the door had been further embedded into muscle by the blow. "I didn't ask her to come back you little !@#$%^&*! In fact, I wish she hadn't! I wanted her to stay as far away from you as possible. We live in the same home now - you can't stop us from crossing paths."

    Wiping his nose with the back of his hand, Aldo's eyes narrowed, "...You'll manage. Or you'll regret it."

    "What are you going to do? Kill her?" Rocco stepped forward, a menacing enough action, then grabbed Aldo by the throat and yanked him close. He spoke lowly, "If anything happens to her you best believe you will know living hell. She's not your property."

    The grin returned, almost as if spurred on by the hand around his throat. He made no moves to struggle, no attempts to remove it. Despite the turn of his lips, his eyes were ice... dark, inky ice, "...That's where you're wrong. She's mine. And if you've got any brain in that thick skull of yours you'll do her a favor and stay the hell away. I would see her dead before I allowed her to be with your breed of animal.

    Rocco breathed heavily through his grimace. His hand tightened, Aldo's Adam's apple pressed against his knuckle, then he tossed him away as if unable to bare the burn of touching such a miserable, fucked up pile of !@#$%^&*. "Tch. What do you think she'll do if I tell her, huh? You think she'll take kindly to being claimed?"

    Stumbling, then righting himself he glared at Rocco, "As if she has a say. Besides, you think she'd believe you, you oaf?" He rubbed his neck, straightening upright, "...Discendenza Soprattutto. Blood Above All."

    Rocco scoffed. "Take my word for it or don't, Tessitore," he said as he stood in the door way. "If she dies, you'll regret it."

    He left the wagon before the scum could reply. Aldo only smirked, watching him go, his voice following the strong man out the door, "...We'll see, Omino... We shall see."

    It had been perfect... the performance. Better than she ever could have imagined... She could barely remember it, afterwards, her mind still reeling from the thrill, but the thunderous applause stayed with her, clung to her like a pleasant aroma, all the way back to her changing room. Abe had come, as promised, and she had seen him in the crowd, watching... It had given her the strength, really, to get through her nerves.

    But then the accident had happened and the wonder and awe and excitement was swallowed by fear and panic, by uncertainty and chaos. She had not walked, but ran to town to find the doctor when Jacob had called for one, but the trip back had not been made in haste. She was frightened, really... afraid of what she might find, when she returned.

    When she arrived, the crowd had gathered outside the big top on the tall hill where the fireworks had been set up. They would go off, soon, when the sun had fallen below the horizon... intended as a wonderful treat, no doubt now a welcome distraction. She did not look for those however, but for that same massive, towering figure she had seen in the crowd. He was easy enough to spot, hovering near the wagons. Slowly, she approached, "...How is she...?"

    Lily had been backstage during the accident, but had not hesitated as soon as she heard to leave her dressing room - still fully costumed for what would have been the closing act, hair half braided and hanging down her back she did not walk, but ran, quickly as she could out of the big top and down to Marianna's trailer, where she knew she would find Jacob.

    Up the stairs she went, pulling the door opened, her breath catching as she spotted the girl, lying unconscious on the mattress, "...Oh dear God. Jacob..."

    Moving to his side, she reached out, laying a hand on his arm before bypassing him to kneel next to Marianna's bed, "...Oh, sweetie..."

    Anna sat in the empty stands, head lowered, hands folded in her lap, staring at the spot where Marianna had landed, when she'd bounced out of the net. She hadn't known her... not more than a quick word in passing that day, but she'd heard more than her share of tales. Still, it was never easy watching one of their own get injured... particularly when the stunt was as dangerous as the trapeze.

    She'd come out to watch, thrilled by the notion of seeing the most magnificent of the Tessitore's fly... but what she had seen, instead, had rocked her harder than she had ever imagined.

    Breathing out, she lowered her gaze. The fireworks would start soon, but somehow it felt wrong, enjoying the show...

    Jacob gave the doctor some space but remained near Marianna. It pained him to see her in such a state - her first day here much rougher than he'd hoped. He kept his brows furrowed and his mouth pulled into a distinctive frown until Lily arrived, his features softening a little. "Hey, Lily."

    Looking up from her spot beside Marianna's bed, Lily frowned, "...How did this happen, Jacob?"

    He took his top hat off and held it in his lap. "I'm not confident I can answer you. I mean, she got called up by Aldo and... I don't know. She fell."

    Rising, Lily shook her head, "Fell...? And we're sure about that?"

    "Do you think it may have been something else?" He asked a little too quickly.

    Looking to the doctor, who was busying himself, clearly more than necessary with Marianna, she sighed, "...We're all thinking it, Jacob.

    Sweetie, I'm not one to knock a coincidence, but the fact that this happened... the night she comes back? After he called her up there...?"

    He bit his lip as he was one to do. "It's just..." He clapped his hands over his face. "Ugh."

    Stepping over to him, Lily reached for Jacob's hand, taking it with her own, "...I know..." Frowning softly, she looked past him, "...Where's Rocco?"

    He clasped his fingers around hers. "He left--... dammit, I'm an idiot." He said, standing up quickly.

    Stepping back, Lily moved out of his way, brows raised, "...He wouldn't...?"

    He walked quickly down the steps and immediately spotted Abe and Erzabet. He started towards them. "It's been years since he's done anything like that - I don't know if he has it in him..."

    He intercepted Ezra, who had apparently just been told to stay behind by Abe. "Ezra, keep an eye on Marianna," he said with clear urgency in his voice.

    Ezra, who needn't be told twice, only nodded, making her way past the trio to head towards Marianna's cart. Lily's face fell as she watched her go, then looked to Jacob, "...Aldo's wagon... The door... Look."

    Jacob immediately started jogging, his hat still in his hand. He dashed past Abe, who stopped walking towards the wagon and looked around. Jacob called for Aldo before he reached the door.

    There was a moment or two, before the thin Italian appeared in the doorway, his eyes narrowed, a towel pressed to his face - blood soaking through the thin white fabric, "You need to rein in your dog, Thornbush. The man is mad."

    Jacob slowed to a stop, breathing still fairly regular. "God !@#$%^&* it, Rocco... Jesus, did he... punch the door open?"

    Aldo frowned, lowering the towel from his nose, "That wasn't the only thing that oaf punched."

    Jacob made a face and stepped closer, shaking his head. He put his hat on. "Lily, find some ice and have the doctor head this way when he gets a moment."

    "There's no need." Aldo spat, eying Lily, who had turned to leave but paused at the words. A scowl rose to the Italian's features, "...Just send the carpenter to fix my !@#$%^&* door."

    "You'll want the doctor unless you'd like a crooked nose."

    "I have my own people who will look at it. The door. I'll get no sleep with it hung off the hinges like that."

    He sighed and nodded at Lily. "Could you?"

    "Yeah. Sure. Meet you back at your cabin..." Lily didn't bother to fight a roll of her eyes before she started off again, making her way in the direction of the lead carpenter's tent. Aldo watched her go with a frown, his eyes narrowed.

    "I trust the carpenter can find his own way... You may go."

    "... Alright. I'm sorry for his behavior. I'll talk to him," Jacob said with uncertainty in his face as he walked the other way. He, unsurprisingly, spotted Abe before he saw Rocco but decided it may be best to allow them privacy. He stood not too far from the Tessitore wagons and watched them speak though he could not hear them.

    Abe had been slowly following Rocco's trail but was not far off by the time Ezra had returned. He heard her approach behind him but only turned halfway to her. "I believe she will be okay, but there is something I must attend to. I don't mean to be rude, but please stay here."

    He immediately began walking towards the Tessitore wagons, feeling guilty for snuffing Ezra but concerned time may be of the essence. Though he walked as quickly as he could he was much too slow to be of use - he did, however, catch sight of Rocco stamping off into the distance just as Jacob and Lily whizzed past his legs. He changed direction and eventually caught sight of Rocco huffing and puffing in the distance. "Rocco?"

    Rocco glanced over his shoulder even though he immediately recognized the voice. "Go away."

    "Rocco, wait, please," Abe said, winded.

    Rocco sighed at the struggle in Abe's tone and stopped walking with determination to nowhere. "I hit him, okay? Big fuckin' deal, he's not gunna die."

    Abe cursed mentally, taking a moment to catch his breath. "And, what did it earn you?"

    "... nothin'. I fucked up, I know, but still felt good." He rubbed his hand gingerly.

    Abe managed a few more steps so he was standing beside Thornbush's other giant. "None of us like the Tessitores, Rocco, but violence is not the solution."

    "He dropped her, Abe."

    "We don't know that."

    Rocco spun around, shoulders tight with anger. "Of course we do! All of us do!" He spat. "He said as much to my fuckin' face like I was some kind of fuckin' moron! He almost killed his own sister over me!"

    Abe fell silent, thinking hard of the moment Marianna's fingers slipped through Aldo's. He had no reason to question Rocco, but he found it hard to believe that the Italian would jeopardize his own blood over someone like the strongman. "... Well, if that's true then you incinerated any opportunity we may have had to pursue legal action - you'll be lucky if he doesn't end up pressing charges on you."

    "Neither of us are about to get the fuckin' cops involved. We're carnies, Abe, cops don't care what we do to each other."

    Abe stared into the horizon then slowly removed his glasses and wiped them with his shirt. "If the police cannot be a part of this matter then what do you intend to do about it?"

    "I don't know."

    The giant set his glasses back on his ears and pushed them up the bridge of his nose. "You do not think Marianna will believe you, do you?"

    "I know she won't. And that !@#$%^&* knows it. She'll believe he's an evil son of a !@#$%^&* when she's in the ground."

    'We'll just have to find a way to convince her, then."

    "... I should get back to her. I promised I wouldn't leave her side," he said broodingly, feeling guilty for breaking his promise over violence. He started walking. "I appreciate what you're tryin' to do, tall man, but stay out of it. This is not a battle for you to fight."

    Abe watched Rocco walk away in silence then his eye was caught by Jacob. The ringleader, noticing he'd been seen, walked up.

    "How bad is he?" Jacob asked when he was standing at the giant's feet.

    "As good as he can be, I suppose. It's a shame that after not hitting anyone for so many years, the one who breaks his vow is one of our own."

    "The Tessitores are not our own," Jacob said with some edge in his voice, his teeth set. "We just can't afford to get rid of them."

    Abe looked down his cheek at Jacob then gazed into the distance. "The Tessitores are as much a part of the family as any of us. We are from different walks, Jacob, we will not always see eye to eye or understand each others motivations. You cannot forget that Marianna is a Tessitore, too."

    Jacob lowered his head, frowning under the brim of his hat. "Quit talking sense, it's making things complicated."

    Abe leaned down slightly and set his hand on Jacob's shoulder. "We will sort things out, but we need to make sure we work it out together, a concept Rocco is not fond of. He has slipped once and it will only get easier for him to resort to fisticuffs. I understand unwillingness to protect the Tessitores, but if Rocco kills the Italian we will lose him."

    "... I know. !@#$%^&* it, Rocco."

    "Give him some space for now. Make sure Marianna is alright. One step at a time."

    Jacob nodded and patted Abe's leg. "I should get back."

    "Go ahead."

    Jacob returned to Marianna's wagon, leaving the giant wishing he had a cane.

    Dutch had been lurking around outside the Big Top like he often did, a sharp eye out for any lollygaggers he could potentially wrangle into bed. He, like everyone else nearby, heard the commotion but unlike the others his reaction was much slower. He walked around to the main entrance and peeked in, a cigarette still burning down between his lips. He moved for the crowd as the tent emptied then slinked in to meet the rest of the freaks.

    He stood far from them, staying near the bleachers so he could observe the situation. He flicked his cigarette into the dirt after the doctor rushed in, smothering it after the man had passed. He watched quietly as Rocco carried the beautiful woman away with the caravan of concerned persons tromping behind him. He remained in the empty space for a while before noticing Annabel not too far away. He approached.

    "Startling, yes? Ze poor woman."

    Annabel jumped at his voice, straightening upright, her eyes falling involuntarily to the map of markings on his bare chest before they rose to meet his gaze. Slowly, she shook her head.

    "I... I've never seen anything like that. It was horrible..." She looked away, wrapping her arms around herself, rubbing out a chill as gooseflesh covered her bare skin.

    He shrugged, a gesture not meant to be as cold as it may have seemed. "I did not see it but I believe she will be okay. She will most likely get away with a broken wrist." He sat down beside her - not too close - and dug out a cigarette that he did not light.

    "You're lucky. I watched it happen. I feel like I'm gonna be seeing that in my head for weeks. God, Dutch. It was... awful."

    "I can only imagine." He said then, after a lull, added, "I do not know why she was up zere in ze first place. Her brozer is a nut casing."

    "Who, Aldo? What... what do you mean? Seems harmless to me. Slightly more than stand offish, but I figured that was just a language barrier or something?"

    Dutch gave her a sidelong look then dug out his lighter and ignited his cigarette. He brushed his hair from his forehead. "He called his sister to ze most dangerous act in ze show after she's been absent for years. Zis does not seem strange to you?"

    "Well... to be fair, before she fell, she was exquisite. Like she'd been doing it all this time. She didn't miss a beat, until... well..." Frowning softly, she turned to face him, "Does... do they help?" She asked, gesturing to the cigarette, "With nerves? I feel like I'm gonna shake apart."

    He hm'd quietly, an oddly pensive action, then puffed on the burning tobacco. "Zey do, yes, unless you go too long wizout one. Zen it is hell. I would share, but it is best I do not or you will never stop."

    "...Probably, yeah. But I've never been really great at avoiding things that are bad for me." Reaching out, she plucked the cigarette shaft from between his lips and placed it between her own. "Now what do I do?"

    He narrowed his eyes and prepared to be mildly offended but was halted by her theft. Instead he raised his hands, flustered, and said, "hey! Zis thieving is unacceptable!" Then promptly sighed, flopped his hands in his lap and continued, "if you insist, I cannot stop you. Pull ze smoke into your mouz, zen inhale it. It will not be pleasant, no doubt. It was not the first time I tried."

    She followed his instructions, but true to his word as she smoke filled her mouth and nasal passage she coughed, freeing the cigarette from her mouth and handing it back, "Ugh. That... is vile. How... on earth can you enjoy that?"

    He looked mildly self-satisfied when she objected, taking the cigarette and smoking proudly. "Zis is why you listen to Dutch. No one begins smoking because they enjoy the act, zey do it for ze feelings it gives. Enjoying ze act comes later. I have been smoking so long I do not know what I would do if I were suddenly unable to."

    Reaching out, she pulled the stick free again, taking a slower drag this time. Pensively, she let the smoke linger, before breathing it out with a sigh, "Nope..." She said, with a smirk, handing it back over, "Still gross."

    He laughed, "it will take much longer than that." When he got the cigarette back he held it at full arm's length away from her.

    "What I need is a drink, anyway..."

    "Ah, a drink we can do! Come, it is sad in here." He stood up and offered his hand.

    Smiling faintly, she reached out and took the hand, rising to her feet, "Don't you get any ideas, now... Just a drink.."

    He perked a brow. "You seem to have zis idea zat I am evil! I am persistent, yes, but I am perfectly respectable, zank you."

    "Not evil, no..." Winking, she nudged his arm, "Just trouble."

    "Well... zat I cannot argue."

    He exited the tent with her, making his way towards his wagon. "We could go to ze canteen, but I have much better in my wagon, if zis does not bother you."

    "It's fine. Honestly, I don't feel much like being around other people right now..."

    He nodded. "Perhaps wiz a drink in us we will be able to enjoy ze fireworks as we intended, yes? It would be a shame to miss."

    "And we did have a deal..."

    He smirked. "We did! So, what drink would you prefer?"

    "At this point, I'd drink turpentine..."

    The joke went over his head, an uncommon occurrence with his English being as good as it was, but he hardly missed a beat. "Would wine suffice? It is very good, I assure you!"

    Chuckling softly, Anna nodded, "That'll be fine. And probably for the best. I'm a lightweight. Anything stronger and I'd probably just pass out."

    He tipped his head in understanding and pulled open the door to his rather dully painted wagon. The inside was sparse, only containing what had been given to him by Jacob with the exception of clothes and a few images of Paris pinned to the walls. He went straight to a box on the ground that let out cool air when opened and contained two bottles of win and melted ice. He pulled one out, promptly closed the box, and set the bottle on the counter.

    Meanwhile, Anna had found the pictures, roving over them as she waited, "These are beautiful..."

    Without looking at what she was referring to he enthusiastically replied, "I know!" He retrieved two wine glasses and uncorked the bottle, pouring Anna's glass shallow compared to his. He took a last drag of his cigarette and killed it in a nearby ash tray. "Zis is for you," he said, offering her the glass.

    Taking it, she looked over her shoulder, nodded, "...Thanks." Pulling a long, slow sip, she sighed, contentedly, "...Definitely not turpentine. So... tell me about it. Where you lived."

    "It is as I said! It is ze most beautiful and sexy country in all ze world! Green fields and flowers in ze summer, ze most artistic and well-crafted buildings, ze best coffee..." he sighed a little somberly. "A truly wonderful place."

    "No, no... Not things I could read in a tourist rag. Something... something that's just yours. Something no one else could tell me about it."

    He looked thoughtfully at the pictures, slowly swirling the wine in his glass. He breathed in the tart but pleasant aroma then took a sip. "... My favorite was always ze art, I zink. It is everywhere zere - painters, poets, musicians, dancers - even in small businesses. Bakers are not just bakers, zey are craftsmen. Everyzing is done wizout cutting corners, wiz pride and sense of ze small successes in life... it is nozing like here, where zis money rules all. In Paris I could deliver bread and I would be happy."

    "That sounds lovely..." Taking another sip she moved across the small room, taking a seat in one of the two chairs, "I grew up in a small town... Just my mother and I. My dad died, when I little in a mining accident. But we were never alone, even after... There was always someone there, baking us dinner, making sure we had the cupboards stocked, or just to talk to my mom... make sure she was okay. It was hard... but I think without that, it would have been impossible. Back home, nobody cared much about money or stuff... We just... we had better things to think about, I guess. Moving out here... I wasn't sure I could take it at first. It's been a transition, for sure. But I love it here, in the Big Top. I wouldn't trade it. Not for the world..."

    He nodded. "Zat is somezing I wish I'd had - a sense of community. I believe most neighborhoods were close but mine..." he took another sip of his wine then set it down and pulled a drawer out from under his bed. He dug through for a moment then took out a white tee-shirt and pulled it over his head.

    "Well... You're in a pretty tight knit community here, right?"

    He nodded but said nothing.

    "At any rate... thank you. For distraction. It's helping."

    "Ah," he perked up, "it's my pleasure! What are your zoughts on ze wine? Good?" He picked up his glass again and drank.

    "It's great... better than anything I've ever had."

    "Of course it is! Feeling up to the outside world yet?"

    Pouring the last of her glass back, she nodded, rising from the chair, "Sure..."

    He topped off his glass and offered her a little more.

    "...Thanks." She said, smiling, "Or... wait... how do you say it, in French?"

    "Ah, merci beaucoup!" He winked, "soyez le bienvenu!" He set the cork in the bottle and walked into the evening.

    It was the doctor who greeted Rocco when the wagon door opened. He was a kind looking man with a warm smile, even given the circumstances and the unusual conversations he had overheard. He'd been reaching for the door knob when it opened and stepped back, his expression startled as honey-brown eyes sized up the giant of a man, "Ah! Sorry. Uh. Yes. I was just slipping out to see if I couldn't find Mr. Thornbush. I thought perhaps he'd like to know she's waking up."

    Rocco hardly flinched when the doctor nearly bumped into him, expression serious. He felt a prickle of relief that she hadn't been up during his rampage. "Thanks, doc. Jacob's around here somewhere, probably. You mind?" He asked, nodding past the man.

    "Not at all... In fact, I'll step out and take in some fresh air. Bit cramped, these little wagons of yours." Chuckling, the doctor stepped down the stairs, and a moment later was followed Erzabet, who gave Rocco a small, tired smile before heading out into the field.

    Across the room, bolstered upright by a few extra pillows, Mari smiled weakly at the sight of the strong man, "...Hey, you."

    Rocco made a half-honest smile at the doctor as he left then smiled in earnest at his love. "Hey, Marianna. Feelin' alright?"

    "I'm okay. Doc said it's... it's a broken wrist and a concussion. Nothing worth writing home about. Are... are you alright?"

    He scoffed, "nothin'! You survived a-" he noticed the blood on his hand as he gestured with it and quickly swept it to his side. "... Uh, yeah. A broken wrist, huh? How long are you out?"

    He'd been quick, but not quick enough. Frowning, Mari sat upright, flinching at the motion, "What happened to you?" She asked, ignoring his question.

    He looked down at the rug covered floor of the wagon. "Don't worry about it for now - you really shouldn't be movin' around." He pulled open a nearby drawer, correctly remembering hand towels were in it, and grabbed one out to wrap his hand with.

    "Rock... If you don't tell me what happened, I am gonna defy Doc's demands and get out of this bed, and... and wrestle it out of you. You're bleeding. Did you get hurt?"

    He frowned and, with his hand covered, moved towards the bed. "I'm fine, I just gotta have the doc clean it up for me. It was an accident, no big deal."

    Sitting up, fighting another grimace, she reached out for his hand, "Can I see it? Please?"

    His frown deepened and he would have said no if the grimace hadn't made him feel like an !@#$%^&*. He extended it to her, trying to think of a lie in the meantime. Unwrapping the towel, Mari looked at the knuckles, frowning delicately, "...Rocco... What... what did you do?"

    "It's uh... wood. Hit a door real hard and got some splinters. Must have been all that worry makin' my legs wobbly, huh?"

    "...Remember earlier? Our conversation about you lying... so save me from feeling bad? You're doing it again." Running her fingers over the back of his hand, she sighed, "...He didn't do it on purpose, Rocco. You shouldn't have hit him."

    He looked a little startled, eyes a bit wide, then quickly looked down at the ground again. "... I know, I'm sorry. I was going to tell you what happened, I just... I felt bad, with you layin' in bed like that." He paused. "I'll pay for the door."

    "I don't care about the door... or Aldo. Rocco, I care about you. You've worked so hard to put that... that person behind you. What were you thinking? Why would you do that?"

    His expression fell further. He looked disappointed, clearly in himself. "I... I know, I don't know. I just, I was so angry that you had been hurt and... I'd maybe had a few drinks... I regretted it as soon as I'd done it."

    Leaning back, she sighed, "I don't get it. I want to... but I don't. You... you made the decision to end things, Rocco. And I saw how hard that was for you, so I left. But then I come back and I feel like... like nothing has changed, even though, in truth everything has. And it's confusing... and... and then you go off and a do a thing like that. A stupid, silly... wonderful, sweet thing like that, and I just... I don't know what to think."

    He looked up at her, "... Wonderful? What do you mean, wonderful? I thought you'd be bitin' my head off."

    "Don't get me wrong, Rock. I'm furious with you for it... But... but knowing you hit my brother, because of a total accident... it's also... Well, it's one hell of a gesture. I just wish I understood it..."

    "Heh, I understand..." Head down again. "I... I don't know how to talk to you, Marianna. You get me all mixed up, I don't know how else to explain it. I... screwed up, left and right. Makin' it worse."

    "I like the way you talk. I always have. Just... just tell me in your own way."

    "... I... I didn't leave you because I wanted to. To be honest with you, I was in hell. I felt like I didn't have a choice - Aldo said you'd get hurt if I didn't and I didn't want to tell you the truth because I... I'm not a man that can turn a family against each other."

    "...He said..." Sitting up, Mari frowned, shaking her head, "He... said what?"

    "He said you'd get hurt. He threatened you, I didn't know what else to do."

    "You... you must have misunderstood him..." She tried, though there wasn't much conviction behind her tone, "...Aldo would never... He... he wouldn't."

    "He practically said he'd drop you during a show, Marianna... I couldn't have misheard that."

    "He's my brother..." She breathed, laying her head back, "...Why didn't you tell me, before?"

    "I told you... I can't be responsible for ruinin' a family... Though I guess it turns out I'm doing that anyway... I thought it was better for you do lose me than lose family. I don't know... I'm a fuckin' idiot."

    "...Rocco... Do you... Do you have any idea what it did to me? Losing you? Do you even know what I went through? God... How could you keep this from me? All this time? Let me think I... I did something wrong." She covered her face with her hands, as her eyes burned with tears, "You broke my heart..."

    He fell silent, the choke of heartache settling in his throat. "... I'm sorry... I wanted more than anything to talk to you I just, I don't know. My brain didn't work right. I didn't expect you to leave but... I couldn't be around you. Aldo doesn't want to even so much as see us near each other. He dropped you because we chatted earlier, I mean, Jesus Christ. If we broke up it meant we could still see each other, even at a distance... and it wouldn't have interfered with your family. I thought it was the right choice." His voice got tight towards the end.

    "I don't know how to process this... any of it. I just... I can't believe he would do something like that. I can't..." Brashly, she threw the covers from her legs, swinging them over the edge of the mattress, "I need to talk to him..."

    "Woah, woah," Rocco exclaimed, catching her legs in mid-air before she could get them over the edge of the bed. "You're not goin' anywhere. Look, if you really gotta talk to him right now I'll have Jacob fetch him, alright?"

    "...Jacob. Oh, God. Does he know?"

    "No one does... not really. Bits and pieces but aside from me, you and Aldo, no one knows about the threats. They just know he and I live at each others throats."

    "I... I need to know, Rocco. I need to hear him say it... I just... I don't know how to believe something like that..."

    "You know he'll never admit it to you... It's not in his blood. He's going to lie to your face with a smile, watch." Rocco moved for the door.

    "Then what am I supposed to do?"

    "I don't know. This is exactly why I didn't tell you before. Breakin' it off was just... easier. Well, it's why I thought it was, anyway..."

    "...Maybe... maybe I just need to be alone, right now. Think things over."

    "If you want him to stay away... just say the word."

    "I don't know what I want, Rocco. Other than retrospective honesty, from a whole lot of people."

    He was quiet for a moment and spoke lowly when he did, "you don't think it's strange that he's not sitting here at your side instead of me? He was sitting all by himself in his trailer when I found him. If my sister were in a bed after I'd dropped her from a few stories in the air we would be inseparable."

    "Maybe he feels guilty...?"

    Rocco sighed. "Yeah, guilty..."

    "It's easy for you to believe it, Rocco. You hate him."

    "I hate him for a reason. You know what it feels like to have broken my vow to hit him? Six years, for nothin'."

    "I didn't ask you to do that...."

    "I know, I just..." he huffed, frustrated. "I want you to know how certain I am about him. I sacrificed a lifetime promise and six years just to sock him. I wouldn't have done it if I didn't know deep down that it was right."

    Her expression softened, and she gently patted the space beside her, "Come here. Please?"

    He obeyed with uncertainty, sitting where she had indicated. Shifting, careful of her bandaged wrist, she leaned against him, "If you're going to break six year deals to punch someone... you could do worse than Aldo.I don't want to believe you, Rock... but I can't not. I know you would never lie to me about something like that. What kills me is that you ever thought you had to. That you thought my relationship with my brother meant... could ever mean more to me than you did... than you do, still..."

    Her gentle weight both stung yet soothed him. He put his hand over her uninjured one. "... I can't stay away from you if you stay here... maybe I could have managed before you left but to have you back after I thought I'd never see you again... I can't do it. Someone's gotta leave this circus in the end."

    "I don't want you to stay away..."

    He closed his eyes and pressed a hand over one of them. "We need the Tessitore's... the circus will fall apart without the revenue they bring in. I can't abandon you or Jacob... I don't know what else to do."

    "Can we worry about it, later? I don't want to think anymore. Just... just stay... and hold me... and let me pretend that everything is okay? Please...?"

    "... You got it, Marianna." He shifted his arm around her and offered her one of his hands to hold. A hand she gratefully took.

    Lily had, admittedly, taken her time getting to the carpenter and had not bothered to veil her irritation when she informed the man that his services were necessary. She explained, of course, that it was not required that he should rush, and that if he felt it were better to wait until the next morning, Jacob would fully understand.

    She wasn't necessarily proud of her actions, but then... Aldo deserved much worse than a night of sleeping with a draft.

    When she had finished with the carpenter she made her leisurely way back in the direction of Marianna's tent. From her vantage point across the grounds she spotted the hulking figure that was undoubtedly Rocco, making his way in the same direction, followed by the easily recognizable form of her most favorite ring master. Speeding up her pace she was able to intercept Jacob mere feet from the wagon, catching his arm with a gentle grasp.

    "Rocco just went inside. I think maybe we should give them a moment...?"

    Jacob looked surprised, clearly not expecting her to have completed the task already. He looked from her to the door then stepped away. "That's probably wise... The carpenter is on his way, I take it?"

    A smirk tipped her lips upwards and she shrugged, slowly, "He might be... He also might be waiting until tomorrow. Daylight, and all... I... may have given him the impression it wasn't entirely... urgent?"

    Jacob lowered a brow and smirked back. "Lily..." he sighed softly, though he was obviously amused. He tapped his hat so it wasn't leaning so far over his eyes and gestured away from the wagon for her to follow.

    Lily chuckled and stepped with him, shrugging her shoulders, wrapping tighter around them the purple shawl she wore, "Oh. Was it urgent? Well, now. That is... unfortunate."

    "Officially, I scold you for this misdirection, which I cannot correct because I am much too busy... Personally, I say, 'well done'," he said lightly.

    Grinning, Lily wrapped her arms around his waist, leaning in closer, "You can punish... or reward me... later." But as she met his gaze her expression softened, "...How are you?"

    He put his arms around her but his smile quickly faded. "I don't know. I spoke to Abe, albeit briefly, and he pointedly raised concerns, as he usually does."

    "Blasted giant... too smart for his own good, hmm?" Smiling delicately, she reached up and tipped his hand back, removing it's shadow from his eyes, "...What concerns were those?"

    He looked down at her. "Where do I begin? Rocco broke his vow of nonviolence and I'm - reasonably - worried it won't be so hard for him to hit again. Everyone except Aldo, apparently, knows Rocco could kill him with a few good fists to the face, which will absolutely happen if the man does end up..." he sighed, "hurting Marianna again. The man's playing with fire and I have no idea why."

    "So we're done pretending it was an accident...?"

    "I don't think anyone is buying it."

    "Honestly, Jacob .. I don't think we're giving Rocco enough credit. He never got over Mari... he reacted brashly... but he's too good a guy to let Aldo get under his skin. We need to trust that he's better than that..."

    "We know Rocco as he is - generally happy, if not at least complacent - and willing to cause physical harm to Aldo for what very well could have been an accident. We do not know Rocco in mourning."

    "That smarmy !@#$%^&* couldn't possibly be stupid enough to try and kill her...I mean, we aren't seriously thinking that's a possibility??"

    He put his hands up in frustration. "I don't know! That's the problem here. I don't /really/ know anything. I'm just trying to consider all the possibilities so we can form contingency plans." He lowered his voice, "what if it does happen? What if that psychopath really does lose his !@#$%^&* mind and Rocco feels an eye for an eye is necessary? We can't go to the police without risking my best friend."

    "So we don't let them perform together. Split the act. They can both work with new partners... and no one gets hurt."

    "There's no way he'll let that happen."

    "Good thing he's not in charge..."

    "Not officially, no, but without the act we have no circus and Aldo is in charge of that."

    "You really think we can't survive without him...?"

    "The Magnificent Tessitores were drafted into the family for a reason. When times are tough around here you should look at some of the old ledgers before the Italians joined - it's depressing. There's no question in my mind that we need them more than they need us.'

    "...So we start looking for a new aerialist team."

    "I have been - my father was too. It's a difficult act to come by, especially with foot traffic slowing down in the circus world as a whole. And even if we do find others, do you think Aldo would leave peacefully? I find it hard to imagine him simply walking away and leaving Marianna to live in peace."

    "...God. How did it get this far, Jacob?" Reaching up, she rested her hand on his cheek, "...We'll figure it out. Every will be fine."

    He closed his eyes and smooshed his cheek against her fingers. "Bleh," he said, pulling her closer to hug her, his hat brim brushing through her hair. "I just hope we figure it out in time, that's all."

    "Talk to Mari... Tell her your concerns. Worst comes to worst, she doesn't have to perform right now. She'll need to take a break anyhow, with her wrist..."

    He nodded, his cheek rubbing against the side of her face before he leaned away. "You should probably change... we need to start the fireworks soon, too."

    Lily chuckled and nodded, "I'll meet you there. And no more worrying for tonight, hmm?"

    "Yes, ma'am."

    Grinning, she pulled him closer and kissed him, before slipping off towards her wagon.

    As Ezra left Marianna's cabin, it was with a strange sense of detachment to the situation at hand. It all seemed a little surreal, really... hard to imagine that it had, in fact, happened. But it had happened, and no one did chaos quite like the Thornbush crowd.

    Still, her part, it seemed, was done and with a sigh of relief she made her way back across the field to the place Abe had told her to wait. She had to thank him for being there for her in the crowd...

    It was a few minutes before Abe lumbered over, standing outside the crowd. He smiled at a group of kids gathered in front of him that were looking up in awe.

    Watching him for a moment, Ezra chuckled softly. He would, no doubt, be the highlight of their evening. Even beyond the fireworks. A real live giant...

    Finally approaching, Ezra cleared her throat, "So... some night, hmm?"

    "Hm?" He took his attention from the children and nodded to Ezra. "You could put it that way." He waved to the kids and walked a few paces away. "I'm sorry for brushing you off, I feel terrible for it. I saw Rocco storming away from the Tessitore's wagon and thought it might be wise to wrangle him in."

    Nodding, Ezra followed the giant, giving the kids a wink as she passed by, "Hey... It's fine. I understand, completely. Is everything okay?"

    "I think so. Rocco clocked him but I don't think it was too serious - Jacob was more upset about the situation than Aldo's injuries. What do you know about Mari?"

    "Oh goodness..." Frowning, Ezra shook her head, "I mean, I'm not surprised... and it's not like Aldo didn't earn it... even if it was just an accident..."

    With a sigh, she shrugged, "Mari seems alright. Doc said her wrist is broken, but nothing that won't heal... and she's got a concussion, so she'll be out of commission for a few days. Could've been much worse, all things considered."

    "Yeah, well... ah, as terrible as that still is, I'm glad. She's lucky, poor woman."

    "Yeah. And maybe luckier than we think. She shouldn't have bounced out of the net like that. It was strung too tight..."

    He raised his brows. "You don't think he..."

    "...That's the problem. He doesn't string it. Otherwise, I wouldn't doubt for a second that it was him." Frowning, she rubbed the back of her neck, "The roustabouts handle those jobs."

    "I wouldn't put it past him to offer... extracurricular jobs."

    "...Unfortunately, there's no way to prove it. And isn't that just the problem with this whole mess. The creep gets away with everything because we can't prove he's doing it on purpose..."

    "Of course... this truly is a difficult place to be."

    "And here I thought the worst part of tonight would be performing by myself..."

    "Hmm... such is life."

    "Thank you, by the way. I saw you... in the crowd. It helped, for sure."

    "Oh! Of course, it was my pleasure."

    "How... how was it? I mean... the performance?"

    He paused, then added, "I told you you'd be fantastic."

    "It wasn't as bad as I thought it might be. But I can't help but second guess everything, now that it's over..."

    He reached his hand out and Ezra looked down, smiling faintly, before taking the outstretched appendage.

    He held her hand in both of his and leaned down slightly. "You have to stop being so hard on yourself. Everyone tells you you're wonderful, you need to start believing us. Not everyone could do that act."

    Looking down, the smile fell and she shrugged, "I... I've never been great with confidence. You get shot down enough, I guess it takes a toll..."

    "I understand... just try and take our words to heart more."

    "People aren't always honest, Abe." Frowning softly, she looked back up at him, shaking her head, "Sorry. I... I'm sorry. I... I didn't mean... Old habits die hard, I guess."

    "... no trouble, Ezra."

    "No. It's not right. You've been nothing but nice to me and I shouldn't be projecting on you like that. It's just hard, accepting someone can be genuine, when you're used to... well, the opposite."

    "I understand, really. We've all been through a lot, it's hard not misplacing some of those feelings. Don't worry about it."

    "You'd think after all this time, I'd get over it, but..." Sighing softly, she shook her head, again, "Eh. Never mind. No need dragging down the night even more..."

    "If you feel like talking about it on a... less eventful day, you let me know."

    "...Oh, Abe, sweetie. You don't want to hear my sob story."

    "I want you to feel your best, and if that means listening to you vent then yes, I do."

    Smiling, she looped her arm through his, leaning her head on his bicep, "Thanks, Abe. Hey, if anything... it's a hell of a lesson in judgment..."

    "Ooh, boy..."

    Chuckling softly, she shrugged, "Not my judgment. Trust me... I wouldn't have made the choices, if I'd had the option. My parents... they're very old fashioned. And when I was younger, they weren't big on me making my own decisions."

    "I empathize," he said a little absently. "It's a wonder they ever let me leave the house, what with my condition."

    "I wish it had been concern for me... Unfortunately, it was more or less concern for their... investments."

    He shifted his arm around her. "Ah, like that..."

    "...Like that." Staring straight ahead, she chewed on her lip, quiet for a moment, "...Back in town, this morning... I... I thought I'd seen someone, from back home. Someone I haven't seen in a long while. Someone I hoped I'd never see again."

    "I kind of got that impression... Have you seen them again?"

    "I haven't... no. I'm not even sure if it was them. But a friend of mine wrote to tell me they were in the area. It... it's not good news. Not remotely good news."

    "... Do we need to inform Jacob?"

    Lowering her gaze, she shook her head, "...He doesn't know. No one does. I... I wasn't entirely honest, when I applied for the assistant position."

    "What do you mean?"

    Releasing him, she stepped away, rubbing her arms with her hands, "...I'm not exactly who I said I was."

    "... what? ... what kind of trouble are you in?"

    "...That man I thought I saw. He's... he's my husband."

    Abe was silent for a long second. "Oh... oh. I understand. We can protect you, Ezra, but you need to tell Jacob everything."

    "No..." Turning quickly, she faced him, shaking her head, "No, Abe. You... you cannot tell him. You... you don't understand. It... it's much worse than you think. If Jacob knew... if any of you knew..."

    He sighed. "I'm not going to tell anyone you don't want to know but... if it is the person you think it is, and that person is dangerous, the whole family is at risk. I strongly advise at least Jacob and Rocco be told, if not myself."

    "He's was supposed to be... I thought he was..." Biting her lip she shifted, "When I left, I thought he was dead, Abe."

    "... Did you... Did something happen?"

    "Yeah, Abe." Lips pursed, tight, eyes shifting to the side she shrugged, "I shot the son of a !@#$%^&*."

    Abe blanched despite his suspicions. "... I... I'm sorry."

    "I didn't mean to. But I'm not sorry it happened. I just... I never expected to see him again. And if he tracked me down..." Frowning, she turned away.

    "... Well, regardless of whatever may have happened, you are family. If he wants at you, he'll have to go through all of us."

    "That's what scares me, Abe. He will... I'm sorry.... I... I shouldn't have told you. I shouldn't have gotten you involved."

    "I've been involved for a while, now I just know what it is exactly that I'm involved in. It's okay."

    "Hey..." She said, quietly, "Maybe I'll get lucky and find out it wasn't even him."

    "... Maybe."

    "Don't sound so positive, there, Abraham..."

    "Ah, sorry. I just..."

    Abe's words were interrupted by a suddenl explosion and Ezra jumped with a small yelp, bolting close to Abe's side. Following the sound, the first of the fireworks began, painting the sky with color and light, before shimmering into obsidian again.

    Burrowing her head into his chest she laughed, weakly, "...Magnificent timing."

    Abe jumped as well but immediately saw the fireworks as they shot up in the direction he was facing. He laughed too, setting his hand on her back. "Naturally..."

    Looking up at him, Ezra smiling faintly. She made no attempts to move away, leaning back against that powerful, strong hand, "...I forget sometimes how tall you are..."

    He didn't seem to mind. "Mhm, so do I... then I bump my head on the roof."

    Laughing softly, she shook her head, "I can't imagine your wagon's too comfortable for you..."

    "It's not so bad... Jacob did a good job of altering the usual design. Less storage space, completely worth it."

    "You'll have to invite me in sometime, so I can see..."

    "You're always welcome, you know that."

    "...So, give me a tour. After the fireworks."

    "... I'd love to."

    "Good." Releasing him, she nodded, then turned around to face the show, smiling faintly. Abe suddenly felt a little flushed.

    They hadn't the budget for the extravagant hour long firework shows one might see in the city, but it wasn't half bad. The crowd seemed to have forgotten the incident inside the Big Top and as the show closed out with the spectacular ending, even Ezra found herself smiling. Watching the last of the color fade, she sighed, rubbing a slight crick in her neck, "Incredible..."

    Abe seemed happy as the fireworks reflected off his glasses. He, for a moment, forgot the troubles of the circus and simply enjoyed something. "Absolutely."

    "Jacob's really outdone himself. I think this could help bring in a bigger crowd." Turning round to face Abe, she smiled, gently, "Which we definitely could use..."

    "You can say that again. I'm sure he's pretty proud of himself - he and Rocco learned from last year's mistakes well."

    "Well, that was definitely a success..."

    "Mm... so, you'd like a tour?"

    Lips quirked upwards, she nodded, "...If you're up for it..."

    "I think I can manage..."

    "Then let's go..." She offered, taking his arm again. He nodded amiably and began walking towards his wagon.

    Taking her glass, freshly filled, Anna stepped out of Dutch's wagon and back into the field. The fireworks would begin soon, and as promised, she would enjoy the spectacle with the Frenchman, but somehow, after the accident in the tent she wasn't as excited as she had been earlier that day. Not that the company was unwanted, and the fireworks certainly carried with them the promise of a thrill - but somehow the anticipation was filled more with nerves than enthrallment, her mind still revolving over the incident... seeing it repeated time and time again...

    Still, a deal was a deal and if truth be told, she wasn't sure she wanted to be alone anyway. Waiting for Dutch she smiled at the tattooed figure and gestured him ahead of her, "Find us some good seats...?"

    Dutch started out of the wagon then paused and turned around, disappearing inside again for a moment to then reemerge carrying a blanket. He held up the forearm it was draped over. "Zis will be good to sit on, yes? Perhaps we can find a place not too close to the crowd."

    Anna nodded, with a small chuckle, "Sounds good... Lead the way."

    He bowed his head, obliging. He spotted a place adjacent to the crowd - a level, grassy field. He beelined for it. Anna followed along and once Dutch had laid out the blanket, took a seat, "Well spotted, Dutch. Great view..."

    He sat down beside her and leaned back on his arms. "I have an eye for zese zings," he said with a wink.

    "Hmm. I'm sure you do." Laughing softly, Anna leaned back as well, staring up into the darkening sky, "So while we're waiting... teach me something in French."

    He inhaled thoughtfully then said, "je aime les feux d'artifice! I love fireworks."

    More laughter rang out and she shook her head, "Woah! Slow down... What was that first part...?"

    He laughed, his head tilting back slightly to rest on his shoulder. "Je aime... les fuex... d'artifice. I... love... fireworks!"

    "...Jet...ahme..." Frowning, she straightened up onto her knees, "Oh, that was awful. Say just the first two... slowly?"

    "No, that was great!" He leaned forward and crossed his legs. "Jeh... ahmi..."

    "Jet... Augh. Jeh... ahmi...?"

    "Yes!" He clapped, "okay, je aime... leh fow dartifice."

    "Jeh ahmi... la... fowl... darty-face... Ugh." Rubbing her hands over her face she chuckled again, "I'm sorry. I'm butchering your beautiful language..."

    He laughed, "No, I am honored! One more time, huh? Leh... fow... dart-ee-feece."

    "Oh, you're just saying that because you're sweet." Sitting back, she nodded, "Jeh ahmi... Leh... leh fow"

    "No! Okay, je aime le foux d'artifice?"

    "Je... aime le foux... d...artifice?" Straightening up, she clapped her hands together before throwing her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly, "AH! I got it! Ha! Yes!"

    "Haha!" He returned the hug, hands on their best behavior. "I told you you could do it!"

    "You..." She said, leaning back with a smile, "Are a great teacher, Dutch! This should be fun..."

    "Oh, I agree! Of course I am great, was zere any question?!"

    "Oh... and so very humble, too. It's incredible..."

    "I know! Je suis étonnant! And always right, remember this!"

    "I'll try to keep that in mind." Winking, she sat back again, "They should be starting any minute, now..."

    "Hm, I zink we have time for one more phrase. Je vous aime bien."

    "...Je... vu... aime ben?"

    "Quick kitten."

    "...And what does that one mean?"

    "It means... I like you."

    "...Oh..." Smiling faintly, Anna lowered her gaze, her cheeks flushed, even in the darkness, "...That could come in handy, at some point, I suppose..."

    He smirked as the first firework whistled into the sky and crackled. He bumped his head gently against hers. "Why not now, hm? Under the light of the moon and the fireworks? When else, if not on a night fit for Paris?"

    "Hmm..." Biting her lip, she watched the sky, before her lip curved in a smirk, "...Maybe, Dutch... maybe."

    "I am accepting of maybes..."

    "What is maybe... in French?"

    "Oui..." he said playfully then corrected, "peut être, 'maybe'."

    She chuckled, giving him a nudge at the joke, before nodding, "So... Je vous aime bien... peut etre...?"

    He grinned, "very good! Peut-être que je aime vous aussi..."

    "...What does that mean...?

    "Maybe I like you too..."

    "Ah..." Leaning her head against his shoulder, she smiled, her eyes fixed on the colors, bouncing across the sky in brilliant shimmering light, "...I think I'm going to enjoy French lessons..."

    He nodded, leaning his head on hers. "As do I..."

    She fell quiet as the show continued, and only when the fireworks ceased did she moved from her place on his shoulder, straightening upright with a soft, gentle sigh, "...That was beautiful."

    He shrugged, "zere is a more beautiful zing beside me, zey pale in comparison!"

    "...Dutch. You..." Chuckling, she shook her head, "If you don't stop being so charming, I'm gonna think you really are a gentleman..."

    "What?! Who says I am not?!"

    "...There are rumors you're quite the playboy."

    "What is zis 'playboy'?"

    "...That it is infrequent that you sleep alone, Dutch."

    "How does zis make me not a gentleman?"

    "I guess they're not complete opposites. I've just always imagined that gentlemen tend towards more monogamous relationships. Particularly in the area of ... bedding."

    "An idea had by jealous men!" He said, obviously believing his own words. "Zese men are, ah, boring. What is more gentlemanly than pleasing women in all aspects?"

    "...Some women don't like to share..."

    He was quiet, thinking, then sighed, "zese American customs are so hard to understand sometimes. In Paris, everyone sleeps with everyone! Just because a person has more than one lover does not mean his heart cannot belong to one."

    "...Hmm. Too bad I'm not French." Sighing softly, she straightened, rising to her feet, "...I should probably head in. I've got early rehearsal tomorrow. This was... this was surprisingly fun. Thank you."

    He looked dejected and stood quickly. "Wait, what does zis mean?"

    "...What does what mean...?"

    "You do not zink I can love someone if I have many lovers?"

    "Honestly...I don't know, Dutch. I've never been in that position, so I couldn't say it's impossible. But I know that I can't... I can't love someone, knowing they're giving themselves to someone else." Smiling wearily, she shrugged, "...That's just not something I could do."

    He searched her for more answers but, finding nothing, looked down at his shoes. "I'm sorry, I sincerely... do not understand."

    "...To me... when I give that part of myself to someone, it... it has to mean something. That meaning... gets tarnished, if I know I'm not the only person that someone is with. It stops being special when you're just another notch in a bedpost. Even... even if it's sincere, making love to so many people, it sullies the meaning. I don't think I could be with someone if I knew they weren't willing to reserve that part of themselves for only me."

    He furrowed his brows, genuine confusion in his expression. "Oh... okay..."

    "It's okay. I know it's hard to understand. Don't lose sleep over it. Walk me to my wagon?"

    "Ah, yes," he looked around to gain his bearings then stepped off the blanket and picked it up.

    Frowning softly, Anna waited as he gathered the blanket, then started towards her wagon, "I really did have fun, tonight. Thanks. I needed the distraction."

    "It was my pleasure, if only for the leaps and bounds of progress in your French," he gave her a smile though his expression was still a little heavy.

    "Oh, yes. And I'm sure those phrases will be quite useful."

    "I am hopeful zey will be!"

    Arriving at her wagon she paused by the stairs, hesitant, "So... I guess I'll see you tomorrow?"

    "You are sure you do not want to continue ze lessons?"

    "Ah. Well... I guess I could put on a pot of tea..." smiling, she gestured to the door, "Come on in..."

    The weight immediately shook from his form and he climbed the stairs into the wagon. "Tea, yes!"

    "Fair enough..." Laughing softly, she opened the door and stepped inside.

    Abe's wagon was, as he'd suggested, reasonably larger than the others. It was about the same height but instead of being on wheels the floor rested flat on the ground underneath it - making it look like a really small house. It was a little longer and broader than the others. Inside lacked the usual accoutrements, most of the space taken up by a double bed on a reinforced frame. It was painted in warm colors.

    Stepping inside, Ezra looked around with a gentle smile, taking in the differences with a curious expression, "It's nice... Homey. And bright."

    He ducked under the doorway and took the single step necessary to sit on the bed. His head was still fairly close to the ceiling but he had a little room to breathe and seemed comfortable. "Mm, dark colors really affect me - makes me gloomy."

    Chuckling, Ezra shook her head, "I can't imagine you ever gloomy, Abe. So... Give us a tour, then?"

    He smiled, glad for her observation. "Well, there's not much... There's a picture of my parents," he said, gesturing to a photo on a dresser that was in place most other wagons have a table. "And my sister - all 5 foot 4 of her," he chuckled.

    Moving to the picture she studied it, her smile soft and warm, "They're lovely... Do you see them, often?"

    He shook his head and closed his eyes thoughtfully, "not as often as they'd like, I imagine. They live down in Illinois so the trek is a little laborious sometimes. My mother and sister write me often, though."

    "That's sweet. I... I haven't heard from my family since I left." Her smile fell and she continued to stare at the picture, albeit absently, "...I'm not sure I mind."

    "... I understand." He watched her for a moment the said, "my mother gave me that tea kettle - unfortunately I have no where to use it." He pointed out the absence of a stove.

    Looking over her shoulder, Ezra nodded, "And I've got a stove and no tea kettle. Match made in heaven."

    He smiled, "what do you know about that."

    "Now... we just need tea."

    "I believe young Annabel is a fan of tea - perhaps we can convince her to share sometime."

    "Ah. Good call, yes." Chuckling softly, she sank down on the edge of the bed, "...I... I don't think I thanked you, yet. For listening to my sob story..."

    "Oh, there is no need to thank me..."

    "No, there really is. It's been four years since I've told anyone even that much. It helps..."

    He nodded, "I'm glad, then."

    "You're a good man, Abe. Better than most..."

    "I suppose..." He mused.

    "For someone so big, you have an awfully small image of yourself..."

    "Hm? Do I?"

    "That's the second time I've complimented you, where you sounded surprised."

    "I just, hm... Don't receive compliments that often, that's all."

    Smiling gently, she shook her head, "Well, get used to it, because I think you're pretty incredible."

    He laughed, "incredible! A word I've only heard used in my regard in a stage name."

    "You are... You have been an amazing friend. And with everything going on, right now? I'm not sure I'd be in a very good place without you..."

    His laugh ended and he became a little serious, though a smile still hid at the corners of his mouth. "Ezra, I am surprised by compliments as often as you thank me for being your friend. You are... Despite whatever happened in the past... A wonderful woman. The circus wouldn't be the same without you and it truly is my pleasure to listen and council if it means you'll stick around. It's quite the honor, in fact."

    There were no words, really. She wasn't one to sell herself short, but she certainly hadn't anticipated his warmth and kindness - particularly after everything she had told him. She wasn't accustomed to being treated with anything akin to respect... and it was a little overwhelming. Rising, she moved the few feet to where he stood and wrapped her arms around his waist, hugging him tightly.

    He raised his brows, his smile broadening, and he wrapped his long, heavy arms lightly around her.

    She held onto him for a long, quiet moment, and when she pulled away there were tears in her eyes as she looked up into his face, "...You don't know what that means to me... what you said..."

    He felt a stirring in his chest, though he did not know what it was. "I am simply being honest."

    "It's been a long time since someone said anything so nice to me."

    "That's preposterous! You deserve to hear it every day."

    Brushing her eyes dry, she shook her head, "...I'm afraid my aforementioned spouse didn't share your enthusiasm for compliments."

    He sighed softly.

    "There wasn't much, really that he was enthusiastic for... Nothing pleasant, anyway."

    "How terrible..."

    "...He burned me with an iron once... because he thought I'd over-starched his shirt." Chuckling dryly, she shrugged, "Turned out it was one he had taken to the tailor for pressing... He neglected to apologize." Picking at a fingernail, she frowned, looking down at the floor, "...I'm scared, Abe. If he's here..."

    He looked horrified then quickly shook the expression. "... We have a lot of people here, Ezra. It will be impossible for him to get close if we all know what he looks like."

    Nodding, she shifted, looking back up at him, "...I guess so. I just... I'm not sure I know how to tell them..."

    "Just talk to Jacob, I know he'll handle everything the way it should be handled."

    "...That's what I'm afraid of, Abe. I... I could go to prison for what I did..."

    "You cannot go to prison if there are no police involved. I know Jacob won't bring the law into this place."

    "It's hard... trusting. I never... I never realized."

    "This is just what families do."

    "Not my family."

    "This is your family."

    Smiling weakly, she shook her head, "...If you weren't so damned tall, Abe, I'd kiss you for that."

    He laughed softly, "thank you regardless."

    "Of course," She started, looking over at him, "I could just stand..."

    He bumped his glasses with his knuckle. "I suppose you could..."

    With a smirk, she stood upright before leaning forward to press a gentle kiss on his cheek.

    His cheek was warm against her lips, body naturally hotter than most. He responded with a satisfied smile.

    She pulled away a fraction, meeting his eyes behind the glasses, her own smile warm as his cheek had been, "...I don't get to see them, often... Your eyes. I like this angle."

    "Ah," he said, carefully removing his glasses, "how's this?"

    "Hmm..." Resting her fingers beneath his chin, she tilted his face up, nodding, "...Not half bad, Abe... Not half bad."

    "I've seen better," he said slyly.

    "I haven't..." She said, with an equally sly smirk.

    He chuckled, "I find that hard to believe!"

    Feigning a frown, she put her hands on her hips, standing in front of him, "...Are you calling me a liar, Abraham?"

    He looked surprised by the use of his full name. "I was! Now I'm afraid to."

    "Good. That's a healthy fear..."

    "I believe it is," he said, amused. "I've also, unrelated, decided to ask for that cane. Catching up with Rocco was far more taxing than it could have been."

    "Excellent. I'll feel better dragging you down to that cafe, now..."

    "I stand by my opinion of 'worth it'."

    "...Am I, though?" She asked, her voice rather suddenly serious.

    "Of course!" He said with equal seriousness in voice and expression.

    "...I'll have to take your word for it."

    "What else can I do to convince you?"

    "...You have a way of turning back time?"

    "Ha! If only I did..."

    "Then I'm at a loss. I'm open to ideas, though, if you've got them."

    He shrugged, "I'm not much of an idea man..."

    Chuckling, she dropped back down beside him, "I've been trying to figure out what kind of man you are for a while now..."

    "Oh? What do you mean?" He noticed he was still holding his glasses, folded them and slipped them over the edge of his shirt.

    "You're not exactly an easy book to read, Abe. Not that I can say exactly anything, I'm sure..."

    "Difficult to read?" He said with a measure of incredulity. "What makes you say that? I mean... I know I don't talk about myself much and I suppose I do spend a lot of time alone, but..."

    "It's hard to know what you're thinking... what you're feeling. You wear things close to the chest. Nothing wrong with that. I do, too... It's just... not exactly obvious."

    "I just feel like... there's not really a reason to yap at everyone. Some people live to talk but that doesn't mean everyone wants to listen. I think I just got used to the idea that being quiet is sort of a courtesy. Why bother spilling your guts to people who don't want to listen? No one but myself needs to be responsible for my feelings."

    Smiling faintly, Ezra nodded, "...Makes sense. Except, well... I like listening to you."

    "Maybe as much as I enjoy listening to you?"

    "See?... Like that. You say things like that and... and everything is just a little less horrible."

    He laughed, "you make it seem like it takes so much effort. I'm just maintaining a sense of honesty."

    "Well, honestly, Abe... It means a lot to me. You can imagine, I'm sure... I'm not used to it."

    He smiled, "I know... watch, in no time you'll come to expect it."

    "You spoil me, I might get used to it..."

    "Mhm, like I've said - you should. You deserve it."

    Biting her lip, she looked over at him, "...I'm not so sure I do. There... there's still a lot you don't know about me, Abe. A lot I haven't told you."

    "There are very few things you could say to me that would make me think differently of you."

    "...And how's that, Abe? How you think of me...?"

    "I think you're a beautiful, capable woman who tries very hard to do right and get by. You're determined, modest, kind-hearted..."

    She stared as he went on, shaking her head at each new compliment, her eyes once against brimming with tears, her gaze lowering, "Abe... I..."

    "Need I go on?"

    "... You couldn't have more...?"

    "Oh, sure," he said, waving a hand, "you're considerate, caring, hard-working..."

    Though a tear trailed her cheek, she smiled in spite of it, chuckling softly, "...Don't stop..."

    "Empathetic, friendly, sweet..." he continued.

    "Okay, okay..." She laughed, resting her hand on his arm, "You can stop, now. Seriously, Abe. I don't deserve it..."

    "Elegant, graceful..." he said with a smirk.

    Making a face, she straightened up, pulling her knees under her, "Oh, now you're just teasing!"

    "Don't you imply I'm dishonest!"

    "No one is /that/ wonderful, Abe..."

    "Nonsense! One such a person is sitting right before my eyes."

    "I can't..." Biting her lip, she shook her head, "I can't understand why you're always so kind to me, Abe..."

    "I've never had reason not to be."

    "Ah..." Chuckling, she sat back, a brow quirked, "So then you're this nice to everyone?"

    "I-... I'm not answering that," he said, laughing.

    "And why not, Mister Ebenezer?"

    "It's obviously a trap! If I say no then I sound like I'm a jerk - if I say yes I risk lessening the impact of my compliments!"

    Laughing, she nudged him, "I'm not that special, anyway..."


    "No... but I wish you would. You'll put me on a pedestal, Abe and I'm only going to disappoint you."

    "Ah," he waved his hand. "You'd be surprised how difficult I am to disappoint."

    "...Hmm... Oddly enough, Abe... you're also one of a very short list o people I really worry about disappointing."

    "Lucky you, then!"

    "I'm not going to convince you, am I...?"

    "Nope, sorry," he said stubbornly.

    "Good..." Lowering her gaze, Ezra smiled gently, "...Maybe that's what I need."

    "I suppose we'll find out."

    The smile faded a little and she picked at her nail, "...I need to tell you something."


    "Erzabet... It's... it's not my name."

    "Hm, what is it?"

    "Holly. I figured, when I left, I should probably change it... just on the odd chance I ran into someone I used to know... But it... it feels like a lie. And I don't wanna lie to you."

    He nodded and pulled his glasses from his collar to put them back on. "Then in private, at least for now, you are Holly. It's just as lovely, if you ask me."

    Looking up, she smiled at him again, before shifting forward to wrap her arms around his waist once more, "...Thank you."

    "Of course," he said warmly, returning the hug.

    Leaning back, but only a fraction, she looked up at him, "...It's late. I should probably go..."

    "... I wouldn't mind if you stayed... I mean, its a matter of safety, right? Tomorrow we can talk Rocco into moving your wagon closer to the rest of us but until then..."

    Blinking, she leaned back, her smile safe... guarded, "...Here? With... with you?"

    "Don't feel obligated!" He said quickly. "Er, I mean, you should spend the night with someone, even if that someone isn't me. You are welcome to share my wagon, though... If it pleases you."

    "Abe..." She said, the smile growing, "Are you asking me to spend the night with you?"

    "Innocently, yes!" He said, knuckling the frame of his glasses.

    "Oh. Well... That's disappointing."

    He immediately flushed, "I-I, uh... I'm not... /excluding/ anything, just... Ah..."

    "...Abraham Ebenezer... what are you saying?"

    Straightening up onto her knees, she reached for his hands, pulling them away from his face, "...Where's that world famous honesty?"

    They moved with no resistance and he gave a sheepish smile, "I just don't want you to think that was all some convoluted plot to seduce you."

    Her lip twitched upwards, "...No? Because I've been trying all night to seduce you."

    "Oh! Thank God," he laughed, "I thought it was just wishful thinking!"

    Her own laughter mirrored his and she shook her head, "Abe... I was starting to think you looked at me as a sister!"

    "I'm... Not gifted at sending off the proper signals..."

    "But you are wonderful..." Gently, she cupped his cheeks with her hands, "So very wonderful..."

    He smiled, kind as ever, and encased her with his lanky limbs. He hesitated, then tilted his head slightly and kissed her. Without apprehension, her arms slipped round his shoulders.

    Dutch appeared to be relieved that he had not entirely ruined his chances and promptly sat on one of the two chairs.

    Anna reached for the teapot, filling it with water, before setting it on the stove. After stoking the coals she took the seat beside him, smiling faintly, "...Shouldn't be long."

    "I am in no rush!" He said good naturedly.

    "Good... because I'm quite enjoying the company. Now... I believe there was mention of another French lesson?"

    "Ah, yes! Why don't you give me a phrase you would like to learn?"

    "Hmm... How about... 'Would you like some tea?'"

    " Voulez-vous du thé!" He said slowly but confidently.

    "...Voo-lay... voo... du the?"

    "Yes! A natural!" Dutch said proudly.

    "Oh! Great!" She smiled, leaning back in her chair, "Okay... Your turn!"

    "Vous êtes très beau!"

    Listening carefully, she repeated it, with a sheepish grin, "What did I just say?"

    He grinned, "'you are very handsome' - and I graciously accept ze compliment!"

    "Ah! No fair, cheating!" She laughed, anyways, shaking her head, "Not that it's not true. How do you say, 'You're trouble?'"

    He laughed. "Vous êtes mal à, though I disagree!"

    "Vous êtes mal à... Fitting, I'd say." She gave him a sly wink, before continuing, "Next?"

    "You go too quickly! At this rate we will be done by tomorrow!"

    "Oh, don't be silly... There's tons of words out there."

    "Hm... Je suis très belle."

    "...Je swee trey belle?"

    "It means 'I am very beautiful'! In case you meet someone blind, yes?"

    "Ah ha... Clever. Very clever. Thank you." Blushing softly, she wrinkled her nose, making a constellation with the freckles painting over the delicate feature, "...Or... was it Merci?"

    He nodded, admiring her features as he said, "oui, Merci." He glanced at the tea kettle then stood up, "would you mind joining me for a cigarette?"

    "Oh... those things." She chuckled softly, "I'll join you... while you have one, but I think I've officially dropped the habit."

    "I am glad to hear zis!" He said with a smirk, stepping out into the night again. He stood at the bottom of her steps and extracted a cigarette and lighter from his pocket. "Zis is a pleasant night, wouldn't you say?" He lit the tobacco.

    Following him, she took a seat on the top step, "It's lovely, all things considered. I mean, with how it began..."

    "Yes - unfortunate still, but not all bad, I zink." He stowed his lighter. "So, ah... If I were not a... Playboy," said with some disdain for the word, "would I have a chance wiz you?"

    Frowning softly, she straightened, running her hands through her hair, "...I never said you didn't. Just... not ... not with how things are, right now."

    "I do not understand," he said, frowning back.

    "...Dutch... I like you. I do. I just... I'm not that kind of girl."

    "I do not understand zis eizer..." he said sadly and took a long drag of his cigarette. "I mean to say, I understand but I... je suis à une perte." He looked down a little at her, "if I do not sleep wiz ozer people, you will sleep with me?"

    "...If I got to know you. If... if I developed strong feelings for you... Very strong feelings. Maybe?" Biting her lip, she shrugged, "I'm old fashioned. And I would need to know that it wasn't just a... a conquest. That I genuinely meant something to you, too. Not... not because you like me or think that's I'm pretty. These things, to me... They're supposed to take time."

    He furrowed his brows and started to say something but puffed on his cigarette instead. Some ash drifted to his feet. "... I really do like you, it is as I said," he began eventually. "And I have never been in such a place wiz anozer woman. Most are not in my life for more zan a few days, you understand?"

    "I do... That's a big part of it, too. It scares me, Dutch... the idea of being with someone and things going bad. I love this job... I love these people. I look and I see Rocco and Marianna... I hear people talk. I don't want that. I would have to be so sure, before I even considered it, that it was worth getting into something like that..."

    He sighed, frustrated, and said nothing.

    Behind her, the kettle squealed and Anna rose, moving back inside to attend to the cups. She returned a minute later, holding one out to him, "...I never said I wasn't willing to give you a chance, Dutch. But yes... I would expect you to rein it in. And I don't know how willing you would be to do that..."

    He had put out his cigarette by the time she'd returned, taking the warm cup with both hands. "Merci... to tell you the truth?" He shook his head, "I have liked many people, but I feel somezing else I do not know if I have felt before." He looked at her. "I am, as I'm sure you know, not very well liked here. I zink you are ze only woman actively willing to talk to me and zat is not somezing I take for granted."

    She smiled gently, cradling her own cup, letting the steam warm her, "People like you, Dutch. You just don't have to try so hard. And you definitely don't need to try so hard with me. I think before I can be anything more... I need to know that I can be your friend. Just your friend. And it wouldn't hurt to feel pursued for more than just... the end of the night. Dinner, maybe... No expectations. Just... a nice evening together."

    He held an expression of mild disbelief but smiled at the dinner suggestion. "I can do dinner! Somezing French, perhaps --" He twitched his brows, "Ah, zat was not a joke. I can cook only a few zings, but I am very good at zem!"

    "That sounds wonderful, Dutch. Really. I would like that... a quiet dinner - just you and I... and no expectations?"

    He nodded sharply, "no expectations." He paused. "... I am... a little hurt zat you zink I would not be interested in you after ze /deed/ is done. I think you misunderstand me, but I don't zink I am capable enough wiz English to explain to you."

    "I think... in your own way, you are more than capable of caring about all of your... lovers, as you called them. But for me, that's a strong word, love. It's unconditional. It's... binding. And I need more than interest... I need... well... I need commitment. But for now, I just need to know you can make me dinner without wanting anything else."

    He looked at the ground, sipping his tea thoughtfully. "I guess I can do nozing else, zen! Dinner it is."

    "Tomorrow night...?"

    "Zat would be perfect," he said, balancing the cup in one hand as he withdrew another cigarette.

    "...I'm looking forward to it." Taking a sip of her own tea, she smiled over the rim of the cup, "I want this to work, Dutch. Just so you know."

    "Mum! Forgive me for disbelieving you," he said with a raised brow.

    "...Hmm." Frowning softly, she shook her head, "...I suppose I deserve that."

    "I don't mean bad by it, its just... Not somezing I am used to."

    "I can't imagine. But I'm not out to make your life complicated, Dutch. We'll start with dinner and take it on day at a time."

    "I know," he said with a nod and a sip of tea.

    "Or... we can make things extremely awkward, for no real reason?"

    He looked a little alarmed. "Zis is not awkward! We are coming to an understanding!"

    She laughed softly, winking, "...How do you say 'I'm just teasing you' in French?"

    "Je suis taquin," he answered with narrowed eyes and a smirk.

    Grinning, she repeated the phrase from behind the rim of her tea cup.

    "Mhm... And you call me trouble." He said thoughtfully then tossed his cigarette. "Well then," he said before finishing his tea and handing her the cup. "I have a dinner to plan, if you'll excuse me."

    "Ah. But I never said I wasn't trouble, too." Taking the cup, she smiled, nodding, "Hmm... Sure thing, Dutch. Looking forward to it."

    He gave a farewell wink and started off towards his wagon, withdrawing another cigarette on the way.

    Rocco enjoyed the silence for a few minutes, both contented and concerned by the warmth he felt inside. Eventually their cuddling was interrupted by the first whistle of the fireworks and Rocco sat up slightly, regrettably startled at first before remembering the scheduled display. "Ah, !@#$%^&*..."

    Mari straightened as well, allowing Rocco freedom, "...Fireworks started?"

    "Seems like it... I guess they couldn't wait any longer," he mumbled.

    "If... if you want to go see them... you can."

    He scoffed and said simply, "you're crazy."

    "You're gonna miss out... Besides, you can't sit here all night, Rock. That's silly. I'm fine."

    Rocco shrugged, "there are more important things than fireworks. I just wish you could enjoy them."

    "I'm just enjoying five minutes of being with you without fighting... or someone interrupting..."

    He resisted a smile, instead giving a smirk. "You make a good point." He leaned back again, offering her space under his hefty arm. "Let's enjoy it together, then."

    Leaning back, Mari sighed, softly, "...So tell me the truth. All of it... about what happened three years ago. Was Aldo really the only reason you ended things...?"

    "Of course... We were - well, everyone thought we were - inseparable. You bet I had a !@#$%^&* good reason."

    "....But why... why didn't you just tell me? Why not tell me the truth, Rocco? I... I have spent so much time trying to figure out what I did wrong... We could have... we could have figured something else out, couldn't we?"

    "It's like I said, it was the only thing I could think to do without gettin' in the way of family. How was I supposed to know you'd leave?"

    "I would've left with you, if you'd given the chance... Do you honestly think... that this place, any of it meant more to me than you?"

    "I didn't say the choice I made was the right one, I'm just telling you why I made it in the first place."

    "...And if you could make it all over again?"

    "I'm learnin' honesty is the best policy..."

    "Good... because I have no intentions of letting you walk away this time, unless it's really your decision."

    He took a long, slow breath then released it slowly. "You plannin' on gettin' rid of Aldo, then?"

    "Aldo doesn't get to dictate who I see. I'll be sure he knows it."

    "I don't think he'll agree with you."

    Sighing, she sat upright, turning to face him, "You act like he's some horrible monster. He's my brother, Rocco."

    He gave her a weird look then stared down at his hands. "Mm..."

    "Hey", she said, frowning, "I thought we were working under the whole honesty is the best policy deal..."

    "We are - that's exactly why I'm treatin' him the way I am. You want me to pretend he's somethin' else, I will."

    "I want you to talk to me, Rock. Tell me what you're thinking..."

    "You already know. I think Aldo is a lyin', sneaky, crazy !@#$%^&*. He's dangerous, Marianna."

    "To me...?"

    "Of course to you - to everyone."

    "It's so hard to see it... He's never been exactly kind, but dangerous?"

    Rocco stared at her for a long moment. "He /dropped/ you onto an improperly rigged net. I think 'dangerous' is letting him off easy."

    "...That doesn't change the fact that he is family..."

    He sighed, "I know."

    "How do I reconcile it, Rocco? How can I accept it??"

    "I wish I had an answer for you..."

    "So do I..." Smiling dryly, she leaned back against him, "What a mess."

    "Yup..." He lamented. He carefully pulled her against his side. "We'll figure it out."

    "Meanwhile... what happens with us?"

    "Ahh... The question on everyone's minds."

    "... what I do know is that if you're here, I have to be with you."

    "Have to? That's a funny way to put it?"

    He looked down at her. "It is? There's no way I could see your face or hear your laugh and not be right next to you, I know it for a fact."

    Turning towards him, she smirked, "So you missed me a bit, then?"

    "You could say that."

    "Good... I'd hate to think I'm the only one."

    • Love Love x 1
  2. 1. Rocco Maggliocco


    She was back.

    Finally, the women Rocco loved was truly back, and in color as vivid as ever despite her fresh injury. Unbelievable, Rocco thought to himself as he held Marianna in his huge arms once again. So many nights he'd spent wishing for exactly this, and suddenly his wish had come true. He felt strange, though - certain, yet uncertain, infatuated yet fearful. He wanted to melt into her and forget the last three years, but the threat of Aldo kept him anchored in the bay. She had handled things differently than Rocco had anticipated and it left him in a place of indecision. She had chosen him, the Strongman of meager means, over her own blood, an action that would surly have serious consequences... unless Rocco did something about it first. His promise of nonviolence had already been broken... yet the thought of striking Aldo again left his stomach sour. Maybe violence doesn't have to be the answer.

    Then again, maybe it does.


    2. Dutch Pendergast

    Dutch, often referred to as a shameless pervert, suddenly realized he was in terribly unfamiliar terrain. Amour. Ceci est une enigme, indeed. Though he would never admit it to himself, Dutch knew something about his interactions with the modest Miss Anabel Tupper were different than those he usually had with both men and women. He felt... invested, perhaps, and it wasn't because he couldn't have her. It was her smile, her dimples, her voice, her skill in the ring - it was everything. Dutch, as he walked and smoked his way back to his trailer, tried in vain to place his feelings and, unfortunately, ended up just shy of a revelation and instead chalked it up to her particularly good looks having some sort of bewitching effect on him. He, to his mild surprise, couldn't contain his excitement regarding having a private dinner with the woman he'd been pursuing for so long and, when he did finally arrive at his tent, was shocked to realize he hadn't even thought to make the rounds and try to sweep someone into his bed. He stood at his door for a long few minutes, puzzled, before turning away from his trailer and towards the campgrounds. Maybe he could give the monogamy thing a try, he supposed as he snuffed out his cigarette, but deep down he longed to roam the grounds in search of a mate for the evening. He sighed and, more out of dejection than anything else, went to sleep.

    3. Jacob

    It had been an exceptionally long day at the Hullabaloo, especially for Jacob Thornbush and some of his closest friends. The Ringleader almost couldn't believe it when damage control was done and he was finally able to rest his head beside Lily's in the wee hours of the morning of the 5th. He knew the sun would bring more talks with the Tessitores but for the moment he tried not to think of it. Instead, he held his love in his arms, took in the sweet, floral scent of her hair, and, eventually, slept.

    Though he had fallen asleep peacefully, Jacob found himself in a nightmare that consisted of a dark, threatening version of the circus and ended in the Italians leaving the Hullabaloo to crumble and fall apart without them. Jacob awoke with a start, but not because of his ominous dream that left him feeling tingly and aggitated. Someone had knocked at the door.


    4. Abraham Ebenezer

    Abe awoke from a deep slumber as the sun cut through a window near his bed and shone brightly in his eyes. He stirred enough to tug the curtain closed to spare Holly but stayed where he was, with Holly wrapped around his torso, asleep. He didn't know how early it was, and didn't really care, savoring the feeling of another human so close to him. Apart from casual hugs or pats on the back, sharing physical space wasn't something Abe was used to. He felt a little afraid to move, worried he'd disturb Holly and make her move away. He worried a little she might leave if awoken, or perhaps tell him their night together was a mistake. He felt a little stiff, and a little anxious.

    Eventually, the giant would have to move. He slowly disentangled himself from the comparatively tiny woman as gently as he could, trying his best not to wake her up. It was time for stretches, or he'd regret it later.


    5. Fred Redding


    "Boss!" Good young Fred shouted at the wooden door of Jacob's trailer. He heard rustling inside after a few seconds, the sound of clothes being tugged on in a hurry, then Jacob opened the door.

    The ringleader squinted into the light with his hat sloppily plopped on his head. "Chomper?"

    The kid saluted. "It's getting kind of late, boss, so we took the liberty of restringing the net ourselves. Those kids we hired from town, uh, left."

    "Did they leave because they wanted to, or because you started biting off pigeon heads until they got freaked and bailed?"

    Chomper scratched his head. "We may be a few birds short, yeah. But they strung that net too tight. That kid shouldn't have fallen like that."

    Jacob rubbed his eyes. "Fine, fine. Thanks for the alarm service."

    Chomper saluted again, then hopped down the steps and started on his next mission for the day: Annabel Tupper.
    Three Ring Hullabaloo

    Come One, Come All

    Not too far outside New York City

    July 5th, 1926​

    Marianna Tessitore

    Somewhere in the night, in the midst of talking and trying not to talk, Marianna had drifted off, a combination of strain and the oddly comforting notion of familiarity, Rocco's arms wrapped tightly around her narrow frame, holding her close. It was, quite frankly, a position she'd never anticipated being in again, but one, nevertheless, dreamed of often.

    Yet as comforted as she was by the strongman's surprisingly delicate hold, her rest was fitful at best, tormented by images of her family, by images of Aldo. The news was not as surprising as she would have liked to admit. A part of her, a large part of her, really, had always suspected that her brother was shadier than she wanted to believe, but to hear it said aloud? To hear it brought to light, the nature of his character, it was devastating, and it clung to her like sweat to the nape...

    Twice she woke in panic, heart in the vice-like grip of dread, pulse pounding, with the terrible sensation that she and Rocco were not alone, but in the dim light of her quiet wagon she found no one, and easing back into Rocco's arms, she drifted off again.

    When at last, sunlight drifted through the cracks in the curtains, streaming across the floor in slow, lazy streaks, Mari blinked open her eyes with a soft groan. Her head throbbed, second only to the agonizing pain in her wrist. Curling tighter into Rocco's chest, she squeezed her eyes shut.

    "It can't be morning, already..."

    Lily Tsong

    The circus was their family... all of them. And in a way, an odd, perhaps less than conventional way, even the Tessitores factored into that. They were dysfunctional, unpleasant and more often than not spiteful, but they were a part of the fold... Whether any of that would be true without Marianna was a question better left not pondered, but the fact remained, when someone in the family was hurting or in need, they did what they could to aid.

    The trouble was, this particular situation - which had been simmering for years now and appeared finally to be coming to full boil wasn't just dangerous, it potentially threatened everything they had built. Little wonder then that Jacob's sleep should be so troubled. And a troubled Jacob made for a troubled Lily.

    It didn't take much then, when the knock came to pull Lily from her sleep and cracking open her eyes she straightened up onto her elbows to overhear the conversation in the doorway of her wagon. They had all expected it... even those of them that hadn't said as much. Tampering with the net, it was all the evidence they needed... Mari's accident had been no accident, indeed. The family was faltering, and it was going to be difficult, finding a way to pull things back together.

    As the door closed again, Lily sighed, dropping back against the pillows with a small frown, "Biting the heads off pigeons. Aldo come to visit, then?" She teased lightly, patting the space beside her, "...What a mess."

    Aldo Tessitore

    "Bambino idiota . Faranno mai permesso di stare, ora!" Tony Tessitore's words were a near constant stream of Italian, angrily spat from beneath a plump greying mustache. A wet cloth pressed to her jaw, Aldo rolled his eyes at the older man. Since dawn, the elder Tessitore had been berating the younger, and it had taken every ounce of self control the Italian had not to leave through his half-hinged door.

    The oriental bitch had lied, of course, about sending someone to fix it. No surprise there. He was well enough aware by now that he was hardly favored among the members of Thornbush's big top, and it was difficult, to put it mildly, to get anything done without some degree of threat, bribe or dalliance. Undoubtedly, he'd have to pay one of the idiot roustabouts to fix it, or do it himself.

    "Ragazzo! Stai ascoltando!?" He heard Tony shout and turning to his uncle, he frowned softly.

    "Sì, zio . Si prega, rilassarsi prima di tirare qualcosa . Tutto andrà bene. Ho bisogno solo di parlare di Giacobbe e ci arriveremo questo pasticcio risolto..." It was all it ever took - a quick chat with that fool of a ringmaster - the thread of pulling out of the show and the whole mess would be swept aside. Then he could focus on what really mattered... Getting that mutant of a strongman out of the way.

    "Fidati di me, lo zio Tony. Ho tutto sotto controllo." With a charming smile, Aldo had his uncle out the door and on his way. Another ten minutes, and he was dressed, heading for the contortionist's wagon, where he was almost guaranteed to find Jacob. Wrapping his knuckles against the door, he stepped back and waited.

    Erzabet (Holly) Tanner

    There had been better decisions made in her life. There had been certainly been worse. It was a middling territory, it seemed, and one that she was perfectly comfortable giving as little thought to as possible. Abe was a gentle soul, and patient, and when all was said and done, he had been a perfect gentleman - even when anxiety had gotten the best of her and she had shied away from intimacy.

    Instead, she had curled herself around him, wrapped up in the giant's embrace and she had fallen asleep - something to say in and of itself, considering how little she usually slept. Morning dawned with a vengeance, bright light pouring into the wagon and rolling onto her side she cracked open her eyes to find Abe only a short distance away.

    Smiling delicately, she straightened, raking her fingers through a tangled mess of blonde curls, "Hey, big guy. Up so early?"

    Annabel Tupper

    It was odd, to say the least. Like a spell, woven over the grounds, a tension that seemed as tightly wound as the ropes that held the tent in place. For Annabel, however, the real difficulty wasn't in what had happened to Marianna, or even the aftermath. It was an odd little Frenchman, who for some inexplicable reason, had set his heart (or at least his eyes) on her.

    And it had racked her brain all night, until she'd eventually given up on the idea of sleep and instead found herself curled up in a chair beside the stove, nursing a pot of tea and a letter home. It hadn't been long since she'd been out in the world, and it was certainly proving different than she'd expected...

    And it scared her...

    None of this was penned, of course... A quick and bright missive, letting her family know she was fine and anticipating the next show. A note to send more tea... and an exciting thread about trying coffee for the first time. With the letter finished, she set it in an envelope and addressed it, setting it aside for later.

    Afterwards, for roughly half an hour, head curled against her arms, she dosed against the tabletop until she was woken by a knocking. With a soft groan, she straightened and moving slowly, cracked the door open, "Hey Fred... Morning."

  4. 1. Rocco Magliocco

    There was no where Rocco would rather be than where he found himself that morning. He had been there, awake and alert, both times Marianna had awoken, a part of him too afraid Aldo would show up to interfere again. In his wakeful hours he couldn't shake the mental image of his love falling - of Aldo's serpent eyes hiding behind a mask of shock - of her hitting the ground. He kept cycling through furious, frightened, disbelieving and everything in between, the only reprieves coming with Marianna shaking awake in his arms. He felt awful every time her sleep was disturbed, guilty that he couldn't somehow defend her in her dreams as well yet somewhat thankful for the opportunity to not be so alone with his thoughts. There was something pleasant like nostalgia as he comforted her with his rumbling Brooklyn voice, with promises of care and protection, love and safety. For a moment, it felt like those three years had never gone by.

    Then morning came, and Rocco squinted awake after only an hour of sleep. The sun was hot and bright and Rocco was, to his displeasure, wide awake. "You're telling me." He gently squeezed her closer, careful of her arm, and pressed his cheek against her head. "How are you feeling? Sleep alright?"


    2. Jacob Thornbush

    It hadn't surprised him really - the news. He had accepted it as truth so quickly that he quite nearly brushed it off by accident. The net was strung too tight. Jacob sighed at the inside of the door before giving Lily a small smile. "I would have been happier if had been nearly anyone else - poor Chomper. It's hard not to shoot the messenger sometimes." He scratched under the brim of his hat, his fingers leaving one lock of hair particularly frazzled just above his left eye. "I hate to play devil's advocate but I just... can't believe the creep would go through with injuring his own sister. It's insane, right? Doesn't it make more sense that maybe one of the kids from town rigged the net wrong or something?" His head drooped a little and for a stunning moment he looked to be running desperately low on steam. The offered seat beside Lily tempted him though, and he started back towards the bed with a slightly livelier expression. "What a mess, indee--"

    And then, another knock. Jacob stopped midway to Lily, gave her a slant-mouthed look, then turned back on his heel to approach the door again. "Ah, Aldo," he tried to say casually but failed to fully mask his exasperation. "Rather early for discussions when we could hardly get you out of your wagon last night. Something wrong?"


    3. Abe Ebenezer

    Abe looked like he had been caught, his shoulders arching to meet his chiseled jawline. "Oh, I tried not to disturb you," he said with a little apologetic smile. He slowly raised his arms over his head, fingers clasped and elbows akimbo, and had himself a hearty stretch. "As much as I would have liked to sleep longer, I, unfortunately, needed to get up for stretches - as you can see." He lowered his arms, his shoulders popping loudly but apparently painlessly, and tilted his head down at her. "I usually do them two or three times a day, most often in here, though usually I'm alone. Not that I mind," he added.

    "You slept well, I hope?" He said. He brought one arm across his chest, T'd it at the elbow with his other arm, then did the same with the other side.

    4. Chomper Redding

    Ahh, Annabel. Sweet, sweet Annabel. Chomper felt a little of the wind leave his lungs as she opened the door and, despite her notably disheveled appearance, he felt himself infatuated all over again. He cleared his throat and thumbed the straps of his overalls. He kicked out a booted foot and announced:

    "Mi-i-i-i-i-iss Annabel! Oh, did I wake you? Terrible, terrible, I'm sorry! I just wanted to let you know I took care of Wiser after yesterday's show. Dressed him down and brushed him, too. Seems like Charlie got caught up with the fireworks show and left the poor fella with his saddle on." He nodded enthusiastically, like he knew he had done well. "And uh, since I have you here -- well, maybe now isn't the best time, but I'll pitch it anyway - would you like to come to the freak show tonight? I have a new set I've been wanting to try and the opinion of a lady would be much appreciated. If you're free, that is!" He waved his hands, trying really hard to be casual. "No big thing!"

    @Elle Joyner
    Three Ring Hullabaloo

    Come One, Come All

    Not too far outside New York City

    July 5th, 1926​

    Marianna Tessitore

    "Terribly, actually..." She murmured, but as she sunk into his warm embrace she felt the tension of the tumultuous evening slowly ebbing away. He had that effect on her, strangely enough - considering he was known for being a bit of a hot head... a calming sort of presence that, even if it was only temporary, made the moment so much more... livable.

    What was happening was bad. It was worse than bad. It was too grim to ponder. But in that moment, all that mattered was that he was there. That she was there with him. Something had shifted over night and without really meaning to, she had sunken so comfortably back into the old days, back into old habits, but it wasn't nearly as frightening as she'd anticipated in her mind.

    In fact, she had to half wonder why she'd been so stubborn - why she had never succumb to the temptation to come back earlier. But then, she knew the answer to that question...

    "I think I've always known." She started, sitting up rather suddenly, "About Aldo. I... I never wanted to admit it, but I think it's always been there. The idea of what he was... of what he was capable of. He's my brother... but I suppose in his world that means something entirely different than it does in mine. I'm sorry, Rock... that he... that I let him push us apart like that."

    Lily Tsong


    It was never the way she wanted to wake, and certainly not after the night he'd given them all, what he'd put them through. She wanted to hope, a part of her, that he was there to apologize, but it wasn't likely... It was never likely. Aldo didn't admit his errors - he never saw them that way. This... this would be no different.

    "Speak of the devil..." Lily muttered, after Jacob had made for the door. Through the crack she could see him, standing there in his suit jacket and pressed pants, looking far too formal - more than anyone had a right to. His cheek and eye socket wore heavy bruising, and she half expected it felt more painful than it looked, which brought a small smile to her lips, but the smile faded as his clear, accented voice carried into the wagon.

    Aldo Tessitore

    "Forgive me if I woke you..." He chimed, with very little actual feeling behind it, raking long, thin fingers through black hair. He'd used too much pomade that morning and it made his fingers feel sticky. Rubbing them together, he looked up, begrudgingly meeting the eye of the ringmaster.

    "I won't take up your time, as I'm sure you've got much to do. I understand after last night display with that thug of a strongman there may some concerns. I only came to assure you that the Tessitore family has every intention of continuing with our.... obligations to your little show. Rest assured I won't allow some petty dealings to dissuade me from a deal made. But I do ask, Mr. Thornbush, that you would see to it the man is properly reigned in. I would hate, after all, for something like this to get in the way of a clear, bright future."

    With a curt nod, he stepped down off the wagon and turning, started for the path, but pausing, turned to glance back over his shoulder, "...Oh. And my door is still broken. You'll see it's fixed, please."

    Erzabet (Holly) Tanner

    Chuckling softly, she shook her head, "I dunno that I'd call it disturbing... You're just so warm and cozy, and I guess I got kinda used to it." The words were light, effortless, but for her, deep inside, they had a weight to them. A weight she wasn't entirely sure she had fully prepared herself for.

    It had been a long time since she had even contemplated the idea of a relationship with someone new - in reality, she was still a married woman and in a lot of ways, that could have made a mess of things, but strictly on an emotional basis it was scary... Abe was a good guy, but there would always be uncertainty, and while she had every intention of seeing things through, there were sure to be bumps...

    "I slept pretty good, honestly. Best I've slept in a long time... How about you?"

    Annabel Tupper

    "Oh! My poor darling..." Frowning heavily, Annabel shook her head as she considered Fred's words. She'd been rather distracted the night before, and not just because of all that had happened during the show. She'd meant to stop by, to check on Wiser, but it had all slipped her mind. "You're sweet, for doing that, Fred. Thank you..."

    She leaned against the door frame, considering the question and as the frown dispersed into a bright smile, she shrugged, "I could probably stop by. But I uh..." Color rose to her skin and looking down, she ran her fingers through her slightly messy mop of blonde, "...I actually have a date to get ready for, so I might not be able to stay for the whole thing."

  6. 1. Rocco Magliocco

    Rocco's heart sank a little when she answered his question. He'd been hoping he had somehow managed to keep the demons at bay for the night by some blessing, but alas, even the Strongman had his limitations. He was a little surprised when she sat up so quickly, a hand going instinctively to her arm to support it but stopping just a few inches away to avoid hurting her. Rocco tilted his head a little bit and sent his hand to rub the side of his head. "That's in the past, Marianna. Right now we have more urgent things to think about, like what we're going to do about your brother. I... I hate to say this but... I think we've all known that there's something, ehh, wrong with him for a while. He makes people... uncomfortable, y'know? And not like that French fella. We can't get rid of him, neither. In fact, I bet he's kissing Jake's ass as we speak."


    2. Jacob Thornbush

    There was definitely some satisfaction taken in the bruised and swollen mug before Jacob, though in the back of the Ringleader's mind he knew the injury would look bad to customers. The outfit was a little much but it made Jacob self-conscious of his own unacceptable appearance. He sheepishly fixed his hat and shirt as Aldo spoke and Jacob couldn't help but throw Lily a covert look when the still broken door was remarked upon. He cleared his throat.

    "I was already up," Jacob said plainly, knowing Aldo more than likely didn't actually care. "I'm sorry about your door and, ah, face. If I hadn't been flooded with work yesterday I would have come around to make sure it had been taken care of. I'll see to it that it's resolved by this evening," he said after Aldo, then promptly closed the door and turned to Lily.

    "Ugh!" He exclaimed as he grabbed his hat by the brim and tossed it forcefully to the ground. "Damn Italian... you should have seen how he was dressed. He knew all he had to do was remind me he could take his family and leave and I'd be eating out of his hand." He sighed angrily then huffed and picked up his hat, regretful of his outburst. "Sorry Lily, he just gets under my skin."


    3. Abe Ebenezer

    "Hm. Warm and cozy. I'll take that one as a compliment. Unusual, I know, but I think these are special circumstances." He smiled at her, expression rather calm and seemingly carefree. It was in his nature, simply, to be the light heart in a dark sea of souls, and despite the lack of sexual intimacy the night before he seemed hardly bothered by it. He leaned his chest and crossed arms against the stretch bar he'd had installed to stretch his knees and ankles as he contemplated Holly's words.

    "I can say the same," he said after a pause, clearly thoughtful. He knuckled his glasses up his nose and said, "if you're so inclined, I was thinking about getting breakfast in a few minutes. Would you like to join me? Though, I understand if you have things to do."


    4. Chomper Redding

    Chomper grinned as he received the thanks but then -- Heartbreak! She had a date already! Curses, thought Chomper, too slow again! He'd done the same with Katrina and Sally, Jean and Mona. He allways waited just a little too long and let someone else sweep potential partners away. He tried not to look disappointed so smiled instead, his mouth making more of a squiggly line than anything else. "Oh! Hey! That's great, no problem, no problem! May I -- no, that'd be rude." He leaned in conspiratorially. "Who is it?" He whispered slyly with a smirk.

    Maybe he was being a little coy about it! He had a feeling he knew the answer already - Dutch Pendergast. Ugh, what a ham. Chomper, as a fellow freak shower, had seen Dutch play his game nonstop; rubes, lizards, men, women. Chomper couldn't remember even seeing Dutch not be in flirt mode, particularly when in the presence of the sweet, fine Annabel. It pained him to know the Frenchman was beating him out, but Chomper was nothing if not a gentleman. Well, usually.
    Three Ring Hullabaloo

    Come One, Come All

    Not too far outside New York City

    July 5th, 1926​

    Marianna Tessitore

    Pinching the bridge of her nose, grimacing a little, Marianna sighed, "I don't understand. Is the circus really that reliant on my family? I understand that the show draws in a big crowd, but... but to the extent that nothing can be done about them? I've been gone for a while, but... this doesn't make a lot of sense to me. All of this. It feels wrong. Jacob doesn't put up with a lot... I don't see why he'd put up with Aldo... especially if he's dangerous."

    Shifting, she swung her legs over the side of the bed, raking her uninjured hand through her hair, "Anyway... I don't know about all that, but what I do know is I'm not about to sit around and take it, myself. Aldo doesn't own me, and he doesn't get to go around controlling my life."

    The action alone of motion made her head spin and with a soft groan, she dropped her head into her hands, "I'll talk to him this afternoon, once this headache goes away..."

    Lily Tsong

    The door closed again and Jacob returned to the bedside, to a shake of Lily's head as she swung around to face him, catching him with her legs to tug him in close, "Getting under your skin is my job... not his. I simply won't stand for it."

    Reaching up, she brushed her fingertips gently through his hair, letting the tendrils fall back into place, before sweeping them from his forehead, "You don't pay that overstuffed putz any mind, you hear me, Jacob? He's just a creepy little rat who thinks he can push people around because his family has money. If Tony Tessitore knew what Aldo was doing... if he had any idea the type of scum his nephew was? He'd be out of the troop fast enough to make his weasel head pop."

    Cupping his jaw tenderly, Lily smiled, "We'll figure this out, my love. We'll find a way around this mess and then you can give Rocco the honors of throwing Aldo out on his fancy pants backside."

    Erzabet (Holly) Tanner

    It was difficult not to watch him, and not just because he was a particularly impressive mass of human being. It was fascinating, seeing his motions, seeing the way his muscles tensed and loosened. For a man of his size, he was lithe and sturdy, and there was something alluring in observing him.

    Tucking her hair back behind her ear, she leaning over the edge of the bed, smiling faintly, "Breakfast sounds great. I just need to drop by my wagon and change..." Chuckling, she glanced down at herself, "I mean, as attractive as a leotard, tights and a waistcoat with tails might be on stage, I'm not so sure it'll work so well out in public."

    Annabel Tupper

    Laughing faintly as Fred leaning in, Annabel shrugged as nonchalantly as she could manage, "It's not a big deal. Just dinner... And it's Dutch." Though something in the man's gaze told her he might've suspected as much. It was no real question that Dutch had been pursuing her for a while now.

    She'd been fairly set on keeping him at bay, but it was difficult, to put it mildly, maintaining that resilience when in reality, Dutch seemed like a decent person, deep down. If things went well - if their date went well - maybe... just maybe something might come from it. Something good.

    "But I'll definitely stop by. Though maybe you could give me a heads up as far as when you're planning to... you know... the chickens?"

  8. 1. Rocco Magliocco

    Rocco nodded his agreement but looked surprised when Marianna tried to move. "Whoa there," he said a little gruffly, hands grabbing Mari by the shoulders to support her during her dizzy spell. "You're not going anywhere for a while, ya hear? I've had my share of concussions and the best thing you can do for it is rest." He released his supportive hold but left a heavy hand on her back and rubbed it gently. "And I don't know if talking to Aldo right now is such a good idea. Or at the very least, don't talk to him alone. I... I don't know what he's capable of anymore, Marianna, and that scares me."

    That word had an unforseen impact on Rocco and he suddenly felt very vulnerable. He wasn't a man that was easily shaken and it both startled and frustrated him that a man like Aldo was one of the few who could unease him. He grimaced.


    2. Jacob Thornbush

    Jacob sighed a clashing mixture of exasperation over Aldo and joy at being enveloped by Lily's insanely gorgeous legs. He put one hand on each of her thighs. He savored her fingers on his face and smiled a little in spite of himself. "You're right, Lily, as if I need to say it. I just want this all to be resolved and get things back to status quo. Perhaps I should just speak with Tony... I've been trying my damnedest to avoid it but I'm seeing fewer and fewer options. I just don't know if we can afford to lose Aldo as the face of the performance. We took a hard enough hit when Marianna first left."

    He sighed again, this time a little more solemn. He slid his hands around Lily's legs and pulled her closer by her rear. "Whatever I do, I don't want to think about it until at least after breakfast."


    3. Abe Ebenezer

    Abe looked at for a moment, a soft smile on his face but something in the lines of his eyes made him look a little sheepish. "I suppose I could have lent you something more comfortable to wear... It wouldn't have fit you very well, though," he added with a bit of a chuckle. He held the bar firmly with both hands and gingerly twisted his torso to stretch his stiff back. He huffed a little, then did it the opposite way. He knew by how the muscles felt when stretched that today would be a backache day. He would have to remember to take things particularly easy.

    He leaned off the bar and gestured towards the door. "I'll accompany you, if you like, or we can meet at the canteen. Your decision."


    4. Chomper Redding

    Chomper held his sharp-toothed but oddly charming smile then added a crinkled nose as Annabel rewarded him with laughter, albeit soft. He then snapped his fingers and exclaimed, "Dutch! Dinner, with Dutch? As friends... or...? Ah, nevermind, nevermind! That's rude of me, nosing into your business. That's not why I came." He waved his hands through the air defensively. "I came to tell you of Wiser, and the show, and I've done that! I guess that means I should really be on my way - got a lot of errands to run before the next show and all. You know how it is." He rambled as he started to walk away backwards, gesturing openly with his hands.

    "Oh!" He said from not too far away, "don't worry about the poor chickens. We're... actually taking that out of the show. Jacob says it's not 'family-friendly' or whatever. You know. Okay, see you later! Bye!" He concluded, and finally turned around and scampered away.

    @Elle Joyner
    Three Ring Hullabaloo

    Come One, Come All

    Not too far outside New York City

    July 5th, 1926​

    Marianna Tessitore

    He steadied her, and Marianna looked back at him, her expression softening as she caught the glint in his eyes. In all the chaos, in all the confusion, she hadn't really stopped to think what was going through his mind - how everything had effected him. She had come back, without so much as a warning, shown up again in his life and then promptly thrown everything for a loop with the accident... One that was about as likely to have been an actual accident as it was likely to rain gold coins.

    He had broken a vow... A crucial, life altering vow, and he'd done it because of what Aldo had done to her. Because she had returned in the first place. She'd transformed his life... and she hadn't taken a moment to consider...

    "...I'm sorry, Rock." She murmured, her voice barely above a whisper, "Oh, Rock..." Arms looped around his shoulders, she hugged him tightly, "I'm so, so sorry. I never meant to cause any of this. I never realized what coming back would do... I never thought... I've made a mess of everything."

    Lily Tsong

    Trailing her fingertips up and down his arms, tracing nonsense patterns against his skin with her nails, Lily smiled delicately, her shoulders rising and falling in a shrug, "What's the worst that could happen, love? Tony does nothing and we figure out a new plan? Losing Aldo? It might seem like the worst possible outcome, but darling... we survive. It's what we do. We'll find a way... and we'll be better for it."

    Hooking her legs around his, her smile transformed into a saucy grin, a brow quirked as she leaned back on her elbows, "And in the meantime... there's plenty else to think about. Though it's a little early for breakfast. Might need to find something to do, to pass the time..."

    Erzabet (Holly) Tanner

    Chuckling softly, Ezra shook her head, "It wasn't exactly a planned event... and all things considered, I still slept better than I have in years." Moving closer, she reached out, brushed a hand along his arm, "Besides... I'm pretty sure you surpassed all gentlemanly expectations. Thank you... for... for understanding."

    Biting her lip, she pulled her hand back, "At the risk of sounding like a tart, it's... it's not that I didn't want to. I just... I like you, Abe. A lot... and strange as it sounds, after everything that happened, and after what I told you, I don't know that last night would've been much more than tension. And you deserve better than that."

    Smiling, she shrugged, "Anyway... That's enough of that. I'd be grateful for the company... You ready?"

    Annabel Tupper

    Laughing again, Anna shook her head, "I... I'm not really sure what to call it, but friendship is a good start. He's teaching me French, actually. But I guess we'll just have to wait and see where things go." It was as simple an explanation as she could offer for so complicated a situation, anyway. Even she wasn't sure, really, what was happening with Dutch... but she would certainly figure it out that night.

    "...And that... that is a huge relief." Chuckling, she shrugged, "It was never my favorite part of the show. I'll definitely stop by. I'm excited to see the changes. See you tonight, Fred!" Giving a wave, she waited until he'd gone before she turned and disappeared back inside her cabin.

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