What Mana liked to do, whenever they had a successful night and there was money enough for them all to eat, and for the adults to drink besides, was to put Allen on his shoulders and parade them through the streets, like some kind of victory march. In retrospect, Allen realizes they must have looked very strange indeed: a ragtag band of clowns and other tawdries, walking like they had just saved the world.

When Allen grew too big to sit on Mana’s shoulders, he instead became the leader of their group, a scrawny boy in a jacket three sizes too large and an awkwardly-bandaged right hand, with Mana’s black silk top hat balanced precariously on his head. They would walk, and Lily and Cassie and the other girls would sing hymns of victory, march the heroes home, march them home.

It didn’t happen that often; every year, it seemed, the world grew a little darker and more narrow, the people a little more suspicious and jealous of their money. Allen, looking back, wonders how much of that was a growing disdain of theater (as Mana always said, as the others always echoed), and how much of that was the sheer nervous fear of humanity, milling like skittish cattle as akuma crept in to punctuate their numbers. Even the most placid of animals can usually sense the presence of a predator.

In his dreams, sometimes, Allen walks those paths again, leading the way for a faceless procession — the clowns and the tumblers and the singing girls, but the only sounds he ever hears are his own footsteps, and the slow tap, tap, tap of Mana walking after him.

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